KISS THE HAND YOU CANNOT BITE
AND IMPLORE GOD TO BREAK IT
An Interview with Koufar
In April, and in the company of his friend Sam, Alexandre Chami flew to England in order to join Iron Fist of the Sun at United Forces of Industrial III. First, they played together as Terror Cell Unit: power electronics for cultural terrorism. Then, with Sam’s assistance, Chami performed as Koufar.
Koufar is Chami’s solo project. It’s an important project that is based in the power electronics genre as well, but Koufar is about Lebanon and personal identity. It’s also about the Lebanese Kataeb Party, or the Maronite Christian Phalanges Party. Lebanon For Lebanese was an album of ruminations and stories, and it set the standard for Chami’s ideology. At United Forces of Industrial III, Chami sold As the Phoenix Rises Over Europe with songs like “At War with White Boys” and “Minority Report.” Prideful and equally pessimistic, Koufar is violently astute in composing political noise. In being so, he’s raising the intellectual banner for the power electronics genre globally and becoming one of its most important and enduring artists along the way.
Chami owns Crown Tapes, a label releasing his work, Sam’s Full Blooded, and other friends. He is also known for his work in Crown of Cerberus, Male Compliments, and Bachir Gemayel. This man is indefatigable.
Heathen Harvest: Hello, Alexandre, and thank you for accepting this interview with us. Firstly, would you relate your music to your trip to Lebanon (which was discussed in your interview with Delayed Gratification)? Have you returned since then? Do you have family there?
Alexandre Chami: I have indeed, many times. The idea for the release Haiawan was conceived while I was pacing on the deck of the U.S.S. Nashville. It was really that trip that helped me to become more aware of myself and where my family comes from. I returned in 2008 for Christmas time which was very, very nice. I do have family there. My father was the only one to leave, while the rest have chosen to stay.
HH: You are a Maronite Christian and proud supporter of the Lebanese Armed Forces. How were you introduced to the Kataeb Party and what drew you to their politics?
AC: I was introduced to the party through my own readings. I’ve had plenty of conversations with my father about the history and situation of Lebanon, which swayed me in certain directions. My father is also from Achrafieh, which was the headquarters for Bachir during the civil war. I, of course, will admit some of my biases, but the fact is I don’t agree with everything they have done. I am proud of the history and legacy, and choose to own their shortcomings. I cannot wipe away history, only come to accept it as a part of me in order to know myself better.
HH: Have you met other Maronite Christians in or around Oakland, considering the Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church is roughly thirty minutes away? Do you worship with others or on your own?
AC: I have met around three other Maronite Christians within the Bay Area. None of them are really close with me and only about one of them has showed me any respect. Of course I know of that church; I looked it up the moment I moved out here. I was going there regularly for about three weeks when the priest decided to stop me after mass one day and asked me if I was Maronite. I asked him, “Why else would I be here?” He then began to say “Well, it’s because…,” and that’s when I cut him off and told him I don’t need to prove to him how Lebanese I am. Gibran and God know it, and that’s all that matters. That was about five years ago. I haven’t been back since but have thought of giving it a second chance. For the most part, I have explored my spirituality and worshiped on my own since I have lived out here.
HH: What inspired the Bachir Gemayel project and its sound?
AC: A lot of Harsh Noise Wall that was going on at the time. I was inspired by the usual suspects at the time: the Rita, Vomir, Werewolf Jerusalem, etc. However, I decided to have Maronite civil war history be the main focus of the project. I did do a very limited release called St. Charbel, which was a tribute to the Saint. I focused on using misbaha beads solely as the sound source, and as the release went on from tape to tape, there was less and less distortion until the final side of the last tape was just the beads on the contact mic. At the end of the project, I tried harder and harder to get more of a “war-like sound” via harsh noise and, eventually, I made a shaker filled with bullets and misbaha beads. This really rounded out the project completely and ultimately would have me put it to rest as I feel like the project ran its course.
HH: Koufar’s lens is on Lebanon but also other situations in the Middle East. Though noise/power electronics has been intent on Western issues, there have been artists that are focused on the Middle East (for example and despite their differences, Herukrat and Muslimgauze). Do you have any thoughts on noise music and the Middle East?
AC: I haven’t really focused on anything else in the Middle East besides Lebanon, to be honest. I don’t feel like the rest of the region is as much of an influence for me. I have no thoughts on noise music and the Middle East. However, I respect those who attempt to do it out there because it is not easy to do.
HH: Many Americans of mixed ethnicity throughout history have called for a return to consciousness of their ethnic roots or heritage; do you see Pan-Lebanese being a possibility? Is that something you even desire? What are your thoughts on America’s support of Israel’s military and its involvement in the Middle East?
AC: Me, personally, I believe that Pan-Lebanese is completely unattainable in this life. There is too much bad blood and history between the various groups to even consider it a reality; not only that, but there is too much strife within each group as well. There are not enough words to describe how beautiful it would be if it was the case, especially with the memories I have of visiting some of the villages in the mountains. Beirut is happening and a good time, but there’s something about the mountains that fills my heart with a fire unlike anything I’ve experienced. Khalil Gibran wrote about it in a way that no other Lebanese could, and certainly painted a perfect picture of what the Lebanese/Lebanon could’ve been.
I have no thoughts on America’s support of Israel in the context of this interview because it does not apply to Koufar in any way, shape, or form. That is a subject best discussed with me over coffee and cigarettes.
HH: Can you elaborate a bit on the writings of Khalil Gibran and their importance to you? What was his perfect vision for a united Lebanon?
AC: His most important piece of work is easily The Prophet. It’s more or less a very secular take on the teachings of Jesus with even deeper insights into things that Christ never touched on. I often return to that book for guidance as well as understanding when I’m hitting a low point or feeling lost. His other most important piece of work for me would be the poem “You Have Your Lebanon and I Have My Lebanon.” In that poem, Gibran touches on the struggle between Eastern and Western values—something that has been at the heart of many of the issues of Lebanon. The title of that poem has always been important to me because it’s quite applicable to my life. I’ve been told numerous things about what I am and where I come from, and the title to that poem means everything to me. I have mine just as much as any other Lebanese person has theirs. I don’t think that I could exactly describe Gibran’s “perfect vision” for Lebanon, but I do know it would be one of peace and tranquility. It would be one of understanding and compassion while still retaining cultural practices. It would be one of love—something that Gibran always emphasized throughout his works.
HH: Do issues facing contemporary Lebanon influence you as well, or is your focus mostly a historical one?
AC: The focus for the most part has been historical, but there is only so much history that a country that isn’t even one-hundred-years old can provide. Contemporary issues will prove to be more prevalent as releases continue on. Especially with the fact that two of the main Maronite political parties (Kataeb, Lebanese Forces/Phalangists) have officially resigned from the government…
HH: Have you considered working with other Lebanese experimental musicians on a larger project before? Osman Arabi (20.SV / Seeker / Xardas / Shamanic Death Trance) comes to mind.
AC: I have, but I don’t know really where to start. Koufar touches on such specific politically/culturally charged topics that it would be difficult to find someone that could stomach it. I’ve been in touch with Osman Arabi in the past, and he is an incredibly kind-hearted soul whom I would love to meet and share a cup of Turkish coffee with inshallah. I hope that things are well with him. Haven’t spoken with him in years and can only hope that he and his family are safe.
HH: With conservative paranoia towards those of Arab descent at an all-time high in America, have you had to deal with much bigotry geared towards you or your own project? Have there been any notable difficulties at shows you’ve played?
AC: I have not, really. Even if I was 100% Lebanese, there is a good chance that I’d still have light skin like my father and would be viewed as “white” until they started talking to me and noticing that my physical features, mannerisms, etc. are not the same as theirs. Also, what most people in America don’t realize is how Arabs, especially from the Levantine area, run the color spectrum. We don’t have a “look” like most cultures. I live in a very “liberal” part of the country, so what it’s really about is the subconscious bigotry/racism. That’s a whole other conversation though for another time. No difficulties with playing shows either as I haven’t been playing locally that much lately, only really playing at festivals. That’s not to say that my subject matter hasn’t bothered people—it’s just that the complaints haven’t come from Arabs, Blacks, Mexicans, etc. Only white people tend to have issues with it.
HH: Minority Report was released on the obscure new tape label Finders recently, and features some outwardly controversial racial tracks like “Sand Nigger” and “What Are You Looking at White Boy.” You mentioned a move towards more personal subject matter with Koufar and this certainly mirrors that. Can you elaborate on the general meaning behind the tape?
AC: Minority Report was inspired by a gentleman who was extremely offended by the artwork for Lebanon for Lebanese. He went on to post on a public forum about me being a “rich kid with privilege, that had never fought in a war, never experienced anything in Lebanon, blah, blah, blah.” In turn, I decided to do a tape that was solely inspired by my own experiences as a Lebanese man growing up in America. I chose the title Minority Report because that’s what the tape stood for. It was a report on the direct world around me from the eyes of a minority. There are around three million people living in Lebanon itself and roughly eighteen million Lebanese people worldwide. That’s less than the population of most of the states in America, to give you an idea of how small of a group of people that I come from. All of this is exactly why I also chose to put my face on the front of the tape as well, with a full beard, because that’s when I look the most “Arab.” No “sketchy” symbols, no Lebanese politics—just the real me. That is something that usually isn’t seen in power electronics, so I had to seize it as mine. I had been influenced by a lot of hip-hop at the time because most hip-hop stars tell the tales of their lives, and I thought, “Why shouldn’t I do that?” I wanted to make the Illmatic of power electronics, and I feel like I accomplished that. The release is very much a welcoming and a warning. I fear not alienation because it’s something I’ve felt most of life from all sides, and I fear not pain because as Gibran wrote, “…pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” It is the most real release I have done since the Male Compliments tape in my time doing this type of music.
HH: Being half Caucasian yourself, and between the track “What Are You Looking at White Boy” and the final vocal line on the track this interview is named for, “I will never be white; Arab smile and hateful spite,” there are clearly some complex personal thoughts/emotions at work for you. How do you reconcile this internal conflict? Or does the quoted lyric say all that needs to be said?
AC: The internal conflict is an eternal war that I will always face, day by day, year by year. It’s something that I can only quell and keep in line through my own spirituality and conversations I have with God and the Saints. There is no reconciling it, really—merely understanding how to keep it in line and remain as stable as I can. The title “What Are You Looking at White Boy” is something that has gone both ways in my life. It is something I have heard from black people during high school to the present day, as well as something that I’ve said to other white people if I catch them staring at me. The quoted line is my final declaration on anyone that wants to categorize me other than Arab. I firmly stand by it and am willing to put everything on the line for it. Anyone can try me if they’d like.
HH: There’s a very specific vocal processing technique used on Lebanon for Lebanese; would you care to explain it?
AC: I use a digital recording device called the Fostex MR8 and can do the vocal processing live too. I have gone through at least eight of them in the course of the project.
HH: What attachment do you feel to the industrial/power electronics/noise scene in Oakland? I recall reading in Music We Hate that Striations names you as a roommate…
AC: I used to live with Mike Finklea of Striations, but no longer. The attachment I feel to the Industrial/power electronics/noise scene in Oakland is interesting. After having come up in Chicago, it was weird relocating to a place where people put more emphasis on their costumes and being “weird” than they put into in their presentation and delivery of sounds. It feels like people out here tend to invest in fancy equipment and just get up on stage and “jam.” Sam Torres (Terror Cell Unit, Full Blooded) and I have often joked about how these “artists” are just getting up there and mocking us. However, there are some excellent folks in this scene, as well as up-and-coming acts. 2016 is looking to be a very strong year for the Oakland scene, and I’m quite excited.
HH: Terror Cell Unit is a collaborative project, yet, how does it function in relation to Koufar? Ideologically, are they completely separate or is there a seepage of ideas?
AC: In terms of functioning, the lines between the two are almost becoming blurred. Sam has been helping out with a lot of new Koufar recordings as well as upcoming live performances. A good way of explaining our musical relationship is a lot like Ghostface Killah and Raekwon. They’re collaborative but then separate at times. We’ve also noticed that the current Terror Cell Unit and Koufar setup is exactly the same, yet we use entirely different sounds. Sometimes we’ll be in the studio playing around trying to find proper sounds, and I’ll say, “Oh, I’m gonna use this for Koufar,” but then we’ll hit a creative roadblock for Terror Cell Unit and end up putting it there. The creative process couldn’t be at a more fluid point for the both of us.
Ideologically, however, Terror Cell Unit doesn’t really relate too much to Koufar. This is because Koufar is more of how I’m viewing the world I live in and then mashing it and burying it with history, current events, familial relations, etc. Terror Cell Unit is purely into spreading Cultural Terrorism through and through. We lie to expose the truths and tell truths that will lead you to believe lies.
HH: Again, thank you for this excellent interview. To end it, what’s next for Koufar going forward?
AC: Next for Koufar is a full-length tape, Phonecianism, on Nil by Mouth, and I will begin work on the next full-length LP, Middle Eastern Promises, within the coming year. There will be another Koufar/Shift collaboration in the future too.
“Most of your pain is self-chosen.” —Khalil Gibran