Lebanon’s guerrilla vinyl guru
In Beirut's only communist theme bar, Ernesto Chahoud talks about his immense vintage vinyl collection, which is gaining worldwide recognition
Ernesto Chahoud's collection of 10,000 records is one of the biggest in the region (MEE/Chloe Domat)
Published date: 5 February 2016 11:24 GMT | Last update: 7 years 3 months ago
In 2010, Ernesto Chahoud dreamt about one thing: old Ethiopian vinyl. But he didn’t have the money nor the contacts to go to Addis Ababa. Instead, he put together a compilation of old Arabic music. It took him years to dig up forgotten records from the flea markets and dusty attics of Beirut and Cairo. But nobody wanted to listen to them.
“I contacted all the labels I could think of to get my mix out,” says Chahoud. “Then I moved on to something else.” Five years later, his mix of Disco-Belly dance and Arabic funk was voted among the Guardian’s 2015 best Middle Eastern playlists. The judge had one comment: “Oh my god, this is good.”
There is only one Communist bar in Beirut. It belongs to Ernesto’s father. To reach it, visitors must wind their way along the frantic main street of Hamra at night all the way to the district of Caracas. They’ll find it on the ground floor of a sinister concrete building.
The lights inside are red. It smells like cumin sprinkled with lemons and liquor. All over the walls relics from a recent past stand proud.
It’s like a family album. Printings of anonymous Lebanese activists, local leaders and Soviet superstars meticulously cover every centimetre of wall paint. However, in this array of portraits, one iconic face stands out: Ernesto Che Guevara.
Every Monday Ernesto Chahoud is behind the counter. But despite his penchant for cigarillos, stubbly beard and unruly black mop that evokes more than a passing likeness to the Argentinian revolutionary icon, he’s no communist. While pouring whisky for a friend of his father, Chahoud expatiates not so much on Karl Marx, but rather on the American philosopher John Rawls and his PhD about artificial intelligence.
He talks about music too, his next mix, his DJ friends and his record collection. “I never did another job. I always thought if you don’t do something you’re passionate about then you are a slave,” he says while puffing on his cigarillo. “I became a slave to my passion.”
When Chahoud, aka DJ Spindle, started buying records in the early 1990s, he wasn’t looking for Arabic music. What he liked was rhythm and blues, and classic rock. “People used to call me a woosy because I enjoyed Bob Dylan while everybody was into to heavy metal.” Searching for music became a solitary obsession.
Chahoud remembers waking up at 4am to be the first at the local flea market. At the time, LPs were selling for less than a dollar, but usually Chahoud wouldn’t even know what he was buying. Sometimes it was disappointing.
“Once I bought a record by Fleetwood Mac. I loved it so much I went back and bought every Fleetwood Mac piece they had. I got to my turntable, played them; I was so excited and then f***! It was s***!” he says, flapping his hand over his head as if it was happening all over again. The thing is, what Chahoud had enjoyed was not Fleetwood Mac, but Peter Green, who left the band in 1970. Mistakes like this made him develop a sharp knowledge and taste for music.
Today he owns over 10,000 records, one of the most impressive collections in the region. His house couldn’t it take any more so he took over his grandfather’s shoemakers’ shop where he now sells his doubles and some other pieces.
The crates are stacked with funk, northern soul and recently Ethiopian music. “Listen, listen - this is a killer record,” he says, pulling out a Muluken Melesse. “You like it huh? You like it?”
In 2009, Chahoud co-founded the Beirut Groove Collective as a way to promote black music to the Beirut night scene, and walls of his shop are covered with posters from their parties. When you ask him how he got into Arabic music, you get a roaring laugh. “I never got into it! I f***ing hate it!”
Like it or not, the reality is that what started off as a hobby turned into a goldmine with the spectacular comeback of vinyl records and vintage Arabic samples. Going through his LPs Chahoud nonchalantly mentions that some are worth up to $1000.
"The ultimate format to play music is on a record. A CD gets damaged after you play it for five years and the original music recorded on it is not complete. Tapes would be very good but they always have a hiss you can’t get rid of. Most music collectors focus on records because of the quality and richness of the sound. Very few people collect cassettes and CDs."
Arabic music under the spotlight
In the last few years Arabic music is increasingly being viewed as the new cool thing by Western partygoers, DJs and producers. Jannis Sturtz is the co-founder of Jakarta Records, the German label who put out Chahoud’s Belly Dance mix.
Two years ago, he launched Habibi Funk, a sister label that focuses only on Arabic music through mixes and re-issues of old records. “I like music that sounds new and fresh to my ears” he says. Arabic productions from the 60s and 70s stand out because of a unique blend between oriental tunes and Western influence.
Artists like Omar Khorshid, Elias Rahbani or Ahmed Fakroun are slowly being re-discovered, both by Westerners and by the local audience. “Most of these artists were very obscure so the people from the Arabic-speaking countries are also curious about it,” says Sturtz, who travels regularly to the Middle East to dig records, meet artists, and DJ.
If sampling Arabic music has become so popular, it’s also because the Middle East is all over the news. “There is this very stereotypical narrative about what Arabic culture looks like yet this music from the 60s and 70s contradicts that narrative. I think this is partly why it is so successful,” says Sturtz, whose mixes have attracted hundreds of thousands of listeners online.
Business and speculation
There is another reason why music professionals suddenly turned to Arabic music: copyright law. In Europe or in the United States, sampling and re-issuing fall under specific rules and regulations; essentially, rights have to be paid to the artist.
In the Middle East, however, things aren’t that straightforward. Many of the musicians are either retired or dead, record companies closed down and the general lack of legal structures makes it easy for unscrupulous businessmen to simply not pay those rights.
On top of that, the local authorities often don’t understand why Westerners would be interested in this type of music. For Samir Tabet, senior lawyer at SACEM, the Lebanese national institution in charge of music copyrights, this whole thing sounds like a joke. “Wait what are you talking about? I don’t see why people would want to buy old stuff like that. To do what?”
When made aware of Arabic records’ sampling, he raises his shoulders: “SACEM is not in charge of this.”
With renewed interest for Arabic music, average record prices have skyrocketed and inevitably, sellers speculate. Daniel der Sahakian used to run the Armenian-Arabic label Voice of Stars. He now owns a tiny store next to Ernesto’s where the dusty shelves seem to sag under the weight of tapes. Most of the time there is no electricity. Daniel navigates around his boxes with a flashlight.
CDs, tapes, fake DVDs and a few records are available. “I won’t give out the vinyls for less than 15 dollars. The real price is much higher!” he says firmly. Some of his records are actually worth less. Extraordinary legends also spice up the business. Rumour has it that people have bought records for a dollar and sold them for thousands on Discogs, the online marketplace for LPs and 45rpms.
“Diggin’ is like going to war nowadays. At the flea market, if I pick a record the shopkeeper will ask for at least 25 dollars because they think I’m going to make hundreds out of it,” says Chahoud. For Sturtz, that is a misunderstanding. “With every mix I put out, I do make it harder for myself to find that music,” says Sturtz, “but in reality there are very few records worth more than a hundred dollars. Most of it won’t sell for more than ten dollars.”
Looking for the next big thing
If Chahoud does make money from selling records to a growing number of foreigners, he is ill at ease and openly critical about most of them.
“There was this hipster a couple of months ago. He kept on calling me and texting me from Europe asking for a list of records. Finally he came to the store and I played for him a very rare Lebanese piece but he said he wasn’t interested. A week later he calls me back asking about a specific record. I told him that’s the one I played for you last time! You didn’t like it but now you figured out it was expensive! F*** him. I didn’t sell.” While cleaning some of his favourites with a twinkling smile, Chahoud has bitter words: “These guys, they do not really listen to the music.”
While some only fall for the hype, connoisseurs are sceptical about the sustainability of this musical revival. “This business is a dead end,” says Chahoud. “There is only like twenty, let’s say fifty, maximum one hundred Arabic music records that are interesting for the dancefloor.”
Still, there are things to re-discover. While he was digging for his first compilation, Chahoud stumbled upon surprising Lebanese northern soul, surf and garage recordings from the 1960s. At the time, Beirut’s cultural scene was booming and Lebanese bands, like the Sea-ders, put out very unusual records.
For most Western collectors, interest in this music would be counter-intuitive as it doesn’t sound Arabic at all; in fact it’s much closer to the Beatles. But Chahoud likes to go against the flow, and although he acknowledges that “this will never see the light,” he still collected the records and thought about a new playlist.
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