The Baalbeck International Festival is back this summer. True to its tradition, the 35th edition of the festival brings a collection of world-class musicians to Lebanon. The line-up is diverse, with artists such as American opera star Jessye Norman, Mashrou’ Leila – the Lebanese indie-rock band shaking up the regional music scene – and Italian rock and blues star Zucchero.
Established in 1955 upon the ruins of some of the most impressive Roman temples ever built, the festival was conceived as a major contribution to Lebanon’s culture and economy. But like many other enterprises in the region, the festival could not escape the violent events that washed over the country, and it was cancelled for 22 years during the period 1975-1996. Baalbeck was revived again in 1997 and has managed to continue to this day, with one additional break in 2007, following the war between Israel and Hezbollah.
And yet, despite the bloodshed and tensions that grip the region, the festival remains a remarkable cultural experience. The selection of artists of every edition has brought together classical ensembles from Europe, including the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris, jazz giants such as Ella Fitzgerald, and other, diverse international brands such as Massive Attack and the Japanese drum team Osaka Dadada.
Elga Trad, member of the festival’s Executive Committee, shared her impressions and expectations on this summer’s festival with Your Middle East.
How do you feel about the festival this year?
“We are very happy this year, because we have a lot of interesting artists visiting, and many spectators. We have decided to focus particularly on the young generation, which means, as far as the programme is concerned, we will have artists such as Zucchero, Chico and the Gypsies, and Mashrou’ Leila.”
In what ways will it be different?
“Every year we have a large variety and a big choice of performances for the public. Our programme is a kind of a melting pot, mixing opera, blues, rock, and pop. We have many styles that appeal to all ages. The fact that we have two, three nights dedicated specifically for young generation this year is perhaps the biggest change.”
What are you looking forward to the most?
“We are very happy to have Jessye Norman. It’s a great opportunity for our spectators. It’s wonderful to have her in Lebanon. And she will sing only acoustic, without a mic. It will be fabulous. Zucchero is also coming, singing songs from his latest album. He’s a real showman, and he’s coming with lots of musicians. Everyone knows his songs and everyone is used to dance to them, so his show will certainly be a big moment.”
How do you decide about the line up?
“We look primarily at what the spectators want. We are very attentive to their wishes. We try to find out what’s trendy, what is going well at this moment, and we make our choices accordingly. And we try to fit this in our large variety of styles.”
What does the festival mean for Lebanon?
“The festival means a lot for Lebanon, because it’s a historical festival. It started in 1955, making it a very special festival for the country and a world-known event. It’s also special because it takes place in Baalbek, which is a historical site, dating back to the Roman presence in the country. These particular, prestigious settings also give the festival an outstanding character. The artists that come here feel that, too. So, culturally speaking, this means a lot for Lebanon. But the festival is also meaningful for the country’s economy and tourism. The festival attracts spectators from other regions of Lebanon and from the whole world, making it an important boost for the country”.
You've had to cancel the festival before. Are you worried about the violent events taking place in Lebanon at the moment?
“No, because our security set up is very important. On top of it, we will have the support of the army, so it will be very safe. The events around us will not affect us.”
How have the Arab uprisings across the Middle East affected your festival and the programme? Will you show more underground artists this year as a result?
“No, not really. We stick to the same artistic direction that we had up until now, meaning we bring different styles of music. We may have underground music, but we also have opera, so basically, our outlook is the same. If we discover a new artist that we find particularly interesting we will invite him, of course, but that’s not different from the past.”
Finally, would you say that Beirut is becoming the cultural centre of the Middle East?
“Yes, sure. Actually, Beirut has been the cultural centre since 1965. They used to call it Switzerland of the Middle East because Beirut has always been very open minded, receptive and favourable to new, cultural developments. For this reason, many artists, from other Arab countries, want to come and perform here.”