A couple of weeks ago The DJ Cookbook had the pleasure of interviewing Priscilla Bakalian, the first DJ-Miller of Lebanon. From milling dials to controller knobs the parallels are endless between Prïss the DJ and Priscilla the Swiss School of Milling soon to be graduate.
Q: Tell us about your family’s flourmill, its history and how you and your sisters inherited a now 109-year-old family operated business.
A: The company started in 1908 in old Armenia – what is now Turkey. At some point, before the genocide, my great grandfather wanted to move, so he travelled all over the Mediterranean and decided to settle down in Beirut because he felt close to the culture. My family opened the factory and later relocated in the 1950’s to a new facility where we are to this day.
Today, Bakalian Flour Mills produces most of the flour for the Arabic bread in the country, which is the staple food. Because of this, I find pride in my work and I feel like we are doing good. It’s not the fanciest job, but I feel that it is a noble job. Plus, we’re a zero-waste-company; everything we picket we import from abroad. So we get wheat, we clean it and grind it to produce flour in the mill. So let’s say you take the bran and straw off, if food safe, you can give to animals for feed. If there are stones in the wheat, we recycle them to fill potholes in the roads. We really are a zero waste company, nothing goes to waste allowing us to proudly have little impact on the environment.
My sisters and I are first generation female-millers in a very manly driven industry. We’re these young, baby faced women so the dynamics are out of the ordinary. We’ve been taking care of the business since my father passed in 2009. At first my eldest sister took over, then my middle sister joined after finishing her studies in NY and now it’s my turn, that’s why I studied Food Science in University and now the specifics of milling in Switzerland.
My eldest sister is the business and financial head- the big boss-, my other sister is in-charge of operations, infrastructure and marketing. She spent 10 years in New York studying and working in film production, living on Marcy Avenue by the old Marcy Hotel. So as the business was being passed from my late father to my sisters, they needed to invest in someone to take care of the production line and food science aspect of it, and who better than one of us? I sort of volunteered for the job, plus I’ve always been the scientist of the family; but it took some time for me to grow into the role.
Q: Tell us about your studies in food and technology; what interests you about the business and how you got there?
A: At the Milling School of Switzerland I’m learning about the inner workings of all the machines that are needed to operate a flourmill; all the parts, how to adjust them, all the schematics, how to assemble and program the machines to do this or that. Also I study biology, chemistry, baking and electro engineering. I need to know the inner workings of my product, if a baker comes to me saying my flour is faulty I need to know how to analyze this and determine who’s at fault.
When they say from “farm to the table” people are not conscious of this whole chain. People don’t really think about how a grain of wheat that grew in a field in Russia made its way from the farmer threw our mill to the bakers and then to their table…
Before doing this program I studied food science at University. In part because I thought about the company, but also because after long deliberations I realized that it was important for me to have my creative projects/DJing be on the side, fuelling my life, but not having it be my main source of work. My mom has this saying in Arabic that translates to “half sane, half crazy” so this is pretty much how I live my life – with no regrets.
Q: Tell us about your musical journey, how did you become a DJ and promoter in your city?
A: Well, it all began with mix-tapes from my sisters; I would say I grew up in a music loving family. As a 10-year-old people would make fun of me because I wanted to listen to Radiohead not Shakira -who was popular at the time. As a teenager I became the playlist DJ for my friends birthday parties, road trips, new years parties. One day I got sick of the annoying transitions on itunes so I taught myself how to DJ, first on a controller, then on CDJ’s and now I’ve been crate digging for the past few years because I’m obsessed with records. Currently, I’m trying to produce music, but things are moving slow, hopefully once I’m done with the milling program and settled in Beirut I will get back in the studio.
Like most DJs I started playing small gigs at University and around the city, but it wasn’t until my friends and I decided to start booking DJ’s and throw our own parties that I got more involved in the scene with bigger clubs. Now I play in the city a couple of times a month.
Q: What is the music scene in Beirut like and what should we know about the Beirut dance-music culture?
A: The scene in Beirut has always been strong but it has really taken off the last 4 years or so. I attribute this to social media, which makes it easier to promote parties today.
You should know that the Lebanese are hard-core party animals. The two things we know how to do best is party and eat. There is so much chaos in the country making day-to-day life hectic that we like to unwind on the weekends. Plus we’re very hospitable people, so nightlife is very important to us. We have lots of different types of clubs through out Beirut, some are more mainstream, and others are very underground; the options are endless. Plus, there is a lot of talent in the city, and I think everyone is doing a great job at opening and maintaining great music venues alive. In doing so they are promoting Lebanon’s rich music and community-focused culture.
Q: To conclude our interview, please share some music shout outs with us. What track keeps playing in your head, what album are you into right now, what band, what DJ, what label? Also, where can we find you and your collective?
A: Music Shout Outs
One band: CHIC (Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards)
One DJ: Vakula
One Label: L.I.E.S. records
Chromatic Beirut – Party Collective: