IN MAY 2012 – Beats and Breath sat down with Ziad Nawfal -the founder of the alternative music label Ruptured – to discuss what he’s excited about with the next-generation of Arab musicians and the prospects of working as an indIE label in the Middle East. (note: this article was originally published in JUNE 2012)
BEIRUT – It’s hard to decide who producer Ziad Nawfal reminds me of when I think of producers to make comparisons to/with. And while it may be unfair to draw parallels to other Occidental producers when describing the work of a contemporary Lebanese producer, if I were going to compare Nawfal to someone I admire, Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, Grace Jones, Belle and Sebastian) is one producer that comes to mind.
Like Horn, Nawfal’s musical involvement spans genre’s, but unlike Horn who had the UK’s well-established music markets to work his craft, Nawfal is operating in what is no doubt one of the most insular musical communities in the region – Beirut.
Nawfal has managed to parlay his own 20-year history as a radio-host on the state-sponsored Radio Liban (Beirut’s RFI affiliate, 96.2 FM) into a myriad of different titles – producer, events organizer, DJ, and talent scout. But the one that Nawfal admittedly is most attached to is that of facilitator.
The founder and head of the independent Lebanese label Ruptured (est. 2009), he works with some of Lebanon’s most talented musicians and producers, as well as some notable artists from abroad (Stephan Rives, C-Drik) and has released 8-albums under the Ruptured imprint – four volumes of which were based on live sessions recorded during his radio show Ruptures.
Called The Ruptured Sessions, most of his production reveals his own proclivity towards experimental musical forms -Tashweesh (Palestine), Tarek Atoui (Lebanon), Radwan Moumneh (Lebanon), OkyDoky (Lebanon), etc. – but Nawfal has also been an significant actor with several other scenes in Beirut, through his work with Charbel Haber and the post-punk group Scrambled Eggs – one of the two groups he first recorded – with his brother Jawad Nawfal aka Munma -and continuing with his 2012 album release of the rapper, poet, journalist Mazen el Sayyed aka El Rass that Munma provided the production for (see BEATS AND BREATH’s interview with El Rass here).
I caught up with Nawfal at the bookstore Papercup in East Beirut to talk about his label, his role with emerging musical forms in the Middle East, and what’s next as things continue to get harder for record labels in the digital age.
BEATS AND BREATH: Your first label job was working with Lebanese entrepreneur and music aficionado Tony Sfeir’s now-defunct independent label called Incognito (an offshoot of his renowned music store La CD Theque). It was a new model in the region where record labels were concerned. Tell me a little bit about that.
ZIAD NAWFAL: It’s true – labels like this did not exist before. So he broke ground with this. Incognito allowed musicians from different genres and denominations to record to edit to produce and to distribute their music. Incognito’s range was huge – releasing artists like Nidaa Abou Mrad, a very traditional oriental musician, as well as the (post-punk outfit) Scrambled Eggs.
Eventually they found themselves with this huge catalog that wasn’t selling. The label went bankrupt. They shut down the label, and sold the (label’s) catalog to Forward Music Label in Beirut.
When I left Incognito, I was left with the obvious question of what to do next. Founding a label seemed like an obvious choice. I knew the different steps for producing a CD, releasing a CD- how to market it and how to distribute it.
BEATS AND BREATH: But isn’t it a little anachronistic to start a label these days?
ZIAD NAWFAL: Yes, Ruptured is somewhat “anachronistic” in the sense that I started the label in 2009 at a time when no one was producing CD’s anymore. But what you have to bare in mind is that the alternative scene started very late in Lebanon – it’s 10 to 15 years old. Imagine. Soap Kills (Zeid Hamdan, Yasmine Hamdan) debuted in 1996.
Nonetheless, I felt compelled to document what I was hearing. The stuff that musicians were giving me. The music performances that I was seeing. The performances that were taking place at the radio station.
This is how the label started.
BEATS AND BREATH: There’s a sustainability factor in what you do to allow for it to continue.
ZIAD NAWFAL: If at any point this process is not self-actualizing, then I will have to ask myself questions and reconsider what I’m doing. And the time for these questions has arrived. I’ve released 8 CD’s on the Ruptured label. I’ve written about artists. I’ve published a book. I’ve mixed music from inside and outside of Lebanon. And I’ve always felt like it’s not enough. But to be honest I don’t know what else to do.
BEATS AND BREATH: So you’re not a prophet or soothsayer, and you’re involved in a process in which you can’t predict the outcome. Is that fair to say?
ZIAD NAWFAL: Perhaps you’re right but the thing is that I’m asked that question quite often (“What’s next in the alternative music scene?”). Recently, I was asked to write a text for this cultural fund that would put in perspective Lebanon’s alternative scene.
The first thing I wrote in that text was: “I am often asked to put things in perspective and I don’t know how to. How does music in Lebanon affect the Arab Spring and vice versa? How is Beirut’s alternative scene politically?”
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure the artists do either.
BEATS AND BREATH: What are you excited about musically in 2012?
ZIAD NAWFAL: I’m excited about the one aspect that I was the most suspicious about before – which is the hip-hop scene. It’s very easy for artists operating in the hip-hop mould to go into cliches and to go into prototypes, and to have a discourse that is not very interesting to me or their audience.
But I’m optimistic and extremely excited about it because of recent things that I’ve heard and recent things that I’ve witnessed. Something clicked – although I’m not sure the consequence to that. It could be the Arab Spring. It could be something else. But a modification has taken place in Lebanon and consequently in the Middle East and I think it’s a very interesting modification to follow.
Again, I’m not sure where it’s going but there’s stuff happening there.
ARTICLE BELOW: Blogger and music scholar Angie Nassar writes on the Beirut-based website NOWLebanon about the government detention and subsequent release of Zeid Hamdan – the self-described “gardener” of the independent music scene in Lebanon, co-founder of the electro-Arab fusion act Soap Kills and his most recent musical venture Zeid and the Wings. (We featured Zeid in a Beats and Breath article in March 2010.)
Hamdan was arrested for his song “General Suleiman” which the Lebanese government found was a direct condemnation of Lebanon’s president. It’s a law clearly enforced in a selective manner considering the amount of slander bandied about by politicians and political parties in Lebanon on a daily basis.
Although I’m not in the habit of re-posting other people’s articles on Beats and Breath, this article is poignant when considering a panel discussion on Alternative Music in Lebanese Culture hosted on Friday, July 29 by AltCity (a media/tech/social impact collaboration space (launching this fall) and organized in collaboration with over 15 community partners) and moderated by local music blogger/musician Omar al Fil.
The panel included Nassar, MC Chyno from Lebanon’s live hip-hop crew Fareeq al Atrash, Mohamad Hodeib a.k.a Walad (guitarist, vocalist, and main songwriter of local band Wled el Balad), writer and urbanist-scholar Jad Baaklini, and Zeid Hamdan in his first public appearance since being released from jail.
Among the things we discussed: “personal” definitions of what “alternative music” means, and further what it means in the Lebanese and Arab contexts; concepts of censorship – both governmental and self-styled censorship; the fact that musicians in the Arab world and in Lebanon will face increasing encroachment by corporate labels and the commercial market as their music takes on more prominence.
This morning I spoke on the phone with Hamdan who talked about the implications of his arrest and the boundaries of free speech in Lebanon.
“This is a big issue, but it’s not about me. It’s about what’s allowed and what’s forbidden in this country… Are we not allowed to go further than this song? This is crazy. This song is so innocent. And if I saw the president today, I would say the same. I truly believe that military power should not interfere with political power. They are two separate institutions. It is essential that we learn that if we want to build a democracy.” (Read more about the song and its lyrics here.)
“If you fear something, express it. Trigger a debate. But don’t be afraid of standing for your ideas. Just look around you. Look at Syria, look at Egypt, look at Tunisia, look at the whole Arab world. People are dying for their ideas,” he added.
Hamdan said he was asked to go to the Justice Ministry for questioning twice last week. He received a third call to return to the ministry on Wednesday.
“I thought it would be more questions. They told me I was going to meet with the judge and that he would decide whether to press charges. I didn’t meet the judge. They just said I was arrested and they put me in handcuffs directly.”
Hamdan said authorities found out about the song after Italian filmmaker Gigi Roccati, who directed the music video for “General Suleiman,” mailed his show reel to Lebanese ad agency Leo Burnett. The DVD never made it to the agency. It was picked up by someone from Lebanese Customs.
“I don’t even think he [President Sleiman] was aware I was arrested, personally, because this is not good publicity for him.”
“I have a feeling that all this is just a mistake. Someone wanting to do good with the president but not being clever or someone wanting to harm the president and give him a bad image. I don’t know, it’s so stupid, you know. This whole thing is too much.”
Despite his detention, Hamdan says he’ll continue making music and spreading his message to anyone who will listen. “I write with inspiration from inside to face something I feel it. As long as I don’t attack someone in an unfair way and I don’t give my music to any political party… I’m trying to say this music is for everyone. This song is for everyone. In Egypt they sing it. In all the Arab country’s where they have issues with the military, they sing it.”
“I won’t be more political or less political. I’m not changing anything,” he said.
Hamdan expressed gratitude to everyone who rallied for his release on Wednesday: “ I want them to know that they played a role in setting me free so that they have a role to play in the country as a voice, even if they’re alone they count.”
He also relayed this message: “I want [the people] to feel free to express or fight for their ideas, whatever they are. And so I just want to tell the people not to be afraid and not to feel lonely because we all want the same things and will all fight together for the same things.”
“I hope any musician will keep on spreading good messages, positive messages for the country or the region.”
Beats and Breath features this exclusive interview with Beirut-based musician, producer, composer, and arranger Zeid Hamdan, the pioneer of Lebanon’s alternative music scene. (Editor’s note: In the 2 years since this was published – it is still a relevant discussion of the future of alternative music in Lebanon.)
By JACKSON ALLERS
BEIRUT – Sitting in the confines of Torino (Express) – the bohemian stalwart of a bar in the east-Beirut, SoHo-like Gemayze district – I go through a mental preparation of what to ask Zeid Hamdan, the self-styled gardener of the Lebanese underground music scene.
For me, however, any preparation to interview Zeid Hamdan is less a technical exercise (“Who are your influences?” etc.), and more of a mutual exchange with questions drawn from the near 3 years I’ve known him and seen him work.
I remember the now legendary Mooz Records show (record label headed by Zeid at the time) at Luna park on Beirut’s seaside Corniche on May 22, 2006 – less than two months before the devastating 34-day Israeli onslaught of Lebanon.
I remember how thoroughly impressed I was by the talent (post-punk group Scrambled Eggs, rappers Rayess Bek, RGB, Siska, The New Government, and others), and I remember the air of euphoria at the possibilities of Lebanon’s burgeoning independent music scene. (Of course the 2006 war changed all of that.)
An 18-year veteran on the independent music scene in Beirut, Zeid has a mystique about him within the Lebanese cultural milieu.
He’s one half of Soap Kills, the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act who’s other half Yasmine Hamdan was the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut.
And while Soap Kills is technically defunct, with Yasmine Hamdan moving to Paris to reincarnate herself as Y.A.S. with French producer Mirwais (Madonna, Taxi Girl), Zeid has continued to cultivate alternative talent and support a wide range of artists from multiple musical genres – hip-hop (Katibe 5, RGB), alt rock (The New Government, Lumi, Scrambled Eggs), African artists from Guinea (Kandijha Kouyate, Macky Sow), and the Arabic electro-fusion project with Heba al Mansoury.
Since 2006, however, I’ve watched the independent music scene in Lebanon go through terrible growing pains – a music scene that Zeid Hamdan has never abandoned despite the assassinations, street battles, economic depression and general lack of understanding for independent music.
I caught up with Zeid in the lead up to a series of shows in the United States with his trio The New Government, and asked him about his current projects and what he expected from a revived underground music scene that is nurturing new talents like live hip-hop crew FareeQ al Atrash and the Arabic-fusion prog-rock act Mashrou3 Leila.
UMEN: Trace the evolution of the independent music scene here in Lebanon. When did it start?
ZEID HAMDAN: It started when the people started to have space in their mind for something else other than survival. When the city seemed to go into an era of peace. Let’s say 1993 or 1994. Then people started searching behind the ruins for something. A spirit. A vibe. Asking themselves: what is Lebanon today?
This is when the microscopic audience started to search, and an interest for something else other than what they were used to – the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to. So we can say that in the 90’s the Lebanese underground music started.
UMEN: Your own discovery of the alternative vibe musically – outside of this normal Arabic musical faire of Fairuz, and more alternatively Ziad Rahbani – all innovators in their own right, but your own personal exposure to the alternative music that you’ve cultivated here – when did you decide to start doing this?
ZEID: I grew up in Lebanon and when the civil war got really intense, our parents took us out of Lebanon – to France (Paris). I came back from France to Lebanon having grown up during my teenage years in France, influenced by European music.
So when I came back to Lebanon I wanted to do something Lebanese. I was proud in France that my specificity was Lebanese. And when I landed on Lebanese ground, I thought this is my specificity that I have been abroad and have been influenced by these Western acts.
As soon as I felt music and what I could share with the people I wanted it to be a new blend.
UMEN: Was your first independent expedition into this idea of a musical hybrid – was that Soap Kills or was there a band or something that preceded it?
ZEID: There was one band before Soap Kills – it was a 7-piece band called Lombrix, and we did a CD. But it was a very cheaply produced album, and I was a teenager. So it wasn’t so good, but it had this blend of an Arabic and a touristic feel – and in English. And Yasmine Hamdan sang on this CD for like 30 secs. I had just met her.
The CD had such an impact locally because it was the first music offering of its kind.
UMEN: When was that?
ZEID: 1994. (Zeid came back in 1992 from France). It was like people were so hungry. ‘Oh a new band.’ ‘Oh. Hope!’ All the journalists got so excited because it was like some calling card – ‘Oh. Lebanon is back!’ And I felt like, ‘Oh my god. People love it! Maybe I should push it more.’
Ultimately, it was a bluff. You should hear the CD. Anyone abroad – people would hear it and just throw the CD in your face. But because of the situation here in Lebanon, I was encouraged to continue.
The musicians in this band Lombrix, they stopped. It wasn’t their career choice. But Yasmine and I wanted this as our career. So we formed Soap Kills – from this little EP by Lombrix.
UMEN: So that was 1994-1995?
ZEID: Yeah, 94-95′. And in 1996, we started seriously working on our music and in 1998 we got produced by Jihad Murr, who was/is the owner of Murr TV in Lebanon. And it was how the first step of Soap Kills began.
UMEN: Fast forwarding. Soap Kills had a huge impact on an entire generation of independent music heads in Lebanon. As I came to Lebanon in 2006, it was Soap Kills’ albums that were first handed to me as a sort of offering from people I was meeting saying it was this group I needed to be listening to if was going to understand the alternative music scene and how it evolved here in Lebanon. Soap Kills went through an entire evolution as a group and affected people beyond this scene. Did you see that or did you know it was going to be so impacting?
ZEID: 10 years later I still don’t know what kind of impact we have had because locally, we are really unknown. It’s a certain circle of educated people that know us and for who we perform.
Soap Kills first started getting noticed because of video clips on M(urr)TV. But as soon as we started to make our music sound more Arabic, we were just kicked out of the media. We became really underground. The radio stations would say, ‘No we can’t play it. It doesn’t resemble anything.’
So no. Soap Kills doesn’t have the impact that you think it has. But throughout the years, it has spread. It is a music that people are now discovering and it is having a certain impact. They are surprised that it’s old. They are now tolerant to it.
I’ heard Soap Kills recently on Radio One here in Beirut. Imagine that ten years later?
UMEN: Why do you think there’s a lack of entrepreneurial backing for this alternative music scene? Why haven’t more independent labels sprung up to break new ground? Let’s not talk about Icognito – the label you were associated with…elsewhere I mean?
ZEID: It’s very normal. The equation is simple: a society opens up to art when it has cleared many of its own issues. Then while the society finds time, it starts feeding from knowledge.
Lebanon is not at that stage. It thinks it’s out of conflict. And so people are more tolerant and they’ve started to look and see and search. They have a sense of curiosity. And this is only for Lebanon, but the whole Middle East.
We are in a very conflicted space here – a very unstable environment. This is not the ground for curiosity and tolerance. Societies that have known peace for more than 2 or 3 decades open up to the treasures of their own society.
That’s not the case here. We’re still struggling, but people are saying now that we are in what appears to be a temporary peaceful era – and their first inclination is to make quick, easy money. Easy money. Easy food. Easy culture. Easy everything.
At a certain point this will fall, and people will look for the particulars of their society and they will find US and the other artists that are particular – artistically. This is where they will find inspiration and money.
UMEN: Let’s talk about Zeid’s personal projects. You have the punk/prog-rock group The New Government – but give us an overview of the things you’re doing.
ZEID: Well, let me deal with it like this. I’m like a gardener. I know how to grow some particular vegetables, and each kind has a tempo and a certain environment to grow in.
The New Government is something I’ve worked a lot on throughout the years. And it has triggered something now – a great opportunity. But it’s difficult because two of the three members are elsewhere (in France). But each time we reunite something big happens for us.
So it’s a project that I’m developing with Timothée and Jeremie Regnier. It’s a project I believe in. It is rock but it is very melodic. It has an edge and is reminiscent of elements of The Beatles, Beach Boys and the Pixies. But it is really original at the same time. It feeds me and is my inspiration so I go for it.
The New Government just signed with a publisher in the US in January. State One – the publisher of Bob Marley, Sheryl Crow, Evanescence, the list goes on.
So this will help us step forward. We worked well here in Beirut and in Paris we blew up. And now it puts us somewhere else…again.
Then there is my Arabic fusion work. Yasmine Hamdan opened my ears to Arabic music. And living in Beirut, I always feel there is nothing for the Arab youth. So I feel a calling to translate this Arabic music to a more contemporary setting. I have to do it.
So I wrote some songs and adapted some classics with a young Lebanese singer – Hiba – that was really untypical as a singer. People said not to work with her. But for two years I developed something with her until Jihad al Murr signed her. So now there’s some new Arabic music that can be exposed, but it doesn’t take away all of my time – even though I produce Hiba and work with her – I still have time to tend to the other elements of my garden – if you like.
I work with African artists, and this is based on the fact that there’s not enough collaboration, not enough color with the music. And I had great opportunities to play in Africa and to meet African artists.
I produced one called Kandjha (Kouyate) and I signed to management another one called Maki – from Guinea. Now Kandjha is touring France and we’re doing great. And Maki got signed by Ibrahim Maulouf, a great Lebanese-French artist, and he’s going to tour with him in France.
We are booked for Montreal with Kanjia, and we are trying to bring him here to Lebanon. This is my main goal – that we are trying to have these Lebanese artists see these African artists.
Then a third thing I am doing here – because a lot of musicians are encouraging me to do my own music and are encouraging me to sing – I always collaborate with artists and push their singers. Everyone is telling me – do your own songs and sing – hence the group, Zeid and The Wings was born.
I did a Facebook announcement for open try-outs for back vocals. We did 10 days of auditions and met incredible artists. I selected two singers – that are the wings. It’s spreading now and other artists are helping me form a band. It will end up as a big band because there’s not this big band feel here.
I’m going to harvest this in the fall, but there’s always a sense of trying to get Yasmine Hamdan back. It’s hard because she’s searching her own way. We’re all searching our own way. But Soap Kills is growing, as I said, and with time I’m sure she’ll be convinced that there’ll be something to continue here in Beirut.
UMEN: I guess Yasmine left because of the lack of ‘space’ – as we were saying earlier – the lack of opportunities here in Beirut in the past. Do you see that space is opening up for artists that have been abroad to come back?
ZEID: It’s cheaper here to work. There’s all the equipment. Beirut is a nice place to develop, although it’s not a nice place to show the world because it is very narrow and small. But it’s a very beautiful playground here. You can experiment with the music. Arrange it. Think. It’s a small society.
So I encourage my musicians that have gone abroad, to come back and work because I am showing them that I am working. There is space there is work. There just needs to be faith in it and a vision because a musician without a vision is no use.