The return of Beirut's The Grand Factory
Beirut club The Grand Factory was created as more than just a place to dance. It was a community hub, a platform for positive change and a launchpad for protest — but then disaster struck. Ben Hindle talks to club founder Jade about how the club came to be, what it stood for — and how it is bouncing back
Beirut is a city with a rich history, but it has often been a troubled one. Since the mid-1970s alone, Lebanon has endured a bloody civil war, multiple conflicts with Israel, financial crises, political corruption and revolutions, and in summer 2020, the capital saw one of the biggest non-nuclear artificial explosions the world has ever seen. Through all this, people have continued to dance — brought together by a need to commune, to express themselves, to feel, and, undoubtedly, escape day-to-day life. When DJ Mag visited Beirut in 2018, local DJ 3LIAS told us, “We had 40 years of war, and we still partied... we’re not gonna wait. We’re gonna do, and enjoy... for us, it doesn’t matter. We are still doing what we like to do, and as long as we keep doing it, it’s OK.”
Central to dancing are spaces to move, and one of Beirut’s most respected is The Grand Factory. In 2019, it became only the second ever Lebanese venue to enter DJ Mag’s global Top 100 Clubs poll, following B 018’s ranking in 2010, and it’s remained there ever since (results of the 2023 poll will be announced in late May). The Grand Factory’s appeal stretches far beyond being a place to dance the night away, though; ever since it launched in 2014, it’s been a hive of activism, launching numerous campaigns for change and being directly involved in revolution.
Based on top of a mattress factory in Beirut’s docklands, the venue aims to retain the feeling of a secret rave, with a drab exterior and access via an industrial service lift — the music growing louder as eager clubbers rise up to their destination. Above, three rooms await. The 800-900-capacity Factory is defined by its state-of-the-art lighting and glass walls, which offer sweeping views of the Mediterranean Sea, port of Beirut and its surrounding mountains.
Reunion holds 200-250 people; a concrete box tucked away down a hidden passageway, it boasts a truly world-class soundsystem. Finally, the 100-150-capacity Soul Kitchen is inspired by funk and soul, with lush greenery, cocktails and guests over the years have included Sasha, M.A.N.D.Y., Joris Voorn, Nicole Moudaber, Miss Kittin, Richard Dorfmeister, Maceo Plex and Amelie Lens, but it’s also been a home for many local talents, like Ronin, romax, Nesta, and the club’s founder Jade.
The latter’s story goes back to the early ’00s; part of the EMI-signed rock band, Blend, he started putting on parties in 2003 when he moved back to Lebanon after studying in Montréal. In 2005, he launched the Bunker venue in Beirut, which was a home for live music and club nights up until it closed in 2011, and worked with various arts councils and NGOs to set up workshops and platforms to help local musicians. During this time he also co-founded Riverside Studios, a creative hub in Berlin. After a few years running nomadic parties, Jade and his wife decided it was time to open a permanent space once again.
“Our goal was, in a country that had zero care about infrastructure, zero care about development, zero care about supporting culture, not only did we do those artist-development programmes, we thought that there was a deeper message that we could provide." — Jade
“We found this factory,” says Jade. “The rooftop was free, but it was closed [with Eternit panels]. There was a hole from the rooftop, and I looked [through] and I saw the sea. The potential of the view was insane. So we signed for the location, we removed all of the [panels], and July 2014 was the very first party.” The club was originally open-air, but being situated in the port, between a slaughterhouse and a rubbish dump that was overflowing due to a trash crisis, the smell in the summer became unbearable. Glass walls were installed to maintain the panoramic views, and local audio experts 21dB built an acoustically treated roof.
“We were so inspired by the whole scene in Berlin, because this is where we were playing the most, my wife and I,” explains Jade. “We thought, ‘Let’s create something that is organic, and that has nothing to do with what’s happening in the country’. So we made it a green, magical space with random elements, factory elements, smart lighting, and it was like something that no one had ever seen in Lebanon.”
Though The Grand Factory had been physically sealed off from one of the problems in Beirut, Jade wasn’t going to shy away from the responsibility he felt to use his new platform for good. “Our goal was, in a country that had zero care about infrastructure, zero care about development, zero care about supporting culture, not only did we do those artist-development programmes, we thought that there was a deeper message that we could provide. We could inspire our youth, because the whole environment they live in is so messy, and they don’t get to think about such matters.”
Tackling the trash crisis head on, Grand Factory moved to using recyclable plastic cups and worked with a local NGO that teaches kids how to code, developing gamified bins for the club that would track the number of cups and cans deposited in them. For every few thousand items collected, clubbers would earn rewards like free pizza, drinks, entry and special guest performances. The club also went strawless, giving all but one of its last 12,000 plastic straws to local artists to produce installations, while The Last Straw was auctioned off to raise money for an NGO.
“This is how we start incepting the idea of recycling into [people’s] minds,” says Jade. “It’s engaging. This is what makes it different from any other awareness. It’s doing things in a cool way; making people feel that they are making a change.” Another initiative involved collecting clothes for refugees during a particularly harsh winter. The +1 project asked clubbers to donate an item of clothing in exchange for free entry.
"It was very emotional, like extremely emotional; seeing faces again that we haven’t seen in ages. Of course, the scene had changed in three years. You have another generation that had never experienced clubs before.” — Jade
In late 2019, the club made its most direct act of protest yet. When people began taking to the streets to challenge government corruption and mishandling of the economy and public services, The Grand Factory closed for a month, still paying its staff while encouraging them to go out and join the revolution. The protests continued for the next two years, during which multiple governments failed, the financial crisis worsened exponentially and the Covid-19 pandemic forced The Grand Factory to shut its doors again.
Focusing on the club’s YouTube platform instead, the team developed the Late Knights project. “People that hear about Lebanon, they have this idea of the region that’s scary. The people that come to Lebanon, they see something completely different. There is beauty in this region that we can showcase. This was the goal of Late Knights, to document interesting artists that pass by the region, and film them in beautiful settings, be that at concerts at our venues, or in different special places in the area.”
Then on 4th August 2020, a cache of ammonium nitrate stored in the Port of Beirut caught fire, causing an explosion so massive that it was heard over 150 miles away in Cyprus and US geologists measured it as 3.3 on the Richter scale. The blast claimed the lives of at least 218 people, injured 7,000 more, and is estimated to have left 300,000 homeless as it destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. The Grand Factory and its sister club AHM on the Beirut waterfront were destroyed.
“It ripped us apart,” says Jade. “We had no money, and it was still Covid [so we couldn’t rebuild]. On a personal level, everybody was devastated, because we were fighting for a-year-and-a-half. And then this comes and destroys us completely.” Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound was in freefall and insurance companies were refusing to pay out.
Jade continues: “I don’t know how to explain how fucked up it feels to lose your money, all your lifetime savings. Your parents, with no pension plan, losing all their money, and worrying about how you can provide for them. Your currency is shit. If you used to make $2,000, today they are worth $35. Your house is destroyed, your businesses are destroyed, you have 200-plus people in your company to feed and you don’t know what to do about them. And your wife is injured... it was the shittiest I’ve ever been and people around me have ever been. And we were maybe lucky, because we didn’t lose someone close to us. But people lost their children. It was so cruel. And then to feel so fucking cheap. Because until today, nobody wants to say who’s behind it.”
He explains how these compounding traumas have changed the outlook of an entire generation. “Whatever you achieve in your life helps you build your confidence and helps you shape your personality,” he says. “When you see that you’re able to turn some of your ideas into reality and you’re able to impact people, then you get some sort of confidence, or some sort of control over your narrative... but when, one day, in one second, something comes and strips you completely of it, you can’t imagine how powerless and how much of a piece of shit and a worthless creature you feel. Like an ant that somebody can just step on at any moment and not realise.”
He points to a recent post he made on Instagram following an event there. “No, Beirut is not well. No, we are not ok,” he wrote. “The whole world thinks we’re doing great because of our party videos that keep circulating all over the web. But what they don’t see behind these images is devastation, and a generation that had to adopt numbness as a means for survival. A generation that is desperately trying to feel alive. A generation that is desperately trying to feel. And this is exactly why we dance.”
Refusing to be defeated, the long road to rebuilding began. In summer 2021, once the worst of the pandemic had passed, the team held some outdoor parties in the mountains and temporarily opened a beach bar further north. Eventually they did a fundraiser and, at the end of 2021, fixed up another warehouse, holding events there from December until April.
The following month, they restarted open-air parties at AHM and eventually managed to secure 25-30% of the damages from the insurance company. Work on The Grand Factory began, and it finally relaunched in December 2022. “It was magic,” Jade says of the reopening. “And we also had that feeling in May when we opened AHM for the first time. It was very emotional, like extremely emotional; seeing faces again that we haven’t seen in ages. Of course, the scene had changed in three years. You have another generation that had never experienced clubs before.”
There are fresh challenges, such as a “brain drain” that means the winter season was particularly quiet and thus difficult to generate revenue. And the financial and political issues are ongoing. But Jade and the wider Factory People group of venues and programmes are ploughing forward, with plans to relaunch their Beirut Berlin Express programme for local musicians later this year, and the opening of a Soul Kitchen venue/restaurant in Dubai very soon. Having gone to hell and back, The Grand Factory is still creating that all-important space to dance, to be free of worries — if only briefly — and fighting for a better future.