Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Beirut and Beyond: A musical kaleidoscope

NOW speaks to Amani Semaan about the first Beirut & Beyond Music Festival

Congolese rapper Baloji
Jagwa Music
Iraqi oud virtuoso Khyam Allami is part of the Beirut & Beyond line-up
Maurice Louca from Egypt is one of the highlights of Beirut & Beyond
Ziad Nawfal
Maryam Saleh will close the first day of Beirut & Beyon
The Tarek Yamani trio is a Lebanese-Slovenian musical collaboration
Norwegian jazz saxophonist Trygve Seim is part of BBIMF

Featuring dozens of accomplished musicians from three continents, spreading across venues, and bringing together a veritable kaleidoscope of musical genres, the first installment of Beirut & Beyond International Musical Festival (BBIMF) promises to be an absolute treat.


Driven by a need to establish a new platform showcasing regional and international independent music, the organizers are bringing more than 14 acts and 40 musicians from Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, Jordan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Greece, Slovenia and Norway to six venues in Beirut from December 5-8.


Through the BBIMF’s artistic director Khaled Yassine, a musician who has toured with Norwegian jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, a link was established with the Oslo World Music Festival, a partner to the festival. “In 2012, the Oslo World Music Festival wanted to have a concert here in Beirut and were looking for organizers,” festival director Amani Semaan told NOW. “We got involved but we also told them that we’d been wanting to create a new festival. When we met the Oslo World Music Festival director, Alexandra Archetti Stølen, who is also the President of the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals, we talked about our ambitions and ideas to start a festival. She was impressed by the idea, and given that they were at that point looking at setting up a satellite festival outside Oslo...”


Initially scheduled for September, due to a volatile situation in the country, festival organizers decided to reschedule the event. “We plan to host future festivals in September,” Semaan clarified.


The honor of opening the festival was conferred on Khyam Allami, a London-based Iraqi musician who made a name for himself as a metal drummer before traveling across the Middle East to master the oud.


Following Allami’s performance at the American University of Beirut (AUB)’s Assembly Hall, which will be based on his first oud solo album Resonance/Dissonance, will be Jawhar and Maryam Saleh. Prior to embarking on his own musical career, Tunisian artist Jawhar played with well-known performers rooted in assorted musical traditions, such as funk musician Keziah Jones, British Indian singer Shusheela Raman, and Boubacar Traoré from Mali. While Jawhar’s music has a strong folksy feel to it, he remains close to his home country Tunisia’s chaâbi music. He considers himself a citizen artist besides being a musician, actor, and playwright.


Born into an artistic and musical household, Egyptian musician Maryam Saleh started singing and writing from a very young age. Her soulful renditions of legendary protest singer Sheik Imam made her famous in her home country.


The first night of the four-day festival exemplifies the organizers’ efforts to expose audiences to a broad range of musical genres while also tapping into and celebrating the universality of music’s language. “Never before has the work for the encouragement of cultural diversity been more important than right now,” reads a festival statement.


Asked whether the lack of so-called world music in Lebanon was a reflection of a lack of demand, a lack of openness of venues, or costs and logistics such as visas, Semaan replied that a bit of everything applied.


“The logistic part in Lebanon is hard to do, you need to be established, to know the right people, to get visas, deal with taxes. You might pay taxes higher than for the artist’s fee! Promoters are not taking risks, and the music scene is very much divided, there is too much underground-and-mainstream, which makes it hard to bring quality music here.”


Semaan agrees with most musicians concerned that the label “world music” is an unfortunate one. “Our festival is just a music festival, international music festival. The world music label limits, as we have rock, rap, jazz, Oriental, Afrobeat, electronic music – we have everything. World music for an American is any music. The name hence is a problem.”


The line-up features a number of musicians who will be performing for the first time in Beirut, even the Middle East, notably Baloji, a rapper from the DRC, who grew up in Belgium where he discovered the medium he’d come to master. Baloji, who is getting big in Europe, will perform with his new band the Orchestre de la Katuba as the final act on the last night at DRM and promises an intoxicating dose of hot beats and French rhymes.


East Africa’s music scene, long overshadowed by the output on the West coast, has come into its own, with Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam boasting vibrant music scenes and notable crossover outfits such as Ethiopia’s Dub Colossus and Nairobi’s Eric Wainaina.


Jagwa Music, which emerged 21 years ago in a poor neighborhood of Tanzania’s capital, have succeeded both in creating their own musical style, referred to as Mchiriku Music, and also in having a significant impact on popular culture. Hard to classify, their music has been described as Afro Punk. “We chose this act, because if we don’t bring them to Beirut nobody will!” Semaan explained. “”They sing in Swahili. Everybody will dance.”


Announced as “by far the most exciting collaboration project at Beirut & Beyond,” El Far3i/El Rass/Munma (also known as Jawad Nawfal) “consists of three Arab artists presenting an explosive mixture of protest music, hip hop, and electronica.” The trio, with roots in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, is certain to wow local audiences who may be familiar with El Rass’ verbal dexterity and his frequent collaborator Nawfal, who has released a number of solo projects. Far3i is a percussionist, guitarist, singer, and rapper, living in Amman but rooted in Palestine.


Norwegian jazz saxophonist Trygge Westheim and Fraude Haltli were keen to come to Beirut and discover the local music scene. Semaan is excited that they will be collaborating with well-known local singer Oumeima al-Khalil.


The Oslo World Music Festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, is known for facilitating various collaborations during their festival. While this was not possible for BBIFM this year, Semaan and her team hope that at least this festival, which brings such a diverse set of artists together, might create new collaborations.


Starting with one round table with Archetti Stølen on the importance of networking and how it can create opportunities to develop the Lebanese music scene, BBIFM foresees more lectures and workshops as part of the festival next year. “This is also one of the main objectives of the festival, to create an infrastructure for music but especially to organize lectures and workshops with international professionals to develop more the projects,” Semaan elaborated.


“The thing is that the Arab World is a fertile place for music projects, production, festivals, and more, especially in Lebanon. The challenge everyone has is sustainability, and I think this is because of two main reasons: 1) no support from any governmental party, which means it’s always a personal initiative, and 2) a lack of know-how and expertise. So, since the first one is hard to fix, we could work on the second one. A network can be the perfect platform to share expertise, to set work plans and to create communication between everyone in the field,” she said.


In order not to compete with anyone, the festival chose different venues. “We wanted the festival to join in with key actors and the music scene, to add value,” added Semaan, who had previously worked at Metropolis Association and subsequently founded Blue Lyme, a tour management company, with Ziad Fayed, BBIMF’s technical manager.


“It will of course not be done from the first edition, but we really hope that in the coming editions our festival will be an established platform that local and regional musicians can count on for international exposure and that Lebanese audiences can count on for quality music.”


Semaan, who loves music and wishes she’d played an instrument, hopes to take the festival to Tripoli next year.


“This festival is very important because it introduces international artists to the local scene as well as the Middle Eastern scene,” Sarah Nohra, Marketing Manager/Assistant Production Manager of Metro al-Madina, told NOW. “The festival is not about one style or a specific background but it's really mixed and varied which also meets with the objectives of Metro al-Madina. We're really looking forward to meeting all bands and artists specially the ones we haven't heard before,” she added.


Seim, Haltli, and Khalil as well as Jagwa Music will be performing at the Metro al-Madina on December 6.


“We really need more festivals like this one, where you get to meet beautiful artists and exchange knowledge and culture. The underground scene needs this because there's no other way for it to emerge and exchange music.”


Given the frequently commercial choices musical festivals make when it comes to programming, this new addition is a fantastic initiative, an opportunity for foreign artists to blend their music with local sounds and for audiences to dip into new cultures.


The BBIMF runs from December 5-8. For tickets or details on concerts and venues, consult their Facebook page and follow on Twitter @BBIMF




Congolese rapper Baloji will be performing at Beirut & Beyond. (Image courtesy of Jerome Bonnet)

“This festival is very important because it introduces international artists to the local scene as well as the Middle Eastern scene."