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Bahrain Nightlife Snuffed Out For Now (interview)

Reported by JontySkrufff on April 16, 2011

(Picture; Karim Miknas)

“I don't fear not being able to go back to Bahrain, but at this point I have to think of which business I DON’T need to close. There are tons of parallels between Bahrain and Beirut. Of course.” 

Growing up in the once prosperous ‘Mediterranean of the East’ Lebanese capital of Beirut, Bahrain club club Karim Miknas admits he’s more than a little concerned about the implications of the protests and the subsequent violence that have recently engulfed Bahrain. Six people died and hundreds were seriously injured as authorities backed by Saudi soldiers crushed protestors centred around Manama, the district where several of Karim’s clubs were based.

Chatting to Skrufff from Dubai (where he’s recently installed his family following Bahrain’s ongoing state of emergency) he’s candid about the implications of the upheaval.

“We had a division down confessional/sectarian lines in Lebanon and people were killed because of the religion written on their ID cards in the early part of the civil war,” he recalls.

 “The same thing sort of thing has happened recently in Bahrain: though on a much smaller level so far,” he warns, “Though it could happen in any society that isn't homogenous. And that’s pretty much all societies.”

“Our flaw as humans is that we always go back to our tribal belonging, it's something very primitive but it's where we feel safe,” he muses, “I can't think of a single nation that couldn't be divided in that way. We all have to learn to tolerate our differences and once we can step beyond that we need to celebrate those differences. 

Brings to mind the Groove Armada song, "if everybody looked the same, we'd get tired of looking at each other..."  If we were all the same it would be a very bland world indeed.” 

Spending his teens in both Bahrain and the States, Karim started DJing and throwing parties in the tiny Middle East State in 1995, in 1999 opening the region’s first underground club Likwid. Bringing the likes of Derrick May and Marc Romboy to Bahrain followed by the likes of Hed Kandi at his next venue BJ’s Nightclub, he went on to build a mini-empire involving beach clubs and restaurants. 

Consolidating operations in recent years, he returned to high profile nightlife with the launch of his new club Karma in November 2010, plus an extensive programme of parties to coincide with Bahrain’s Formula 1, before the race was cancelled as the protests spiralled out of control.

“I had four major events planned for the Formula 1 weekend and it was going to be incredible, from the Red Bull Night Race featuring Spirit catcher and Jade from Beirut to the PUMA Social with the Freestylers, F1 Rocks with Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode and Hed Kandi's Circa Balearica,” said Karim.

“But the minute we heard the Formula 1 race was postponed that was it, we called all our partners and everyone was more than understanding.  F1 and the whole weekend that goes with it is a huge thing in Bahrain and a time when we celebrate, so when things turned nasty we knew there was no way any of it could continue. In the end Formula 1 was a financial disaster and a huge PR fiasco.”

The unexpected blow came several years after he’d closed nightspots including Likwid, Level and BJ’s and pulled out of disco-bar Club Seven, 

“The pressures from the local authorities just made life a misery plus my partners thought they could do better (they didn't),” he chuckles drily.

“We became a sound system from there and went mobile but the hassle was too much and ultimately I missed having a home base. So, Likwid Productions got back into venue development.  

I named the lounge next to the pool at the Coral Beach Club, Karma and installed a huge part of the Turbosound rig from the defunct BJ's into it with a very slow and long term plan of developing it into a DJ based venue (a lounge, bar, café and party venue all rolled into one). 

We were to launch in March 2010...  I also took over the old BJ's, annexed it to the pub next door (JJ's) and turned the upstairs into a pub sports lounge (pool, darts, live sports in screens) and the lower level into a live auditorium.  

We launched in November 2010 and the plan was to build it up through 2011.  We had the original Commitments for an Irish Festival weekend closely followed by (yes) Republica, then a NYE gig with Hed Kandi, followed by a Likwid reunion with Marc Romboy; so lots of diversity and we really thought we were on the way up.  Alas, political turmoil resulted in social depression, I personally don't see the point of doing events at this time.”

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): You and your family are in Dubai: when did you decide to leave?

Karim Miknas: “I've been working between Bahrain and Dubai for the last 5 months or so. I was in Dubai and slated to be there during the Valentine's weekend when demonstrations were scheduled, so I told my wife Lamees to grab our daughter Lila and join me in Dubai and wait it out. We went back a few times but our apartment is smack in the middle of where the Pearl Roundabout once stood and we're staying in Dubai until the military curfew is lifted.”

Skrufff: Did you experience any moments of danger; from protestors or police?

Karim Miknas: “None at all, from any side. Some angry glances sure, but no aggression. I've been living in Bahrain longer than most of the demonstrators so I'm not too easily shaken. I know people who lost family and my heart goes out to them.  We are, or at least were, a society of really progressive thinkers when it comes to the Arabian side of the Gulf. There is so much intermarriage and so much influence from the outside and yet there is a definite feeling of what it is to be Bahraini and everything we did was always with a special local flavour to it.  

One night that sticks in mind, though, I walked amongst the protesters at the Pearl, talking, arguing, drinking tea with them and an hour later found myself in a full-on raging party at a restaurant on the other side of town; it was weeeeeeeird and I felt so strange at a party when there were major protests going on. Needless to say, a friend who lives in my building told me not to come home that night and I ended up squatting at a friend’s (who was out of town) house. That was my first night as a "refugee".”

Skrufff: What are the implications of these protests for nightlife in Bahrain: and the wider region?

Karim Miknas: “Well, Dubai is unaffected. At the time of writing this both Sasha and Dave Seaman have gigs this Thursday in Dubai and supposedly Faithless perform together for the very last time on the following day at Nasimi Beach. Qatar is still rocking and I will be there on Thursday hosting Jazzie B in an info session and performance on behalf of the Red Bull Music Academy.  Oman is teetering on the edge and Bahrain nightlife is totally flat, flatter than ever.  Nothing is happening.

The rest of the Gulf was never active anyway (at least officially). Syria, where a scene was really coming up, is going through major protests.  We're hoping Jordan doesn't face the same because the scene there really seems to be emerging.  Egypt has a lot of promise. I’m not sure about the rest of North Africa.  Lebanon has tremendous hope and potential but the scene is small and very political; maybe that's a place for me to establish something TRULY underground . . . I don't know.”

Skrufff: You were in Beirut for the Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp for Middle East music heads, how much was the event over-shadowed by all the upheaval in the region?

Karim Miknas: “The political situation was certainly a topic but it by no means overshadowed the point of the Bass Camp.  Everyone was there to network and get musical with each other.  We had a fabulous lecture with Dr. Peter Zinovieff, the man was a delight to listen to. There was also of course the great Jazzie B of Soul II Soul and Toufic Faroukh, a local musician and producer and a true inspiration to all. “

Skrufff: Were attendances affected?

Karim Miknas: “Everyone that was invited, attended.  We had people from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran. The political upheaval didn't affect the agenda but it was on everyone's mind and I'm sure it made it into the creative process in some way.  In Lebanon on the Sunday there were 4 or 5 different demonstrations, all peaceful and each one calling for something else.”

Skrufff: How much do you believe music and/ or club culture can play a role in these protests? (whether bringing people together? or politicising others?)

Karim Miknas: “I believe music, and club culture in particular, definitely has the potential to bring people together in the long term because it forces people together from different groups. Take Lebanon and specifically its capitol Beirut; it has become synonymous with being a party place again and that’s because of the soul people put into their partying.  People of all ages, races, religious backgrounds, political persuasions go out and party together and it breaks down the barriers that may have once been there.  Arabs from all over the region flock to Beirut's open minded nightlife and party scene to let loose themselves and its testament to the spirit of that scene (as commercial as it may be at this time).”

Skrufff: What happened with Jazzie B: how late in the day was it cancelled?

Karim Miknas: “We all felt that it wouldn't be right to put on a performance at a time when Bahrain was hurting. I spoke to Jazzie about it in Beirut and we both agreed that after a proper and a real healing, that only then would a celebration really mean anything. We even ended up cancelling the speaking

session because so many of our local artists were distracted from their music by the more urgent matter of their nation's situation. 

As a result Red Bull decided to have me host the info session in Doha and at the time of writing this it takes place tomorrow with a performance by Jazzie B later at night. We made sure to contact all our Bahraini artists and let them know they were welcome to attend in Doha and reminded them all about the application for the 2011 Academy. 

Skrufff: Anything else to add?

Karim Miknas: “Our scene was always delicate and needed nurturing.  I never took a great gig for granted we always had to work hard to keep our audience happy, the music on the cutting edge and our overall product competitive. I don't regret one minute of it and I hope that one day soon, the nightlife and music will be valid again in peoples lives.” (Bahrain protests on Al Jazeera)

Jonty Skrufff: