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French Version

Difficult times have more and more jazz musicians singing the Beirut blues

Faced with low attendance and canceled shows, artists in the Lebanese capital seek other ways - and other citites - to let the music play

Aboud Saadi used to cram his schedule with five or six live performances a week. The 53-year-old bassist has gone into the studio numerous times with the likes of Fairouz and Ziad Rahbani, but he is best known as one of the godfathers of Beirut's jazz scene and a regular fixture on the stages of the city's jazz clubs and music halls. A year ago, he was playing almost every night. Now he is playing once a week.

With the Arthur Satyan Trio alone, Saadi used to play every Thursday through Saturday night at the Habtoor Grand Hotel's live music lounge, Up on the 31st. But now the trio, led by Armenian pianist Arthur Satyan and drummer Fouad Afra, is playing only on Saturdays. Those shows are Saadi's only steady gig. The spate of bombings that began a month ago has drastically reduced the amount of live music on offer in Beirut. Increased security and heightened fear are keeping the crowds at home. And without audiences, live musicians are lost.

Saadi's story is representative of the plight of many musicians trying to make a living in Lebanon. The past three decades of the country's history have been turbulent, but the increased instability over the past year has hit a small but committed group of local jazzmen particularly hard. These artists - both foreign and native - have always faced challenges. But last year's war with Israel and the latest eruption of violence have been catastrophic.

"In difficult times, music is the first thing to stop and the last to start," says Afra.

The local jazz scene suffered because of the war last summer, but it had been recovering, says Saadi.

However, over the past month, club owners have canceled many shows in and around Beirut due to vanishing crowds. Najib Rayes, owner of Bar Louie in Gemmayzeh, says recent security issues have hit attendance hard.

"In the past month it's been zero," he says.

The Blue Note Cafe on Makhoul Street in Hamra has canceled at least six shows in the past month alone and is now offering live gigs on Fridays and Saturdays only. The fabled jazz club has also resorted to making "flexible" deals with the musicians who play there.

"We are just trying to keep on," says Khaled Nazha, the Blue Note's owner.

This summer and last summer aside, the jazz scene had been steadily gaining ground. Everyone from Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald to Ahmad Jamal and Toufic Farroukh had graced the stages of Lebanon's major summer music festivals in Baalbeck and Beiteddine. Ziad Rahbani had fused jazz with the rhythms of Arabic music for decades. Local bands had formed and taken up residence in jazz clubs throughout the capital and its outlying suburbs.

For the reopening of Casino du Liban in 1996, the trio Three Wheel Drive made its debut and became the first straight-ahead jazz band to play regularly in Lebanon. The group, which consisted of Arthur Satyan on piano and two Americans, Jack Gregg on bass and Steve Phillips on drums, performed together until 2003, when Phillips left Lebanon because of visa issues.

Drummer Rony Afif, who had studied under Phillips, took his place. Later Afif's brother Elie took Gregg's place when the bassist moved to France.

As more musicians began playing jazz, more venues opened up to host them. In 2004, Bar Louie opened in Gemmayzeh, providing a new venue for jazz musicians in the neighborhood. Of course, the grandfather of them all is the Blue Note, which has offered its stage to local and international artists since 1986.

However, even in good times, musicians say they have never been treated well. They complain of low pay and little respect from club owners and audiences. Many artists believe live music is purely a business interest for proprietors - who have been known to cancel shows midway through a performance if they are unimpressed with the size of the crowd. When that happens, the musicians only get half of their pay.

Some artists also complain that local audiences have never really appreciated the music. They say there were times when they couldn't even hear themselves playing over the talking crowds and the clinking of glasses and silverware.

But now it is instability that is keeping people away, and the musicians are missing an element that is crucial to their music. Audiences may be rowdy or respectful, but whatever they are, audiences are necessary. The interaction with the crowd is what gives live music its energy and differentiates the experience from listening to a studio recording.

To a certain extent, musicians play to audience expectations. A crowd that is knowledgeable about and appreciates the subtleties of the art form will draw out a better performance. However, when the audiences don't exist at all, it's a major problem..

Many of the musicians who remain in Beirut these days, despite the empty clubs, have other ways to make ends meet.

Tom Hornig, a 13-year veteran of the live music scene in Beirut, has begun playing more private events such as weddings. Hani Siblini, a 40-year old Lebanese keyboardist, makes his living by composing advertising jingles and scoring television documentaries. He still tries to play live shows whenever he can, but he's had nine shows canceled in the last month.

"I can't be myself if I can't play jazz," he says.

Many of Lebanon's best musicians have been leaving the country ever since the war last summer, and many more may soon be following them. Beirut is facing a live music brain drain.

Rony Afif was a rising star in the Beirut jazz scene until all of his shows disappeared overnight last July. He waited a few weeks for the war to end, but when that didn't happen and the situation got worse, he moved to Dubai.

Drummer Khaled Yassin and Afif's brother, bassist Elie Afif, have also left Beirut for Dubai in the past year. This summer's difficulties may encourage many more to follow them.

"I am totally convinced that I made the [right] decision by leaving and I am seeing all my musician friends coming over here, which is good and bad at the same time," says Rony Afif, who is playing in a Dubai-based trio with his brother and Jordanian guitarist Kamal Musallam.

In Dubai, Afif says, the gigs pay better than in Lebanon and the artists are able to work with other musicians from Europe. The crowds are mostly foreigners passing through or living in the emirate for work.

"There's no jazz culture," says Afif, "but there's stability and security and high hopes."

Marseille,06 27 2007
The Daily Star
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