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French Version

The world tunes in to Lebanon

Vibelebanon.com does away with national borders as online music radio takes off

Beirut's hub for quality dance music is just where you'd think it should be - down a back alley away from the lights and commercial storefronts of the main drag in Furn al-Shebbak. Here in this unimposing, off-to-the-side location lies Vibe Lebanon, a tiny studio that is home to the nation's first Internet radio station. But don't tune in if you're looking for over-produced top-40 trance anthems.

"The focus is on promoting quality music," says the founder and driving force behind the Web site and station, Beirut native Ceasar Kahwagi (aka DJ Ceasar K). "We play stuff you can't hear on the FM band."

That point is made obvious from the shows and DJs listed on the vibelebanon.com Web site that run the dance music gambit from raw to refined. "Tribal Pleasures" host George C, for example, spins a brand of Iberican House "hurled at you in an aural orgasm of drums" while the "Cosmic Shakedown" avoids the dark and deep, exploring positivity in everything from afro-beat, to nu-jazz and funk to U.K. broken beats.

"Made in France's" Ramez brings listeners hip-hop from the streets of Paris and "Uncensored" features the American ghetto humor and hip-hop selections of hosts Hatman, Boy Blunder and DJ Stickfiggr. The "Test Tube" is mellow and down-tempo, while Ceasar K's own show "ActionPack" "steps into a mayhem of breaks and filthy electro beats."

Kahwagi, 25, who first started spinning vinyl in 1995, won the Heineken Thirst DJ competition in 2004 and is currently resident DJ at Beirut clubs Lila Braun and Basement. He and two friends founded vibelebanon.com in 1998.

For those unacquainted with Internet radio it is the increasingly popular alternative to the usual analogue radio you hear in your car over FM, AM or MW bandwidths. Audio files are "streamed" over the Internet rather than over airwaves, letting you listen to audio at almost the same time it is being sent to your computer. Files and programs can also be downloaded to mp3 players allowing listening on the move at times of the listener's choosing.

Such freedom to broadcast the music he wanted to listen to, but which was unavailable on commercial radio stations, and to broadcast it around the world from a home computer, spurred Kahwagi to develop Vibe Lebanon.

"Around that time (1998) there was a new law about radio stations in Lebanon that made it difficult to get on the AM/FM bands," says Kahwagi.

Once cable hook-ups finally became available in Lebanon in 2000, vibelebanon.com was finally able to go online, though Kahwagi notes Internet connections in the country are still sub-par. (To get around the problem of skips and pauses in the signal during live stream broadcasts, all shows are archived on the site.)

"Stream goes from here to the broadcast server in the states, because there's still not enough bandwidth [to broadcast] in Lebanon," says Kahwagi.

Despite the name Vibe Lebanon, most of the some 40,000 visitors to the site this September, he admits, were from the U.S. The massive number of Internet users there means that most Web sites around the world get a disproportionate number of hits from Americans.

"We get a lot of hits from the States and people don't even know where we are - they think Lebanon is a city in another state," Kahwagi laughs.

Whoever the audience, for Hussain Mao, (aka DJ Lethal Skills) the fact that the station can be heard around the planet makes it all the more powerful.

A DJ since 1995, Mao plays a fusion of trip-hop, underground hip-hop, new school breaks and drum&bass for the show "Robotik Hour," which focuses on underground producers in the Arab world. He describes himself as trying to "plant the seed and develop the scene" by promoting the small artists.

"We have most of the biggest underground hip-hop artists coming up from Lebanon, but around the Middle East there's a lot of cats that are coming up now, but they're still underground. The problem is the lack of exposure," says Mao. "But I can definitely tell you there's a big potential, it's cooking now, it's boiling, and soon it's going to blow up, blow up big time across the Middle East."

"Vibe Lebanon was built to support underground music ... to promote our music, that's how it started, to reach out, 'cause we can't reach out with the media 'cause they don't support us," says Mao. "That's why the Internet is key, because you can reach out to the whole world."

The current Web site, which Kahwagi and his business partner Nicholas Badaro launched on August 25 this year, is revised and updated but still trying to find it's groove.

First impressions of the site can be misleading: painted in the loudly clashing colors of blue, orange, green, pink, purple and yellow, vibelebanon.com appears to be exactly the candy-raver clichŽ it is trying to avoid.

Kahwagi rather wishfully describes the site as a "dance music portal" into a world of bigger and better things.

"It's developed into more than just an internet radio station ... we want it to be a website with a lot of info," he says pointing to the menu selections for news, entertainment, movies, forums and the like.

However these options seem to be in their infancy stage: trinkets at best, slim on substance and largely outdated.

What vibelebanon.com does have, aside from the musical buffet of its resident DJs and shows, is a forum for other DJ's around the world to post their sets for listener download. The potential this adds is enticing, as a quick browse through the current line-up offers an eclectic mix of styles and DJs from countries like Jordan, Egypt, Dubai, France and Canada.

For Kahwagi, the Web site is about passion for good music, as the station makes little more than enough revenue to cover expenses, and any small profits are reinvested into the studio.

"We all do this because we love it - we're not in it for the money," he says of the 12-person staff of show hosts and Web designers. "But as we continue to grow you never know what might happen. This is just the beginning."

Beirut,11 14 2005
Spencer Osberg
The Daily Star
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