The crazy rise of Arabic vinyl

“Two dollars each if you take the whole lot. Ten dollars each if you want only a few,” says the owner of an old music store in the north-eastern suburbs of Beirut. There are five or six thousand records, not including 45s, which are stored out back in another room. Just five minutes earlier I had been drinking tea under the shade of a ficus tree waiting for the store to open.

Of the two upstairs rooms, the first is lined with English, Italian and French LPs. There are crates arranged neatly in rows, while black, white and yellow bin liners are crammed into metal shelving units along the back wall. There is an old amplifier and an array of boxes and a flower pot shoved into one corner.

In contrast, the rear room is dark and dusty. Its ceiling is low and a single light bulb dangles by its cord from a rusting nail. Shelves of varying width and design occupy two-thirds of the room and are packed tightly with recordable compact disks and old TDK tapes. A narrow horizontal window lets in light but there is little ventilation.

At the far end, however, is what I hoped I would find: a thousand or so Arabic LPs stored alongside boxes of 7in singles. The majority are protected by darkened or decaying plastic sleeves, although the condition of each album varies significantly. Many of the covers are torn or frayed and some are missing their inner sleeves, yet the vinyl itself is uniformly well maintained. There are occasional blemishes or light scratches and most require cleaning, but the damaging effect of dust and heat has been contained.

Sprinkled amongst them are the records of Egyptian guitarist Omar Khorshid, the man responsible for introducing electric guitar to Arabic music in the late 60s, and the blind organist Omar El Shariyi, whose albums have soared in value since they were featured on the Habibi Funk mixes of Jakarta Records last year.

There’s a rare copy of Ziad Rahbani’s Bil Afrah, released by Philips in 1977, and the musical play Bennesbeh Labokra, Chou?, produced as a gatefold release on the Beirut-based Zida label in 1978. There’s also a mint copy of Warda’s Esmaouni, composed by Baligh Hamdi, and Elias Rahbani’s Mosaic of the Orient.

It takes three hours to sift through most of them. Missing are the records of Egyptian organist and composer Hani Mehanna, who was imprisoned for fraud in 2014 but produced trippy mid-tempo masterpieces such as Walad W Bent throughout the early to mid-70s. There’s no sign either of Abdou El Omari, a former Moroccan hairdresser who experimented with the fusion of traditional melody, jazz and early electronica. A copy of his album Nuits d’Ete will set you back in excess of $500.

Such valuations are increasingly prevalent. Ziad Rahbani’s Abu Ali, a perennial favourite, now has a price tag of $1,000. El Shariyi’s Music From The East is valued at $400. The work of Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band will give you little change from $800. Even albums that are not particularly rare have witnessed a sizeable jump in value.

The steep rise in prices is indicative of a surge in interest in Arabic music. What has caused that increase is unclear. But if you take into account the rise in sampling, an increase in the number of re-issues, the online success of Habibi Funk, and the central nature of the Middle East in news feeds, the surge begins to make some sense.

“I think there were titles that even back then people were after,” says Habibi Funk’s Jannis Stürtz. “Ziad Rahbani’s Abu Ali, Elias Rahbani’s Mosaic of the Orient. Stuff like that. But in general people who are into old music on vinyl always look for something they don’t know yet, and I guess a lot of people didn’t know much about Arabic music. The same way a lot of people didn’t know too much about Ethiopian or Thai music 10 years ago.”

Stürtz recently DJ’d and collaborated with Ernesto Chahoud, co-founder of the Beirut Groove Collective and one of the Levant’s most charismatic DJs. A storm cloud of eccentricity, Chahoud has amassed a huge collection of records over the course of the past 20 years. At Radio Beirut, Yukunkun, and now at The Back Door in Mar Mikhael, his nights have focussed on deep funk, northern soul, R&B, jazz and Ethiopian dance floor 45s, but he has also made a name for himself as a connoisseur of belly dance disco and Arabic groove despite having no real love of the genre.

In the predominantly Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud, he has taken over his grandfather’s shoemaker’s shop and sells doubles and other items at Darsko Records. Barely wider than the span of my arms, it’s hard to imagine the shop as a going concern. The last time I was there Chahoud and I spent four hours drinking whisky and coffee, listening to Fairuz and killing time. Not one customer came in; only the shopkeeper opposite who popped across to sing along to Sabah’s Alo Beirut.

“Five years ago I had a compilation of belly dance disco ready to go,” says Chahoud. “We (Neil Andrew, Natalie Shooter and myself) got in touch with every single label, but no one reacted to it at all. Some never even got back to us. Maybe we were a bit early, maybe it’s because I’m an Arab. I’ve no idea. Or maybe because the music industry is like this – tasteless idiots only after something when it is hip.”

Now, however, things have changed. Chahoud’s online mix Middle Eastern Heavens II, which was recorded for Stürtz’s Jakarta Radio, was named mix of the year by The Guardian’s Middle East playlist in December, although Chahoud appears more focussed on the sounds of Ethiopia and Eritrea than that of the Levant or the Maghreb.

“I never liked Arabic records. But I thought what we had was very interesting and fresh. Loads of strings and percussion to sample and nice exotic melodies, great sounding guitars with the quarter note. All this made it very exciting for the European audience. After all, people always want something new, no matter if it is good or bad. But honestly, this increase in demand is incredibly mad.”

I first met Chahoud (pictured below) three years ago in Radio Beirut. It was prior to the opening of Darsko and he took me to King’s in Bourj Hammoud’s Trad Street, run and owned by a man known simply as ‘King’. I remember the visit well because he pointed me in the direction of a copy of Fairuz’s Ya Mariam El Bekr, a Christian hymn released on Voix De L’Orient, a label founded by Abdallah Chahine in the mid-50s. The label’s parent company, A. Chahine & Fils – which now goes by the name of Chahine s.a.l – still operates a store in Achrafieh’s George Zeidan Street.

Not far from Darsko is a compact store run by Daniel Der Sahakian, the producer behind Lebanese label Voice of Stars, which released much of the work of Ihsan Al-Munzer in the late 70s and early 80s. Sahakian sells his own wares – cassette tapes and the belly dance disco classics for which his label is renowned – amid power cuts and the dust of a late summer sandstorm.

Fewer and fewer of the records fetching serious money can be found on the streets and in the flea markets of Beirut, their prevalence decreasing as interest soars. A new wave of dealers in Beirut (including Chico in Hamra) and Cairo have sprung up, as have buyers, even those who laughed when you mentioned old Arabic vinyl two or three years ago and viewed them as worthless. In Basta and further north in Dawra deals can be found; in Cairo, Casablanca and Tunis too if you know where to look, with French record dealer and collector Victor Kiswell recently trawling Cairo and Beirut as part of his Vinyl Bazaar documentary series.


“You probably know how it works,” says Kiswell. “A collector thinks he knows enough to put what he thinks is the best music from a part of the world on a compilation, then the whole planet can discover it. And when a region is discovered – when it’s good enough – one can go deeper or pass on to the next. Ethiopian music was discovered and dug deeper, as well as Nigerian, a long time ago. Then South African, then Ghanian, then Senegalese, Malian, Angolan etc. Same thing in South East Asia. People first heard Thai funk, then Vietnamese and Cambodian groove. The groove from everywhere had been discovered, except from the Arab world.

“Funny thing is, it started in France. I started selling Arabic records seriously a little less than eight years ago. Selling Soutelphan, Sono Cairo, Voix De L’Orient or Voice of Stars records to hard collectors or open-minded DJs. Then the Arab Spring occurred and a bunch of guys from Paris started mixing techno with modern Oriental vibes, surfing on Omar Souleyman’s wave. They were Acid Arab, and were in need of solid Arabic material, so I helped them a lot, providing uncompiled, unrevealed music from the Maghreb and the Middle East. What was underground suddenly became worldwide. A lot of people had access to something they could not imagine. New DJs came in, newbie collectors, and wise dealers opened an ‘Oriental’ section. Before that, I must say, there was only Ernesto trying to do the job seriously. He had the taste and his position in Beirut allowed him to be connected to foreign DJs and collectors.”

“It’s hard to find anything now, specially in Lebanon and Egypt,” adds Chahoud. “I remember five years ago I went to Cairo to look for a few records, including the Salah Ragab record. Back then it was still affordable. Now they will ask crazy money even for records that are not even rare. Even a bad record like Abu Ali, which sounds like Euro disco and had 1,000 copies pressed, will cost $1,000. Which is crazy. One thousand copies is not rare man.”

The first place I searched was Souk Al Ahad, a madhouse flea market held beneath a motorway flyover in Sin el Fil. An assault on the senses, it was in many ways a microcosm of the city. Loud, incessant, chaotic and bizarre, people’s lives were littered across its cramped and disheveled floor in increasing density. Old letters, photographs, cracked and faded paintings, telephones without cords, bells that didn’t ring, faded postcards and the detritus of life lay for sale alongside chickens, canaries and the kind of plastic tat China produces without end. Stallholders sold sweets and nuts and corn on the cob. There were shoes everywhere. Shoes and clothes. There was even a man operating a single sewing machine to great demand as crowds of men swarmed past.

In the midst of this was Naji, a chatty and downtrodden stall-holder whose 45s were stored in tatty plastic bags. His stall had everything you didn’t need. Playing cards, religious icons, clocks, pocket watches, coins, gramophones, battered cameras and the occasional vintage movie poster. It was where I found a copy of Abdel Halim Hafez’s Mawood, a 56-minute masterpiece composed by Hamdi, and Fairuz’s Aatini al Nay, which, although musically in near mint condition, had a crack running alongside the part of the vinyl nearest to the label.

Naji is still there, although Souk Al Ahad has changed. The chaos under the flyover has made way for a car park and the market is now more ordered and regimented, although it remains strangely addictive.

“My mother used to listen to rai when I was a teen,” says Kiswell. “And of course I knew about singers such as Oum Kalthoum, Fairuz or Abdel Halim. I mean, when I was young, believe it or not, in France we could hear David Bowie on the radio, but also Can or Fela Kuti or Fairuz or Mahmoud Ahmed. We had access to all that. Mosaic of the Orient by Elias Rahbani and This Is Orient by Hassan Abou Seoud, two very groovy Lebanese albums, were the first ones I bought. All these discs were released for the Lebanese and Armenian diasporas established in France. So in the 90’s they all were in second-hand shops or in flea markets and they cost nothing. That’s how it started for me. I found many interesting albums at the time no one really cared about. Egyptian jazz, disco and electro belly dance, proto rai. I remember I found that Ahmed Malek double album for less than €15 10 years ago. Or Ziad’s Abu Ali for $10. It seems unbelievable today. So I was lucky to be alone in the field. The music was jazzy, groovy, uncommon, exotic, rare and affordable. And no one was offering it. So I took that place.”

In the middle of a boom dealers often receive flack. There are those who love the music they sell, and those who simply follow trends and try to sell everything in order to make money. Only those collectors or vinyl enthusiasts who dig on the ground are likely to find whatever bargains remain.

“I think these stories about prices are sometimes a bit exaggerated,” admits Stürtz. “There was this story about records from Lebanon and it mentioned a record by a band called Ferkat Al-Ard whose album once sold for $1,000. What the article didn’t mention was the fact that it usually sells for $150 and the one sale was a highly suspicious Discogs sale nobody really can explain.

“Sure, there are records which do sell for a lot but it’s a fairly limited amount of titles that will catch three-figure sums. And it’s not like people in the region don’t know anything about the value of certain titles. I bought my copy of the Cairo Jazz Ensemble LP in Cairo for $200, which is a lot cheaper than on eBay but it’s not like you find these titles for peanuts locally either. I’m not a record dealer, so I can’t tell for certain, but I doubt you get rich selling old vinyl. When people see a record that sells for $200 they underestimate how long it took to find it, the costs of travel and so forth. I’m trying to be fair, especially when I sometimes buy from musicians. But offering more than what you’re being asked to pay is quite often not appreciated either.”

Are you partly responsible for the increase in popularity?

“I guess I do contribute, yes,” replies Stürtz. “Luckily my mixes always reach a lot of people so it makes sense that records which are featured in them – and are at this point very obscure – end up on the radar of more people.”

Will the interest fade?

“With every music there is a certain hype and then it usually boils down a bit. But I don’t think interest in Arabic music will fade though. Why should it?”

* A version of this article first appeared in Emirates Man, July 2016

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