JOE ASHKAR HAS SPENT the last decade establishing himself as one of Lebanon’s most popular musicians. He’s been at the forefront of Beirut’s nightlife scene since he started out as a club singer in the mid-Nineties. He now owns his own nightclub, Cassino, where he performs up to five times a week. The 40-year-old singer and keyboard player has just released his fifth album, 015. “I’m not like other [Arab] artists,” he says. “I have my own way of singing and performing. I try to translate my feelings, my character, to the people. I want to introduce myself through my music. I want people to know Joe as a character, as a person, as a musician.”
You started playing music at five, but it was a while before you started singing, right?
I was 18 or 19, I guess. I was asked to sing at a family get-together. I have the video. My voice was horrible. I didn’t like it at all. I really didn’t. I wasn’t used to hearing myself sing, I wasn’t ready to sing. But everyone was telling me, ‘You have the musical background, why don’t you try to sing?’ So I made the decision to do it, and I started to get better. It became more serious for me around 22, 23. I started playing and singing in the most famous club in Beirut. I’d sing Lebanese, Greek, English, French, Italian songs.
What made you decide you didn’t want to do covers any more?
I took that decision 12 years ago. I decided I was ready to become an artist, not just a singer. I had all the qualities that a good artist needs. I made my first album, Shu Biemnaa, and it was very successful; the title song was a megahit. It was a perfect experience. I was really surprised. I knew that I’d made a really nice album, but I had no idea it would be that big a hit. From being an entertainer singing in small clubs to being an upcoming artist – from being a normal guy to a famous artist – it made a lot of changes. Once you have a hit, you become public property, known by hundreds of thousands.
And now you have your own club, Cassino. I hear it’s very popular with other Arab singers.
Most of them come to the place, yes. Cassino’s one of a kind.
They get up and perform?
Yes. Definitely. They’ll watch me sing, then get up and sing too; sometimes with me.
Who have you most enjoyed singing with?
Many. I can’t mention names. All the stars of the Middle East have visited my place. It’s better not to mention anyone.
Do you use Cassino as a testing ground for your new material?
Definitely. I can feel the success before it gets to the people outside. There are many, many songs I’ve written that were ready to be released and I stopped them because they hadn’t worked in my club. The people who go out in Beirut, they don’t care whose song it is, if they like it, they’ll act on that. If they don’t like the song, you’ll feel it right away.
Are you sometimes surprised?
Yes. Sometimes I make a song I believe will do really well and I discover that people think nothing of it. And sometimes I’ll play songs I don’t really believe in, and I discover that people adore them. You never know what’s going to happen, it depends on many things; the atmosphere, the situation, the period we’re passing through. There are many factors that make people love a song or hate it.
A lot of Arab artists’ gigs are mainly private events, meaning the general public rarely get to see them live. But you’re out there three or four nights a week at the club…
Yeah, there’s a positive side to being in a public place, singing so regularly where people can meet me, and I can promote myself and my albums. The negative side is that some of the people – how can I say this? – everybody can see you when they want. You’re reachable. That’s the negative side.
Why is that negative?
Stardom needs to be unreachable sometimes.
You feel like you don’t get much privacy?
Yes. Sometimes, people need to miss seeing you. You can’t always be accessible. It’s good for you to be unreachable sometimes. Especially in this kind of business.
Do you feel you can’t separate your private life from your public life?
No. I do separate my private life from my business life, because I’m a good manager. But it needs a lot of hard work, you know? When I’m singing in the club, I’ll come out, perform for an hour, then disappear. I try to be somewhere hidden. Then I dedicate my time during the day to my family, where I can play with my children, spend time with my wife and my close friends. My private life has nothing to do with my business life. We’ll sit and eat, play cards. I like sports a lot; I do a couple of hours every day in the gym or swimming. I like playing ping-pong. I hunt.
On 015 you perform Khaleeji and Egyptian songs for the first time. Why did you decide to do that now?
It’s good for an artist to sing from a new culture, for people to know that a guy is… multi-functional. It was a bit difficult singing the Khaleeji songs; the main thing is that you have to feel the rhythm. It took a bit of time. You have to love the song; you have to live the song. You have to feel it. Otherwise people won’t believe you. So it took a bit of time, but I think it turned out great.