Pogo-ing away at a night of jazz

25 Jul

JBEIL: “My hair,” Jamie Cullum announced to his Byblos International Festival  audience Tuesday night, “is not normally this curly.”

Lebanon’s summertime coastal temperature – the cause of the English  celebrity’s excitable hair – reached its 2011 high this week but the heat and  humidity didn’t restrain the 31-year-old jazz artist. Cullum barely stayed  seated during his two-hour performance, uncommon among pianists.

His energy did not wane as the concert wore on and, along the way, his  audience was treated to some gymnastics that are above and beyond the call of  duty for jazz artists – including leaping from the top of his grand piano.

Exuberant as his performance was, it was clear he was not trying to  compensate for any want of vocal or piano-playing ability.

Cullum came to fame in 2003 with the release of his first U.K. album. By the  end of the year he was Britain’s biggest selling jazz artist of all time. In  2007 he won Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Award for Best British Male.

His popularity stems not just from his crooning abilities, and certainly not  from his height – he stands at 5’4” – but from his great charisma, something he  demonstrated at Byblos.

The show began with “Photograph,” whose lyrics refer pointedly to the  performer’s height – “I remember laughing ’cos to kiss me / She had to sit down  on her chair.”

Cullum’s accompanying pantomime – a tiptoed stretch upward – brought some  added value to the self-deprecating humor.

The artist continued with “Get Your Way,” another song from his “Catching  Tales” album, and proceeded to introduce himself to the audience, pretending to  have memorized (and forgotten) a Lebanese translation of “We are so proud to be  here in Byblos to play for you tonight.”

His efforts to speak Arabic delighted the audience, who were fast on their  feet with applause.

“It is wonderful here, one of the friendliest, nicest places I have ever been  to,” announced Cullum. “We wish we could stay. Lebanon is an incredible place  with an amazing spirit.”

The pianist’s concerts are generally improvised affairs, with no set playlist  agreed upon beforehand.

Adding to the buzzing atmosphere, Cullum frequently rushed to his piano to  strike a solo.

His band members were equally relaxed. Tom Richards, playing saxophone,  percussion and keyboard, showed his expertise during his several solo  improvisations.

Rory Simmons shone on trumpet and guitars, and bassist (electric and  acoustic) Chris Hill shared the solo spotlight, as did drummer and backing  vocalist Brad Webb.

Cullum’s performance power was such that, when he introduced himself, the  audience couldn’t help but chant his name back, clapping and stomping their feet  in accompaniment.

Though a songwriter, Cullum has gained enormous popularity from his cover  versions of other well-known artists. He’s performed numbers by jazz legends  such as Cole Porter but he’s also credited with mainstream-ing jazz, with  jazzed-up covers of tunes by Beyonce and Rihanna.

He demonstrated his improvisational skills Tuesday, performing two Beyonce  chart-toppers – “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love” – then passing seamlessly  into the Beatles’ “Come Together.”

“Byblos,” Cullum yelled at one point. “Come together!”

The pianist followed with “All at Sea,” a slow, sensual song he wrote at 21  while working on a cruise ship.

The crowd’s favourite song of the evening seemed to be Cullum’s cover of  Radiohead’s “High and Dry.” His own composition, “Twenty Something,” was also  greeted with screams of delight.

Early on in the concert, about half the audience were out of their seats and  dancing. Many more joined in as he moved into a mellifluous cover of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” The tune turned into a sing-along, with the crowd  chanting the lyrics back.

“Please dance,” cried Cullum. “It’s what we’re here for!”

Cullum’s spirit of improvisation continued to reverberate as he turned to a  mix of “Cry Me a River.” The artist mingled several versions of the song, which  has been adapted over the decades. Beginning with Julie London’s original,  Cullum brought in Justin Timberlake’s more-recent take on the song, only to make  the song entirely his own.

“It’s not about Britney,” he announced as he gestured to Richards’ sax. “It’s  about Tom Richards!”

Cullum drew the audience into the performance as much as he did his band  members. Toward the end of the show, he divided the eager crowd into three  sections, giving them each a tune to repeat. “It’s going to be beautiful,” he  said with an enormous grin.

As the diverse concert wore on, the artist covered Kanye West’s “Gold  Digger,” stunning and charming the audience with his own beat-box  accompaniment.

It’s rare to have an entire audience pogo-ing at a jazz concert – and Cullum  managed to get each member of his crowd jumping in unison for the concert  finale.

Cullum said that he hopes to be back in Lebanon soon. If audience  satisfaction and multiple standing ovations are anything to go by, his return is  imminent.

The Byblos International Festival continues Saturday with a show by Thirty  Seconds to Mars. For more information call 09-542-020.



Blunt tells Beirut that the real stars are those helping others

29 Jun

Beirut: Benefit concerts have become a fashionable phenomenon in recent years. From “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to the Live 8 performances, one would be hard-pressed to find a cause without a song or celebrity attached.

Not that that means the relationship is an insincere one. Monday night saw the now-legendary musician James Blunt perform in Biel to raise money for Tamanna, a Lebanese charity that grants wishes to critically ill children aged from 3-18.

Blunt, who since his debut in 2004 has sold over fifteen million records worldwide, was not just a poster celebrity for the cause. Rather than Tamanna (which means desire in Arabic) simply sponsoring a pop concert, the not-for-profit association arranged the concert and recruited Blunt for performance themselves. Why Blunt? True to Tamanna’s raison-d’etre, having Blunt perform in concert was a wish for one of the children the charity is working with.

Blunt’s Biel performance was his second in Lebanon and his first in association with Tamanna. In interview the day before his concert, however, his desire to embrace the cause was evident. 

“The real stars in the world aren’t the people sitting in a room with everybody’s attention focused on them. The real stars are the people out there, the doctors and nurses, the people on the street, the people who are helping others.”

It comes as little surprise that Blunt has such respect for people whose life work is dedicated towards helping others. Having been sponsored through university in England by the army, he was obliged to serve four years with the military and in the end served six.

His respect for the army remains untarnished precisely because of their efforts to improve the lives of others. When questioned in a press conference about the Western military presence in parts of the Arab world, Blunt responded “I support the soldiers, not the politicians, because they are trying to bring peace and stability and security.”

The thirty-seven year old also remarked “Life is short. It’s not a dress rehearsal.”

The musical metaphor is not out of place for a musician who in a single year (2007) received five nominations for a Grammy award. And luckily for his thousands of Lebanese fans, he more than lived up to his motto in performance.

Blunt, whose fame broke in Lebanon in 2005 with the release of his hit song “You’re Beautiful,” played to a full house of screaming fans in Biel. As requested by Tamanna the majority of audience members came clad in white.

Notoriously young-looking – late-twenties at a push – Blunt is an enormous hit with a younger, female demographic but nevertheless managed to please older audience members too.

Blunt played the best of his repertoire, from “Billy” to “Carry You Home.” Beginning with “Dangerous,” his first standing ovation came with “Three Wise Men,” when Blunt replied to his own lyric (“where are you now?”) with “We’re in Beirut baby!”


“Beirut,” he announced to screams and applause, “is one of the best cities in the world! You seem pretty happy, so I should warn you I have many miserable songs.”

Miserable though many of them are in theme and tune both, for the audience Blunt’s presence provided reason only for delight.

Even in “Carry You Home” – a song reportedly about a child with a terminal illness and certainly about death – an eager audience member leapt onto the stage during Blunt’s solo.

It was during “Carry You Home” in particular, that Blunt’s performance was at its most mesmerising. His talent as a performer is undoubtedly due to his dedication to his songs. Although some artists have performed their music so many times that the songs become routine, Blunt’s facial expressions during this poignant song and indeed throughout the concert were astonishingly mesmerizing. Evidently he was aware of every note, feeling the syllables in every lyric.

It was due to the manner of his performance that lines such as “I’m watching you breathing for the last time” took on genuinely moving significance.

Blunt’s focus as a performer endured through the concert. Singing with his head up, neck strained and eyes fixed upwards as he strives to hold his notoriously lengthy notes, his adoration for music was unmissable.

Predictably, considering the standard of performance, the standing ovations continued in a roll. The most popular songs were “Goodbye My Lover” and, of course, “You’re Beautiful.”

Faster songs like “Turn Me On” were also popular and brought the audience out of the seated area in order to dance. “So Long Jimmy,” the final song before the encore, provided Blunt’s band with excellent opportunity to shine. Paul Beard on keyboard and piano, Karl Brazil on drums, Malcolm Moore on bass and John Garrison and Ben Castle on guitar each took a moment for solos.

Blunt’s visit to Lebanon is part of his third world tour. Throughout his life he has visited over 120 countries and professes Beirut to be one of the best cities in the world. Above all though, professed Blunt in interview, “music is the bit I love.”

It comes as little surprise then that he uses it to secure support for causes close to his heart. The collaboration with Tamanna is not the first time that Blunt has worked with a charity. Since his tour duty in Kosovo in 1999 Blunt has been an ardent admirer of Médecins Sans Frontières and he has held several benefit concerts for the medical charity, as well as auctioning personal meet-and-greet opportunities.

The musician has also held benefit concerts for Help the Heroes, a charity working towards the provision of better facilities for wounded British servicemen.

Aside from cost, 100% of the proceeds from Monday’s concert will go to Tamanna, who since December 2005 have granted over 750 wishes to children living or being treated in Lebanon.

Naturally, Blunt ended his concert with a dedication of the night to Tamanna. His goodbye, though, set the crowd screaming once more.

“Beirut, as ever you have been awesome. See you soon!” If the crowd’s reaction was anything to go by, “soon” cannot come fast enough.

Visit Tamanna’s website at http://www.tamannalebanon.org/


“Music can be a great friend”

2 Jun

Beirut: “I have never paid attention to what is in fashion, in terms of music,” says Roger Hodgson, “and I have been lucky, because my songs have stayed. And now I need to give.

That is why I perform at the moment as opposed to record. I need to give.”

The former front man of legendary rock band Supertramp, Hodgson spoke to The Daily Star before his performance at Beirut’s Waterfront Arena Tuesday as part of the Beirut Music and Art Festival.

His musical message seemed focused on hope above all, that and “keeping faith in the good in life.”

“Music,” Hodgson continues, “is where I go to express the depths of my heart and my deepest life experiences. Joy, pain, confusion, questioning; they can all be expressed in music.”

The good things in life are something with which Hodgson has had some experience. In its heyday, Supertramp was recognized as a worldwide rock’n’roll phenomenon. To date, the band has sold over 60 million records.

After composing the music and lyrics of many of the band’s best-loved songs – including “Breakfast in America” and “The Logical Song” – Hodgson has established a successful career as a solo artist.

Though now 61, Hodgson’s solo career remains remarkably busy. In order to perform at BMAF Hodgson flew directly from a four-day tour in the U.K., to leave at dawn the following morning for California.

The Supertramp songster shows no signs of slowing down. In conversation, Hodgson is alert and energized, dedicated to fully engaging with each of his interviewers – in spite of lack of sleep and a succession of media calls. The source of all this energy, as he puts it, is his love of music and performance.

“I am lucky living the life I do,” he says, referring not to his fame and rock’n’roll lifestyle but to the power of music and the performance act itself.

“I love music,” he continues. “I love people. I love playing music. I love bringing people together – through music. That is how I am on stage. People can feel my love of playing and love for people. I’m a mirror for the audience, together we create this energy.”

He’s not exaggerating. Whirlwind as his Beirut trip was, his concert was energizing to his audience.

Opening with the Supertramp hit “Take the Long Way Home,” Hodgson did not introduce himself to the audience until after the song was done, announcing, “I am very excited to be in Beirut!”

The profession provoked wild cheers from his listeners.

The BMAF concert was Hodgson’s second Lebanon performance.

He played at the Byblos International Festival in 2005 and received a tremendous reception, to the extent that the former Supertramper expressed surprise at the popularity of his songs in Lebanon.

This too reaffirmed for him the possibilities of music.

“People are all the same everywhere,” he says in interview. “We all have hearts. We are affected by climate and history – but we are all the same. In Lebanon the spirit of hope is indomitable. It touches me, that spirit. It is incredible to have written songs that are part of people’s lives here. It is amazing that they have such a connection with my songs.

“What I love about Lebanon,” he continues, “is how much the people enjoy themselves.”

The concert lived up to the synergy between performer and audience that Hodgson anticipated in his interview.

While the audience swayed to slower melodies of tunes like “In Jeopardy,” they responded unhesitatingly to Hodgson’s request that they accompany him in whistling along to “Easy Does It.”

BMAF’s Grandstand venue, the city’s new open-air Waterfront Arena, seemed particularly appropriate for “Easy Does It” due to its exposure to the elements; the wind, too, joined in the whistling. Decked out with palm plants, the stage lent an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity to the evening.

Hodgson’s unique voice has lost none of its potency in the four decades that have elapsed since Supertramp was formed. As effective on stage as in the studio, Hodgson’s rendering of such hits as “School” was indistinguishable from the version he recorded so long ago.

His rendition of “Hide in Your Shell” was especially beautiful and weeping audience members waved their arms or simply swayed and hummed in thoughtful accompaniment.

It was with Hodgson’s best-known hits, “Breakfast in America” and “The Logical Song” that really got the audience going – rushing the stage, standing on chairs and dancing in any available space. It was no surprise that Hodgson got a standing ovation at the end of both songs.

Hodgson was accompanied by a band of four remarkably talented musicians: Aaron McDonald on sax, Ian Stewart on bass, Kevin Adamson on keyboards and drummer Bryan Head.

Mr. Supertramp himself alternated between synthesiser, guitar and piano.

Nowadays, Hodgson describes his music as “heart rock.” He continues to write tunes but is not recording, he says, “because I feel that in performance I can give hope. That is what I have to do.”

The importance of Hodgson’s interaction with the audience was obvious as he set the scene for each song before performing it, musing that “every night playing these songs is a journey through my life.”

Hodgson alluded to this business before the show.

“Performing solo gives a very intimate connection with the audience,” he nodded, “while a band has the advantage of the power of arrangements.”

At the beginning of the concert, Hodgson announced that “music can be a great friend.”

It’s a friendship that has accompanied the performer through seven energetic, globetrotting decades.

Shooglenifty cuts a rug at Music Hall

17 May

BEIRUT: It isn’t often that one hears the shrill tunes of traditional Scots music in Lebanon.

Perhaps this is why Sunday night’s chord-strumming, string-whizzing performance of Scottish fusion band Shooglenifty had such a dramatic effect.

Twenty-year veterans of the stage and studio, this six-man band is one of Scotland’s premier exports, famed internationally for its unique splicing of traditional Scots folk and contemporary techno.

Shooglenifty and guests took to the stage of Wadi Abu Jmeel’s Music Hall. The gig provided a spectacular send-off to the Beirut instalment of Reel Festivals’ 2011, which now wends its way back to Scotland.Reel had originally planned to have events in Syria as well as Lebanon, but events in Syria made it necessary to cancel these. The program set out to bring Scotland’s best films, music and poetry to Lebanon, and to showcase a selection of the best contemporary Syrian and Lebanese films, poetry and music in Scotland.

The Beirut program included philosophical street art by Bill Drummond, projections of documentary and feature film at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, and Syrian, Scots and Lebanese poetry, read as well as discussed, at Saifi Urban Gardens.

Reel’s promotional literature speaks of Shooglenifty’s “super funky phonics” and “wild uptempo mix.” Any doubts as to whether this sort of thing could be popular among a Lebanese audience were put to bed at the very start of Shooglenifty’s 90-minute set.

It took less than a minute for a crowd to leap to its feet and gather before the stage, jigging and reeling with Pictish enthusiasm.

Fiddle player Angus Grant’s virtuosity with his instrument was astonishing, and he proved able to create and sustain the most beautiful notes while on the move, sliding, bolting and leaping mid-bow.

His charisma was matched by that of his band mates. Drummer James MacKintosh set the beats with energetic gusto and pinpoint accuracy, oftentimes pushing his avid audience into a frenzy of pogo-ing as they tried to keep up the pace.

The throng of Quee MacArthur’s bass provided a sonorous and somehow profound backbeat, expertly picked up and sharpened by Garry Finlayson on banjo and banjax – a five-string electric banjo.

At times, the fingers of guitarist Malcolm James Crosbie would shoot across his instrument’s strings with such energy that the clarity of his playing was somehow surprising.

Eyes closed, Luke Plumb gave a compelling, powerful performance with his mandolin.

It was as though the playing of each note were a moral imperative.

The individual performances were impressive but the players’ years of diligent study and talent expressed itself in their ensemble work.

The Music Hall show was Shooglenifty’s Lebanese debut, apposite since the Reel Festivals’ raison d’etre is to promote understanding among countries by sharing one another’s arts and cultural production.

The trans-cultural success of the festival was made obvious when Lebanese nay player Bashir Saade and Iraqi oudist Omar Dewachi took to the stage to accompany the Scots.

Having only met two nights previously, the mingling of Arabic and Scots provided visual and aural evidence that the interaction of cultures through art is one of the most entertaining ways to build bridges among nations.

Reel 2011’s focus now turns to Scotland. It will be interesting indeed to see whether the Lebanese and Syrian artists taking part will receive the same reception in Scotland as the Scots artists got here.


Six poets, three countries, transcending borders

13 May

BEIRUT: “All writers have to cross a border of some kind,” said Scottish poet Tom Pow, “real or imagined.”

Pow was one of six international poets to participate in “Crossing Borders/Bearing Witness,” a panel discussion held Wednesday evening at the Saifi Urban Gardens as part of Reel Festivals 2011, an event devised to celebrate and instigate cultural interplay between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Six poets, two from each of the three countries, gathered to discuss notions of border and the “role” (if any) of the poet.

Borders and witnessing, Pow continued, are at the essence of what Reel is about: “Learn[ing] from one another and understand[ing] each other’s worlds better [through] art and culture.”

The poets met for the first time only last week and have already begun collaborating on casual translations of one another’s work. The poets were asked to give a three-minute talk on borders, witnessing or both in relation to geography, language or the past. The subsequent discussion was wide ranging.

Emily Ballou, a Glasgow-based American-Australian poet emphasized her multinational background. She said she was frustrated by the traditional ice-breaking question, “Where are you from?” since it forces upon her a thwarted sense of belonging.

“I want to be asked ‘Where do you belong?’” she continued, “and I want to know what happens when you can’t live where you belong.”

For Ballou, who is also a screenwriter and a novelist, the question of exile, whether self-imposed or necessary, is also related to the question of bearing witness.

In a reference to Syria – where the first segment of Reel 2011 had to be canceled because of the current political situation – Ballou remarked that, as a writer, she is now “bearing witness to witnesses” – to the Syrian poets taking part in the festival who are living in a place she as a foreigner has been advised not to visit.

“I can witness the pulse in each writer’s work that helps me to connect to [it] and to their experience.”

Poetry’s ability to recreate experience was also celebrated by Scottish poet William Letford, who described poetry as “language that opens up moments. The poems I love most are the ones where my eyes are opened to someone else’s perspective.”

Coming to Lebanon, Ballou said, has “infused the border question” with greater meaning, explaining that she was only now beginning to “feel a connection to Scotland, having left.” There is a paradoxical relationship between location and identity, she suggested, between the existence of geographical or linguistic divisions and of a connection that surpasses them.

Syrian poet Golan Haji referred the question to sometimes random notions of the border. Describing the “imaginary border” between Kurds and Turks, he described a man killed by Turkish soldiers. “His body was burnt black in the yellow fields” he said, “ … and just because he was on the border.” Simultaneously though, children were giving food to these same soldiers “because they spoke the same language.”

For Mazen Maarouf, notions of the border held an arbitrary aspect. A Palestinian poet and journalist living in Beirut as a refugee, he identified a strong connection between borders and memory. “I was always stereotyped by people who had a memory of the [Civil] War, because the Palestinians took part and made mistakes. I am surrounded by blocks that stop me from reaching my country.

“I never thought of borders being about geography,” he continued. “ … Borders are made not by systems, protocols or society but by the accumulation of evils that take place in life.”

Maarouf’s hope was that poetry might circumvent these borders, not by being explicitly political, but by exposing borders to be things created by history and time.

Lebanon’s Yehia Jaber also saw borders in political, social terms. He spoke of the way that, in Lebanon, the very act of naming oneself imposes borders. “When you hear a name, you can identify. And your next question is, Where do you live?”

Though Jaber described Lebanon as “a country without official borders,” he spoke of social, political and religious barricades that extend deep into society. “I feel uncomfortable everywhere,” he added. Born to a Shiite family, Jaber lives in the traditionally Christian area of Ain al-Rammeneh.

Since he is not affiliated to Hezbollah, he said, he feels anxious both in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. “Even in Hamra Street I feel nervous because there, there are the national parties.”

Letford took the discussion in a different direction, evoking the border between life and death. The acknowledgement and embrace of the delicacy of this border daily makes him live better. “You are linked to the person on that border,” he said. “And if you live life like that, everything is a gift.”

Syrian poet Rasha Omran remarked that “borders are not significant in my work. Ideas of borders are different now, because of the Internet. There are no longer barriers to communication.”

Omran, who directs the annual Al-Sindiyana culture festival, introduced the controversial topic of poetry’s place in modern society. Maarouf insisted that it is poetry’s role to “witness the world in a modern way.”

Ballou preferred to focus on poetry as “an opportunity to connect with someone through writing. I’m filtering myself, through a mask … [and] by losing myself I know more.”

“Each poem holds many others inside it,” Haji agreed. “Poetry has made me an eyewitness – even to things I did not live.”

Much as these six poets sometimes disagreed, the rapport that developed among them provided a compelling argument for the power of poetry to surpass borders and create dialogue.

The paradox of this monologue, discussion and debate – and thus the festival as a whole – is that while it crosses and transcends borders, it also celebrates them.


The art of bringing people together

9 May

BEIRUT: Art’s ability to incite social change is one of history’s most discussed topics. Since “The Republic,” in which Plato famously argues for poetry’s removal from the state, the subject has been debated by philosophers and artists alike.

Plato wasn’t as anti-art as is popularly believed. His stance against poetry was rather against its power; poetry, he urged, ought to not “only give pleasure but bring lasting benefit to human life and human society.”

It is a strong claim for the form, and one that might – and has – put off artists and readers alike. Not, however, Reel Festivals, an international arts festival that hopes to “bring a different face to regions in conflict.”

“Art,” says festival coordinator Daniel Gorman, “can bring people together like nothing else; it can speak directly to our emotions and bring us together to celebrate both similarities and differences.”

Reel is all about bringing people together. The concept was born in 2007 after Gorman and his colleagues visited Afghanistan with the Scottish organization Afghan Schools Trust. “I met a huge amount of inspiring people,” says Gorman. So many, indeed, that the idea of communicating through each nation’s art took hold, and Afghani culture was brought home along with the returning voyagers. “Reel Afghanistan” took place in 2009 in Edinburgh, though regional instability prevented the festival from presenting a reciprocal festival in Kabul.

A year later “Reel Iraq” continued the cultural exchange, bringing to Edinburgh an entirely different Iraq from the one seen in daily headlines.

Now Reel Festivals is being held in its partner countries for the first time. This year’s festival is trilateral, crossing the borders between Scotland, Syria and Lebanon.

Recent events in Syria have led to the cancellation of the Damascus-based events, which were to have begun on May 7. The Syrian-inspired events planned to take place in Scotland will go ahead.

The first festival bringing Scottish films, music and poetry to Lebanon, Reel is as much about exposing Scottish culture to the Lebanese as the other way around.

The Beirut section of Reel 2011 begins Monday and continues until Sunday, May 15. Events include screenings of six classic and contemporary films, musical performances, discussions on poetry and a live poetry session.

Films, showing daily at 8 p.m. until Saturday at Metropolis-Empire Sofil, include premieres, documentaries and shorts. Three question-and-answer sessions with Scottish directors will also take place. A “Story-Telling of Cinema” workshop will take place following Thursday’s film, Amy Hardie’s “The Edge of Dreaming.”

The organizers seem to be savoring a sense of irony, having scheduled a Scottish horror film, “The Wicker Man,” for Friday the 13th. Saturday sees the first ever Arabic-language screening of Christopher Young’s “Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle,” the first feature film made in Scottish Gaelic.

Music is also a crucial part of the festival. Internationally renowned Scottish musician Bill Drummond will be in town with his new choir “The17,” and is to give a lecture Wednesday at USJ’s Beirut campus on the future of music. The lecture will be followed by a performance with the choir.

Art aficionados will want to keep a lookout for a piece of graffiti which, courtesy of Drummond, is to appear somewhere in Beirut over the next seven days: “Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music had disappeared.”

Four poets hailing from Scotland (Emily Ballou, William Letford, Tom Pow and Ryan Van Winkle), two Syrian poets (Golan Haji and Rasha Omran) and two Lebanon-based poets (Mazen Maarouf and Yehia Jaber) will take part in poetry events in Beirut and Edinburgh. Somewhat topically, they will also be discussing borders and the poet’s (in)ability to cross them.

Celtic folk-techno fusion pioneers “Shooglenifty” are set to play at Beirut’s legendary Music Hall in a grand finale Sunday.

While Reel Festivals exists partly in order “to empower cultural figures and encourage their development,” another of its stated intentions is to “spread awareness of areas in conflict beyond the headlines.” The final sector of the festival thus takes place from May 16-21 in Scotland, and is to include a selection of Lebanese films – one of which is Zeina Daccache’s “Twelve Angry Lebanese” – and a retrospective from the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Scotland will also witness a fusion of dabke-electronica beats from Syrian and Lebanese artists. Reel Festivals is a project of Firefly International, a Scottish charity aiming to encourage dialogue and communication through the arts. Run by Gorman and Syrian-born Palestinian Yasmin Fedda, both of whom are filmmakers, Firefly aims, through Reel, to “shine a little light” on the aspects of the Middle East that international media tend to shun – namely, its arts and culture.

Reel wants to encourage both “engagement with the arts and international issues” and “dialogue between communities.”

Given recent developments in Syria and the fact that the festival has had to be cancelled there, such exchange has never seemed more necessary. “We believe that art can transcend barriers,” says Gorman. Whether or not Plato would agree, it has got to be worth a try.

Reel Festivals 2011 begins in Beirut Monday and continues until May 15. For more information and the schedule of events visit www.reelfestivals.org.


Was the Bard an Orientalist?

6 May

BEIRUT: There is no shortage of outsider characters in the work of William Shakespeare. Literary history being what it is, the best-known of these is probably Shylock, the villainous Jewish moneylender in the bard’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Queasy at the thought that English literature’s greatest playwright may have been as prejudiced towards his country’s Jews as most Englishmen of his day, 20th-century literary critics suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is more nuanced than that of his other villains. To this end, they fondly refer to the usurer’s sympathetic remarks, like “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

Another villainous outsider to preoccupy some Shakespeare scholars in the age of post-colonial studies was Caliban, from his romance “The Tempest.” The offspring of a woman’s coupling of a devil, Caliban was seen by some contemporary writers to embody the incomprehensible indigenous creatures (whether in the Americas or Africa) that the English had encountered in their early voyages of exploration and conquest.

Whence, then, “The Orient”? Picking up a copy of “Hamlet,” you’d be hard pressed to find a reference to the imagined place that was propelled into popular consciousness by the politically inflected cultural criticism of Edward Said.

In fact, according to the scholars in town for the international conference “Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient,” ongoing at the American University of Beirut, The Orient is unlikely to surface anywhere in Shakespeare’s canon. The sparse references that do exist are limited to “the pearl of the Orient,” hardly a precise image.

Although more literary criticism has been written on the work of Shakespeare than that of any other dramatist, The Orient does not much crop up in Shakespeare studies.

This is one of the reasons for holding this conference. Chaired by AUB professor Francois-Xavier Gleyzon, the scholarly gathering has aimed to widen the conventional framework of Shakespeare studies.

“It is the first of its kind,” said Gleyzon. “We have brought together the best academics in this area.”

The timing was propitious. As one keynote speaker, Dr Margaret Litvin from Boston University, pointed out “the most exciting thing about working with Arabic contemporary life is how quickly it changes.” The political turmoil presently rocking the Arab world has stimulated a renewed interest in political theater and its ability to spark change.

“Rotten States and Unmoored Moors: Arab Engagements with Hamlet and Othello,” Litvin’s discussion Shakespeare reception in this part of the world, was particularly topical. She argued that, contrary to popular opinion, “Hamlet” provides “allegories for the postcolonial Arabic predicament” that are more resonant than those of “Othello.”

Hamlet’s great question, “To be or not to be,” Litvin argued, has taken on particular political relevance in this region, where Arabic-language adaptations of the play often interpret the remark to be related to questions of Arab identity.

She notes a Hamlet-inspired graffito “To be or not to be, now is the time,” was found scrawled on a wall near the site of Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination.

“‘Hamlet,’” Litvin said, “has been repurposed for the barricades.” This might have puzzled Shakespeare, given the weighty emphasis he placed upon the self-doubt of the tragic hero.

Litvin identifies three stages of Arab-language Hamlet adaptations since 1950. The first, from around 1952-1967, is characterized by stagings that represent Hamlet as some sort of reconstructed Arab hero, a man with whom spectators could identify and by whom they could be inspired.

After the disaster of the 1967 War – as much a defeat to the ideas of Arab nationalism advanced by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as it was the individual states involved in the war – Litvin identifies a shift in the tone of “Hamlet” adaptations. They begin to express a nationalist longing, she argues, focusing especially on the figure of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Finally, from 1975 to 2001, “Hamlet” came to be used primarily as a platform for dramatic irony. During this time, Litvin says, the play is frequently re-made into something absurd, the tragedy of its climax presented as bathos.

Crucially, for Litvin, “Shakespeare is the ally, not the target, of this bitter wit.”

The objective of this conference, organisers say, was “to prove how the critical and artistic reception of Shakespeare in the Orient is paramount to apprehending and reinventing Shakespeare as a cultural and social bridge uniting the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ in the landscape of global culture.”

They “hope to offer a critical insight into Shakespeare and Early Modern political theology that would help refashion, remap broader issues that engage the status of cultural and religious identity, nation, and individuality in the landscape of global culture.”

Given that the topics of Wednesday’s seminars ranged from Shakespeare’s sole mention of Mohammed – that was in “Henry VI part I” – to the role of body and the concept of desire in the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the conference will likely provoke debate.

Madhavi Menon’s discussion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” concluded that imagination and desire in this comedy become interchangeable precisely through the play’s imagining of The Orient – the “Indian boy” acquired by the Fairy Queen being oft-mentioned but always voiceless.

The references may be more implicit than explicit but, it seems, The Orient is not completely absent from Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient”” continues in AUB’s auditorium B1 until Friday May 6.


Beirut Music and Art Festival: “This is just the beginning”

5 May

Beirut: Lebanon’s big summer music festivals seem designed to lure people out of Beirut.

Baalbak has its festival, as do Beiteddine and Byblos. Beirut, on the other hand, seems to be the preserve for year-round festivals, platforms and forums devoted to film and video art, dance, fine and plastic arts and (depending on how plastic your definition of “Beirut” and “music”) classical and free improv music.

Never fear. The status quo is set to change, sort of. A little later this month, the Beirut Music and Art Festival (BMAF) intends to transform downtown Beirut into a performance venue. This is the first BMAF, though organisers want the event to become an annual fixture.

Organized by the Ministry of Tourism in co-operation with Solidere (the private company licensed to retool downtown Beirut for the post-Civil War era), BMAF aims to “put culture back on the daily agenda.”

Mobilizing over 200 local and international artists to perform over a three-week period, BMAF certainly means to provoke international attention.

Performers include such international bigwigs as “Earth Wind and Fire,” “Sister Sledge,” and ex-Supertramper Roger Hodgson. Local luminaries Lena Chamamyan and Tania Kassis are also among the performers.

Co-directed by Beirut Jazz Festival organizer John Kassabian, Hamra Street Festival organizer Fadi Ghazzaoui and Imad Darwich-Houssami, BMAF hopes to “usher in the renaissance of Beirut’s golden age of art and culture.”

“Beirut is a capital city, at the crossroads of three continents and a gateway between East and West,” said John Kassabian. “Musical and artistic trends tend to take off from capital cities, the cultural centers of a country. As the cultural heart of the entire region, Beirut deserves to have its own music and art festival … The time has come.”

The program is not limited to international stars. BMAF has declared its desire to support local artists, so lesser-known local and foreign bands both are being given a performance platform from May 19 till June 2.

With 45 bands in total, three groups per night will perform in the Beirut Souqs. The mélange of East and West will also include a patchwork of musical styles, jazz and blues, oriental classical and hip-hop.

“It’s time to broaden our horizons,” opined Ghazzaoui. “It’s time to create a stage that promotes fusion, where Lebanon will both learn and share with our international guests. We want to give these groups a platform to express themselves on a bigger stage.”

The lineup for the Beirut Souq Music Village devoted to experimentation, featuring a smattering of Beirut Underground, and less-underground, artists like Rayess Bek, “Home Made,” “Amy Smack Daddy,” and “Zeid and the Wings.”

The Beirut Souqs will also play host to a wide range of other art events and activities.

“Mayadeen” art exhibition, is set to occupy downtown Beirut from May 18 till June 5. Subtitled “A Public Space Project,”Mayadeen, according to BMAF promotional literature, is “a platform for evolving practices in a discourse about public spaces’ everyday life.”

“Mayadeen” aims to “dissect the evolving state of Beirut’s public spaces.” Exhibition applicants were asked to perform an inquiry into the contemporary perception of cities and the cityscape.

It is also particularly interested in the impact of digital media and the role that public images have upon society. Curator Ghada Waked is hoping that “Mayadeen” will initiate a debate about how “space itself is altered in negotiating cultural traditions, political priorities, community values and history.”

“Mayadeen” will include a diverse range of media, including photography, projections, printed banners, performances and installations.

The aim of “Mayadeen” corresponds with Kassabian’s vision for BMAF. “This,” he said of BMAF, “is for culture’s sake, and not just for music’s sake.”

BMAF is providing two open afternoons of musical performance on the festival’s first weekend. From 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, local Lebanese bands are free to perform for the public.

“We are extending special consideration and support to local artists and bands within the umbrella of an international festival. This is something that has never been done before,” Kassabian remarked.

At 4 p.m. on May 21, BMAF will hold an hour-long march from Saifi to Starco. “The Beirut Parade,” as it’s being called, is set to be suitably bombastic, with plenty of music and color to fill the air.

The co-directors have pledged that BMAF is here to stay. “Year after year, the Beirut music and art festival will honor the past, celebrate the present and look to the future of music, art and culture. This,” said Ghazzaoui, “is just the beginning.”

The Beirut Music and Art Festival runs from May 19-June 12. The grandstand performances will be held at New Waterfront (BIEL) May 27-June 12.


The first Lebanese Circus comes to town

30 Apr

JDEIDEH: Without a second thought, fearless kids take risks that their parents would balk at. They ski backwards, jump out of windows and dangle their bodies out of speeding cars.

This is one reason child performers are so appealing: youngsters throw themselves entirely into their practice; they are ever keen to push their act that little bit further, to take that extra risk. Add to that the fact that there is something mesmerizing about “mini-humans” doing things we, as adults, cannot, and you have a fail-safe recipe for performance success.

The recipe is something Izhac Abu Sari, 25, and Thierry Antonios, 23, seem to have taken into account. Performers themselves, the pair are the founders of the “Cirque du Liban,” Lebanon’s first circus entertainment company, this week performing “The Mystery Show” at Jdeideh’s Sagesse Theater.

Comprising 25 of CDL’s multi-talented entertainers, it is no coincidence that the show’s performers range in age from 7 to 25, with the heaviest concentration in their early-teens.

Backstage before the show begins, a 12-year-old boy, clad in a baggy clown outfit, smiles cheekily and then falls in a dagger-straight collapse to the floor. If it wasn’t for the lack of attention the other young performers pay him (such jests are clearly commonplace) you might have feared some bodily attack; as it is, you know that he is simply priming his shocked, aged spectators for what is to come.

This zestful, mischievous sort of energy was exactly what made “The Mystery Show” successful.

Though called a “circus,” the Cirque du Liban is more a group of talented entertainers. Abu Sari and Antonios saw a gap in Lebanon’s entertainment sector and, with the help of performer-friends, brought together a group of individuals worthy of public performance.

The company was founded in 2006 and has been performing at venues across the Arab world since 2007. Though a private troupe for hire – they customize their performance according to occasion – CDL decided last year that it was time they put together a show.

The decision was one determined by more than aspects commercial. As the show’s organizer George Zughbi pointed out “this is the first time circus in Lebanon has been a form of art.”

Thus while CDL generally offers a variety of shows, parades and kids or adult entertainment, “The Mystery Show” is a coherent, sequential piece. “We wanted to put a show together, all together” explained Antonios.

“[In Lebanon] we like to bring people from abroad to perform for us, but it is better to have our own,” continued Zughbi. “Performers from Tripoli, from Beirut, from the south – all have come together here with one dream: to perform in the circus.”

“The Mystery Show” is aptly named; as a member of the audience, you are never quite sure what is coming next. The show is an extravaganza of Cirque du Liban specialties – a sort of catalogue of talent – set to pulsating music.

Acrobatics, juggling, stilts, fire-breathing and -dancing, body contortion, ballet and plenty of slapstick comedy well worthy of Charlie Chaplin, are all included in the Cirque du Liban roll-call. In pride of place on the show’s billing is local celebrity illusionist Amine Jabbour, whose guest role dominates the second half.

But it is the spicy eagerness the youthful troupe bring to their parts that lights up the show. Gymnast Zein al-Koubasi’s routine, for instance, was kept visually stimulating because of the tantalizingly teasing nature of his performance. Essentially an exhibition of his athlete’s strength and phenomenal muscular power, the piece was made successful by Koubasi’s use of his props: five chairs he used to build a tower.

The slow, drawn out introduction of each new chair elicited gasps from spectators, as did the apparently magical way in which he constructed them: They were balanced at angles increasingly unstable. Such hand-tingling tangents thrilled onlookers and vitalized the set.

Likewise a trampoline-and-gym-horse routine was livened up by the performers’ comically sized clown gear and vividly orange wigs. Though they were obviously keen to display their skills, the boys’ act centered around comic timing and seemingly painful landings.

Impressive shows of physical prowess were, throughout, made subordinate to this ambience of fun. Juggling was mixed with exaggeratedly seductive Arabic dancing; a mimed motorbike sequence was interrupted with a blast of Celine Dion’s “Titanic” just moments before a crash.

Even the act of Freddy Kachoua, a 15-year-old contortionist, was spiced up with slapstick. Given a spot in the limelight in order to dazzle the audience with a body that seemed to be made entirely of fluid, Kachoua then played the clown in a gym-routine, ending up pushed over mid-contortion. Every member of the ensemble delighted in interacting with and provoking the predominantly under-12 audience.

A clever variation on the pie-in-face theme came with the dangling use of a basketful of eggs that managed to find its way into the audience.

Music was central to the show. Songs were constantly blasted to keep the audience at an incredible level of hyperactivity; they were jumping about as much as the onstage performers. And unicycles were even used as guitars.

Though not a seamless show, and at times more akin to variety than circus, the excitement of the audience throughout was proof of the success both of “The Mystery Show” and the Cirque du Liban.

This talented cast of young performers are sure to continue their triumphant formula: Comedy, rousing displays of daredevilry, and above all, roguish tomfoolery.

“This,” emphasized Zughbi, “is the first time ever in Lebanon that a Lebanese people have performed together as a circus.” It won’t be the last.



Turning the Tables on the Audience

22 Apr

BEIRUT: A strange sight greeted dance enthusiasts intent on enjoying a pre-performance drink at Masrah al-Madina Wednesday night.

Anyone descending the stairs from the box office to the auditorium found a hooded girl laying at the base of the stairs, sandwiched between red bathroom scales (two at her head, one at her feet), eyes open.“Are you okay?” someone asked.

No reply arose. Her eyes didn’t move, blink or acknowledge the world in any way. 

The power of this disturbing encounter stemmed as much from audience reactions as the immobility of the performer. The putative spectator reddened, glanced about furtively – as if for direction, or to see whether her response was being noticed – and quickly stepped over the prone performer.

What could it possibly mean? Do the scales represent eating disorders? Image obsession? Were they simply additional barriers to block your way, forcing you to step over the girl’s body?

This human obstacle to the audience’s passive enjoyment of professional movement was only one facet of the 20-minute performance-installation “Permanent State of a Transitory Phase,” the brainchild of Lebanese dancer Mia Habis.

The work was performed on the opening evening of “The Arab Dance Platform,” a series of creations from Arab artists enclosed within the Beirut International Platform of Dance.

Habis’ hope was to push spectators “to slow down, stop and take the time to realize their own presence and their connection to others.”

Spectators hoping that, having overcome the obstacle of the unmoving performer, they could conceal themselves within the security of audience members milling about the Masrah al-Madina’s bar were mistaken.

Immobile, unresponsive performers were stationed around the lobby, prompting you to ponder the sorts of social dances that you perform in daily interchange. How do you (and how should you) react when someone simply refuses to respond?

A boy stood next to a white plastic “X” mark on the floor. Wearing only a pair of funky stripe-patterned boxers and a thumb ring, he, like his co-performers, stared vacantly into space.

He elicited a rather different audience response than his colleague laying at the foot of the stairs. Excited spectators posed next to him for photos, as though he were a tourist attraction.

Habis’ principal props in disorienting her audience were bathroom scales. Anyone wanting to order a drink from the bar was forced to climb aboard, involuntarily weighing herself, to be served – or else to stand back and shout to get the bartender’s attention.

Opposite the bar, meanwhile, on the drinks table in front of a lobby couch – and, like the scales, nicely in patrons’ way – lay another young woman. She too was eerily still, quite dead-looking aside from her faint Mona Lisa smile and her right arm, which was raised in the air while the left one was left to hang. A tear pooled in the corner of her left eye.

For those needing the toilet before the next performance, there were more obstacles. Barricading one door, a young woman had lowered her eyes demurely, in a jarring juxtaposition with her defiant refusal of entry. You simply had to push past.

Habis’ work deployed her performers in such a way as to force audience members into acts of anti-social behavior – stepping over a woman as though she were roadkill, ignoring another while she wept; posing for a photo beside a man as though he were a the Rock of Raouche. Intriguingly, audience members don’t shy away from such behavior – at least they did not Wednesday.

The unnerving installation was bound to resound in the minds of the audience as they entered the theater auditorium for Nacera Belaza’s “Le Temps Scellé.” As the performance progressed, however, it became clear that its intention was quite distinct from that of the installation.

Soundtrack music slowly rose over the dimly lit stage. A slowly gyrating figure in the half-light was unsettlingly sexless. At length, the lights brightened to a dull grey, and a writhing feminine form was discernible.

As the light rose and the musical accompaniment grew louder, the dance too changed, becoming more technically accomplished.

An Algerian-born choreographer and dancer, Belaza’s practice stems partly from her earlier studies of literature and film, and her interest in words and visual arts obviously inspired the choreography and execution of the 45-minute performance, featuring Belaza herself, Tarik Bouarrara and Dalila Belaza.

The main motif of the choreography was circularity – swirling arm, ellipses carved by hips and retraced by kicks of the feet and turns of the hands. At times the dancers seemed to evoke spinning Sufi mystics, their arms outstretched like tree branches.

Though not clearly divided, “Le Temps Scellé” seemed to fall into three sections marked by obvious changes in the lighting or tempo.

The end of the second section provided a moving mimicry of the first, when the lone dancer’s arms had been stretched out to the audience, as if in supplication, her face shaking in accompaniment.

A dancer stretched her hands out toward the other as if she were holding a weapon in mime. As the lighting continued to fade to black, however, her arms came to wrap themselves protectively around her head.

The final movement was the most intense, with renewed lighting and with the lyrics – “Say yes,” repeated interminably – overthrowing the rest of the soundscape. A sudden acceleration in the choreography, as if in answer to the call to “Say yes,” suggested a triumph of the human over the unknown.

Another experiment on the boundaries of performance, audience and communication was accomplished.

Arab Dance Platform performances continue until April 23. BIPOD resumes on April 24 and continues until April 30. For more information call 01343834.