sound of the underground: meet the female pioneers of beirut’s growing nightlife scene
In what was once a male-dominated world, women are invading the city’s dance music scene in radical ways. As taken from The Fifth Sense, a partnership with Chanel.
Think of Beirut and you may imagine the city's nightlife. With a global reputation of "Paris of the Middle East", it's party scene rivals New York or London, catering to Arab royalty and twenty-somethings looking to let loose alike. In 2012 Uberhaus, Beirut's first underground venue opened it's doors, with the aim of shifting the emphasis from overpriced table service to local, low-key nightlife. Over on the other side of town, The Grand Factory throws some of the city's biggest parties and has gone from 200-300 capacity to 2000 people passing through their doors a night.
In what was once traditionally a men's domain, there's also been a rapid growth of women flexing their muscles. From promoters to producers, to schools specifically devoted to improving the skills of female DJs, there's been an explosion of women pushing dance music forward. Societal acceptance might have been slow - this is still the Middle East - but it's made huge leaps in only five years. To celebrate, we spoke to some of the scene's seminal players about political partying, finding refuge in techno and the challenges women (still) face.
Art-director-turned-DJ Tala Mortada is hoping to influence the youth of Beirut through a means with which everyone can get on board: partying. Trendy promo-group C U NXT SAT hosts one of Beirut's biggest club nights. It's held at the Grand factory, where Mortada DJs, but is more than just a club: It uses dance music as a springboard for political change. Together with her team, Tala has started a clothing donation programme in the club, encouraging clubbers to bring extra clothing to help refugee families. On top of this she offers a recycling program, and a competition for local musicians to win a month's studio time in Berlin, under the title Beirut Berlin Express. Does she view her work as political? "No, I think it's mostly social. I feel like anyone who has a voice, anywhere in the world, also has a responsibility," she says. "The young people see we're different because we really try to provide an escape. If you feel like there's no real purpose in life, we try to make them feel at home. The club is our playground, but it's also our escape. If people dream with us, or have hope, or if we get to reflect on what's happening in the country positively, it makes it all worthwhile." There's more women than ever before on line-ups, and it's only getting better, explains Mortada. "The electronic scene is full of men around the world, and we're talking about a country in the Middle East. Compared to the situation, and the size of the country, I think we're doing a pretty good job."
Bitar (aka DJ Joey) was one of the original OGs. She started DJing in the 90s when the sight of a woman would have raised eyebrows. In 2012, she launched Women on Dex, a female-only DJing school aimed at improving the talent of women who want to be involved with Lebanon's nightlife scene. "Clubbers are constantly hungry for something new and different, right?" she explains. "The idea was to get an original group of young, sexy and twisted women who each have a different kind of music to play on the decks." And now the floodgates have opened: "Nowadays you can see female DJs everywhere you go." As someone who's witnessed the change over the years, how would she describe the dance scene today? "Beirut is always booming, and always heading forward. The Lebanese people love to dance until the early hours…even the war didn't stop them from partying! If you're looking to have a drink before heading home after a long day at work, happy hours start at 4pm. If you feel like clubbing hardcore, you'll end up in the woods somewhere up in the mountains."
This 22-year-old Lebanese singer-songwriter/producer makes music that sounds like "a weeping gangster." Her words, not ours, but one listen to debut single Jukebox and you can see what she means: it's a bewitchingly ballsy, in-your-face RnB track in which she dares you "to point a coin" in her. After getting sick of waiting to meet people who made music she was interested in, Fiefer took matters into her own hands, she learnt the ways of Logic Pro and became a producer on her own terms. Does it ever feel like a boys club? Not to Fiefer. "There's no denying that production is a male dominant field, but that doesn't faze me. I've never felt that I'm less important or better because I'm a woman - I just make sure I put my foot down with what I want during the beginning stages of working with someone." Her debut EP, The Prelude, will be ready in the New Year. For now, she's back permanently in Beirut for studio sessions and, well, clubbing. "Places like Uberhaus and The Garten are an escape - an experience we desperately crave in a drowning city like Beirut."
Liliane Chlela has been kicking about Beirut's dance scene for the last decade, so she's well versed in its changing landscape. She started DJing back in 2003 but progressively shifted towards production. "That's when it started booming, slowly but surely," she says. "Back then my presence was something entertaining to look at. It was like: 'oh wow, what's that! A girl!' This was to start with - it eventually got less entertaining, of course. But it was funny to watch." It was actually production that proved the harder discipline to move into. "My solo sets were ambient - always improvised. So accessing the crowd took me a while because I was pretty young and the pioneers of that scene had been working for decades." Chlela thinks clubbers in 2016 have lost a certain level of engagement. "The scene is ever-changing, which is good, obviously, as long as the crowd know what they're taking over. There's a lot of history there." Despite the numbers of women involved rapidly rising, they can still face problems. "The more the merrier, right?" she begins. "The ideal is to get somewhere where you're not highlighted as being a woman, but the problem is the people who make stuff happen for you are exclusively men. It's not a bad thing, but you do always have that as a reference."
Yasmine Sarout (aka Ladybug) first started DJing in a bar called Mybar back in 2010. Within a year she was spotted by the guys who ran C U NXT SAT, and is now their resident DJ. In a similar vein to other women's experiences, people were surprised at first: "I had sexist comments from men like, "Isn't it too late for a woman to be working at this hour?" Or phone numbers slipped in my pocket because some men thought I was a prostitute. I once got tipped a $100 because that person "liked" the fact that he was looking at a woman while sipping his drink. I didn't accept it - of course." But, she says, things have improved massively. And the clubbers themselves are more clued up. "They know the difference between house music and techno, Nu-Disco and Deep house. And they arrive sober, rather than drunk." For all Beirut's turmoil - "whether from wars, internal terrorism, or political crisis" - it's still one of the most diverse places on earth to party. "Lebanese people find refuge in dancing - it's an escape from their daily lives."
Text Louise Donovan
Photography Mohamad Abdouni