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Lebanon's glamorous music fests struggle in tough times



(MENAFN - Arab Times) Turkey to steer clear of 'Eurovision'

BEIRUT, Aug 5, (Agencies): Shakira and Elton John played one-off concerts in Lebanon in recent months but the summer music festivals that helped make the country a cultural lodestar for the Arab world are struggling.

In the 1960s and 1970s, jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Miles Davis, and the greatest Arab singers, Um Kulthoum and Fairouz, performed at ruined Roman temples during the Baalbek festival or at pretty seaside towns.

Elite tourists from the Gulf came to watch and spend big in the country and the festivals helped bring ordinary Lebanese people together.

That pre-war heyday is long gone.

'We worry that we will get to the point where we cannot go on,' said Nora Jumblatt, head of the Beiteddine Art Festival.

While this year's festivals are putting some well known singers on stage, regional instability, Lebanon's economic malaise and a funding crunch have hit organisers.

Years of political sclerosis have played havoc with fiscal policy, aggravating one of the world's highest rates of public debt. As the government began tightening its belt, it cut subsidies for festivals and increased the taxes they pay.

'We call on the Lebanese government not to reduce its help, not to increase taxes,' said Nayla De Freij, chairwoman of the Baalbek International Festival.

Gradual economic decline has hit private sponsorship. And fear of the Syria war spilling over, as well as Lebanon's growing entanglement in a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, have kept away Gulf tourists.

But after a deal in 2016 that led to the first parliament elections for nine years in May, and as warfare in Syria has moved away from Lebanon's borders, politicians have started to speak of recovery.

'Today we are at a crossroads in Lebanon. We are starting to move towards rebuilding infrastructure in Lebanon and at the same time its economic vision is being formed,' said caretaker economy minister Raed Khoury.

Whether that can help the festivals, or bring back Gulf tourists, is uncertain. The main winners in May's elections were allies of the Iran-backed Hezbollah — which Gulf states see as a terrorist group and a threat to their citizens.

'What affected us is the absence of all the Arab brothers who came from their countries. We used to get a very big number and some of them used to fly in to watch one concert,' said Elham Kallab, head of the cultural board of Byblos International Festival.

The Byblos festival takes place on the ancient city's seafront, near the old city, with its Phoenician temple, Roman theatre, Crusader castle and winding souk.

'The stage, with the Mediterranean in front of it, and dozens of civilisations behind it, when we stand and look at it, we feel so much pride to be in Byblos,' said Kallab.

The stage of the Baalbek International Festival — Lebanon's oldest having been started in 1956 — is even more spectacular, wedged between the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus, among the largest and best preserved Roman temples in the world.

But it, too, faces economic pressures. Like the other festivals, its revenue comes from ticket sales, sponsorship and government subsidy - all under pressure.

'There are challenges and we have to fight, but it's very important that we preserve the standard of the festival,' said De Freij.

Festival organisers - and many politicians - see the events as important not only for the tourists they bring but because they portray Lebanon as a safe, stable and attractive place to visit.

'They show this open, cultural image of Lebanon to the world,' said Jumblatt, recalling the first Beiteddine festival during the civil war year of 1986 as an event that brought people together.

That festival takes place in the elegant Ottoman-era palace of Beiteddine located in the Chouf mountains, where her husband Walid Jumblatt is a major dynastic political leader.

But for all their importance to the tourism sector and even, for some people, to Lebanon's image of itself, the festivals remain in difficulty.

Also:

ANKARA: Turkey is to maintain its boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest so long as its content is unsuitable for children, the head of Turkish state broadcasting said Saturday, citing the victory of an Austrian drag queen in 2014.

The country, whose sequin-clad pop stars were once a mainstay of the kitschy annual songfest, has stayed out of the competition since 2012 in what was ostensibly a dispute over the voting system.

But the head of state broadcaster TRT Ibrahim Eren indicated Saturday that while the voting system was still an issue, moral qualms were at the forefront of the problem for Turkey.

'We are not thinking about taking part at the moment,' he said, quoted by state-run Anadolu news agency.

'As a public broadcaster we cannot broadcast live at 9:00 pm, when children are watching, an Austrian with a beard and a skirt, who claims not to have a gender and says 'I am a man and a woman at the same time',' he said.

This was an apparent reference to the Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst who won the 2014 edition.

'There is some kind of confusion of mentality here,' Eren said, arguing Turkey's stance was backed by other countries. 'Once this is corrected we will return to Eurovision.'

Critics have decried a creeping Islamisation and conservatism in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan although the government denies this is the case.

Seen as one of the countries more tolerant to LGBTI rights in the Islamic world, Turkey has banned all the last editions of the annual gay pride march in Istanbul.

State-run Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) withdrew from Eurovision after the 2012 contest, citing low ratings and dissatisfaction with the voting rules.

The broadcaster had said it would return to the competition in 2016 as most of Turkey's concerns, including over 'a lack of moral standards', have been addressed. But this never happened.

Turkey had harshly criticised the competition's current Big-5 ruling, which states that Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are guaranteed a place in the final.

One of Turkey's top pop divas, Sertab Erener, came first in the contest in 2003 and the 2004 edition was then held in Istanbul.

Turkey's last entry was from singer Can Bonomo who placed seventh in 2012 with the song 'Love Me Back'.

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Lebanon's glamorous music fests struggle in tough times

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