Ziad Nawfal is the closest thing Lebanon has to a John Peel figure, a resolute champion of underground music who has been infiltrating the state broadcaster with far-out sounds for decades. Nawfal is a Beirut-based DJ, music promoter, producer and host on Radio Lebanon, and the co-founder of the independent label Ruptured Records with Fadi Tabbal of the legendary Tunefork Studios.
Ziad’s journey as Lebanon’s ear for left-field sounds began in the early 90s, with his show Ruptures, that’s still running today, with five hours of new music every week. By 1993, he had already spent a decade tracking down imported new wave, indie and goth cassettes, with 4AD a particular epiphany. So by the time he won his first gig at Radio Lebanon, his curious crate-digging brain helped him bypass the typical sounds filtering safely through the airwaves. He reeled in a growing crowd playing everything from indie and noise-rock, to psychedelia, electronica and techno, and the Ruptures show soon became a platform for Lebanese artists, getting exposure through their releases on the airwaves, and the regular recording of the live Sessions.
A label was the next logical step, and he and Tabbal set up Ruptured Records in 2008, with a wide net of alternative rock, left-field electronica, drone and other experimental paths. Releases flip between new albums and brilliantly curated Ruptured Sessions — either recordings from the vaults or specially commissioned pieces, such as the Time In This Time project, in which Nawfal invited artists to document a snapshot of their life through the pandemic and the devastating explosion in Beirut last August.
Ruptured Records’ next release is the latest album by Indonesian experimental drone duo Senyawa, who invited labels worldwide to release the record with their own artwork, translations and remix projects, “in an attempt to decentralise the hierarchical structures of the music industry, particularly the distribution system”.
So after nearly 30 years, Ziad Nawfal is still doing his bit to disrupt the regular way of doing things. Moo Kid caught up with him over a few days by email, to find out what makes him tick, his life in music and his drive to keep pushing on when things look like they’re falling apart. He’s also given us a primer of albums as a stepping stone into Ruptured Records, as well as an awesome two-hour, 25-track Spotify playlist.
Your path to sharing alternative music with a wider audience began with the Ruptures show on the state broadcaster. How did you land that gig in the first place?
While still finishing high school, I worked as a part time employee in an indie record store in Beirut called Caramel Market. The store’s owners both worked at Radio Lebanon, and would often invite me to attend their shows. I learnt the tools of the trade, so to speak, from watching them work and asking them questions. Then one day Wafaa (Khochen) invited me to showcase 30 minutes of music on her own programme. I did well, I think, so much so that she convinced the director of the radio at the time to give me a full time gig.
This was in 1993. I still produce and broadcast music shows on Radio Lebanon on a weekly basis, basically five hours of new music every week. All these years later, Wafaa is still there as well, going strong in her 70s.
What was the alternative scene like in Lebanon at the time? Do you think Ruptures highlighted the underground acts who were already there, or did you hope to inspire other artists to make music, offering them a new platform?
In the late 1990s, there were a few bands and artists around, creating what could be described as alternative music. Soapkills, Leviathan, Aksser, an early incarnation of Scrambled Eggs… it was a burgeoning scene, very much dominated by less than average bands that performed mostly covers, in a cheesy rock or hard rock vein. With Ruptures, I strove hard to highlight the few indie acts that came into existence at the time, either by inviting on the show for interviews (Rayess Bek and Blend were early guests), or recording live sessions with them (Nadine Khouri) or simply playing their demos regularly.
The Ruptured Sessions is a clear homage to John Peel. How important was he in reaching you as a young music fan?
He was and remains primordial to my work ethic, an absolute necessity, and a vital influence on everything I tried to do, radio-wise. I used to listen religiously to the John Peel show whenever I could catch it, either on the AM radio broadcast of the BBC, or the FM programs which could sometimes be heard in Lebanon, all the way from the nearby island of Cyprus.
What music were you listening to when you were growing up, and was it hard to find tapes and cassettes in Lebanon before streaming and YouTube etc?
Growing up in 1980s Lebanon, I listened to new wave bands that were popular at the time, mainly Depeche Mode, Talk Talk, Yazoo, Simple Minds, Visage, Sparks, and bands of a similar ilk. My first musical “revelation”, so to speak, came in the form of the Bauhaus single ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, followed by 4AD’s incredible early productions, Cocteau Twins, Dif Juz, This Mortal Coil and Dead can Dance.
It was excessively hard to buy records and original cassettes in Lebanon while growing up there in the 80s and 90s. I would create my own mixtapes by recording songs off FM radio programs. There were quite a few of these that produced weekly alternative shows. There was a limited amount of cassettes at my disposal, however, so I would tape a few songs, listen to them ad nauseam, erase them and record new ones, and so on and so forth. The tapes were all worn out after repeated usage, and I became adept at gluing and mending decrepit magnetic ribbons, time and time again.
The name itself, Ruptures, and later Ruptured Records sounds like a real mission statement — suggesting a disruption to the status quo! Was that the reason behind the name?
Exactly that. A rupture from the commercial pop music being played all day long on all Lebanese FM radios throughout the 1990s. I also produced a second radio show in the mornings (Ruptures is my evening program, with the darker fare, so to speak), which I called ‘Decalages’. This would translate as “intervals”, or “shifts”, and in it I proposed (and still do to this day) a weekly selection of underground jazz, African and Latin music, exotica, indie folk from around the globe, and such.
There’s such a wide range of music on Ruptured, but the Sessions started with acoustic artists. Was it a conscious decision to seek out more experimental, electronic, hip-hop, industrial, drone artists etc, or did this just evolve organically?
Prior to founding Ruptured Records with Fadi Tabbal and Youmna Habbouche in 2009, the first artist I worked with and produced was my brother Jawad Nawfal, or the electronic artist who came to be known as Munma. I put together local concerts for his early, drum & bass oriented groups Ae_Quo and AEX, and later produced his first run of Munma albums for a local label called Incognito. In a way, this was the music that interested me, the music that I saw myself gravitating towards the most. True, the label has had its share of folk, pop, indie, and even hip-hop releases, but the music that moves me the most, coming out of Beirut, is experimental and leftfield electronica. I think I will always find some way back towards it, no matter how far I stray.
How do you go about working with artists? What’s the ratio of approaching acts or sifting through demos/links now that the label and the radio show is more established?
I’ve made it a point, since the beginning of the label, to not approach artists, unless there is someone I am absolutely dying to work with and release. At the risk of being crude, approaching artists would put me in the awkward position of having to pay for an advance, which is something the label was never able to afford, financially. Ruptured works from one project to another, and in the best of cases we are able to plan forward for two or three projects, but rarely more. However, being one of the only labels to actively produce, release and promote music from Lebanon, we are approached by artists and receive demos on a very regular basis.
Time In This Time is an incredible document of a community defiantly making art through an intensely difficult period in your city and country’s history, condensed by you: “Between a revolution, pandemic, devastating explosion, financial crisis, and the tests and joys in daily life. An anchor and an invitation.” How do you think this sense of community and spirit has helped the artists and citizens together?
To my mind, the sense of communion and belonging in Beirut’s “alternative” musical community is particularly strong, and firmly anchored around musician and producer Fadi Tabbal’s Tunefork Studios, as well as musician and curator Sharif Sehnaoui’s Irtijal Festival. Between these two poles, an actual support system was created in the wake of events in Lebanon in 2020, both on the financial and human levels.
With the Time In This Time project, a lot of the song titles and the snapshot photos by artists are really profound — is your work about telling and sharing stories at the end of the day?
When I asked the contributing artists to provide tracks and photos, I gave them the following brief: what has 2020 meant for you, musically and visually? Since 2020 was an absolute nightmare for us Lebanese living in Lebanon (and I guess for Lebanese living abroad as well, no one is really exempt), the resulting pieces of music and photographs reflect pretty much the inner lives of those involved.
In your music career as a broadcaster, DJ, and all-round ‘A to Z’ independent label boss, you’ve dealt with many upheavals, even outside all of the above domestic struggles — the near-collapse of the CD market, the streaming monopoly, and lately the full-stop on live music everywhere. Do you ever find the struggle too much?
Yes I do. This last year, following the Beirut port explosion of August 4th and the economic collapse of Lebanon (which effectively meant no access to my personal or the label’s funds), has been especially difficult. It’s a wonder I am still doing this at all.
A Ruptured Records primer by Ziad Nawfal
SCRAMBLED EGGS – Peace Is Overrated and War Misunderstood (2010)
My first two ventures as a music producer and label were for Lebanese punk band Scrambled Eggs and electronic solo act Munma, in 2006. This is a compilation of unreleased tracks and studio sessions from punk quartet Scrambled Eggs, which I still consider to be the most talented of Lebanese rock bands out there. Their career lasted a good 10 years, a considerable feat by Lebanon standards. Three of the musicians have moved to Europe, the lead guitarist and singer now records as a solo act. This album is a very accurate representation of their vast, if short-lived, formidable output.
MUNMA – Three Voices (2016)
Another prolific artist from Beirut, Jawad Nawfal went through different musical phases, starting out as a drum & bass producer with duos such as Ae_Quo and AEX, then moving on to dark electronica with Munma and dubstep with Index/Left. He operates under his own name nowadays and has created his own label VVVA towards the end of 2019, where he releases his very special brand of ambient, analog electronica with various contributors. This particular record marked a departure for him in 2016, as it chiefly consisted of a vocal album, with texts and poems being “sung” by various collaborators over a bed of aquatic beats and drones.
CALAMITA — Calamita (2017)
Calamita is a free-rock powerhouse trio composed of Lebanese musicians Sharif Sehnaoui and Tony Elieh (on electric guitar and bass, respectively) and Italian drummer Davide Zolli. One of the initiators of legendary Lebanese experimental festival Irtijal, Sehnaoui is famous for his numerous improv projects, including “A” Trio, BAO and Wormholes. A founding member of Lebanese indie-rock band Scrambled Eggs, Elieh is one of the most prominent musicians from Beirut’s rock scene, and currently a member of various projects including Karkhana and Electric Wormholes. Drummer Zolli is a member of famed Italian psychedelic rock collective Squadra Omega.
This line-up has recorded two albums, and Sehnaoui and Elieh are currently working on a third album with Lebanese drummer Malek Rizkallah (Who Killed Bruce Lee, Scrambled Eggs) and Egyptian singer Aya Metwalli.
INTERBELLUM — Dead Pets, Old Griefs (2018)
Interbellum is the musical project of Lebanese singer-songwriter Karl Mattar. Formed in 2015, the project sees him working alongside multi-instrumentalist and producer Fadi Tabbal and other musicians from the Beirut music scene. Prior to the creation of Interbellum, Mattar released folk albums under the moniker Charlie Rayne. He launched Interbellum in 2016, recording debut album Now Try Coughing‘s lo-fi guitar-driven songs live to cassette that same year.
Dead Pets, Old Griefs is the band’s second full-length album, and expands the band’s palette considerably, adding synthesisers, samples and electronics to the mix. The album features 10 songs that revolve around themes of memory, time, childhood, and loss. The record plays like a broken music box, its kaleidoscopic melodic songs disjointed and smeared by noise, dissonance and processed sounds.
TEDTEDTED — Cama (2020)
Teddy Tawil is a Lebanese video artist and electronic musician. Having spent the early months of the Lebanese revolution of October 2019 documenting the anger and frustration of his friends and fellow citizens, through a series of videos posted on his social platforms, he decided to take a short breather from the ongoing collapse of his home country towards the end of 2019, and travelled to Belgium to visit some friends. When this brief respite spiraled into a six-months quarantine away from home, Teddy turned to his favorite pastime: music.
Far away from home, he wrote and recorded CAMA. Marked by a distinct drum n bass/jungle sensibility, Cama depicts the instability and oddity of being a Lebanese citizen today, shouldering the weight of decades of criminal governance. It is a testament to an isolated musician’s ability to create, in what he considers to be the most cataclysmic year of his young life so far.
Future disruption — Ruptured Records in planning
SENYAWA — Alkisah
Ruptured is taking part in the global release of Indonesian art-rock duo Senyawa’s latest album, entitled Alkisah. We’ve teamed up with another indie label in Beirut, Annihaya Records, to produce a “Beirut Edition” of Alkisah, with Arabic lettering and translations. Vinyl and digital release on February 21.
SENYAWA — Alkisah Remixed [Beirut Edition]
We’ve commissioned local Lebanese artists to remix Senyawa’s Alkisah. This has resulted in some extremely unexpected reinterpretations of the album’s 10 songs, from ambient to noise to minimal techno. Digital-only release on February 21.
THE DRONE SESSIONS Vol.1
Back in October 2020, Ruptured joined forces with music collective Lumen Sound in Malmo, Sweden, to produce a series of recordings at Tunefork Studios in Beirut. In keeping with the musical ethos of Lumen, the selected musicians were invited to contribute an original “drone” recording, using the instrument(s) of their choice. The result is seven mostly electronic tracks of varying lengths, recorded live across seven impromptu duets between Lebanese (and one Egyptian) musicians. Digital-only release in March 2021.
TWO OR THE DRAGON + STELLAR BANGER
Double EP release for Lebanese experimental duo Two or the Dragon (Abed Kobeissy and Ali el Hout) + international experimental quartet Stellar Banger (Abed Kobeissy and Ali el Hout from Lebanon, Pablo Giw and Joss Turnbull from Germany). Digital-only release in April 2021.
Further along in 2021, we are planning for releases by Lebanese post-rock trio Calamita (vinyl + digital), Lebanese post-rock trio Kinematik (vinyl + digital), as well as solo albums from Lebanese experimental guitarists Charbel Haber (formerly from Scrambled Eggs) and Anthony Sahyoun, otherwise known as Mme Chandelier (both vinyl + digital).