“A rave in Lebanon?! How does that work?” was my initial reaction when first hearing the rumour about Kaotik System at the Middle East Teknival, a desert rave in Jordan back in 2008. It was initially meant to involve Kaotik System, a Lebanese sound system crew: a peace party of sorts in the only region where it was legally possible for all nationalities to meet – legal but not necessarily safe; much to everyone’s regret, fear of recriminations from their own government meant Kaotik had to pull out.
The brainchild of Ghayath Dakroub as part of a university project, Kaotik System was formed in 2003 and birthed the Lebanese underground rave scene. All its original members were metal fans – the first underground movement in Lebanon they had contact with. The newly-formed crew was well aware of free party culture around the world – most prominently in Europe – and many had experienced it personally, witnessing the anarchic, anti-authoritarian attitude of their European counterparts.
Kaotik knew that this kind of defiant approach in their own country would bring a swift and possibly painful death to their enterprise, especially since being the first and only rave sound system put them in the spotlight. They had to think outside the box to survive – and took the unusual path of cooperating with their government to a certain degree.
"One of the captors held a loaded AK-47 to someone’s head... pulled it away and declared, 'Only joking. When does the party start?'"
As Alec, the PR frontman of Kaotik, explained, they registered as a non-profit association with the Lebanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Finance. At the end of each year, they had to send in a report about their activities. "Maybe as individuals we might not like cops to be around us, but as an association we have to put aside our personal views and be smarter than our emotions," they reasoned. Despite this, their name, Kaotik System, is a sly dig at the political state of the country.
In 2003, the first ever Lebanese rave took place with a young Kaotik crew; it started off as "just a night out in the woods with some friends" with a small generator, two monitors and turntables. During the set-up, excited anticipation turned to shock when local men emerged from the bushes bearing Kalashnikovs and machetes. After a terrifying hour of being held hostage on their knees and told they would be killed, one of the captors held a loaded AK-47 to someone’s head and, after a heart-stopping pause, pulled it away, smiling and declared, “Only joking. When does the party start?”
“As the small gathering went on, some people started to show up that we didn’t invite,” Alec remembers. “Suddenly we had 15 to 20 people dancing in the woods to hardcore tunes. After the music stopped, we looked at each other and said ‘was that a free party?’ The idea has picked up ever since and we started scouting for new locations.”
Keeping promotion to a bare minimum on a word of mouth network, Kaotik continued to throw successful paid events with cutting edge underground electronic music, gradually converting commercial techno fans to their love of hardcore and breakcore.Kaotik’s following grew from 15 to 1000.
Last year, Kaotik announced their official split. Like every good collaboration, the Kaotik crew matured and took different paths. “We took that decision, to save our friendships,” Alec explained.“Everyone had to go on with their lives.” But nobody was happy with the way it had fizzled out. After a chance meeting a few months ago, they decided to go out with a bang: The Final Chapter, a ten-year anniversary-meets-Halloween-meets-farewell party. Within days, flyers and mysterious QR barcodes popped up all over Beirut, directing lost ravers to the location: a country club in Baissour, 30km south of Beirut in the mountains.
"For ten years they provided a refuge for the rebellious and unconventional youth of Lebanon"
After getting the call I’d been waiting for: “Mac the Moll, get your records on!” - I arrived in time to join the crew for the last weekend of preparing the site. The rest of the weekend went by in a flash. The place filled up with 300 punters representing the full spectrum of the melting pot of mixed backgrounds and faiths. Crew and DJs arrived from Belgium, France and Qatar, smashing out hardcore, breakcore, techno, mashed-up rave, gabber, jungle and dub and more breakcore. Every member of the Kaotik crew could be found grinning from ear to ear and dancing his or her heart out.
What now? Those left in Lebanon are wondering if anyone will fill the vacuum now that Kaotik have hung up their raving shoes. For ten years, they provided a refuge for the rebellious and unconventional youth of Lebanon. Adi, a member of Acousmatik, a now-inactive sound system inspired by Kaotik, explained that the main problem in maintaining the group was the same affecting Lebanon: young people are leaving. The political state of the country is too unstable. Alternative subcultures are regularly demonised in the press and often harassed in shocking ways. People are torn between staying in their homeland and struggling against the system or starting new lives elsewhere. Some of the KS crew already live abroad and returned especially for the rave.
As one fan-turned-producer sums up: "Kaotik System had not only remodeled the music scene/culture in Lebanon, their work had also changed people's lives. For some, it even gave it a new purpose, a new definition, an alternative perspective. Thank you, each and every one of you, for all the sweat and blood, pain and hard times, joy and pleasure, efforts and hard work you put to make us what we are today. Your legacy is to live in us forever."
Follow Molly Macindoe on Twitter here @mollymacindoe