Get To Know Etyen
The Lebanese artist at the heart of Beirut’s thriving electronic music scene
Words: Iain Akerman
“Bebe was and is my most playful release to date,” says Samer Etienne Chami, best known as the composer, producer and electronic musician Etyen. “The three songs came out of just having fun and experimenting with minimalist production and creative process.”
Etyen is on a roll. He released the dancefloor friendly EP Bebe earlier this year, composed the soundtrack for Netflix’s first Arabic original series, Jinn, and has been busy collaborating with other artists. He produced and mixed Rabih Salloum’s You Know the Days, featuring Tamara Qaddoumi, and produced Pól’s Conversation with a Stranger. No wonder Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, once referred to him as the “hottest guy on the electronic scene”.
His music is soothing and emotional, chaotic and aggressive, spanning everything from dark to hopeful. “It can make you feel like you’re underwater,” he told me. “And other times like you’re in space.”
The first time we met, Etyen was performing dark and textured tracks at Mutek in Dubai. The second was at Sofar Sounds in Beirut – a far more intimate and low-key musical experience held at The Colony, in Karantina. The two sets provided a window into the diversity of his music.
“Over the years I’ve experimented with my sound quite a lot, as I’ve always been influenced by different types of music, albeit with the same emotional through-line,” he says. “Every release since debuting in 2013 has been quite different and I think that’s just because those releases each represent a particular moment in time for me personally and musically: a particular feeling that was overshadowing all other feelings in my life at the time of creation.”
Part of Etyen’s appeal lies in his musical origins. He has travelled an evolutionary path from singer-songwriter to electronic musician, experimenting with sound design and focusing on the intricacies of music production, particularly “the role it plays in shaping compositions in the modern age”. At the heart of it all, however, lies a fascination with sound.
“When I first started producing music electronically, I was asked what it was like shifting from singing and playing guitar to using all these electronic tools to create music,” he says. “And I would always respond by saying how fascinating the potential of electronic music is. You can imagine and discover sounds that would otherwise never occur naturally. The fact that you can literally sound design through signal processing any sound that exists in the world today, as well as those never heard before, is crazy.
“From a single pure sine wave with literally just one frequency you can achieve anything by manipulating the signal. It’s a whole world of discovery and I spent many years having so much fun experimenting with random parameters and coming up with stuff that you really can’t think about beforehand.
“When I was younger, writing songs was something that happened in my head first and then I tried to bring it to life using instruments. With electronic music, you can be fiddling around with a random sound and suddenly stumble upon inspiration like never before. That fascinated me and still fascinates me today, although I’m now in a period where I’m going back to writing songs, trying to apply limitations in the creative process. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost when there are so many choices and sounds and ways to achieve things. It’s a trip down the rabbit hole that I’m becoming more conscious of with age.”
Bebe was the end result of such experimentation. The track Elephant in the Room, for example, was made entirely from acoustic sounds that were sampled and then designed into drums, synths, and everything else you hear on the track. It went on to rack up more than 100,000 streams on Spotify in the first four weeks of its release.
“From a single pure sine wave with literally just one frequency you can achieve anything by manipulating the signal. It’s a whole world of discovery”
Etyen is part of Beirut’s thriving electronic music scene. It has grown considerably over the course of the past few years, driven by a coterie of clubbers, producers, DJs and partygoers who are united by a love of music. They dance at venues such as The Grand Factory, The Gärten by Uberhaus, and The Ballroom Blitz, a three-roomed club that opened in October last year. Most are in Karantina, a semi-industrial neighbourhood in northeastern Beirut.
It was at The Ballroom Blitz that Etyen celebrated the launch of Bebe in March, before playing there again in May as part of Ballroom Blitz x Boiler Room. Yet DJing is beginning to take a backseat to his own releases, soundtracks and collaborations.
“I’m still into performing and playing dance music but I’m just getting to a place where I’m very picky and selective about where and what I want to play,” says Etyen, an alumnus of OneBeat and the Red Bull Music Academy. “With the new releases coming up I’m planning a shift in what my performance looks like, but I also feel like after two years of constantly playing music – and a lot of it in Beirut – I’m looking to spend more time in the studio finishing and releasing the plethora of stuff I’ve worked on over the years. Some of the more reflective and introspective music I’ve made rather than the dancefloor-oriented stuff I’ve been playing live and releasing in the last two years.”
Those new releases will include a full-length LP and a number of EPs, although it remains challenging for an independent artist to create music in Lebanon. It is, nevertheless, rewarding on a personal level, says Etyen, to be able to do something he loves for a living.
“It’s the really personal stuff I’ve done that has really been the driver for me artistically,” he says. “My first few EPs and the collabs I did for OneBeat, which were created from just a pure love of creating music without an afterthought or a predetermining idea of what this will be or where it will be released or how many people it will reach. These moments get scarcer with time and as you become more aware of the business side of things and how important it is to my continuity as an artist. But I’m constantly trying to achieve this state of freedom. Trying to free myself from the pressure of what people are expecting of me or what I am expecting myself. Getting rid of self-doubt and all that.”