Questions of authenticity seem to be at the heart of the debate surrounding new manifestations of independent music in the Middle East – and it’s an internal rather than external discussion. Specific veins of criticism that exist in Lebanon among an elite cross-section of cultural observers is presented in a tired (though certainly relevant) debate around Orientalism and the degradation of authentic forms of Arabic music being created in a post-globalised society.
During the 8 years I’ve been documenting these musical trends and attempting to pose a framework of understanding for these musical forms, be they post-rock, post-punk, rap, folk, electronica, noise-core, experimental, improvisational, I’ve seen this binary debate of East versus West turned on its head by a brash set of electronic music producers who eschew the discourse as anachronistic, or at the very least dismissive of the realities on the ground.
One of those producers is Sary Moussa a.k.a. radiokvm, whose first full length album ‘ISSRAR’ – a limited edition vinyl release distributed by Cargo Records (UK) and produced on the Lebanese independent label Ruptured – debuted in October.
“This entire cultural debate – Lebanon as a crossroads between East and West – is uninteresting to me. It’s a useless exercise,” Moussa explained in June, as ‘ISSRAR’s test pressings had just been completed. “We’re just here (in Beirut). We have influences. We know about music. We research. The fact that what we research is conditioned by our situation and our background makes us go somewhere with our music.”
radiokvm’s journey into that “somewhere” began around 2002, when the electro-pop outfit Soap Kills was defining new possibilities of music production for a generation of post Civil War youth. Moussa’s own self-admitted influences at the time leaned towards rock and jazz, having taken up music lessons as a youngster.
But the band format and the reliance on others to craft concepts of sound felt limiting to Moussa’s growing sense of what was possible with production, even with no knowledge about how to produce formally. His drive then and now was not to mimic what was going on around him. “I wanted to make music and play, and for me that meant there were sounds that I wanted to make with the few instruments that I had.”
radiokvm began to look for obscure (by Lebanese standards) multi track recorders, or software interfaces that could accommodate his production needs. “From this point on I started plugging in my guitar and keyboards that I’d borrow from friends, and commenced playing.”
With limited knowledge and understanding about what to do with his music, he put his first self-produced tracks on MySpace. This was 2008, and Moussa had already come up with the name radiokvm.
Moussa then began exploring what he could do in a live setting, and this coincided with the time when another young musician and fledgling producer, Faysal Bibi, was making a transition away from the band format of his late 1990s rock days in Beirut and into solo electronic music production.
As Bibi explained, in 2007 and early 2008 he was at a loss to find like minded producers in Lebanon who were attracted by this new world of bedroom or home studio production setups. “Eventually, I came across a musician who was calling himself radiokvm. And he had like 3 songs recorded on MySpace which were beautiful – at least one was – re-renditions of classic Arabic folklore made into trip-hop. I was like, ‘this is great’, and the sound is so fresh! I emailed him and he responded positively to my inquiries. So we met up. This was the middle of 2008 and then we started hanging out.”
This meetup led to the formation of a friendship in production and live performance that continues today. The two first began sharing their own work with each other in listening sessions and later went on to comix each other’s sounds and discover production techniques together. In effect, they became their own best teachers.
“As we developed with one other, he’d (Moussa) ask questions like, ‘Oh, what’s this midi-controller you’re using?’ He would go get one, and I’d be like, ‘What’s this software you’re using?’ and then I’d go get it. ‘What’s this sample kit you’re using?’ ‘What’s this and that?’ ‘How are you composing?’ ‘Here’s how I’m doing it.’ We didn’t have studio monitors. We had crappy little speakers at home. We learned about sound together. Then we wanted to do live gigs!”
Bibi, also known by his producer name OkyDoky, and radiokvm started digging into their mutual DIY philosophies and experimenting with different hardware and software setups. From 2008 to 2010, the two developed a decent local following, playing wild semi-improvisational sets, twisting knobs, pushing pads, and tweaking effects-laden sounds through various samplers at local digs like the basement of Dany’s pub in Hamra and the now defunct Club Social in Gemmayzeh.
By 2009, radiokvm and OkyDoky began attracting the attention of local producers like Jawad Nawfal a.k.a. Munma, one of Beirut’s most senior electronic music producers and a mainstay on his brother Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured imprint, founded in 2008. And there were others too, such as Jad Atoui, younger brother of Paris-based electronic music composer, Tarek Atoui, and Hadi Saleh, founder and project manager of the Lebanese non-for-profit Acousmatik System that began in 2009 to introduce electronic and experimental music production to uninitiated Lebanese audiences.
The pair did their first international gig in 2010 at The Real Fest in Edinburgh, and later began self-publishing demos of their live recordings, including a 2010 release, recorded over the course of a year that also featured support work from local rapper AA the Preacherman. The recording showcased both Bibi’s and Moussa’s growing sense of song structure, arrangement and use of sampling. But it also began to distinguish the production techniques of the two artists, further prompted by Bibi’s departure to France for a job opportunity at a small university town teaching palaeontology and evolutionary theory (Bibi is a palaeontologist by profession).
Whereas OkyDoky’s production process was geared towards duplicating his sounds during live performances, radiokvm’s was more about his obsession with sound. “Shortly after he (Bibi) left, I realised that my live show had to change so I started building a new live setup and using different DAWs (digital audio workstations) for both production and live shows which mainly revolved around my computer and some midi-controllers,” radiokvm told Audio Kultur.
So from 2010 onwards, radiokvm began changing the way he wrote music, focusing more, he said, on “hardware machines and looping,” which he decided to bring to the gigs. All along, the computer was the main tool he used to control the interaction between his production/performance software Ableton Live and his growing collection of hardware elements like his Korg ES-1 drum machine sampler, his 16-channel Waldorf Blofeld synthesiser, and his vintage 1976 Roland SH-1 analog synthesiser. Moussa is as much a fan of producing music as he is of the technology that helps create the soundscapes that have characterised his work, particularly over the last 4 years.
Moussa’s recent musical collaborations have included work with Jad Atoui and multi-instrumentalist and all-around hardware, software and analog synthesiser geek, Liliane Chlela. His recent recorded collaborations include a remix of the song Tkhayal/Conceive off of the 2012 debut album release of Lebanese rapper El Rass, produced by Munma, and a remix of a song off of Munma’s ‘No Apologies’ CD (2013) on Syrphe records, the music platform of Belgian-born, Berlin-based producer CeDrik.
In the lead up to radiokvm’s debut release ‘ISSRAR’, he solo released Infinite Moment of Composure on the album ‘Turbulence’ (Syrphe, 2012), composed music for short films, theatre, and dance performances such as Ali Chahrour’s Fatmeh, and provided a notable remix on OkyDoky’s phenomenal 2013 debut 16 track full length ‘Boomboxx’. The track, Lake Vostok, took on a decidedly more ambient electronic feel – a contrast to the electro-rap homage that characterises OkyDoky’s original songwriting for the album.
More of an EP than a full length (6 tracks), radiokvm’s ‘ISSRAR’ takes us on a cinematic ride through his own evolution as a producer. Beginning with the album opener Navid, which is an ambient, more sound focused traipse around his production tools, we hear the clear influence of American avant-garde composer La Monte Young. But as the album progresses, we hear a more conscious nod to the audience, or at least to a more consumable sense of what the audience would want with tracks like Breeding Clones, Six, and Hysteresis, showcasing Moussa’s loop music, techno (tm404, Karl O’Connor), Birmingham techno, Krautrock and dubstep influences.
Explaining his production process, he says “I wanted to move away from the computer in order to escape the rigidity of the fully written track. For this album, I would have a 50 minute recording session in real time, relying more on my hardware than on my computer – multi-track it and then go in later and chop the tracks in order to turn them each into tracks of between 4 and 7 minutes – maintaining the essence of what I had done originally.”
As a result, and as evidenced by his album release gig at the Beirut Art Center on the 15th of October, radiokvm’s recorded material is impossible to duplicate in a live setting. “I can try to put the track or the driving force of a track forward in a live setup, and then do another setup around it with drums or keys,” but similar to his experiments with patching in and creating sounds on his analog synthesizers, each and every session is finite and gone forever if not recorded.
As with the ever-changing nature of Moussa’s studio setup, he adheres to the idea of an evolving identity as an artist living and producing music in the Arab world. He is optimistic that the types of music being produced in the region at the moment are not bound by the conventions of identity. But he’s happy to be the one to break open the mold in this regard.
“How can the music that we create here be anything but Lebanese music? Whether it’s techno, hiphop, dubstep or post-rock, if the music is coming from someone who’s from this culture – coming from someone who does music in his or her own way – isn’t it Lebanese? I mean, I think we should just accept this and do whatever we want artistically!”