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French Version

Lebanon : Festivals unite to bring Phil Collins to Beirut

November concert proceeds will go to Children's Cancer Center

It is said that in the face of a larger threat old enemies will unite.

For the three major Lebanese summer music festivals, whose committees spend most of their time each year competing for the same big name acts and schedule shows for the same nights, working together has seldom crossed their minds.

And yet, after what has been in the end a poor summer in terms of many, though not all, of the choices of shows, and numerous cancellations for Beiteddine, Baalbek and Byblos, the three festivals have joined forces to bring the world famous pop star, Phil Collins, to Beirut on November 5.

The larger threat of course has come in the form of numerous bombings and assassinations, tension between Syria and the Lebanese after the former's 30-year-long military overlordship of the country ended, and the protracted political wrangling to form a new government that have all occurred in Lebanon since the February 14 murder of Rafik Hariri.

The situation has led to difficulties in booking international quality acts - many refused point blank to come out of fear and others cancelled at the last minute - and in difficulties in putting bums on seats in the face of depressed tourism and a depressed local population in fear of attending events where politicians were present and could be targeted, or where bombs might simply go off.

In the face of such a dire situation, perhaps it was inevitable that a joint effort was needed to revive both the Festivals' relevance and the nation's optimism.

Thus "Festive Lebanon 2005" was born as the press material states, "in the spirit of the phoenix, as an act of faith in Lebanon's cultural specificity, and in its power of creativity and artistic freedom," with the aim of putting on one of the biggest concerts, Phil Collins, that the nation has ever seen.

Joining with the festivals or at least supporting them for this event is the Lebanese Tourism Ministry. But perhaps most importantly all the profits from the concert, which will be held at BIEL (the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center on the capital's sea front), will go to the Children's Cancer Center Of Lebanon, which treats youngsters with the disease regardless of their ability to pay.

Though the Tourism Ministry is not contributing financially to the cost of the show (which will be split three ways between the festivals), as it is a charity event no VAT will be paid.

For Nora Jumblatt, head of the Beiteddine Festival Committee, which has been the most successful of three festivals this summer, seeing packed audiences and relevant programming for concerts by Marcel Khalife, UB40, and Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, for example, the Phil Collins event was a natural progression.

"Before this summer and the festivals began, when the situation was so dire and uncertain, all of us, Beiteddine, Baalbek, Tyre and Byblos met with the Ministry of Tourism to discuss ways of working together," she explains.

"Out of this meeting was born Festive Lebanon 2005 but we didn't manage to collaborate together until today with Phil Collins. I did initiate the April 14 Unity Day celebrations [a series of concerts held in Beirut's downtown to inject some optimism into the country] but this event really is special because it is really the first ever collaboration between all three of us."

The Tyre Festival, which had previously been part of the Festive Lebanon collaboration, declined to be part of the Collins project for unknown reasons, though they were asked. They could not be reached for comment at time of press.

Although it was Jumblatt and the Beiteddine Festival who signed the contract with Collins just two weeks ago, sheexplains that she immediately asked the others to join in.

"It is vital for us all to work together if we are to get this nation back on its feet and regain and continue it's reputation as the leading cultural center in the region for quality, innovation and creativity," Jumblatt explains.

For Naji Baz, the man behind the Byblos Festival, which is held annually in the ancient Phoenician port city that is modern-day Jbeil, Festive Lebanon was not only a great opportunity for the festivals to work together but something that he personally has been trying to achieve for a long time.

"I got involved with this first to make it happen," Baz says. "You know it is a favorite pastime of music agents in the U.K. to play off the Lebanese festivals against one another for the most money."

Often some of the most popular modern artists ask for such high fees in the hope that the festivals will pay it in order to succeed in booking them over their competitors in the cutthroat world that is modern music event booking. What ends up happening is that often the artists don't come at all.

"By collaborating, this time it has been so different and so much better," says Baz. "Still the second reason to do this was that for once all the festivals are working together under the same banner and that is really fantastic. In doing so we are summoning back the spirit of March 14 [the day of the million-man protest in Martyrs' Square]."

Baz admitted, however, that if it were not for the tense last few months in which all the festivals have suffered, Festive Lebanon would not have come about.

"It would have been seriously unlikely but now that it is happening it has been a pleasure and I certainly hope that we can all work together on more events in the future," he says.

Baz had suffered this year first from having to postpone Byblos's dates from the month of June to the far hotter and more competitive time of late July and August due to the Lebanese national elections of May-June. Further blows came from the cancellations of his headlining acts - alternative rock band Franz Ferdinand and, just three days before his scheduled show, American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.

For Baalbek, the most famous of all Lebanon's festivals, and which in 2006 will be officially celebrating its 50th anniversary, the necessity to be part of Festive Lebanon and to collaborate on the Phil Collins concert was obvious.

"We all have the same mission," says Nayla de Freige, vice-president of the Baalbek Festival Committee. "When we all met to put together Festive Lebanon as a joint effort to collaborate earlier in the year we realized that it was positive to work together for the country.

"We have to support the nation after what has been a difficult year."

Yet de Freige adds that another reason to collaborate was the fact that the only date Collins could come to Lebanon was November 5, a winter date meaning the show could not be performed outside in the Chouf mountains or at Baalbek or Byblos.

"The November 5 date meant the concert had to be indoors and had to be in Beirut," she says.

In the end Festive Lebanon and this massive concert is an example of what can be achieved when the major music festivals work together positively for the benefit of the nation, bringing not only a major world-class music star who is hugely popular here to the people but also by donating all proceeds to a good cause.

It remains telling that it took months of tragedy and turmoil for such a collaboration to come about. One hopes it will not be the last.

Phil Collins will perform in Lebanon on Saturday November 5 at BIEL as part of his "First Final Farewell Tour." Tickets cost LL50,000, 75,000, 115,000, 150,000, 300,000 and can be purchased at Trading Places on +961 1 611600 and the Virgin Megastore on +961 1 999666. See: www.tradingplaces.com.lb or www.ticketingboxoffice.com for more info.

Beirut,08 22 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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