Written by R. K.
Photographed: Nadine Beyrouti and Xara Naber
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
Note: This piece was conducted before the Beirut explosion on 4 August 2020.
You’re standing on the shore, the afternoon sun is warm on your skin, and you’re swaying to a smooth down-tempo beat that has enchanted everyone around you. You feel a connection with the DJ. You feel a sense of trust in her as she builds pulsating beats, creating an almost unbearable tension that keeps rising, until finally, the beat drops and you are released. It’s like the sea’s tide coming in behind you, crashing over and over again. This is the experience that Beirut-based DJ Elshaar (Shaar here meaning hair in Arabic), Carol Abi Ghanem, 28, creates for listeners. It is an experience that is all encompassing and leaves the audience with a sense of catharsis that eases the tension of everyday life.
I interviewed Carol via Facetime. She was in Beirut and the whole world was quarantined and feeling uncertain, which immediately got us talking about how post-revolt Lebanon is facing the situation. She shared that “People are now worried that the acting government is enjoying this break in momentum as people are all stuck inside and not protesting in the streets. There is also a concern that they might take advantage of the situation by declaring themselves legitimate for the very little support they are providing during the quarantine.”
She noted that even before the upheaval and revolution, resources and supplies in Lebanon were scarce. Now, with the Coronavirus scare and resulting quarantine, supplies are even harder to come by. In an attempt to fill this gap, ordinary people are trying to organize to assist each other with whatever they can, including paying rent, providing medication, giving cab rides free of charge. Carol shared that she is deeply attached to and passionate about standing in solidarity with the people of her country, regularly attending protests and like many, doing what she can. This drive and deep-rooted relationship to the people of Lebanon continues to guide her creative and artistic pursuits.
Carol, who has been active as a DJ for almost a decade, reminisced about her experience playing in Lebanon, and about the time, practice, and commitment it took to get to where she is now. She started DJing by chance, largely because she became frustrated with the same repetitive playlists that would play at the bars and lounges when she was studying at American University of Beirut. Once she got to know the DJs and the people would frequently attend, she would critique them openly for their music choices. One day they just asked her to create playlists for them herself, and soon enough Carol was curating playlists for small pubs and house parties and started her career as a, as she calls it, “laptop DJ.” After taking some time to visit Berlin, enhance her skills with savvier equipment, Carol is now a professional DJ playing at clubs and large events in Lebanon. She has developed a strong need to play music that she feels is true to her voice, rather than ceding to the trends.
“When i went into the scene, I was shocked to see the same hegemonic structures and dynamics applied in an art and music field that I thought would be rid of it”
Unfortunately, Carol was shocked to find some prejudice within the DJing community which she thought had been a safe space. Because of gender, she had to go to unfair lengths to prove her dedication. “When i went into the scene, i was shocked to see the same hegemonic structures and dynamics applied in an art and music field that I thought would be rid of it” she shares. Carol was faced with having to decide what kind of DJ she wanted to be, she felt pressure to capitalize on being a “female DJ,” but instead she preferred to be laid back and focus on her music and claim her own identity.
She chose the name Elshaar because her hair came to represent her physical identity. “For many years people would identify my hair amongst a crowd, and they would pet it or ask to touch it as a way to show kindness and curiosity. During the protests as well, we would use code names for anonymity, and Elshaar was the term people would use to call out to me in a crowd.” Despite some of the challenges, Carol thinks fondly of the nightlife scene in Lebanon, how there are wonderful people who stand in solidarity with each other, and how they use music to resist social and political oppression.
Elshaar is very intentional about the genres she plays. Carol explained that electronic and techno music is a form of audio experience that relies on the cycle of building tension and release. It presents a high that is both euphoric and unifying, a combination that many find addictive. It is not meant to be a solitary experience; it is better felt within a crowd that is collectively transported through an oscillating journey. “The music sounds sweeter when it’s being absorbed by different personalities and communicated with the same language of emotions, body movement, and facial expressions.” Carol shares. It is an addictive high and a healthy expression of an individual, or a community, that needs to release tension.
Carol is invested in producing this experience for people, explaining that she has an intense relationship with the audience while performing. She listens and moves and sways with them, as if flirting. She observes them, reads their reactions and takes them on a journey accordingly. Ideally, she can build a trusting relationship between herself and them. She shared that “it is a gratifying experience seeing someone in the audience feel moved by the music, physically and emotionally.” Carol has experience in theatre, which is perhaps comparable in the element of performance, but also significantly different. When acting on stage, the actor projects their performance out into the audience, but as a DJ, there is an intense interaction with and feeding off of the audience’s energy.
Recently, Carol has become interested in producing music, and is now creating original tracks to play during her sets. She is particularly interested in adding spoken word vocals of her own writing and poetry. Carol is even producing an exclusive track for My.Kali Magazine, using quotations by artists and activists that have been published. She is currently working on an EP, as well as a music collective, TechnoWHob, which aims to party for a cause. The collective brings people together to support a variety of causes, fundraisers, and events that are more like a community experience rather than a simple party. As if all of this weren’t enough, Carol is also working as head of strategy at a digital marketing studio she co-founded, KafNoon Studio, and as a research manager and Social Psychologist at a Lebanese based think-tank
Though it might not be obvious initially, Carol’s pursuits are all intertwined and connected to the people of her country and community: she is working to bring the people of Lebanon together and help build unity and support during a time in which people are facing uncertainty at every turn. For now, we will just have to think of standing on a beach and being immersed in Carol’s music, swaying to her dreamy and smooth beats, knowing that in that moment we can rest in good hands.
Rapid Fire Round
Favorite nightclub you’ve been to?
Recently, it’s Sisyphus in Berlin.
Who is your dream music collaboration?
Not a collaboration but I would like to produce music for feature films or for visual projects.
What is your dream music performance? Where/when/setting?
An extended hybrid set with a live performance, indoors or outdoors, in a small to medium-sized club or festival in the summertime.
Milan Kundera amongst others.
One of my favorites is “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee.