The Pride of Lebanon: Baalbak Festival Comes Back to Life

Sami Asmar

Reprinted from Arab Community Magazine

After a long civil war, the inherent beauty of art can bring a bright hope to a country striving for renewal. Lebanon had been recognized for its natural beauty that attracted tremendous tourism, and for its artistic beauty which was exported to other Arab nations. Its glory was interrupted by a long armed conflict that saddened the world and threatened the soul of a beautiful country. The return of glorious nights of the festival at the temples of Baalbak, the ancient Roman city north of the capital spurred a recovery of the aesthetic traditions of Lebanon.

In the twenties, a small group of Lebanese and French romantics picked the ruins of the Acropolis to meet and recite their poetry, establishing the modern use of Baalbak for public gatherings. Other events were held there in the forties, leading to the ultimate establishment of the international festival that took shape in 1955 with the first official season in the summer of 1956. From the start, the relatively unknown nation managed to attract well-known European artists and other music, dance, and theatre companies, of the like of the Paris and Milan Operas. Over the years, participants formed a list of who's who in the arts, from royal ballets of leading nations to Ella Fitzgerald, from the New York Philharmonic to the Shakespeare Open Air Theatre.

Leading Arab artists of the time were not left out; Um Kulthum and other great Arab artists performed at Baalbak. The biggest accomplishment of the festival, however, was to present young Lebanese artists, making household names of Fairuz, Sabah, Wadi es-Safi, Nasr Shamsideen, and the brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani, as well the dance company of Abdulhalim Caracalla. The nucleus of a generation of legendary artists was formed at the International Baalbak Festival. The 1974 season was the last before the war created a hiatus of twenty-two years.

When the festival committee announced the return of activities in 1997, everybody expected, hoped, and even prayed for the return of the Rahbani family, now missing Fairuz's husband, the late Assi, but includes their son Ziad as well as cousin Elias. The most famous living Arab singer and the crown jewel of Lebanese music, Fairuz, got her fame on the steps of those temples in feature presentations the Rahbani brothers called "Lebanese Nights." Every season, a musical play was typically introduced with half-a-dozen Fairuz songs that resonated for the rest to the year and, as it has become clear, for many years to come. Products of the festival, Rahbani and others, are now generally treated as Lebanese "folklore."

Sadly, however, the first season was not to include Fairuz. Negotiations between the committee and Mansour Rahbani failed to cover the fees and expenses required; the Caracalla Dance Company was featured instead. This year, however, perhaps due to public outrage, all involved were motivated to ensure the return of Fairuz to Baalbak and money was not spared.

In addition to Fairuz, the 1998 season featured classical music of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Sttutgart, Germany, Jazz from American pianist and composer Herbie Hancock and his quartet, American Nina Simone whose repertoire includes Jazz, gospel, and blues, Urban Sax and Fire Organ, and Fadia el-Hage. El-Hage is a Lebanese artist (daughter of painter Maroun Tonb) recruited as a child by the Rahbani brothers. She resides Germany, where she learned operatic singing, and performs with a group called the Ensemble Sarband that feautres medieval traditional music of Europe and the Near East.

For their part, the Rahbani family prepared a treat. They made difficult choices and controversial decisions in the process of preparing of the big event. Facing the question of bringing new material or presenting past material associated with the glory of Baalbak and the Rahbani history, they chose the later with the exception of two new songs.

Fairuz and the group presented excerpts from the Baalbak musical productions: 1962's Moon Bridge (Jisril 'Amar), 1968's Granite Mountains (Jbaal es-Suwaan), and 1973's Keeper of the Keys (Natourtil Mafateeh). In typical Rahbani fashion, Fairuz's new songs, picked by her for the occasion, were lyrically dramatic. Elias Rahbani wrote Ma'ak (With You) a nationalistic "love song" and Mansour Rahbani wrote The Last Time I Sang For You (Akhr Marra Ghanaytillak) in which Fairuz addresses Lebanon and ends with the emphatic phrase "I want to build my nation!"

Although by all accounts, the return of Fairuz to Baalbak was extremely well received by the nostalgic public and officials at all levels, including presidential attendance, critics and newspaper columnists analyzed every detail, word, note, dance or the laser and slide show to pieces. The Rahbanis gave plenty to keep them busy writing. Among the difficult decisions made by the producers was portions of the show, mostly when accompanied by dabke dance, that Fairuz would lip synch and the orchestra's microphones were turned off. Although this was done to prevent voice exhaustion of the 62-year old star in the long show, the press was offended. They were not the only ones, Fairuz's eccentric and brilliant musician son did not bother to show up at all, reportedly leaving the group wondering about him, in protest of the lip synching. He had a piano solo that he refused to pretend to play with microphone turned off. According to one newspaper report, they rolled away the piano, as a result of his absence, but were embarrassed to hear the piano sound from the recording with no actual instrument on stage.

Controversy apart, since it may have been unavoidable considering the magnitude and difficulty of the event, the brilliance and beauty of Fairuz's voice and delivery stand forever. The musical presentation was beautifully executed, each selected for its significance in the historical development of the Rahbanis and the festival over the years as well as the its great artistic and nationalistic ideas and concepts. The Rahbani family gave Baalbak back a memory of what it gave them, their glory, and the International Baalbak Festival is as before, the pride of the nation.

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