Festivals of Lebanon: Batroun vs Baalbeck

I’d come across a bunch of cultural events in the in-flight magazine the first time I left Beirut. I didn’t pay any special attention but there seemed to be a lot going on in August when I was next scheduled to be there so I made a note to check it out properly when I came back.

So here I am, a week into my second visit to Beirut and I see an advert on TV for someone called Hiba Tawaji. It was difficult to miss it really because it was on pretty much every time I put the TV on. I don’t necessarily know what she sounds like but I like the snippets of her show – it doesn’t look like a concert, it’s more like a theater performance, more artsy. I have never seen anything like that before and I decided to check it out.

It turns out the August 16th performance is part of the Batroun International Festival in North Lebanon. Aaa! Not in Beirut. So how do I get there for a 9pm show on a Saturday? I really want to go but I decided to postpone the purchase of the tickets until I’d figured out how to get there.

While I am checking out the info about Hiba I come across many more events and festivals. I check each and every one of them – some have already passed, some don’t appeal, but I come across one that seems intriguing – Dhafer Youssef‘s ‘Birds Requiem’. I read the little ad paragraph and it sounds all dreamy and magical, fantastical and out of this world and I am sold! Also it is in Beirut, part of the Baalbeck International Festival. It is a nobrainer, I buy a ticket.

On Friday evening, the night before Hiba’s concert on Saturday I finally know how I am getting to Batroun and I am purchasing tickets. We spend the next day mostly driving around, checking some beaches in the South until deciding to head to a beach up North; by the time we had had a lovely lunch by the water, the sun is going down and it is too late for the beach; we hang out, talk and eventually head to Batroun. We found the place pretty easy since it was heavily sign posted.

The stage is in the middle of the historical quarter amid the cobbled streets of a souk, facing an old church. The atmosphere is fantastic! There are lots of people hanging around, I head to the ticket counter to pick up our tickets. I realise that I’d left the card I bought them with in the car and I need it to claim the tickets. Luckily the ticket lady is lovely and lets me get away with it 🙂 Tickets in hand we make our way through security. They ask me to leave my camera at the entrance and I raise my eyebrows. ‘You want me to leave my camera here?!’ I exclaim. ‘Is it safe?!’ The girl says it is and I reluctantly hand it to her. ‘They better not lose my camera!’ I tell my friend.

We find our seats to the right of one of the front(ish) rows. We are already late but so is everyone else! The concert starts with an hour delay. Lebanon for you! The stage is dark and I can see a massive doll like figure outline in the shades. And then Hiba sings…

Opening scene for Hiba Tawaji's concert

Opening scene for Hiba Tawaji’s concert

The decor is simple but beautiful, fairytale like. Hiba is in the middle of this huge, autumn coloured dress and she sings beautifully! The more she sings the more I like her. She manages to give me goosebumps and that is always a good sign. She hits some unbelievably high notes and seems to be able to breathe endlessly. She is dramatic and signs with a lot of feeling, in Arabic which is already a language of feeling and expression. Her songs are accompanied by a Live band and the decor changes with every song. It is still very simple, but fun and quirky. ‘Unusual for a concert…’ I think. There are no flashy costume changes just a few dresses every few songs and she look beautiful in every one of them. There are some dancers too but it would have been better if they weren’t there.

The concert ends with everyone on their feet enjoying what seemed to be a very patriotic song. The Lebanese flag in Hiba’s shoulders kinda gave it away!

A patriotic song dedicated to the Lebanese army

A patriotic song dedicated to the Lebanese army

My verdict: I loved it! It was reasonably small and intimate, it was interesting and quirky, the singing was beautiful, it was simple and the locations was beautiful!

Batroun International Festival 2014

Batroun International Festival 2014

The streets of the historical souk in Batroun. On our way back from the concert

The streets of the historical souk in Batroun. On our way back from the concert

A week goes by and it is time for my second concert in Beirut. I am sitting at my desk at work when my phone flashes to notify me about the event. With an hour or so to go I had completely forgotten about it! I quickly pack my bag, contact my friend and we head to the concert. He doesn’t have a ticket and everything online is sold out so we are hoping to be able to get another ticket at the door. He drops me off at Musichall Waterfront to sort out the ticket situation and he goes off to have his own little parking adventure. Turns out there are still some tickets left in Zone 3 (my ticket is in Zone 2) and both are free seating. I buy the ticket, my friend joins me and we go in. We stop to ask an attendant where our seats are and he explains the zones. We head to a the first row on Zone 2, right in the middle with a perfect view of the stage. We sit down and wonder is someone will come and kick us out since one of us is in the wrong zone. But then it is free seating so nobody should come and claim a specific seat. We are eager for the concert to start cause then nobody will kick us out. My friend imagines a variety of highly embarrassing scenarios but at the end the music starts and we are still sat in the best seats! The venue is decked out in red velvet and gold and has a cabaret feel to it. Love it!

Musicahall Waterfront (Beirut, Lebanon)

Musicahall Waterfront (Beirut, Lebanon)

Dhafer plays the oud and sings. The sounds that come out of his mouth are haunting and out-of-this-world! His music mixes jazz with some Arabic tunes resulting in a very unique sound. His music is not something I would necessarily listen to, I would probably put it in the background at a dinner party or something but as a concert – it is an amazing experience! It is impossible to explain his music with words so you better listen to this:

My verdict: I love it! It was very different from the concert in Batroun but similar in some ways, live band, simple decor. It is all about the music, the band is having a lot of fun during what seems to be one of their regular jamming sessions completely unaware of the audience. The whole concert is an experience. I would strongly recommend it.

So that’s it! Two festivals, two very different concerts, two very different performers, two equally amazing experiences!

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