FEATURE
Rabih Beaini - A Conscious Mind

Rabih Beaini - A Conscious Mind

1. New Geographies

Rabih Beaini is a lone voice in electronic music and in the universe of haunted hardware harmonies. His own Morphine label is a sonically unpredictable temple and features a wide spectrum of musicians, from Senyawa to Pierre Bastien, from Charles Cohen to Pauline Oliveros, from Madteo to Container and to Hieroglyphic Being. Unfamiliar and unmissable, the Lebanese artist's productions sound as live and alive as anything he does in the club, truly making him in a class of one.

I met Rabih in Berlin for a coffee, a few days after the CTM festival finished. Here's an interview on festival curatorships, the way the new technologies and Internet influence the young generations, musical background, Morphine and much more.



You were one of the curators of this year’s edition of the CTM festival. How long do you know the guys from CTM? Is this your first collaboration?

On this level, like officially and in such an expanded way, yes. I think I met them the first time in 2011. I played the festival and then, somehow, we stayed in touch for other projects. I proposed some artists for the festival in the last editions, and for this one they asked me to join the board.

What did you have to do, as curator of the festival?

I was asked to work the concept of the theme with them, to work the music program - together with them - and a couple of other proposals, such as the installation of Vincent Moon - ‘Rituals’ - and other side projects that I’m involved in. But mainly it was the work on the musical program.

How did you get to this theme (‘new geographies’)? It seems to be a new vibrant interest for the Outernational music and domains.

I think it’s been happening since a while. I don’t quite remember (or know) how it started, but I can guess it’s a bit like the new wave of it, which started with Omar Souleyman some years ago and the attention to the Middle Eastern new pop, let’s call it like this, called into a revival of more Outernational and global sounds after the ‘90s, following Asian Dub Foundation and similar. But then, this period is a bit more expanded, a bit more experimental, there are new technologies, there are new ways of accessing other places music and ideas, and the communication became wider. After some years of this attention, I think there was a need of a more focus on this topic. This is why CTM had in mind to expand and to focus on this kind of sound or vision of music. By working this, we discovered that there were a lot of topics that were almost never covered, that the levels were not only geographically valid, but also gender valid, politically valid and it expanded in a more serious and in a more socio-political way.

Recently, all these events that happened in Paris and in other places, and all this pressure that is surrounding us, politically, maybe even socio-politically, around the world, the oppression of human rights from gay and homosexuals, the refugees, any kind of oppression that is spreading, from religious to sexual, is becoming quite crucial, as a moment. I think by taking a chance of opening a topic like this, CTM had an inevitable approach to also these matters. All the panels were - kind of - guided into that direction. There were panels about gender rights, panels about revolt or revolutionary, or fighters from the Kurdistan area against ISIS, about woman fighters, panels about the interconnections between North African and Arabic music, and many other topics. I think that created awareness within the festival collective, including me. Then, of course, that awareness expanded to the people that were attending the festival. It was no more about music, it was no more about visual art or whatsoever form of artistic expression, all these melted deeply into politics and general politics.


“The Internet is becoming the school of promotion that is not guided anymore. It’s not a radio station that needs to be sponsored by the publishing company, that gives them a record and the radio would play it.”

2. A niche

Regarding the audience, I feel a bit concerned when it comes to people from my generation, or younger than me.

Probably those same people were at all the panels and the exhibitions, they probably saw the exhibition of Pedro Reyes, at Bethanien; that was crowded like hell! ‘Disarm’ that Reyes turned the weapons (that were confiscated from the Mexican drug cartels), into a sound installation. That’s quite a topic and a defining thing. If you are interested in something like this, you really are aware of how the world is working now and how the west is fabricating weapons and sending them to other places, where people are fighting each other. And so, this is a bit of a reverse; he’s bringing back those weapons to the motherlands and, like, shows them. ‘Ok, you are responsible about a lot of these stuff happening and I am going to show you what you could do with it, with this responsibility.’

There were so many young people at the festival. There were so many young people going generally to really interesting stuff. It was a crowd at the door for the opening concert, it was a big crowd and lack of tickets for both Pauline Oliveros concerts, and a lot of people that couldn’t come in. And that’s Pauline Oliveros, an 84 years old pioneer woman coming from the tape sound scene. She said that there’s a lot more young people interested in the more experimental and the more conscious music side than the past. She barely had this young crowd in her concerts or workshops before. And I find it really good.

And that’s because of Internet. It is the substitute of going and buying a record and listen to it back home. Young people normally don’t have money to buy records. The Internet is becoming the school of promotion that is not guided anymore. It’s not a radio station that needs to be sponsored by the publishing company, that gives them a record and the radio would play it. This is how radio used to work. I think they still work like this, beside the independent radios. That was the way we would know about Black Sabbath rather than a band like Pärson Sound, from Sweden. And in the same period, or probably even earlier, Pärson Sound was equally important in the music scene. But nobody knew about them, because their music company probably couldn’t afford playtime on radios. So now, if a band like Pärson Sound puts out an album and somehow people like it, it would go viral on a less controlled and more personal and individual side. I think young people are exposed to much more interesting thoughts, much more interesting opinion, music and any other form of art. Therefore they’re more conscious.

These are the best times that we could possibly ever live, musically; because we’re connected to the past and in the same time, we’re aware of what’s happening now.

Absolutely. And of course, we are nostalgic for record shops, for radio stations, for huge concerts where you go and see a band that you love and you would travel the whole Europe to see that. But still, it’s happening, on a different level. Actually there’s a lot of attendance on experimental music festivals all around the world, not only in Berlin. Even if it’s smaller crowds, it counts. In a city like Beirut, where I would have never thought to find one person attending an avant-garde concert, there’s more crowd than in a concert in Berlin, sometimes. I think it’s working really well. And of course, you are talking about a niche.

How big is this niche thing?

I think thousands. Or more. It’s not quantifiable, because you can’t really lock people in a niche. There is a variable; people that stay in and they are radical and they don’t go out from that. And then there are also people that step in and out, people that would listen to a concert by Pauline Oliveros and then go with their girlfriend and watch a Hollywood movie.

Or check a grime concert.

Or that, yes. Or even a Lady Gaga concert at the Mercedes Benz Arena. And that’s fair. There’s right for choices. And as long as you’re aware of what’s happening, you can also have fun with other stuff. And there are also people that are completely out of the niche. So it’s not really something that you can count.

3. For the Red Right Hand

Let’s talk a bit about one of the main projects you developed on stage at CTM, the opening concert called ‘For the Red Right Hand’. How did this come out?

I was not planning to play during the festival. I was planning not to play at all. Because I thought in an ideal curatorship of a festival, the curator should not be playing, because it’s almost an appropriation of his own position. But we found ourselves with technical problems that had to basically eliminate the first original idea of an opening concert, it was related to instruments that had to arrive and that were impossible to get on time, so the whole initial project fell apart; the CTM collective looked at me and said ‘ok, now it’s on you, you have to come up with something. And it has to be good.’ And I was finding myself with no other options. I had a couple of ideas to present, but I don’t think those were fitting for an opening concert. You needed something that was defining; it had to be something to set the vibe for the whole festival, I thought. So, even if you bring big name musicians that would play virtuoso sets, I think it wouldn’t have fit with this theme of merging continents, merging timelines, merging gender…it’s quite a complex theme, so I accepted the commission and I started working on the concept. I said what I needed, it was all provided. I think the idea and the concept were developed throughout a couple of months between me and the other 8 musicians I chose, including 2 drummers I already worked with, Tommaso Cappellato and Daniele De Santis, 2 trumpet players, Mazen Kerbaj and Liz Albee, 2 guitarists Sharif Sehnaoui and Sam Shalabi, and 2 vocalists Rully Shabara from Senyawa and Sofia Jernberg, and that was definitely the thing that made the project really interesting, the choice of the musicians. Everybody was excited about the idea and everybody was so collaborative.

So you actually conducted the whole thing.

Yes, the whole idea, the title and everything. Because they said ‘ok, you need to come up with something. We trust you on your choices.’ I think at some point I translated the whole theme, the whole line up and the whole thing, into one opening concert that would hopefully set the vibe for the whole festival.

‘For the Red Right Hand’. What does the title mean?

It’s a socio-political kind of anti-statement. Everything is so warped in the whole concept. Everything is so flexible and not really defined. And, on purpose, I didn’t want to have something as a statement; I needed something that destroys statements in socio-politics. This is why I had a mirroring set-up with 2 bands that would play the same instruments, with different musicians facing each other. The ‘Red’ and the ‘Right’ are obviously the two political sides. It shouldn’t be really defined on stage, but it was somehow the way we are not really finding a separation line between our ideals anymore. You can be with the refugees, but you don’t want them in your homes. You can be with Russia, but you want democracy. You know, like these timelines that felt apart recently. I think it’s all because of technology and communication through technology. So, that was, ideally, what I was doing on stage. I was the technology part somehow destroying and breaking the communication between the musicians and the actual stage and audience.

Were you happy with the result?

It went much beyond my expectations.

Will it ever happen again?

If it happens, I will announce it. I think it would be a shame to interrupt this, now, just because of the efforts of the musicians. And it’s such a global idea or concept, that is not really only related to this edition of the festival. I already have a couple of commissions with the same project. As soon as the festival will rest, the pressure will go and I’ll start working on it.

4. Improvised music

What acts or artists did impress you the most at this edition of CTM?

Because of the choices that I did, these musicians already impressed me before. I wouldn’t call it now which musicians really impressed me, but I would say which ones were the most satisfying and the more sonically valid or visually impressive for the crowd. I think a surprise for me was, for instance, Takuya Taniguchi. I wasn’t expecting it would be that good, I never heard him before and the choice was really based on a couple of suggestions between Jan from CTM and me. I would say the rest was somehow expected to be the way it was, and somehow it gave as much expectation, if not more, and the overall result was amazing, because of the reception of the crowd, of the people that were attending the festival, of the really low amount of critics around a festival like this. I was really surprised. I think that was the impressive and surprising part.

The opening concert that you conducted was more an improv music concert. Maybe we can dig a bit in this direction. When and how did you get to improv music?

The late ‘90s I would call, a period where I actually started digging more and more into improv and free jazz, and I didn’t really know the difference between the two, if there is any.

What was your first contact with it?

I think in ’96 or ’97 I discovered Sun Ra, when I moved to Italy. I knew some jazz stuff, spiritual or Afro jazz, but it wasn’t that much cosmic or free jazz. And there were a lot of improv pieces, so I think I started getting in touch with more improv stuff, from Peter Brötzmann to Ornette Coleman, and all these giants of improv and free jazz, I was just discovering by…not really chance…I had people that were exposing me to that. I was very young at the time, but kind of new to the scene, because I moved from Lebanon, where I had no contact with improv music at all. So it all happened in the early years in Italy.

What’s happening now in the improv music scene? It’s still a niche.

I see it growing much more and much better, in the sense of interconnection between genders. And a lot of genders are now taking more of an improvised aesthetic, rather than a structured one. Even electronic music; there are so many electronic musicians that play improvised sets live. I am one of those. It went from being something structured, with sequencers, you know, a defined thing - I am talking about the dance side of electronic music, of course - and went into a lot of improvisers on stage, good or bad, that’s a different thing. It’s the approach that is important. Jazz for sure and a lot of avant-garde experimentation that is happening. People are building their own instruments, their own synthesizers, they make a lot of different choices, and actually improvisation also in the attitude; creating their own labels, platforms, building their own tours. There’s a lot of creative stuff. I think it’s going really good. It’s becoming a crucial thing.

5. Time and space traveling

You live in Berlin for 4 years. Before you lived in Italy, but you were born in Lebanon. How long did you live there?

Almost 20 years. In ’96 I moved to Italy and I stayed there until 4 years ago.

What music were you listening to, while in Lebanon? Was it like a hidden or locked cultural area?

It was. It was somehow the same like in communism, in your country. Because of the civil war, no Internet, no import; you basically had almost nothing coming in the country for a long time. Music wise, nobody cared about music, anyway. And the music was almost all produced in Lebanon and in North Lebanon, in Syria, and that was the music we were listening to on radio or buying on cassettes; mostly psychedelic rock and psych pop I would call it, from the early ‘80s in Lebanon. That was really good stuff. I still love it. That period was amazing, music wise. It’s very similar to the Turkish stuff Bariș K is proposing since some years. That was a similar way in Lebanon as well. Then it turned more into pop music that was influenced by traditional folk. It was exciting at the first period, but then for me it became mainstream. At the same time there was a lot of hip-hop and house coming in from US or Europe. And it was a lot of mainstream stuff coming in, but at that time we didn’t really care about how mainstream this is or how special or underground that is. It was all one. At that time the mainstream music was also really interesting and fun. Equally combining Public Enemy with KLF, with Adonis and Lil Louis, Vanilla Ice, I don’t know… Cypress Hill, when it came out, and lot of hip-hop; that kind of socio-political guided hip-hop.

So how did you move to Italy?

I wanted to study architecture. I tried in University in Lebanon, but it was too expensive and going in the state university was almost impossible. I failed once and then I said I would move to Italy at this point. With the same amount of money that would be paying private university in Lebanon, I would study in Italy and even not cost me that much. The main reason was to study architecture. I was almost done with the music side, because I decided to stop DJing at that time, but it never happened. It was a continuous thing for me; I never really quit.

So it was in Italy that you decided to build something, music wise.

I think that was already happening in Lebanon. I was pretty active in the scene in Lebanon, but it was a very loose scene, I was just DJ-ing, not producing music. That started in ‘98, more or less, it was the first attempt.

6. A doze of morphine

What about Morphine Records?

It was an idea that I had and I joined forces with K Soul, an electronic producer and DJ from Torino. We create the label together. I had some material that I recorded earlier. The whole idea was to create something that would break the silence from the Italian scene, which was suffering a real depression in music and production and house/techno production. Basically, it was nothing happening at that time there. A lot of producers and musicians were trying to break through, but it wasn’t happening. I do remember when we released the first Morphine. We had no distribution, and everywhere, every shop that was putting hands on that record was just like ‘wait; there is a label in Italy! How come?’ It was really weird. Italy was completely out of the map at that time. Everything that was happening it was quite progressive, quite tech-house, it sounded horrible especially for the side of the scene that was around. We’re talking about these huge clubs with 30 euro entrance; these kinds of things that were working in Italy and nothing else. This is why the name Morphine.

When did you meet Senyawa?

Almost 3 and half years ago in Denmark, at the Sejero Festival, and then we stayed in touch. We recorded the first album and released it on the label. They were already playing for some time and starting to get some recognition mostly abroad, in a more hardcore scene. Festivals of hardcore and stuff like this. They were already pretty active.

How did you meet Pierre Bastien, who just released his new LP ‘Blue As An Orange’ on your label?

We met some years ago in a festival in Italy. We spent a couple of days together, stayed a bit in touch and I proposed him to a festival in Milan. We met there again. While he was playing, it just came to my mind, ‘why not ask him to do an album?’ It was a pretty long time since he released on Rephlex, and actually our entourage of Morphine buyers probably didn’t know much about him. I though it would be refreshing just to introduce him to people that don’t know him, or also refresh his sound, like put a new release for the people that really love him. If you know Pierre Bastien, you just love him. He is absolutely unique: a unique sound, a unique approach and a pretty amazing person.

7. Tanki Tanki

In terms of producing music, what are you working on now?

Producing other people, but not my stuff. I think it’s time to start producing something; it’s almost 4 years. It’s a conscious natural choice, because I needed to take a bit of a distance from my own production side and focus more on the live performance and the DJing and evolve that in a way that could replace it somehow. And I think this developed in a really good way for me. Now I think I’ll start working on some new material.

What about ‘Tanki Tanki’? What’s the story of the song by René Bendali?

’Tanki’ is something related to a measure of 20 liters. Tanki I think is 20 liters of any liquid, from water to oil to benzene. Bendali was making a kind of cynical piece around the situation during the war, where everything was rationalized; so you had only 20 liters of benzene a day, one pack of bread, one of this, one of that… because there were no suppliers in the country, so everything was rationalized.

Just like in Romania.

Yeah, yeah, every place with some repression had this. So the song was saying just you can have only one tanki of benzene, you can only have one pack of eggs but doing it in a really funny way. I remember when I heard it, I was a child and then we completely forgot about this piece. It was not really played anymore after the late ‘80. And then I discovered it on a cassette. So I ripped the cassette off and the rest is what you know.

René Bendali was doing a piece in 83 or 84 that was basically what Adonis or Marshal Jefferson were doing almost in the same time in Chicago. I would call it a proto-house or proto-techno piece from Lebanon.

But were they aware of this?

I don’t think so. I think they were just using synthesizers because it was the thing to be used in a pop band. I think only Rene made this production, which wasn’t really approved by the family. They never really liked it. They found it too trashy, in a way. They had a lot of material, but Tanki Tanki was kind of the standout track, with the drum machines. I think the vocals came from a theatre play that he was doing with some other friends. That’s what his brother wrote me at that time, and he was not excited by the piece at all. I was telling him ‘you don’t even know the value of this’. I was trying to get the license to officially release it and it was just impossible. It was a bootleg first and then Strut licensed it. They did a compilation with Trevor Jackson.

--

A part of Rabih Beaini's DJ set from Whatever is After CTM 2016 was recorded and published on RBMA.
*photo credits: Camille Blake, Hans van der Linden and Sara Scanderebech



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