4. At the palace with Sharif Sehnaoui
On Saturday noon we gathered at the Palace for lunch. I was really excited about finally seeing the Palace, since I´ve heard about it from Philipp Schmickl
´s stories, a few years ago (part 1
and part 2
). I felt like walking in his shoes for a while. We had a couple of very good arak glasses and a lovely lunch in the company of Sharif Sehnaoui
, one of the organizers of Irtijal, his mother, Nayla Bustros
, and several musicians from different parts of the world that participated in the festival.
´How we connected and how we placed ourselves in the cultural map of the city is very much about how the city of Beirut itself developed, which was kind a cultural leap for the Arab world. It’s one of the only towns where you have a relatively big freedom of expression and the possibility of presenting any type of work, numerous venues from which you can choose, and a good infrastructure. This town has taken a contemporary twist in terms of art: not only for avant-garde, experimental and contemporary music, but also for dance music and theatre. You can find many edge-thickening disciplines or artists in all arts. This might be due to a complex mixture of cultures from the town, which is a like a melting pot for the Arab world: of religions, cultures, ideas...´
is telling me, while one of his children frolics around the beautiful garden from the back of the palace.
Digging a bit more in Irtijal
, I ask Sharif
if nowadays, after 16 years, he is still encountering difficulties. ´Of course´
, he replies. ´The growth was quite impressive: from audience, to budget, to the number of concerts and guests, to the level of the musicians we invite. The whole scene is completely different from how it used to be back in 2001, 2002. If you have enough people, passion and enough positive feedback to keep you going, then you just need to have endurance, because it takes time to build the audience and to develop your own skills as organizers. We made mistakes and learned from them... we kept going and eventually learned to do things better. But I think we are still learning, we still do mistakes´.
One thing is absolutely clear though, and this is very personal to Sharif
, as well as for the rest of the team. ´We want to keep it a festival made by musicians, for musicians. We don’t really want to institutionalize it, because it would lose some of its character.´
The process of choosing artists and doing the artistic program is quite different from year to year. Sharif usually has the last word in deciding the programme, mostly because he´s the one to decide if a certain project is financially feasible or not for the scene in Beirut. ´In the past years I really enjoyed working with guest curators, people who curate part of the programme. Like Mazen Kerbaj who did a big part of the programme last year. Rabih Beaini made guest curation in several editions. Paed Conca curated a big part of the programme in 2015. I like to give freedom to someone else to make decisions, because it would diversify the programme and bring other ideas. It works very well. We also had Radwan Moumneh (Jerusalem in my Heart) as guest curators, and of course, the members of the team who all have some propositions... depending on the year. But in the end you have to see if they are financially feasible.´
This year it’s a very different Irtijal
than the previous ones, in many ways. It’s more like a game than actual curation. ´It’s more like setting up a game, and some rules, and then you see what comes out. It’s really funny to me actually, because it’s the first time I do something like this. Which was basically to focus on analog electronics and to set up this workshop with EMS that happened in December, where I told all the participants that they have total freedom to present whatever they want at the festival. So I had no censorship over it. I was expecting 8 or 9 participants to propose projects, but in the end 13 of them proposed projects, that also had the possibility of being part of an ensemble. So 80% of the programme was decided in December, and a few special guests in addition that are connected with the analog culture, such as Rabih Beaini and Thomas Lehn. The only thing that is not connected to this line were Le Quan Ninh and Michel Doneda that were in their 30th anniversary tour, so they also joined as we really wanted them here.´
was influenced by Konfrontationen
festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria, which he was attending in the late 90’s. ´Not as a musician, just as a young guy with a backpack and a tent. Actually it was there in Nickelsdorf where I got the idea of making something similar to what I was witnessing there. But the scene in Beirut wasn’t really ready for something like this, so I had to adapt it to people that have never heard free jazz or improvised music before.´
He thought about the idea of making the festival somehow kaleidoscopic. ´To be able to present all these different musical practices so that people, in time, would understand. At first we tried to make it as diverse as possible in terms of music, so people can experience different approaches. It’s funny because I feel that today all festivals are becoming like this, except very few specialized festivals, and I think that’s a very good model. They seem to encompass electronic music, with free improv, with free jazz, with noise/rock and contemporary music. At CTM festival for instance all of this is present, in every edition. From innovative traditional music, all the way up to crazy noise and experimental stuff. So this is what we were trying to do on a smaller level since the first editions.´
As a musician, he developed together with his festival, in a way. ´But as a musician, I wouldn’t say that I am specifically inspired by the acts I book. I try to be inspired by everything and anything, from things I see even from other art fields... like movies to other musicians, concerts I see when I’m touring, to weird stuff I listen to. So I wouldn’t say that I specifically take my inspiration from the festival. But some it comes from it, for sure.´