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French Version

Quality artists at a new type of music fest - Liban Jazz 2005

Promoter Karim Ghattas builds on last year's success

Karim Ghattas smokes a pack of Camel Filters a day, resembles the actor Joseph Fiennes, has a deep booming voice and talks passionately about all things jazz.

If he lived in 1960s Paris, he'd be a Left Bank intellectual.It might of course just be an attitude.

But if so, it's an attitude that has served him well. Without it, the second edition of the Liban Jazz Festival, Lebanon's premier annual jazz music event, which opens at the Roman Amphitheater in Zouk Mikael on Saturday, never would have happened.

"It hasn't been easy," Ghattas says, "the amount of obstacles you face in this country to create something fresh are almost insurmountable, but I had to do it. I created this festival for many reasons but one was that I felt something strong when I returned to Beirut three years ago. This emotion made me want to give something back to my country."

The French-educated Ghattas spent his formative years in Saudi Arabia during the Lebanese Civil War where his father was working before moving to France.

Since 2000 he has worked with numerous jazz festivals in Paris including L'Esprit Jazz, and Le Couleur de Jazz, making connections and building his faith. What he saw in Paris encouraged him that Lebanon not only needed a small, intimate and quality jazz music festival but also deserved it - the people deserved it.

"Look, Jazz is a pretext. Living in Beirut again in 2002 I didn't know anything," he says green eyes ablaze. "I went to the big festivals [Baalbek, Beiteddine] and what I saw was that these were not really festivals as I perceived a festival to be. They were a series of big events featuring some good acts but over a period of two months.

"That personal atmosphere that you get at European festivals just wasn't there."

Ghattas pauses to puff deeply on a cigarette and sip an espresso.

"A festival is not just the concert itself," he says, becoming increasingly animated. "It's about high quality acts, about being out at an event to listen, to have encounters with the artists and fellow audience members, and the artists to have encounters with you.

"That's important. I mean for the artists to come and stay in the country a few days, not just fly in and out for the show. It's important for them to share something, too.

"And as I said jazz is a great pretext for this. It breaks down barriers between the crowd and the musicians until there is no difference between those watching and those performing," Ghattas says.

Indeed this atmosphere was felt at last year's edition in which four concerts featuring a mix of world famous jazz legends played to packed crowds under star-spangled September skies.

The massive 1960s avant-garde saxophonist Archie Shepp, was joined by the French Laurent Mignard Orchestra, the Tunisian pianist Anouar Brahem, and that masterfully modern other Tunisian Dhafer Youssef. All four concerts brought a touch of class to the Lebanese concert scene and a touch of the contemporary in tune with what was happening in the 2004 worldwide jazz scene. Oriental jazz was the fashion and a Lebanese crowd got to see it. These were no has-been performers past their prime purely touring Lebanon for a good payday.

This year, despite the nation's political troubles and instability, Ghattas has managed to pull it off again. Opening the festival on Saturday is the globally known Indian percussionist and singer Trilok Gurtu and his band. Following that a week on Wednesday is the rising avant-garde French-Beninian singer Mina Agossi. Friday sees the talented French-Italian classic trio of Romano, Sclavis, Texier and Liban Jazz 2005 closes with the powerful American gospel vocalist Liz McComb. All four groups represent the current jazz scene in all its forms, and all four connect with the audience in a personal way. Each of them have an album just out or in the making and thus are something contemporary and relevant to what's happening in the world now.

"Because this type of music is free music it is close to the audience," Ghattas insists. "It will never be made specially for the radio or to sell because it is still an act before being a business. And that is what all the artists I bring have in common.

"They have a soul - this simple yet complex attribute - and a feeling, and in this festival they can truly express themselves. There are no bars to their performance and no conditions."

The attraction of such an atmospheric local and intimate festival is strong. Whereas most festivals in Lebanon and in Europe now lay on crushingly predictable lists of acts that can produce moments of sighing disappointment - (The Baalbek Festival's "Flying Flames" acrobatic, musical, dance circus in July was one that failed to live up to its "Cirque du Soleil" billing but in the words of some critics was "great for the kids," not an opening show for a major cultural event) - at Liban Jazz 2004 it was possible to alight on things of magic and wonder.

In particular Archie Shepp, a man who has performed with the likes of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and fought constantly for his people's civil rights in the United States through his music, produced a show of experimental and classical depth. Dhafer Youssef, with his keening Sufi wail and meticulous oud playing was also quite simply spectacular.

To add to this year's intimate and friendly atmosphere Liban Jazz will feature a bar and live DJ playing before and after the concert so the performance doesn't just start and finish with the show. When you buy your ticket you get a sampler CD too, and on top of that the price of a ticket is affordable - from LL30,000 to LL60,000 and a pass for all four gigs can be purchased for just LL80,000.

For Ghattas, now waxing lyrical in between lung-fulls of his fourth Camel and sipping furiously on his third espresso, jazz provides the questions and answers all in one neat package.

"Jazz is not an intellectual music as many people believe. It is a street music in its origins and the musicians are searching for something. Jazz elevates the listener and that is why it will always have a place everywhere," he says.

"And that is why no one will leave a Liban Jazz concert without a new experience, and why I will not be ashamed of any concert I produce.

"I cannot live in the long term if I am not confident in the artists, and the music," he adds.

Some commentators in Lebanon have criticized the pull of a purely jazz festival, but Ghattas argues that is simply "bullshit."

"Let's face it, jazz has been around for over a hundred years. In France there are 250 jazz festivals a year and in the Middle East there are new ones all the time, from Qatar to Dubai to Istanbul. Lebanon deserves a good one."

"And I really believe that people will get bored with Star Academy and purely electronic-based music. But they won't get bored with jazz. They will constantly discover themselves in it," Ghattas says.

Of course the cost of putting on an event like Liban Jazz is not small and for now all Ghattas is hoping for is to break even. But the fact that the festival has continued from last year, and retained and gained new sponsors this year, is a major sign of the confidence held by the young promoter and by music lovers in Lebanon.

"You know, in my head I cannot accept losing money from this. It's a personal thing. I think I deserve it. And I have always been taught that if you want to make money you have to go out and get it. Liban Jazz has done ok, but in which business do you make a profit in the first year?" he asks.

The answer is very few and Liban Jazz is breaking even in only its second year.

"I am confident because my event has been done in a clean way and people - from audiences to sponsors - have noticed that. That's important. The result is that we are going to be bigger faster than we thought at the beginning," Ghattas continues. "People might not care about us now, but they will."

Crucial to Ghattas's perceived success is the support he has been given from sponsors and the Zouk Festival committee who supported him throughout and have allowed Liban Jazz to take place in their picturesque town. - "No one believed that this could work but Zouk did."

The result is a festival to be proud of. What is special about this event is that not only is it taking the idea of what a festival should be in Lebanon forward, but it is creating connections and encounters between local musicians and international stars.

Ghattas has made it a priority for Lebanese musicians to play with the invited guests. This year, the young percussionist and son of famed oudist Marcel Khalife, Bachar Khalife, will play with Trilok Gurtu, and young flautist Bechir Saade will perform with Mina Agossi. Ghattas also has insisted that youngsters come to the shows saying, "it will open their minds." At the Liz McComb concert, for example, co-sponsor the American Embassy in Beirut has provided 250 tickets for underprivileged kids to attend.

"I want this all to happen because so much of this festival is about touching people and really doing something for Lebanon," he says, by now half way through his pack of Camels. "It's about Liban Jazz."

With an attitude like that, Ghattas is one Left Bank intellectual who deserves to succeed.

For more information go to www.libanjazz.com. For tickets call Trading Places on +961 1 611600.

Beirut,09 05 2005
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star
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