If you’re into music, Ziad Nawfal, whether he likes it or not, has a prevailing presence in Beirut. The DJ, producer and music promoter has acted as an unofficial disseminator and documenter of the city’s alternative music scene since he started making mixtapes as a teenager, recording new wave tracks off the radio during the Lebanese Civil War.
But he finds labels he’s been dubbed with, such as “the godfather of the scene” and “the John Peel of Lebanon”, both uncomfortable and inaccurate. First and foremost he is a music collector, with an entire room in his apartment dedicated to his encyclopedic collection, where he dedicates time each morning to listen to new releases and old favorites. He finds solace in rearranging his possessions – from the stacks of DVDs he watches on an old projector in his living room, to his books, paintings and an enviable display of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt postcards on the bathroom wall. “It kind of stabilises me in times of crisis. It’s not OCD though – it’s more of a tactile relationship. I just need to know that they’re there.”
Now running his own self-financed record label, Ruptured, as well as his 20-year-old radio show, a blog and constant DJ sets, what’s impressive about Nawfal is his old-school ethos and pure, inexhaustible fascination with music. But his pedantic side, he admits, is not always a good thing. He showed us around his apartment in a “nasty neighbourhood” just off the airport highway, and one of his favourite spots, Café Rawda.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site.
First thing’s first – where’s the music collection?
It’s pretty big. It’s a room with shelves…
A whole room?
Yes. I keep putting up shelves to keep up with it. Although I don’t need to buy original CDs for DJing anymore because people have stopped caring about sound quality and just use shitty mp3s on their laptops. Now I just buy CDs for my own listening pleasure, not for work.
How many do you have?
Around 6000-7000. And a few hundred vinyls. I make space to listen to them for two to three hours every day. And I always try and make it something new. I don’t want to be the type of collector who has 100 shrink-wrapped CDs that are just sitting there.
I didn’t realise you were such a collector.
I am. But I’m a collector with a view to listen, not just to own a beautiful object. If someone comes over and they really like something, I’ll give it to them.
So you’re kind of like a library.
Kind of. My friend used to call me an ‘empasser’ – someone who doesn’t give but makes things transit. I get music, buy music, listen to music and then play it on the radio…
Doesn’t everything you do come from that?
Yes. The radio, the mixing, the DJing, the label. The hundreds and thousands of mixtapes I’ve made since I was a teenager for friends. I’m more in tune to the passage of music to other people.
Your label Ruptured is self-financed and focuses on mostly experimental and alternative music. Is it difficult to maintain?
There was a surge of production at first. The label started in 2009 and in the first three years we did eight CDs. That’s a lot. Financially, it breaks even. It’s not sustainable in the long run but it’s enough for me right now. It’s gives me the most pleasure. It does bring certain recognition that I’m ‘the godfather of the scene’, which I don’t believe in. I don’t do it for whatever epithets it brings me. Some people love me for what I do, other people hate me.
Is that because Beirut’s alternative music scene is relatively small?
It is a small scene. Everyone knows everyone else and I’ve always functioned by will and desire – I’m not interested in music I don’t like. I do not want to be a ‘experimental label’ or ‘Lebanese label’ or whatever. That’s why calling me the godfather of the scene is wrong.
How do you view your role instead?
I prefer not to view it. It’s brought me a lot of headache and heartache. At the end of the day, it’s just me putting out stuff that I like and a series of radio recordings that document a time, a place and a scene. But at some point I started taking myself too seriously…
It sounds like you’re really hard on yourself…
I’m really pissed off with myself. I’m not a smooth talker and I’m not a networking person. I’m just a normal guy with a 20-year-old radio program. And somewhere down the line I lost track of that and lost myself. I hate the fact that I became so involved, so stressed out and so opinionated about other people’s work.
Maybe that’s because you’re emotionally invested in your work?
True, granted. But somehow I let the stakes become too high. Each concert became a life and death matter. If people don’t come it’s the end of the world.
What do you have planned for the future of the label?
I’m going on with it. I produced probably my best album back in February, Unveiling the Hidden, which was a meeting between rapper Mazen el Sayed and electronic artist Munma, my brother [Jawad Nawfal]. My brother has gone through an unexpected surge of creativity this year.
Did you grow up listening to a lot of music at home?
There was a lot of music in the house. My parents both loved music but my father was the one who would actively buy records – old Turkish/Ottoman and old Iraqi music. My mother was into French folk. But it was my two cousins who really informed my music taste. They used to tape off the radio from a young age and would invite me over.
What were you listening to those days?
It was 1982 and I was 11 or 12. It was the height of new wave and the new romantics: Duran Duran, Yazoo, Depeche Mode, The Cure’s pop period, Visage, New Order. I still listen to some of these albums today, the good ones. I moved into much weirder and more experimental areas after that, but a lot of the music I like was informed by these.
This was during the Civil War. What were radio stations like back then?
There were five or six really good radio stations. A lot of them played very good foreign stuff and alternative pop. I kept notebooks and detailed each station’s hit parade. Then I developed my own hit parade! Eventually we bought our own transmitter radio and broadcasted on our own wavelength, within the vicinity of our building. I’d tape songs from the radio and then play them. It was a little bit pathetic.
What do you love about radio?
The fact that you’re passing on music to an invisible audience is very refreshing and appealing. It’s a bit sexy at times, especially when you get feedback. ‘I really enjoyed that song you played yesterday. Where’s that from?’
You live in an unusual neighbourhood for a DJ. What do you like about it?
I don’t like anything about it. It’s a very nasty neighbourhood because it’s situated on the stretch of highway that goes to the airport. It’s noisy all the time. There’s a lot of construction. There’s a school next to us, two churches and six mosques. But it’s a very eclectic neighbourhood, which is interesting to me as far as audio is concerned. I don’t really mingle, I don’t really care about the people. But I like the wild discrepancy in audio.
Why did you choose Café Rawda as one of your favourite spots in Beirut?
I like to sit and read and listen to people’s conversations. And smell their narguileh [shisha]. It’s connected to my childhood. My folks used to bring me here all the time.You can come here early, in the middle of the day, in the evening, at the weekend. It’s very green – like an oasis in the middle of a very concrete city.
Find out more about Ziad’s radio show and record label, Ruptured, here.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who presents a special curation of our pictures on their site. Check out the special selection here.
Photography by Tanya Traboulsi
Words by NJ Stallard