I was born on May 1981 in west Beirut, five years after the Lebanese Civil War started and one year before the Israeli invasion. Being born into a communist militant family in the middle of a civil war that lasted 30 years meant that scores of armed fighters – both women and men – would be in the house around the clock. They would eat and drink with the family, sleep alongside us and prepare for military operations at the kitchen table – some I’d see again, others wouldn’t return afterwards.
Most of my childhood toys were guns – real handguns and machine guns. This kind of life also meant always being on the move, constant forced migration because of constant threats. I grew up reading a lot of ideological books to understand the cause we were fighting for. My dad would often disappear for months and months and there was always the likelihood of being kidnapped. In the mid 80s, my mother was kidnapped and kept hostage for over a year by right wing militias and Syrian secret service police – we didn’t know whether she’d be released. At the age of 13 I was initiated with my own military training with an AK47. I grew up surrounded by the books of Lenin and Marx and Engels and with an early knowledge on the history of the October Revolution and the Soviet Union where our loyalties lay.
The music we listened to at the time was all revolutionary songs – Soviet, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Sudanese, Egyptian, Yemeni and many others. When I look back at it now, the variety of music I was exposed to under the umbrella of these songs of resistance was immense. This taste for eclecticism in music developed in me naturally while growing up because of all that music I’d hear on a daily basis.
After the war was over, and we were defeated, I remember a news broadcast on TV announcing that all sectarian groups were giving up their arms. All the communist militants who were still camped out in our house were shaving their beards while watching the screen, thinking about where to go and what to do. Most of them got depressed and never left their homes; my father was one of them. Others managed to get jobs and carried on. We moved back to west Beirut where everything was destroyed.
One year after the war was over there certainly wasn’t any music scene in Beirut and it was hard to imagine there ever was with the state of destruction the city was in. I liked music that sounded good and that was that. Though we had no music magazines and no CDs at the time, I couldn’t quench my thirst for new music that I’d never heard. I didn’t care about one genre in particular; it just had to sound good enough, serious enough and exciting enough.
I would visit the tape shacks and follow the street sellers who used to wheel around trolleys full of tapes with a tape player hooked up to big shitty speakers playing loud music – a kind of DIY boombox. When I had a bit of money I used to go to the record stores that survived the war and buy records. My music knowledge was zero back then, so I used to buy one or two records and listen to them for days. My ears were leading, like what Duke Ellington used to say: ‘If it sounds good, it IS good’. After school, I used to invite a couple of friends to my room and we’d sit and play these tapes and records and drink and then go out.
I never liked the music that was playing in Beirut’s bars and decided to speak to the bar owner where we hung out to let us play our records and tapes – he let us do it on a Tuesday. We would come every week to this nice bar attached to the Mayflower Hotel, a group of misfit teenagers playing the records we loved.
My taste was slowly changing. I started getting into ‘60s rhythm and blues, jazz and later some fusion. At that time, I think my family wasn’t very happy with how my tapes sounded. At the age of 16 I started to get paid for my DJing, badly paid but I was getting calls. By then, I was a regular at the flea market and looking for dancefloor music –mainly ‘70s funk, while other DJs from my generation where into rap and disco.
From the mid ‘90s to the 2000s in Beirut, going to the flea market was the thing to do if you were into music. In the ‘60s and ‘70s before the war, Beirut’s music industry was booming, there were a handful of record pressing plants releasing numerous titles, from the big hits to the obscurest international and local artists. Those records all eventually made their way to the flea market. Added to that, as the CD format slowly overwhelmed the market everyone started getting rid of their records, literally throwing them in the garbage. Every time I went to the flea market I found mountains of records. I didn’t have much money, but because there was so little value placed on vinyl at the time it would buy me plenty of records, allowing me to experiment with what I bought. I would buy anything that looked interesting from anywhere in the world.
In the late ‘40s, Beirut pioneered the first international music festivals in the Middle East such as Baalbeck Festival which hosted artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Charles Mingus, Miles Davies, Miriam Makeba and Duke Ellington – who even wrote a wonderful song called ‘Mount Harrissa’ about a Lebanese mountain town after his visit. Beirut’s theatres had concerts by The Shadows, Cliff Richard and The Kinks, who postponed the recording of their album ‘Arthur’ (or ‘The Decline and The Fall of the British Empire) to perform in Beirut. Not to forget the legendary performance of Stockhausen in Jeitta Grotto or the kraut-rock band Agitation Free who played in Beirut as part of their tour of the region. So Beirut in the 1990s was a digger’s paradise where you could find records from every genre. Not anymore sadly. For me, post-war Beirut meant records, pinball and defeat. My only refuge was in chasing records wherever I went.
I found my first Ethiopian record in Beirut at the flea market. It was ‘Zemam Sew Lebene’
by Getatchew Kassa on the yellow-labelled Kaifa, which I later traded with my friend and DJ Partner Jan Weissenfeldt aka J.J. Whitefield, with whom I share what you can call the Ethio fever. The first Ethiopian record that triggered this fever though was ‘Ewnetgna Feker’ by the legendary Ethiopian singer Hirut Bekele. The first time I heard this record I wanted more and decided to go and dig in Ethiopia. It took me 10 years to make it, but I eventually did and it was as exciting as it gets.