Festival Pass: Beirut & Beyond

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #142 (Nov 2018) p102. Download a pdf here.

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Alexandra Petropoulos travels to the Lebanese capital for a festival that is showcasing the most exciting independent music of the Arab region

Beirut is a city that seems to buzz. Culturally with one foot planted in the Middle East and the other in Europe, it vibrates with the excitement of a charged place where cultures meet and mix. A hub for fashion and the arts, Lebanon’s capital is the perfect location for a festival that showcases independent music of the Arab region – Beirut & Beyond International Music Festival.

Beirut’s cultural reputation was hard won. Once known as the ‘Paris of the East,’ the city has been slowly rebuilding itself after a bloody civil war (1975-1990). It’s dotted with constant reminders of the violence; the scars of war are still visible on the architecture. The towering shell of the Holiday Inn, built just two years before the war and now riddled with bullet and rocket holes, casts a dark shadow over the city. But Beirut and its residents are resilient and the city continues to boast a thriving arts scene.

It was this arts scene that helped nurture Beirut & Beyond. Founded in 2013 in partnership with Oslo World festival, the Lebanese event focuses on independent music making, particularly in the Arab world. “Beirut & Beyond was started and created as a response to needs in the scene in 2011/2012,” says artistic director Amani Semaan. “It was really a bustling scene with a lot of artistic projects locally but also in Egypt and Tunisia and in Syria. And all of the countries around us where there were some conflicts, they were taking Beirut as their base and it became like a city filled with music, artistic projects and culture.”

But at the time there was no way for artists to take the music that was being created in the city out into the world. “This is how we started formulating Beirut & Beyond, to respond to this need, and our mission became taking a good music project from the region and try to distribute it as much as we can and make it successful.” This means the festival not only showcases homegrown talent, but music from the wider Arab region.

In 2017, I join a packed crowd in the uber-hip Grand Factory for the opening night where multimedia artist HAT (aka Hatim Belyamani) kicks the festival off with an engaging multimedia mash-up of videos of Moroccan folkloric heritage remixed into a danceable beat. But the main draw of the evening is local hero Yasmine Hamdan. The ex-Soapkills singer performs electro-pop with undertones of Arabic music that is engaging with sweeping sounds that fill the chic, industrial nightclub on the top floor of an abandoned warehouse, and indie rock vibes that keep it all moving.

Over the course of the weekend I am treated to a line-up hand-picked by curator Maurice Louca. The Egyptian musician and composer has selected music from Syria, Oman, Egypt and Iraq and the overall vibe is alternative. In 2016 Lebanese singer and producer Wael Koudaih was given the reins as curator. “Last year it was a lot of electronics with visuals, a lot of upbeat acts, which is a bit like Wael’s taste and projects and a lot of mixing between traditional and electronics. That was Wael’s signature stamp. With Maurice, it’s more experimental, electronic, but also with a twist.”

As showcased by his album with Maryam Saleh & Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Lekhfa (a Top of the World in #134), Louca has a taste for the experimental and alternative; music that defies boundaries and genres, which is reflected in the line-up. From the agitprop performance art of Porest to the homegrown angry punk of Lebanese musician Kid Fourteen or the hallucinogenic folk of Richard Dawson, the music is loud and weird in all the right ways. For the 2018 edition there won’t be a curator, but with new board members joining the crew, Semaan assures me the line-up, which is yet to be announced, will be just as expertly chosen.

Beirut & Beyond is a showcase festival with roughly 20 to 30 invited European professionals, who participate in conference sessions during the day. But the audiences in the evening are mostly local and offer international festival-goers a taste of the city’s arts scene. The line-up is condensed, featuring roughly ten bands, and programmed so that audiences can hear every band, rather than having to choose between multiple simultaneous concerts. Semaan explains that this was a deliberate choice. “In the first edition it wasn’t that way, it was different venues at the same time. At the time, the idea was to make people walk around the city and experience different venues, but the city is not ready yet for this because there aren’t many close, good places that you can really walk to, so people were missing some of the acts.”

Beirut is a bacchanalia of nightclubs and venues, and the event has curated its use of space as well as the music. Other than the opening night at the Grand Factory, the remaining concerts of 2017 are held in the cultural hub, KED. “It’s a virgin venue normally that’s empty,” says Semaan of the recently transformed warehouse. The building is located in the neighbourhood of Karantina, which has a particularly terrible history; the infamous Karantina Massacre of 1976 killed approximately 1,500 people early in the civil war. KED, once overrun by militiamen, was regenerated as a cultural space in 2016. Boasting a hedonistic vibe woven with a hint of tragic memories, the revamped KED proves to be a perfect venue for the range of alternative music on offer.

In fact it’s that edge that makes the city so fascinating. Beirut conveys a joie de vivre as well as – or perhaps precisely because of – the faint shadow of tragedy and struggle that still hangs over it. There’s a pulsing nightlife that seems to challenge any political tension, calling for joy and dancing instead. The buzz has a hint of chaos to it that makes Beirut a poor choice of destination if you prefer your holidays relaxing and quiet. But for those who enjoy a touch of wildness, Beirut is welcomed as a city of counterculture and hedonism. Beirut & Beyond taps into this vein of the alternative and is a must for anyone interested in edgy, independent music from the Arab region. 

+ DATES This year’s festival is December 6-9 2018
+ ONLINE www.beirutandbeyond.net

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