Civil War Killed Lebanon's Vinyl Culture

Meaning, if you're a crate digger, you've got to fight for what's left.

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24 October 2014, 5:00am

Ernesto Chahoud, owner of Darsko record store, in Beirut

Below a canopy of electric wires on a narrow street in Bourj Hamoud, an Armenian neighbourhood in east Beirut, a small group of pensioners sit on red plastic chairs outside a corner shop, chain-smoking and occasionally shouting at each other, in conversation rather than anger.

Mopeds and a beaten-up 1960s era Mercedes compete with women bustling children home from school and a couple of foremen carrying a nondescript assortment of scrap metal and wood. Amid the daily humdrum the gentle melody of Grant Greene’s “Idle Moments” emerges from a nondescript shop front, sandwiched between a falafel joint and a shoe-shop selling "NIKE’s" with ticks stitched backwards.

Inside, a tall man wearing a T-shirt that's slightly too small for him fiddles with an old Sansui amp standing on a table beside vinyl copies of Heavy D’s “Gyrlz They Love Me”, Bo Hanson’s “Attic Thoughts” and a 70s-era Turkish psychedelic funk 45. The copy of “Idle Moments” spinning on the nearby turntable is a 1964 Blue Note original; similar copies have sold on eBay for over £600.

It would be easy to pass by Darsko without noticing it. Ostensibly a shop, it doubles as a hangout for friends, local musicians, enthusiasts willing to pay big and connoisseurs looking for a trade. Archaic property legislation means that rent on the building has been fixed since before Lebanon’s civil war (1975-90), making monthly payments to the landlord negligible.

Over the last few months, the likes of DJ Format, Olly Teeba of The Herbaliser and German 45-legend Florian Keller have passed by during trips to Beirut to perform with the Beirut Groove Collective (BGC), a group of DJs pursuing a strictly vinyl policy, spinning a variety of jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, rare-groove and hip-hop. On the 1st of November, Mr Thing – two times World DMC Champion and the producer behind Yungun’s classic Grown Man Business LP – is set to touch down in Beirut to headline with the collective.

Ernesto Chahoud, Darsko’s owner and a founding member of the BGC, is one of Lebanon’s premier vinyl collectors, with over 10,000 dug up in flea markets, old record shops, attics and dumpsters in Beirut and wider Lebanon since the mid-90s. In addition to his work with the BGC, Chahoud has helped bring artists – including pioneering jazz guitarists Ryo Kawasaki and American Melvin Sparks – to Lebanon.

Lebanon may not seem the ideal place for vinyl enthusiasts, but anywhere can be a crate digger's dreamland under the right circumstances.

The period stretching from the end of the French occupation until the outbreak of civil war is regarded as a golden era in the country. During this time, bolstered by the influx of Western tourists to the country in the 1940s, vinyl began to be pressed. Local labels such as Societe du Libanais du Disque acquired distribution rights from European and American labels, while others – such as Dunya Phone – sought to promoted local and regional musicians. During this period, the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald travelled to Lebanon, performing to sell-out crowds at the Baalbek festival, amid some of the finest Roman ruins in the world.

While the Baalbek festival is still going today, the outbreak of civil war brought a cruel end to Lebanon’s short-lived vinyl pressing era.

The space Darsko now inhabits was Chahoud’s grandfather’s shoe factory. However, in 1975, the family – supporters of the Lebanese communist party – moved to west Beirut as the east became increasingly dominated by right-wing Christian militias. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion, they relocated once again, to Rmeileh, a mountain village close to Sidon and, at the time, one of few remaining communist bastions in the country.

“One time in the bus on the way to school, we were sitting in traffic. Suddenly, rockets hit the car next to us,” says Chahoud. “Everything was on fire – people were running and screaming. The driver managed to U-turn and drive us home. I was maybe five years old. Soon after that my parents left Beirut.

“Life in Rmeileh in the late-80s was alright. It was full of armed, drunken men – a bit crazy. You know, like that Sam Peckinpah film The Wild Bunch. It was the end of the war, that latent time between the end of an era and the beginning of another. Really, I just dreamt of returning to Beirut – mainly because there was no pinball in Rmeileh. Also I wanted to hang out with girls.”

In the early-90s, Chahoud returned to east Beirut with his parents as the city and its citizens attempted to rebuild after 15 years of conflict.

“I was hanging out with a group of guys older than myself – hippie, rock 'n' roll types. They were listening to The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, etc. We would buy cassettes in these shops that would be completely sparse other than a table and a chair, with thousands of cassettes lining the walls. The cassettes would only have the name of the artist and the album written on them, but not the track listings. We never knew the name of individual songs,” reflects Chahoud.

“One day I bought this set of five cassettes that included an early Fleetwood Mac tape with Peter Green, one Bob Dylan and one Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I remember listening to them when I got home that day and thinking, 'Oh fuck, this is something.' Around a year after that, I started buying vinyl.

“In the early-90s, people returned to their homes after the war and began renovating and selling things. Everyone was throwing away vinyl, especially with the rise of CDs. I used to go to the flea markets around Beirut every weekend. There were crates and crates and I would pay around 500-1000 Lebanese Lira (20-40p) per vinyl. My parents thought I was fucking crazy.”

While it's still possible to stumble across a gem, the majority of valuable Lebanese-pressed vinyl has now been eaten up by connoisseurs. Traders have also wisened up to the potential value of rare and even not-particularly rare-records, Chahoud’s vociferous appetite almost single-handedly serving to raise market prices.

Ernesto in King's

In King’s, a record store located a 10-minute walk from Darsko, Chahoud argues for half an hour over the availability of an old Deep Purple album. A picture of King having his cheek squeezed by Julio Iglesias is blue-tacked to the back-wall, and a stuffed flying fish hangs above the counter. In the mid-90s, Chahoud bought a crate of vinyl from King for a paltry 40,000 Lira (£16.50). It included some rare northern soul and disco. He says King has regretted it ever since.

Today, the Deep Purple LP is not for sale. Chahoud leaves looking crestfallen, while King returns to his prior engagement: placing counterfeit porn DVDs into plastic sleeves, accompanied by carefully cut plastic cards containing seedy images explaining the DVD’s contents.

“Fuck it,” says Chahoud, leaving the shop before reminiscing about a Larry Corryell gig he attended in Beirut a few years ago.

“I ended up backstage and asked Corryell about this quasi-mythical session he allegedly recorded with Miles Davis back in the day," he recalls. "He looked at me and said in disbelief, 'How do you know about that?' Before explaining that it was true, but Davis’ family had never allowed the release. He wasn’t sure why, but added 'I’ll tell you what – Miles had me playing like I’d never played before.'”

Talking to Chahoud, it's clear he wishes he’d been around for Beirut’s golden era, when vinyl was readily printed and some of the biggest names in jazz and soul graced the stage at Baalbek.

“It must have been amazing,” says Chahoud. “A lot of people here are not scared of ISIS. During the civil war here we did just as bad. Behead people, cut off ears and collect them, tie a man between two cars and split him in half… many crazy things. There was just no YouTube.

“I dream that Beirut could one day return to being the city it was, recognised as a thriving cultural hub not just in the Middle East, but by people all over the world.”

@martnbeirut

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