Classical: Lebanon's ancient temple of music

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The Independent Culture
Our road runs up through mountains and down into a plain where the arts of war and peace are displayed in busy profusion: sandbagged tanks next to Bedouin tents, field guns poking up behind stalls selling glassware and garlic. We pass checkpoints by the dozen - Syrian, Lebanese, Hizbollah, and unidentified gunmen - who from time to time ask our business. The auditorium itself is ringed with armoured cars; soldiers search us before we enter. It all makes a novel prelude to a concert.

Inside, however, it is magic. The Roman Temple of Bacchus is massive, but its intricately-carved walls create a cosy acoustic just right for Moorish music from medieval Spain. The Independent's Robert Fisk has told me to listen out for the muezzin during the quiet bits - the local Islamists like to make a point - and sure enough it comes in through the door - "Allaaah!" - during a soft oud solo.

The evening's big draw is a German-trained Lebanese mezzo called Fadia El-Hage, making a belated debut in her homeland. But when she begins to sing, another Arabic voice floats in (too florid to be the muezzin) and mingles with Fadia's in a gamey miasma. The unseen singer is the Arabic diva, Fairuz, ostensibly limbering up for her own forthcoming concert in the Temple of Jupiter next door. One suspects that she too is making a point, for Fadia is being billed as the new Fairuz. When Fairuz falls silent, Fadia reigns supreme, and we can see what the fuss is all about. Her voice is a graft of West on to East, ranging from diatonic purity to melismatic plangency. "A star is born," people say to each other as they file out, bewitched.

The following night's entertainment begins with a long delay. The checkpoints have been turned into roadblocks to give a Lebanese minister safe passage, and though he decides at the last moment not to attend, half the audience are penned up 30 miles away. And over the performance itself we should draw a kindly veil. Nina Simone may still pound the piano, but her voice has gone, as has her memory. She has to be fed the lines of her songs, and when it comes to the inevitable finale, she murders it her way. Never mind: she gallantly plays the crowd, and this crowd is amazingly forgiving, singing along, waving their lighters in the hot darkness, cheering through the Roman amphitheatre "Welcome to Baalbek!"

After last year's trial run with Slava Rostropovich, this is the first proper festival Baalbek has seen since the 22-year moratorium induced by civil war. It was in these temples that Callas sang and Fonteyn and Nureyev danced: Baalbek was Lebanon's cultural flagship before it became, as a prison for hostages, her badge of notoriety. Many Lebanese regard its resuscitation as a crucial stage in the country's rebirth. "Lebanon has no need of petrol - her petrol is culture," a government spokesman tells me. "Our country is a vast cultural workshop, and the Baalbek festival is its finest flower."

This is deeply ironic. For Baalbek is a Hizbollah town, without a trace of Beiruti cosmopolitanism. And the resident guerrilla army are opposed to what they see as the decadence of Western culture. "At first they wanted to ban all dance, and vet every word of any play we staged," says a member of the festival committee. "But now they have accepted us, and are behaving impeccably." Hizbollah may be fighting the Israelis, but they are also a political party with a serious social agenda.

This festival's resurgence under its founder-director, May Arida, is a superb achievement, but it is not unique: with events in Byblos and Tyre, and in the hill-towns of Beit Eddine and Beit Mery, festivals in Lebanon are springing up all over. What does this signify? For Myrna Bustani, who has brought top musicians to Beit Mery for the past five years, it is a mission. "People between 15 and 30 in this country have seen nothing but war. I want them to enjoy the things I enjoyed as a child."

Another view is that the festivals are simply papering over the political cracks (several are run by ministers' wives). But Ann Malamah- Thomas, the British Council director, thinks Baalbek in particular is a doomed attempt to set the clock back. "I find it tasteless," says this forthright Scot, "that the frocks-and-rocks brigade should breeze over in air-conditioned Mercs to take their pleasures in that very poor town." Defenders point to the free opening concert, and to the fact that local people are involved as ushers and stage hands, though this only serves to strengthen the opposing view.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the transformation of Lebanese musical life. Walid Gholmieh, the director of the Beirut Conservatoire who has long pushed for a national symphony orchestra, is high with excitement because the government has just given him $1m to start recruiting. The conservatoire itself reflects an extraordinary success story. "In the Eighties," he says, "I watched this place being looted and its pianos destroyed. When I took over in 1991 there was nothing: I sat here for three months without electricity. We now have 4,800 students, including 400 violinists and 900 pianists."

Gholmieh charts local Islamist attitudes to music with wry amusement. "The official line is to condemn Western classical music, but they play Beethoven and Mozart on the radio when somebody important dies, and they play my symphonies every other night." More seriously, he laments their condemnation of song. "Lebanon's whole musical tradition is based on song, but our students specialising in oriental styles now tend to study instrumental music only."

But he and his professors are making the best of it. Charbel Rouhana, an oud specialist, has developed his own teaching method, and has commissioned smaller instruments for children. "Just as you have your family of violins starting with the tiny one-sixteenth, we now have our family of ouds."

Imane Homsy is Lebanon's leading exponent on the kanun - the Phoenician zither - and has just given up her day-job as an architect to devote herself to perfecting a new technique in which it is plucked with eight fingers rather than two. "I designed a musical space in my head, and my task was to realise it in sound," she says. When she plays me her variations on a theme by the Palestinian song-writer Marcel Khalifya, I get the point: she can summon up the wind and the rain, or the sun on the sea, in a wonderful riot of aural colour.

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