Baalbek was known as Heliopolis, or city of the sun, during the Hellenistic period. Despite centuries of changes in rulership and religion, external and internal conflict, not to mention three major earthquakes, Baalbek’s temples are still some of the best preserved ruins in the world. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s (literally) one of the pillars of Lebanese tourism, and the majestic location of the Baalbek International Festival.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary last year, the festival was the first of its kind in Lebanon and the region, inspiring countless similar initiatives. It’s an annual celebration of music, theater, and dance set among magnificent ancient temples, but it’s also a symbol of cultural resistance. Like the stones it’s set in, the festival has been through thick and thin with the rest of the country, suffering years of closure during Lebanon’s Civil War, before re-launching in 1997. A few years ago, due to turmoil in the Bekaa, several performances had to be relocated to Beirut.
This year from July 7 to August 15, the festival commemorates another anniversary — that of The Lebanese Nights, the festival’s support for homegrown talent. Over the years, many Lebanese icons have graced the Baalbek stage, and now the next generation — Ramy Ayach, Aline Lahoud and Brigitte Yaghi — will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Fayrouz, Sabah, the Rahbanis, Umm Kulthoum and Wadih el-Safi with a performance on opening night, singing a selection of old favorites as well as their own songs. Festival President Nayla de Freige promises a festive, colorful show with a live orchestra, dances, and projections — a real Lebanese-style birthday party.
The festival continues with one of Africa’s biggest singers, Angelique Kidjo. Not only a highly respected musician, she is also a UNICEF ambassador and was named by Forbes as one of Africa’s 100 most influential women. With her powerful voice and stage presence, Kidjo and her orchestra will pay tribute to the music of icons Celia Cruz, Nina Simone, and Miriam Makeba, as well as performing her own songs.
Another highlight is the Lebanese-French trumpeter and composer Ibrahim Maalouf, who has drawn crowds of 20,000 in Paris, and has a large following in Europe, not to mention his list of prestigious awards and nominations. His performance comes after already making an impression at Baalbek as part of the “Ilik Ya Baalbek” show in 2015, when he brought local dabke dancers on stage, as well as performing at the festival’s gala dinner last year, where he had an emotional onstage reunion with his then-estranged father, Lebanese musician Nassim Maalouf. This year, he’s expected to play a special oriental trumpet crafted by the elder Maalouf.
The only act that will be staged inside the Bacchus temple is Trio Wanderer, a French piano, violin, and cello group, who are celebrating their 30th anniversary. They are playing a classic repertoire of Rachmaninov, Dvorak, and Schubert in the intimate space, renowned for its incredible acoustics, and which accommodates only 500, as opposed to the other location on the temple’s steps, which can hold over 3000.
After the success of Sherine Abdel Wahhab’s concert last year, organizers decided to incorporate more Arabic pop, this year with Samira Said. De Freige says that some people were surprised to see the genre at the festival, but she feels that if they can host Western pop artists, they should include locals, and this is proving to attract more attendees from the area.
The grand finale is an exciting one — iconic rock band Toto are performing in Lebanon for the first time. After 40 years together, the band is still one of the top selling, touring, and recording acts in the world, with classic hits like Africa, Hold the Line, and Rosanna.
The mix of pop, jazz, classical, Arabic, Western, and world music reflects a conscious decision by the festival to be diverse, like other large festivals in the country. De Freige says that the festival’s 100-person committee works on the program with expert consultants in each genre.
Performing at Baalbek is a dream for many artists. “You can’t compare Baalbek to anywhere else,” says de Freige, recounting meeting artists who have previously performed there. “Often they say ‘it was one of the biggest concerts of our lives,’ you can’t forget it.” But she adds that it’s a double-edged sword. “Baalbek makes you bigger if you are big, but it can kill you if you are small. It’s so grand that if you are not at the standard of this huge place, it makes you look very small by comparison.”
The festival’s diverse program is expected to attract attendees from all walks of life and all parts of the country and region.