The dark knight of Nowheristan

Elefteriades: “The one identity that should prevail should be Nowheristani.”

BEIRUT: Michel Elefteriades is one of the more colorful figures on Lebanon’s cultural landscape. The self-crowned “Emperor of Nowheristan” is best known as the impresario behind Beirut’s Music Hall.

This Wadi Abu Jamil cinema-cum-nightclub lures both the refined aficionados of Karim Ghattas’ LibanJazz concert series and the raucous popular audiences of Elefteriades’ regular stable of locally based acts. Since launching Music Hall in 2003, he has begun to franchise the brand, opening a branch in Dubai.

Before he came to Music Hall, Elefteriades made a name for himself late last century by founding and directing the Mediterraneo Byblos International Festival, the forerunner to today’s Byblos International Festival. A strong advocate of “fusion” music, he has also hosted a successful fusion music program on MBC 1.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Elefteriades chatted with The Daily Star at his Utopia Now! private lounge about his work on the cultural front and the political and philosophical notions framing it.

Q: Music venues come and go with startling frequency in Beirut. How would you explain the success of Music Hall?

A: I opened a place where I would be presenting what I know how to do best ... live music ... We are specialists in that ... I have a team that has been working with me for almost 20 years now and that is very specialized in staging, ... sound engineering [and] lighting.

I also work a lot on the repertoire. I do the arrangements of most of the bands myself. We change the acts very often, and even the changing of the act is subject to evaluation of how long [it] should go on.

For example, the Chehade Brothers have been performing in Music Hall since it opened, [while other] acts last two, three weeks, maximum one month ... As long as the people are asking for it, the band will be on stage ... You will never know how good a band is as long as you haven’t seen it with an audience.

Q: Why do you insist in the arranging the programs personally?

A: That’s my style. Before being the owner of the Music Hall, I was known as a composer and arranger ... A lot of people come to see my touch at Music Hall ... If it’s a Cuban band ... I will not interfere. I would never be as good in arranging a Cuban song as my Cuban pianist. But when it comes to fusion that is where I interfere. Most of the acts are based on fusion ...

My dream is to expand [Music Hall] to Europe. I came back from London where we were presenting shows, acts for different [Olympic] delegations. We were contracted for a period of 15 days where we gave numerous concerts to delegations ... When I see the response of Western audiences – because we do a lot of shows in Spain, France, Italy and Germany – I say [to myself] this concept could work very well in Europe.

There are some frustrations here that I will be able to [forget] in Europe. I would like to do some revolutionary, Italian anti-fascist songs or French realist songs of the 1920s, that would not be appealing [in Lebanon]. I will do things appropriate to here, and over there I’ll do other things ... It has to be the same spirit, colors, logos and touch, but there are things to be done in Dubai that would not work here.

Q: In a previous interview you said that during the Civil War you were tortured, apparently for your political activities. How important was that episode in your later life?

A: I’m always working on evolving ... The main thing nowadays in all fields is innovation. From torture I learned that when you have a huge stress – and torture is maybe the biggest amount of stress one can have – you have to disconnect and say [to yourself] that sooner or later it will end.

Even when there is a big catastrophe in business or any field, if you stay here physically and in your mind and if you feel every second of it, you’ll suffer much more than trying to disconnect and escape from it. I developed this while being tortured.

When I joined the Army, I learned that rigor is very important ... A musician who has no rigor would go nowhere. He doesn’t need to be as disciplined as a soldier but there is a minimum. I prefer a musician who has discipline and not much talent to a musician with a huge talent and no discipline.

You don’t get rigor overnight. You have to work every day on acquiring it. And this is how I started working with my team here. Every day I push into more rigor ... It is in everything.

Q: What is Nowheristan? Is it a utopian concept like that of Sir Thomas More?

A: Evolution, as Oscar Wilde used to say, is nothing but the realization of utopias, so everything great in humanity, every big achievement, started [as] a utopia. I think that even the first step toward civilization was when the nomads decided to settle.

So it was probably the idea of a guy who didn’t want to move anymore, looking for the animals and for fruits, [who said,] “I’m going to stay in one place, breed the animals and cultivate vegetables and fruits.”

Nowheristan is now a utopia ... I don’t have a land yet but I am not interested in having a small piece of land and naming it Nowheristan. It is an ideology, a project that has an economical side, a social and philosophical side. It’s a solution for a lot of problems in different fields.

When I called Nowheristan an empire, it is just because I read somewhere as a kid that only an empire can cause the fall of another empire. It is the time to have an empire – that is a human one – where dominance would not be for a race, a religion or geographical region, but for elite of all human kinds coming from different places and religions where they put their efforts together and energy to rule the world in a good way. It is not up to politicians to rule the world. It’s up to people.

Due to globalization ... we can be citizens from nowhere and everywhere. Time has come to belong to one mega-identity that encompasses multiple identities. We are Nowheristanis, Asian, and Arabs from Lebanon. But the one identity that should prevail should be Nowheristani.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 15, 2012, on page 16.




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