Lebanon’s summer music festivals range from chic to psytrance

From international concerts by the sea to gatherings at a family estate, Lebanon’s festivals offer a variety for music lovers.

al-monitor Lebanese singer Ramy Ayach performs at the opening of the Baalbek International Festival, Baalbek, Lebanon, July 7, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

baalbek, beirut, artists, culture, yoga, lebanese society, music, music festival

Jul 9, 2017

Summer in Lebanon brings to mind the blazing sun, beaches and music festivals that fill schedules from June to September. The festivals are everywhere, from Beirut to Tyre, as well as in Baalbek, Beiteddine, at beach camps and as part of municipality events where different types of music animate the hot nights, with thousands of people joining in the fun.

Fete de la Musique is a French music festival that for 17 years has kick-started Lebanon’s long, hot summer of music. Beirut was the first foreign city to adopt this event, which was launched in France on June 21, 1982, by former Culture Minister Jack Lang. This music festival, organized and coordinated by the French Institute, sets up stages and concerts in the parks and squares of the city.

“For the French Institute and embassy in Lebanon, this is indeed the highlight of our yearly cultural program,” Veronique Aulagnon, the director of the French Institute, told Al-Monitor. “It is one of the events where we are really on the first line. It goes way above our usual work as a support of culture in the country.”

Unlike most of the summer festivals, Fete de la Musique is free of charge. This makes it appealing to young people and large families. For many struggling musicians, Fete de la Musique provides their first audience.

“It is first a very strong symbol in a region touched by war and terrorism,” Aulagnon said. “Lebanese people have adopted it completely and the music festival is now rooted in their life. New activities and new venues join in every year. This year, some 15 cities participated and tens of thousands of people came to this event. It shows again how Lebanon is important in the region in terms of its cultural capital.”

Born out of the impulse of former President Camille Chamoun in 1956, the Baalbek International Festival, the oldest in the country, takes its name from its location, an ancient Phoenician city with a beautiful old Roman temple. The festival showcases theater, dance, music and other performances with famous artists such as Angelique Kidjo, who will perform on July 16, and Ibrahim Maalouf, who performs on July 22.

“Last year we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the festival,” Nayla de Freige, the president of the Baalbek International Festival, told Al-Monitor. “This year, we had a special show created by Lebanese artists especially for the festival,” she said, referring to "Celebrating the Lebanese Nights" on July 7.

Freige said that there was a need to promote culture in the city of Baalbek, as it still had a reputation for instability. “Baalbek is a very difficult place. We had to cancel two years in a row because of attacks in the region. Last year we moved it at the last minute. For the time being, all looks good.”

Both Baalbek and the Byblos International Festival, which has taken place in the ancient Mediterranean city of Byblos since 1998, target a middle- and upper-middle-class audience, as the entry fee is considerable, although there are reductions for the locals and groups. Byblos’ program this year has international artists who will give seaside concerts. Latifa Lakis, the president of the festival, believes the festival both creates awareness of the city’s heritage and encourages tourism through a good international and local program.

Besides Lebanon’s well-known and chic festivals, there are also multitudes of lesser known, small beach or mountain camp festivals that last two or three days and cater to different tastes. These smaller festivals are very careful to omit trouble with the authorities over drugs, nudity and other vices.

One of the oldest is Forestronika, which was a psytrance music festival from 2008 to 2014. It is now a two-day beach camp and will remain so until 2018, when the organizers plan to revert to the older version.

“We chose to stop because several other festivals had been shut down by the authorities. Apparently, a lot of important people don’t like young Lebanese partying in nature,” Nicole Salwan, the co-founder of Forestronika, told Al-Monitor.

“We wanted it to calm down before starting again, so we only held three to four musical weekends on the beach, with electronic DJs as well as live bands of world music, activities like yoga and body painting. It is full of positive vibes, with peace and love.” The next event will be held July 15-16 in Damour, a city south of Beirut. It will combine the positive vibes of peace with a circus theme.

Another electronic camp, Hexaplex, focuses on two different stages once a year: one for psychedelic music and the other for more alternative music that aims to relax. “We aim to reconnect people with nature [and help them] relax and get out of their corporate lifestyle,” Randi Stephan, the co-founder of Hexaplex, told Al-Monitor. “It is to connect with other people but also help achieve a sustainable lifestyle through workshops about renewable energy and permaculture.”

Like Salwan, he also emphasized the need to thread carefully to avoid problems with the authorities. He keeps a watchful eye on drugs and nudity. “Religious authorities used to shut down rock and metal concerts. Now when you do yoga, you are a Satanist,” he said. “We also pursue a no-drug policy with Skoun, a Lebanese addiction center that helps people with addiction problems to be treated and followed back to society. They also raise awareness and try to prevent drug use in Lebanon.”

He added, “After all, the only way to really open up is with meditation, not drugs, even though it is impossible to control everything that comes in [to the festival].”

Some of the musical initiatives have started as gatherings of friends and have attracted a larger audience. Oakenfest’s organizer, Elsa Saade, holds the annual event at her family’s estate by the sea in Lehfed. “We were just a bunch of friends having fun and that turned to be bigger than expected, so we decided to turn our yearly gathering in an event with bands. Then we integrated writing and design workshops,” Saade told Al-Monitor. “We just want people to go out of the city and listen to music.”

These small beach camps usually host around 1,000 people, while a new kind of festival, WickerPark, has attracted 3,000-4,000 visitors each year since 2011. This festival supports local independent artists while promoting a zero-waste environment.

“To be honest, I was a young graduate who didn’t want to work in an advertising company,” Georges Junior Daou, the director and co-founder of WickerPark, told Al-Monitor. “There was a real lack of festivals for local artists. We usually bring one famous band to attract people so they can discover other bands they don’t know, playing indie, rock, punk and so on. It is a very cool festival.” The next event is planned for the weekend of Sept. 9, and the band Who Killed Bruce Lee is expected to play, but the program is yet to be determined.

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