Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Meen” start to Lebanon festivals

Meen in concert at Beirut Souks
Going to Beirut for just four days, as I did for work last Monday to Thursday (May23-26) is an exhausting, albeit enjoyable, experience. There is so much to do and partake in – except that work hinders most leisure activities!

The festival season in Lebanon has kicked off in earnest and I hope I will be able to attend some of the planned entertainment.

The fans at the Beirut Music and Art Festival
One event I couldn’t miss on May 24 (though it meant being on my feet for more than 10 hours that day) was attending a concert at Beirut Souks by my friends Meen the Band. The concert was part of the first edition of the Beirut Music and Art Festival (BMAF).

BMAF launches the spring and summer festival season from May 27 to June 12 with a combination of local musicians, international performers and all forms of art.

Organized by the Ministry of Tourism in cooperation with Solidere, the private company licensed to rebuild downtown Beirut after the civil war, BMAF aims to “put culture back on the daily agenda.”

The event planners are Beirut Jazz Festival co-organizer John Kassabian, Beirut Hamra Street Festival co-organizer Fadi Ghazzaoui and businessperson Imad Darwish Hussami. They join forces and bring years of marketing, PR and managerial experience to organize what they hope becomes an annual event.

BMAF, in Downtown Beirut, is split over two venues. Three bands perform every night at the Music Village in Beirut Souks, with over 45 local acts and a few international musicians joining in from May 18 to June 3. The Grandstand at the New Waterfront District (BIEL) is host to nine nocturnal performances by international bands and artists from May 27 to June 12.
The Grandstand seats 4,000 and among those performing there is Earth Wind & Fire, Sister Sledge, Ilham al Madfai Band, Lena Chamamyan, Marcel Khalife, Rami and Bachar Khalife.

Meen the Band performed at the Beirut Souks Music Village as did Eileen Khatchadourian, the Arthur Satyan Organ Trio with special guest Larry Coryell, Adonis, Nadine has got Soul, Who Killed Bruce Lee, Zeid and the Wings, Tha-gha-ra...

My first Meen CD
I had the pleasure of meeting Meen the Band founder Toni Yammine at Beirut’s first Geekfest in February 2010. He then gave me their first CD, which I still listen to in the car. I have been a fan since.

Toni and Fouad Yammine
Meen is a Lebanese rock band founded by Toni and his brother Fouad Yammine, with four friends. Toni, who plays acoustic guitar, and Fouad, the vocalist, are the minds behind the Arabic catchy lyrics and tunes. Ralf Choueiri plays drums (he was absent on the night and replaced by Alain); Makram Aboul Husn, base guitar; Bernard Najm, keyboards; and Joe Hammam, electric guitar.

Makram Aboul Husn and Joe Hammam

Bernard Najm
Listening to their CD, a live recording of a May 2009 concert, was captivating. But it didn’t prepare me enough for Meen’s electrifying presence on stage, their interaction with the audience, the devotion of the fans and, above all, the incredible music, especially from guitarist Joe Hammam.

Belting Nasheed el Banadoura, fathe Tomato Anthem
They belted some of the band’s classic hits, including Pussycat, Wil Khasr Yhizz, Nasheed el Banadoura, Imm George, Jongar, which had the audience in stitches and demanding more.

Each band member is cheered by name and Fouad has a way of engaging the public, song by song, as well as his bandmates. He has such a thrilling presence on stage while his voice carries you along word by word.

Yasmine Hajjar and Maya Zankoul among the Meen fans
I didn’t think I would enjoy rock in Arabic, but Meen had me bouncing and dancing around in front of the stage, with friends Yasmine Hajjar, Maya Zankoul, Mher and Christine Krikorian, Ibrahim Nehmeh, Nadim Abou Alwan, and all the other fans.

I came away from the concert converted and more of a Meen admirer. I look forward to their next CD, which the band announced will be released imminently.

For a $10 entrance fee, the Music Village is set up with tables, chairs and sofas, where you can spend the whole evening enjoying drinks from the bar, a shawarma sandwich or some popcorn, from different stands.
Who Killed Bruce Lee on stage
We were lucky to catch Indie and electrorock band Who Killed Bruce Lee before Meen’s performance. They too were a great discovery for their passionate performance and excellent music.
The Lebanese group -- composed of Wassim Bou Malham (lead vocals and guitar), Hassib Dergham (keys and synth), Pascal Sarkis (bass guitar and backing vocals), and Malek Rizkallah (drums and backing vocals) -- is writing and producing their first album.

I’m disappointed to be missing Marcel Khalife, in a first performance with his sons Rami and Bachar on June 11 at the BAMF Grandstand. Their artistic work began in 2000 when both Rami and Bachar joined Al Mayadine Ensemble that Marcel set up in the late 1970s.

The BMAF program promises that “the oud, piano, and percussion engage in a conversation of melody, playfulness, noisemaking, or love -- elements the three artists have long explored -- traversing their entire range of dynamic extremes, from shouting to whispering, from an outpouring of passion to a diffident reserve… to the last note.”

Another event I couldn’t fit in was the Garden Show and Spring Festival. It opened for four days on May 24. It is held at the Beirut Hippodrome, which according to my cousin Lillian, who visited on May 24, is transformed into a green oasis of sweet-scented flowers and exotic plants and stalls selling garden accessories and local crafts.
Coming up next will be Beiteddine Art Festival from June 24 to August 5 in the courtyards of the Beiteddine Palace, in the Chouf Mountains.

Byblos International Festival starts June 28. The ancient port and UNESCO World Heritage Site becomes the meeting point of east and west with a lineup of Arabic and world music through July 3. (See Lebanon’s piece of history: Byblos – May 22, 2011)

Baalbeck International Festival is also on the agenda. It is the oldest and most famous cultural event in the Middle East. It has been held in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley since 1955. The annual, much-anticipated extravaganza is a mixture of classical music, dance, theater, opera, and jazz as well as modern world music performed in July and August in the ancient Roman Acropolis, one of the largest and well-preserved Roman temples ever built.

All of this is much art forms to take in, but at least I started well with Meen’s performance. I hope to take in more acts on my next trips back to Lebanon.

Join me here for the Meen concert in pictures.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lebanon’s piece of history: Byblos

Byblos: One of the world's continuously inhabited cities
May 8 turned out to be my blue-ribbon Sunday in Lebanon. It was the day my friends -- Jennifer Haddad, Bahaa Fakhriddeen, George Zamroud, Antonio Tahhan, Salvador Rudy and Charbel Saad – elected to drive me north.

The day’s hors d’oeuvre was a succulent breakfast at Abdul-Rahman Hallab & Sons in the port city of Tripoli (Lebanon: The day we drove north – 14 May 2011). Next came the entrée with the discovery of one of Lebanon’s wonder spots, Oyoun el-Samak (A Lebanese wonder: Oyoun el-Samak – 16 May 2011). We had our main course and dessert at another Lebanese wonder spot: Byblos.
The number of wonders that this country of 10,452 square kilometers holds is remarkable. During my one-month stint in Lebanon that ended May 17, I was fortunate to visit Tripoli, Oyoun el-Samak and Byblos. So the Cedars, Jeita Grotto, Qadisha Valley, and Anjar are next on my agenda.

Byblos, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is the Greek name of the Phoenician city Geval, or Gibelet during the Crusades. It is believed to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities since the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age.

Yachts still cruise into Byblos harbor
Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic) -- on the Mediterranean coast, some 42 kilometers (26 miles) north of Beirut -- is a must destination for tourist and a locals’ favorite. It is renowned for its restaurants, open-air bars and outdoor cafés. Yachts still cruise into its harbor as they did in the Sixties and Seventies, when Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra were regular visitors.

The city is internationally known for hosting the annual Byblos International Festival in the historic quarter. The June 28-July 23, 2011 edition will feature international and Lebanese acts, including Amadou and Mariam, Moby, Scorpions, Jamie Cullum, 30 Seconds to Mars, Don Quixote and Les Mystères Lyriques. Preparations for the event have already started and the stands are being assembled.

Byblos also hosts the professional campus of the Lebanese American University (LAU). The Byblos Campus is home to the Medical, Engineering, and Pharmacy Schools, besides the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Business.

Ruins and history everywhere in the old city
We arrived at the port city around 5 p.m. as the sun was beginning to set and shimmer over the Mediterranean and headed straight for a late lunch, after all the walking in Oyoun el-Samak.

Ready for lunch: Jen, George, Antonio, Charbel, Rudy and Bahaa
Appetizers, with our own mini taboun to heat the bread
My delicious shawarma platter
Among the many restaurants and cafés, George chose Feniqia. I was impressed by the creativity in presentation of the food, whether the starters or the main dishes, as you can judge from the photos. I found the mini taboun to heat the bread at the table a brilliant idea. Food was delicious and reasonably priced, our meal costing $10 (or AED 37) per head. Even the rest rooms have a special touch – olive oil soaps framed in a sieve and hung on the wall -- and stone basins with copper taps.

Tummies full, we walked through the streets of Byblos, passing by the Baptistery of the Crusades Church of St. John, where preparations were underway for a wedding.

Baptistery of the Crusades Church of St. John
Sultan Abdel Majid Mosque, build in 1648
Work on St. John the Baptist Church started during the crusades in 1116. It was partially destroyed during an earthquake in 1176 and transformed into stables by Islamic forces after the fall of the city. Prince Yousef Chehab of Lebanon gifted it to the Maronites in the mid 1700s, after they helped him capture the city.

Past St. John’s is the 1648 Sultan Abdel Majid Mosque. Its minaret and renovated turquoise dome can be seen from various points in the old part of the city and there is a small ladies-only annex. The Mamluks built the original mosque on this site. It dates from the 12th Century AD.

The streets of the old city lined with shops...
... cafes and restaurants
The narrow cobbled streets are lined with shops, restaurants and cafés, each with a special, original touch, as only the Lebanese know how to create.

Nossa Senhora da Penna, one of the smallest churches I've seen
We walked down to the port and towards the jetty, where people were fishing and strolling about, enjoying the warm and sunny Sunday weather. We passed by old buildings and walls that have been standing there for centuries. Among them is the Nossa Senhora da Penna Church, one of the smallest I’ve ever seen. It only has four pews and is so small that worshippers sit outdoors.

The Crusader Castle
The earliest remains found in Byblos, founded by Cronus, are from around 6230 BC. It was during the First Crusade in 1098 that prosperity returned to Byblos. The remains of the Crusader Castle are among the most impressive structures now visible at its center.

The Crusader Castle, off the port
... is magical at sunset
Viewing the Castle at sunset was magical and a perfect way to end a breathtaking day. Thank you Jennifer, Bahaa, George, Antonio, Rudy and Charbel.

It's time to head back to Beirut. Goodbye Byblos
You can join our tour of Byblos in these pictures.

Related posts:
Breakfast in Sidon – 30 November 2010
Bahibak ya Libnan – 22 November 2010