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Lucy Knight

To cancel, or not to cancel?

Concerts facing cancellation due to regional tension – what’s new?

Byblos
Byblos

Summer time and music festivals go hand in hand. For Lebanon, it seems that all fun events held in a public arena that gather more than ten people together always run the risk of being cancelled at the last minute. Year after year festivals like Byblos and Baalbek run the gauntlet, making their bookings of big acts and keeping their fingers crossed until the night, praying that nothing hinders their ability to entertain paying fans.

Often, it is the international acts who are the first to cancel. This year, despite the ongoing war in Syria, many of the singers and the bands (even those from abroad) did come. There was Lana Del Ray and the Pet Shop Boys at Byblos, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ramsey Lewis at Beiteddine, and - although she cancelled her appearance at the (relocated) Baalbeck Festival - Marianne Faithful was kept away because of health problems rather than fears about the security situation.

From August 21 onwards, however, with the alleged chemical attack in Syria, discussions between promoters and performers changed – ‘should we go?’ ‘can we risk it?’ This country is no stranger to the risks of booking foreign acts: last summer clashes in Tripoli saw Sean Paul cancel a concert at Eddé Sands Resort; and just plain old politics can keep the performers away – last year again, Lara Fabian was boycotted for singing, four years previously, at a celebration of 60 years of Israel.

So it was hardly a surprise, when the Syrian situation appeared to be heading to a different level, that imminent concerts felt the impact. Most talked about was Creamfields. An offshoot of the famous UK based festival, this was going to be Beirut’s first time hosting the electronic music gathering, which was set to feature performers like Gunther & Stamina, Steve Angello and Ronin & Nesta. Just two days before the event was to take place it was cancelled. “To say it was a surprise is not the right word,” said Lebanon based organiser for the event Jean-Carl Saliba; “we had already discussed the possibility after the bombing in Dahiyeh.”

According to Saliba of JK58, an events promotions company, it was clear from the cancellation message from the UK that the brand got scared: “having to take responsibility for the artists” was seen to be too much. It was of course very disappointing for the close to 5,000 fans, (who all got their money back) but the frustration for those who have spent time organizing such an event is twofold – they spend time on something that becomes fruitless and they potentially have to do it all again. “There are two bad things that can happen for a promoter,” says Saliba: “to cancel a show or put on one that no one comes to. The worst has happened for us, so…”

For Beirut and Beyond, a partner with the Oslo World Music Festival, the story was similar: “due to the unstable situation in Lebanon, in the region, but especially in Syria… The festival will be on again in December, hoping that the Middle East will soon be stable and back to be again being a scene of prospering culture.” Their Facebook posting on the postponement of their series of gigs, talks, and roundtables lays it all out neatly and answers the questions anyone might have about why a foreigner coming to Lebanon might suddenly say, ‘yep, not this month.’

For four nights in September they were to host more than 25 artists from all over the world and, like Creamfields, it was to be a first for Lebanon. As one organizer, Amani Semaan put it, “we’re waiting for the all clear.” So, just like someone with an illness, Lebanon has to wait until it’s well again before people trust it enough to keep them safe.

It seems that the only way forward at present is to host concerts and shows that include only locals. Wicker Park, an annual event in a field in Batroun, went ahead without a hiccup last weekend, and attracted about 3,000 people. “We have only Lebanese acts,” said organizer Georges Junior Daou, “and they’re all kind of fearless.”

Despite the increased tension that the country has experienced in the last few weeks, Daou and his fellow organizers were willing to take the risk. “The crowd we are attracting is tired of the situation, so we decided to carry on. As a promoter I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the Creamfields people and it was a real shame it was cancelled. I had a ticket and was really looking forward to it.  We need more projects like this in Lebanon.”

Cancellations are not a permanent deterrent, for Saliba for one: “we’re Lebanese and we’re trying to build an entertainment circuit in the region. We can bring everything together with music and so we do what we can.”

The Pet Shop Boys playing Byblos Festival earlier this summer (image © Wael Hamzeh via Facebook)

just like someone with an illness, Lebanon has to wait until it’s well again before people trust it enough to keep them safe