Welcome to Beirut: Irtijal festival 2017

Welcome to Beirut: Irtijal festival 2017

May 1, 2017

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Dragoș Rusu

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´Beirut used to be the pearl of the Orient´, the taxi driver tells us back in Bucharest, while I keep thinking of the past 5 days spent there.

I have never been to Lebanon before and now, after my first trip there, I feel I know even less about the Arab world and its people than before. The more you know, the less you understand.

´How are the people there? ´ a friend is asking me. I just caught one line of Lebanese WiFi signal at the hotel and as I´m trying to reply, I realize that the keyboard of my ´smart´ phone just got broken and I can´t type anything anymore. The only thing I could eventually reply is ´:)´.

Five days later I keep thinking about this question and I can assume that still, being an European nowadays has to deal a lot more with fabricating an own identity and using preconceptions as tools for thinking than it used to in the past. You need to have categories, ranks, complex schemes of rating systems, control, ideas about the world, and ideas about control. The exoticism of the Middle East, of poverty, the induced fear of Muslims and the constant urge of being politically correct has made Europeans lose the battle with themselves, struggling to shape an own identity.

I am in Beirut with buddy Scoro for the Irtijal festival, an event I´ve been trying to attend for some years but never had the chance to. A couple of hours after we left our belongings at the hotel, we´re sitting on a bench somewhere central, having a beer. It´s unsurprisingly hot outside. The coffee is good; or at least the one I slowly sipped from very small cups, on several occasions. Time has absolutely no meaning when you don´t pay attention to it. It doesn´t exist at all, since it is linked and absorbed by each and everyone´s own perception.

While we´re enjoying all the little things that an observer trapped in the tourist condition could enjoy in his first hours in a new town, the guards are carrying their automatic rifles as if they take their dogs for a walk outside the Beirut International Airport. Here, a Kalashnikov seems like a natural accessory to any 20 something youngster that controls and directs the car traffic. I never carried a weapon, never touched one, I guess, and I’m thinking of becoming one. And now I see it 40 cm in front of me, in all its grandeur. The weapon is shiny and clean. It opens up in my mind a tiny Pandora’s Box of multiple views and aspects of Death. I assume that here you think of Death differently than back home. This awareness of Death can remodel the social common thinking and turn people into more natural, honest and true human beings, especially in the countries that had to suffer various forms of oppression throughout their history.

Irtijal, meaning improvisation in Arab, has become over the years a secret fountain of sound for the cultural life of the city. Its founders are all musicians; if they are not or don’t want to admit that, at least we can say for certain that music plays a big role in their lives. The need for evolution and innovation in sound as well as the struggle of overcoming boundaries and stereotypes is an obvious key element in these gentlemen’s minds. The festival itself started with a radical attitude towards music, which naturally led later to creating a good environment for experimentation with new prospects of sound.

Pay later

From a room located at the 7th floor of a hotel from the Sagesse University, the sound of dozens of children playing and screaming becomes part of our very short morning life in Beirut. I am thinking now, some weeks later, that in the end, all I want is to apologize to the lady from the hotel reception that I didn’t have 1 euro to pay the Pepsi can from the mini bar, when I left. As it happened with all the Lebanese people that I met throughout 5 days in Beirut, the lady was nice and kept assuring me that it’s ok. No stress about it. When in Beirut, you can pay later.

Festival mood

We finally get into the festival mood when arriving at Metro Al Madina, a venue frequently used by Irtijal. They were all there, the ones that we knew already and also the ones that we were about to meet, preparing for the first act of the 17th edition of the festival, the excellent duo of Michel Doneda (soprano) and Lê Quan Ninh (percussion). Their silent performance sets the intriguing overall feel that floats throughout the small room. Rabih Beaini with Sofia Jernberg take things to a whole different level, using and abusing vocals and electronics in order to create an intense sonic journey. The last acts of this first night of Irtijal presents Lebanese duo Fadi Tabbal & radiokvm, comprising Fadi Tabbal on electric guitar & electronics, and Sary Moussa on electronics.

One of the most exciting acts to experience at Irtijal was the collective ensemble performance led by Tarek Atoui, on Thursday, at Ashkal Alwan workspace. This performance was part of an electronic music workshop that took place in Beirut in December 2016, in collaboration with music networking platform Simsara and renowned Swedish electronic studio EMS, in parallel to Beirut & Beyond International Music Festival. The workshop invited musicians from Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia to collaborate with talented Swedish producers and engineers Mats Lindström and Daniel Araya, in the creation of customized electronic instruments for use in subsequent live and studio performances. The Lebanese electronic specialist Tarek Atoui conducted a group of 7 musicians: Marc Codsi, Zied Meddeb Hamrouni, Mazen Kerbaj, Thomas Lehn, Mats Lindström, Nadah el Shazly and Adham Zidan.

Lebanese - Canadian duo The Cripple: Khodor Ellaik aka Kid Fourteen on percussion, guitar, electronics, vocals and Alex Zhang Hungtai (formerly Dirty Beaches) on tenor sax, percussion electronics and vocals. It was all about intensity. Wild ritualistic rhythms, healing ceremonial music, similar to early Swans gigs, but sonically more interesting. - Scoro

The only earless siamese triplets in the Middle East, “A” Trio were joined by soprano saxophone legend Michel Doneda, in the lovely Onomatopoeia Music Hub, a fundraiser concept space, first of its kind in the region.

´The trio seems to love long gestures, all acoustic, making me think of Stockhausen teaching his players to imagine themselves having infinite space and time, and also of the legendary deaf musicians from Turkistan, people who play music using string instruments whose vibrations they can feel through their bones. Described by Alan Bishop as “Godzilla’s Mediterranean noise band just emerged from the sea to piss on the corniche, guzzling raw meat, palace cupcakes and Johnny gently” the trio just clicked with Michel Doneda’s blind man approach. This is the kind of thing that would be interesting to capture with a moving sound recordist, as are Doneda’s other performances with Le Quan Ninh.´ - Scoro

At the palace with Sharif Sehnaoui

On Saturday noon we gathered at the Palace for lunch. I was really excited about finally seeing the Palace, since I´ve heard about it from Philipp Schmickl´s stories, a few years ago (part 1 and part 2). I felt like walking in his shoes for a while. We had a couple of very good arak glasses and a lovely lunch in the company of Sharif Sehnaoui, one of the organizers of Irtijal, his mother, Nayla Bustros, and several musicians from different parts of the world that participated in the festival.

´How we connected and how we placed ourselves in the cultural map of the city is very much about how the city of Beirut itself developed, which was kind a cultural leap for the Arab world. It’s one of the only towns where you have a relatively big freedom of expression and the possibility of presenting any type of work, numerous venues from which you can choose, and a good infrastructure. This town has taken a contemporary twist in terms of art: not only for avant-garde, experimental and contemporary music, but also for dance music and theatre. You can find many edge-thickening disciplines or artists in all arts. This might be due to a complex mixture of cultures from the town, which is a like a melting pot for the Arab world: of religions, cultures, ideas...´, Sharif is telling me, while one of his children frolics around the beautiful garden from the back of the palace.

Digging a bit more in Irtijal, I ask Sharif if nowadays, after 16 years, he is still encountering difficulties. ´Of course´, he replies. ´The growth was quite impressive: from audience, to budget, to the number of concerts and guests, to the level of the musicians we invite. The whole scene is completely different from how it used to be back in 2001, 2002. If you have enough people, passion and enough positive feedback to keep you going, then you just need to have endurance, because it takes time to build the audience and to develop your own skills as organizers. We made mistakes and learned from them... we kept going and eventually learned to do things better. But I think we are still learning, we still do mistakes´.

One thing is absolutely clear though, and this is very personal to Sharif and Mazen, as well as for the rest of the team. ´We want to keep it a festival made by musicians, for musicians. We don’t really want to institutionalize it, because it would lose some of its character.´

The process of choosing artists and doing the artistic program is quite different from year to year. Sharif usually has the last word in deciding the programme, mostly because he´s the one to decide if a certain project is financially feasible or not for the scene in Beirut. ´In the past years I really enjoyed working with guest curators, people who curate part of the programme. Like Mazen Kerbaj who did a big part of the programme last year. Rabih Beaini made guest curation in several editions. Paed Conca curated a big part of the programme in 2015. I like to give freedom to someone else to make decisions, because it would diversify the programme and bring other ideas. It works very well. We also had Radwan Moumneh (Jerusalem in my Heart) as guest curators, and of course, the members of the team who all have some propositions... depending on the year. But in the end you have to see if they are financially feasible.´

This year it’s a very different Irtijal than the previous ones, in many ways. It’s more like a game than actual curation. ´It’s more like setting up a game, and some rules, and then you see what comes out. It’s really funny to me actually, because it’s the first time I do something like this. Which was basically to focus on analog electronics and to set up this workshop with EMS that happened in December, where I told all the participants that they have total freedom to present whatever they want at the festival. So I had no censorship over it. I was expecting 8 or 9 participants to propose projects, but in the end 13 of them proposed projects, that also had the possibility of being part of an ensemble. So 80% of the programme was decided in December, and a few special guests in addition that are connected with the analog culture, such as Rabih Beaini and Thomas Lehn. The only thing that is not connected to this line were Le Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda that were in their 30th anniversary tour, so they also joined as we really wanted them here.´

Sharif was influenced by Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria, which he was attending in the late 90’s. ´Not as a musician, just as a young guy with a backpack and a tent. Actually it was there in Nickelsdorf where I got the idea of making something similar to what I was witnessing there. But the scene in Beirut wasn’t really ready for something like this, so I had to adapt it to people that have never heard free jazz or improvised music before.´

He thought about the idea of making the festival somehow kaleidoscopic. ´To be able to present all these different musical practices so that people, in time, would understand. At first we tried to make it as diverse as possible in terms of music, so people can experience different approaches. It’s funny because I feel that today all festivals are becoming like this, except very few specialized festivals, and I think that’s a very good model. They seem to encompass electronic music, with free improv, with free jazz, with noise/rock and contemporary music. At CTM festival for instance all of this is present, in every edition. From innovative traditional music, all the way up to crazy noise and experimental stuff. So this is what we were trying to do on a smaller level since the first editions.´

As a musician, he developed together with his festival, in a way. ´But as a musician, I wouldn’t say that I am specifically inspired by the acts I book. I try to be inspired by everything and anything, from things I see even from other art fields... like movies to other musicians, concerts I see when I’m touring, to weird stuff I listen to. So I wouldn’t say that I specifically take my inspiration from the festival. But some it comes from it, for sure.´

At the palace with Nayla Bustros

Sharif´s mother, Nayla Bustros:

´I wait every year, all the year around for Irtijal, because I am addicted of improvised music and it´s not good, because most of the music that I used to like, I don´t like anymore. When I go to movies and I hear the violins and the drums playing and announcing a romantic scene and then the violin stops, then you know there is going to be a romantic scene, then the drums are playing and you know it’s going to be a fighting scene. I don´t like it. It’s predictable. But I have seen a few movies with improvised music and it’s something incredible. So I wait every year, 365 days for this festival. Sometimes, during the year, we have one or two improvised music concerts; tomorrow I will be so sad because it´s finished.

I lived it from the beginning till now. Every year I discovered real improvisation. The festival grew after 3 – 4 years and we had so many interesting and great musicians coming to Beirut.

I used to go with some of my friends at improvised music concerts. They were sitting, attending and they would laugh and laugh and laugh, because they thought it would be something comic. It was for them something comic. And I would tell them ´go out, please go out´, and then later I would say them ´you laugh. When you laugh, you are happy. Even if you are laughing at something, you are happy. So you are happy.´ Some of them came back and they got used to it and this kind of music entered their minds. Like Sharif used to say in the beginning.. First time you see a Picasso painting.. first time you look at it.. You´re like ´oh my god, what´s this horrible thing I´m looking at?´ Now, you are listening to a very bizarre thing. But this is the experience, this is the novelty. And some of them, until now, are like me, completely addicted to this music. Others never came back..

Irtijal is not a big festival, but a small one. First years we used to have 50-60-80 people coming. And then, each year it would grow. Now we have about 300 persons who like and understand improvised music. Young people are curious about this music. They are not like 40 year old people with narrow minds. It’s good that many youngsters are coming.

The musicians like to come and they write to Sharif ´we want to come´. They love being here, they love playing here. It changes them from Europe or the States. They feel there is a change, something is going on here.

I can´t leave the house for more than 5 days and I hate the planes, so I don´t travel anymore. I would love to go to Nickelsdorf, for example. When I used to travel, in the past, Les Instants Chavirés in Paris was one of the first and best places for improvised music. That´s where I got to learn about and to experiment improvised music. Also, there was a festival in France, called Banlieues Bleues, and I used to go to France because my children Sharif and Sara were studying there. But this was not an improvised festival; it was a wide festival, with jazz, with some concerts of improvised music that I loved. I didn´t go somewhere else. Never been to Germany or Austria, so don´t ask me this question, as I am not a good witness of them.

First contact with improvised music? I wasn´t laughing, I was suffering. I went to see Sharif, he was studying in Paris, and he never explained me anything. He said once ´let´s go to Instants Chavirés´. I would sit and I would hear bizarre and incredible sounds. There was a guy who had a contra bass and a saw. The guy who had drums, had chains coming down and falling. I suffered for like 6-7-8 concerts. I suffered. What am I hearing? Then, one night I put on some soft earplugs. I was sitting very comfortable on the floor and I almost fell half asleep. When the concert finished I told Sharif that it seemed to me I was in a farm house, and there were ducks and pigs, and then, suddenly, we were in a forest, and there were elephants, and then airplanes, and trains passing by. He said, ´now you understood it´. From that evening I loved it. Often, when I take friends to a concert, I tell them to close their eyes, and to imagine. You don´t know who is playing. Close your eyes and think, dream! Many friends told me that it was very good, because they told me about their dreams. It was like the music. They got to understand it and to like it.

It´s a great moment, a great experience. I am used to listen to improvised music for 17 years. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I still wonder ´what instrument is playing now? What musician is playing now?´ And I open my eyes and it´s not what I think. It´s a whole new experience. And the visual it´s very important also. Like yesterday, at Yukunkun club, to look at Thomas (Lehn) playing, (with Tiziana Bertoncini), his whole body is playing, incredible! His face! And this also is very important. I tell people sometimes – open your eyes and look at the musician. He expresses so much. Some of them are very cool. Like Sharif plays, he´s playing guitar, but not on chords, he is scratching and banging. Visual it´s very important. Sometimes they stop. They don´t move, they don´t make a sound. They listen to other musicians. And you are listening with them and then he goes on again. It´s a complete experience.

Do they feel when we are feeling or communicating with them? I think some of them are lost in their own world.´

Mazen Kerbaj

Mazen Kerbaj interview – Berlin, February 2016:

´When we started this, Beirut was a desert for this kind of music. It was nothing. Not a gig. The closest to free jazz would be some sax player who would play some harsh notes or in a fusion band or something. So it did not really exist; not to mention improv. So when we started playing, after a couple of years we thought that we should try to do a concert. We did this first concert, 25 people were there and maybe 3 or 4 stayed until the end. Some of them stayed just to tell us that what we’re doing is shit. So it was really difficult in the beginning. But we were dedicated, we didn’t care, we said ‘ok, we know what we’re doing.

It was very important for us to make a festival, first - of course, to make a platform where a scene could develop and other people could gather and play, and mostly to bring foreign musicians… musicians who have been doing this for a while, to legitimize this music, like it’s not some crazy Lebanese that invented it. No, it’s something that has been happening for a long time.

So, little by little, there was the process of educating the audience, bringing good things and showing the variety of these things and trying to educate us as musicians. Trying to confront as much as possible and to put ourselves in very dangerous positions. It was a real challenge for us to say ‘ok, we are at the level where we could play a gig with a guy we admire.’ Since there is no trained audience and there is no history of this, you have to be very harsh with your own self or your own playing.

You cannot say ‘oh, that’s great, I invented new sounds’. No, you have to be strict with yourself and your other partners to really get somewhere. Also, it’s very important that, at some point, you leave the country. What you are doing is great, but of course, you have to be good enough to, at some point, be noticed outside, because without traveling and doing what we do, we cannot live with music. So we have to play gigs. So the second step, after the festival, was a label.´


*photo credits: Sama Beydoun / Irtijal festival

About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic, sound researcher and allround music adventurer, with a keen interest in the anthropology of sound.

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