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Beirut at the time of the blue note

Cooldrive kicked off Beirut International Jazz Week on Tuesday night with a flawless performance. Eyes closed, the three saxophonists lined up on stage interpreted their scores from memory and enchanted an attentive audience who showed their enthusiasm with bursts of applause at the end of each piece.

The enchanted musicians, warm audience and packed house at Now Beirut, Achrafieh, on the first of five evenings of live jazz performances that make up the festival, gave the impression – for the duration of the evening – that the trials and crises of recent times belonged to another world. But in reality, for nearly three years, life in Lebanon has been more like a piece of blues than smooth jazz.

Youssef Naiim, organizer of the festival, told L’Orient Today that the event was timed to align with International Jazz Day, April 30, which celebrates the genre around the world.

Naiim has been active in the music business for over a decade and has founded projects like Onomatopoeia, which provides a platform and stage for musicians, and the Beirut Music Initiative, which has secured funding for 250 musicians and engineers. sound, between April 2021 and March 2022, when they were all deeply affected by the Covid-19 crisis and the economic situation in Lebanon. He has organized events for other genres of music, but this is the first time he has embarked on an event of this type. “The jazz festival is a personal initiative aimed at reviving this genre and celebrating it,” he says.

“The music industry in Lebanon, like other artistic industries, is suffering from the socio-economic crisis”, underlines for his part Jack Estephan, bassist and founder of the jazz quartet StandArt, which is performing this evening in the framework of the festival, at Aaliya’s Books, in Gemmayzé.

Working conditions for jazz musicians performing in Lebanon have deteriorated since the onset of the economic crisis in 2019. Fees have rapidly lost value and venues have been forced to cut live music programs . The impact of the economic crisis was then aggravated by the successive closures due to Covid-19, which completely suspended live performances. On top of that, the double explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 tore through large swathes of the city, causing extensive damage to live music venues, like Now Beirut and Aaliya’s Books.

Abboud Saadi, founder of Cooldrive and the jazz group 3 am, confides: “Each member of the group is confronted with the difficulties that every citizen encounters, economically, socially, politically, tension, stress, etc., add to that the problem to (not) be able to perform since a lot of venues have closed and fees (that bands are getting) are down due to the economic crisis. »

A packed house at Now Beirut attends the first show of International Jazz Week in Beirut, April 26, 2022. Photo Joao Sousa/L’Orient Today

With a few pegs

While many jazz artists have taken advantage of this time off, between successive pandemic lockdowns, to rehearse and record songs, earning money has become increasingly difficult. In recent years, the number of opportunities for musicians to perform in public has declined sharply. Many clubs and music venues have closed due to the economic crisis, says Arthur Satyan, an Armenian who has lived in Lebanon since the 1990s. within the Arthur Group, specifying that “in addition to that, the method of payment has changed, most musicians are now paid on an entry fee”. “If you’re a five-piece band and you’re playing in a small place that can hold 30 to 40 people, you end up with sores,” he laments. Before the economic crisis, the groups were paid directly by the rooms and the payments were significantly higher, according to Arthur Satyan. Today, even in large venues, it can be difficult to secure a large enough audience, in the current climate, as disposable incomes have plummeted and going out to attend events has become a rare luxury and no longer a regular activity.

As a result, as Jack Estephan points out, the Lebanese “lose the culture of going out to listen to music”. Even when a hall does not charge an admission fee, the cost of consumption can be a deterrent to spectators. Food inflation reached 390% in March 2022. The lack of professionalization of the sector and the absence of larger-scale performances have also been a source of concern for musicians. Arthur Satyan comments: “It is important to have professional management for artists in Lebanon. Especially for classical music and jazz. Unfortunately, we are faced with a huge lack of live concerts, great concerts for both types of music. This pianist plays monthly in a number of bars in the city, including Salon Beirut in Hamra, Now Beirut, Qortoba Baabdate and 16MM in Gemmayzé. He observes that classical musicians perform mostly in churches, small school halls, while jazz musicians play mostly in clubs. “All of that is fine, but playing in a big venue is a completely different experience. To organize a great concert, you have to take care of everything yourself: from renting a hall to printing a poster. This cannot be done without sponsors. The Beirut Jazz Festival provides an example of what can be accomplished with a little sponsorship and support for a live music performance. However, this is not the first time that the US Embassy has sponsored a jazz event in Lebanon. In 1956, the very first jazz concerts held in Beirut, which saw Dizzy Gillespie’s band perform for three days at the Duniya Theater, were sponsored by the US State Department, which was keen to extend the cultural reach American music, the New York Times reported at the time. Three concerts that had sold out.

All band expenses during this week’s jazz festival were covered by the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. Entrance to all festival events is free, which made the event “a chance for people to enjoy the festival for free in the context of the economic crisis, while musicians will have fun while earning a little money,” insists Mr. Naiim.

Joao Sousa/Orient Today

Don’t drop the music

“It is very important that in the midst of the economic crisis, we are able to support art and culture, and these kinds of festivals give life to the city,” comments Corinne Bou Aoun, 28, who attended the show on Tuesday night.

Regarding the American Embassy’s sponsorship of the festival, Mr. Naiim said that “the embassy considers jazz as its culture and they sponsored the festival when no one else did”. Asked if some people would question the embassy’s intention to impose Western culture on Lebanon through the festival, Naiim replied, “In Lebanon, we don’t need to do that, we listen to pop, rock and jazz maybe even more than them, so such a claim would be absurd. Visiting Beirut for two weeks, Rawad Elzen, a 40-year-old Lebanese national living in Sudan, did not hide her joy at attending such an event. “We can’t let music down, even though we’re in the midst of an economic crisis. It’s the heart of the city and we can’t afford to lose it, music is a form of revolution against the crisis,” she says. Youssef Naiim, meanwhile, wants to see the festival featured in the city’s annual cultural calendar. “I will try to make this event an annual event, hoping to have a team working with me in the years to come. I also want to be able to schedule international bands in the near future, but the priority is for the local jazz scene to stand on its own two feet,” he said.

The closing concert of Beirut International Jazz Week will take place on Saturday April 30 at Salon Beyrouth (Hamra). On the program: the Donna Khalife Trio, Ginga, the Arthur Satyan Group and an improvisation session (jam session) to celebrate International Jazz Day.

This article was originally published in “L’Orient Today”, April 28, 2022.

Cooldrive kicked off Beirut International Jazz Week on Tuesday night with a flawless performance. Eyes closed, the three saxophonists lined up on stage interpreted their scores from memory and enchanted an attentive audience who showed their enthusiasm with bursts of applause at the end of each piece. The musicians…

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