Throwing Parties in Lebanon Nearly Cost Nicole Moudaber Her Freedom

Nicole Moudaber has a complicated relationship with the media. On one hand, they're responsible for her big break. On the other hand, they got her arrested. Since entering the music scene in the Middle East in the '90s, Moudaber has been on an upward trajectory — a product of passion and commitment. The media, though, still seem to piss her off with their narratives and hyper-analysis, but she engages them nonetheless, like a reluctant adult stepping into a dentist's office to take care of an aching tooth.

"The press talks about it all the time, and they teach people the wrong message."

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Moudaber had a politically charged introduction to electronic music. The Nigerian-born Lebanese DJ began in the industry as a promoter, organizing parties around Beirut. But in the '90s, Lebanon was neither free nor progressive. "Back then, we had the Syrian government in power with their radical ideas," Moudaber says on the phone from Ibiza. "And I was a scandalous rebel," she adds, tongue in cheek.

One Halloween in 2001, she threw a party in Beirut. The type of crowd that showed up might've felt more at home at LIV. They were the type of folks the Syrian regime would call deviant. "The gays at the time took the opportunity to get dressed up for Halloween — all amazing, flamboyant outfits." And among the gays and straights were some crooked journalists snooping for a story.

"They were from the [Persian] Gulf and the regions around Beirut, with its way-radical and archaic ideas," she remembers. All seemed well at first, and Halloween appeared to be a success. But Moudaber would soon pay the price for her party. "Five months later, they took the story, published it in one of the magazine equivalents of Cosmopolitan or GQ on that side of the world, and the front page says how I'm spreading homosexuality and perversion in the city." She became a political target, and the Syrian police took her into custody. They wanted to lock her up for at least the weekend.

"Luckily, I had the best lawyers around me," Moudaber says. "I was lucky to know people who got me out a few hours later. From that point on, I decided to leave Lebanon because it was just not the place for me to promote art and culture."

Soon Moudaber was in London, where she threw a monthly party for five and a half consecutive years before purchasing a house in Ibiza. She stepped out of the London fog and into Spanish sunshine. But such bliss can last only so long. "My love for the music is strong, and I wanted to come back to the music scene — and not as a promoter."

Unlike her departure from Beirut, Moudaber's seemingly sudden rise as a DJ was the product of voluntary confinement. "I locked myself in the studio. I took lessons and got familiar with the studio. Things spiraled up from there," she says. It didn't hurt that she was incredibly well-connected throughout the electronic scene thanks to her years as a promoter. One of those connections gave Carl Cox some of her music, and the legendary DJ began playing her tracks. "From that point, he invited me out to his nights in Ibiza and worldwide." But when Cox referred to her as "the most underrated DJ" in a 2009 Q&A with DJ Mag, things really took off for Moudaber. Three years later, her remix of Cox's "Chemistry" won her the International Dance Music Award for Best Minimal/Techno Track at Miami's Winter Music Conference.

Moudaber now wears the moniker "Queen of Techno." From behind the decks, she flashes jazz hands at her fans, serenading them with deep bass and dirty synth, wearing a crown of natural curls.

The internationally renowned DJ and producer has come a long way from her Beirut rooftop parties. One might think the political context of her beginnings might inform her music. But Moudaber says that's not the case. Though she acknowledges it was politics that made her flee Beirut, she insists her songs are not motivated by that experience. She might approach life as an activist, but she keeps that side of her separate from her art. "Music should not have any label of that sort," she says, "because it's supposed to bring people together, to spread love and good vibes."

In Moudaber's mind, music is not about exposing differences but revealing similarities. It's about bringing people together on very basic grounds. "When I threw my first party in Lebanon, it was by the mosque and the cathedral, and it was after the war, in the late '90s, and I threw it there to promote love and unity. We had all walks of life come to the party — Muslims, Christians, Jews, whatever. They all came, and they all united and danced all night in that scene. This is what I promote mainly."

But the idea that politics doesn't influence Moudaber's music is hard to swallow. After all, music has been a main outlet for sociopolitical criticism probably since the first caveman banged a drum in protest of unfair mammoth-meat portions. To claim that music is meant to only unify or entertain is absurd and even ignorant.

"Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to write songs with political messages. If I want to have vocals on my tracks, it's going to be about love and good vibes because that's what you want to hear on the dance floor."

Billie Holiday? Curtis Mayfield? Bob Dylan? They packed houses and filled dance floors with politically charged tracks. They weren't the "dance" tracks of today, but they fit the popular genres of their time. Why were they any more qualified for political motivation?

"These guys were lucky because they had lyrics in their songs," Moudaber says.

But as an electronic producer, even as a minimal techno producer, Moudaber samples as well as the best of them. She has as many words at her disposal as any vocalist. Lack of lyrics isn't an excuse.

"We could deliver these messages through electronic, but I come from the dance world. This is just not a message you want to hear while you're dancing in the club. Our message is more positive. It's about love and emotions."

Point taken.

"But mind you, I will always use my platform to create more awareness about certain political and social issues. I use my platform to be involved in organizations like the Lower Eastside Girls Club in New York, helping children for a better life — children from low-income families. I teach them about arts and culture because I have the platform to do such a thing."

Asked if helping others is the artist's responsibility, Moudaber replies, "It is my responsibility. It's down to the person and personality. If you are the kind of person who likes to help without expecting anything back, you'll use that platform."

However, there is one thing Moudaber is absolutely tired of talking about. But as one of the world's most famous female DJs in a masculine field, she can't escape the questions: Where are all the female DJs? Are there obstacles to entry? Does estrogen matter in the world of EDM?

Moudaber insists it's just another false narrative. "This idea has been picked up by the press, and the press talks about it all the time, and they teach people the wrong message here. There are no obstacles. If someone wants to do a job or take a path in a career, it demands dedication, motivation, and passion.

"In the end, it's about what comes out of the speaker. It doesn't matter if the DJ has a dick or a vagina."

Breed, Moudaber's most recent EP and collaboration with vocalist Skin, sees her stepping well out of her element, engaging with vocals and a different approach to music altogether. There's a vibrant nostalgic sound to songs such as "You Like This."

"This is not what I'm known for," she says. "I usually do banging main-room tracks and deep-house music. It was hard for me to make some of it work with vocals without it sounding cheesy." In collaborating with Skin, Moudaber says she sought to challenge herself and consciously push her boundaries.

But please, whatever you do, don't ask if she's creating trends. "Artists don't follow trends. Artists do what they feel is translating their emotions at that time," she says. "Trends are created by the press."

Nicole Moudaber 11 p.m. Friday, September 18, at Trade, 1439 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-531-6666; Tickets cost $25 plus fees via Ages 21 and up.

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Dyllan Furness is Miami New Times' "foreign" correspondent. After earning a degree in philosophy from the University of Florida, he crossed the pond and dove into music, science, and technology from Berlin.
Contact: Dyllan Furness