In the wake of Saturday evening’s all-Bach concert at Byblos, cello maestro Yo-Yo Ma took his Bach Project to Beirut Sunday, in the company of local musicians and NGO activists.
The performer headlined four events at various locations around Beirut, though he only sometimes took center stage. The spotlight was allowed to shine on the true heroes of the day – the locals struggling to create positive change in the country.
People began to gather in Qasqas neighborhood park around 4 p.m., with local families mingling with those of the children who were to perform – mostly Syrian and Palestinian refugees – and those well-heeled audience members drifting in from elsewhere in Beirut.
As youngsters darted between the legs of those assembled, Ma appeared on stage with the Silk Road Ensemble, international orchestra he created in 1998. After a jaunty opening number, the celebrity cellist came down and joined the crowd.
The main event was to follow. A French horn and clarinet sounded from the street, and the audience rushed over to peer through the park railings. A group of children began chanting about their experience of violence at school. Another group began to sing on the other side of the park, then a third on the balconies, the lyrics of each reflecting an issue affecting their own lives.
The most enthusiastic applause was reserved for the Palestinian children’s ode to Jerusalem. “You have suffered both night and day. One day, your people will come back home.”
Samar Ghraibe, a coach with the Right to Play organization said these kids had composed their own songs over the previous year in Right to Play workshops.
“Before, the children were so nervous, and so shy. They didn’t have any personality to talk. And some of them have been living with so much violence, and other issues,” Ghraibe recalled. “In the sessions, they started to communicate with each other and when they had a big problem, they would come to each other. We told them that we want to respect each other, and be together and laugh and forget about our life outside.
“Some of them are so poor. I think in the future they will be more confident in their personality, and be able to communicate more comfortably, with no racism – Christian and Muslim, black and white. They will be one team and not focus on the difference between us.”
Ghraibe said that the respect shown to them by Silk Road’s musicians in learning and playing their compositions had been especially empowering. “It was great to see the kids were engaged in those very important issues,” said Silk Road percussionist Shane Shanahan. “It’s very important to see the way culture can present these ideas, and in showing these ideas to the audience help them to land in a more powerful way.”
Palestinian youth orchestra Al Kalamandjati took the stage and the atmosphere became increasingly festive, and the space was filled with clapping, dancing and ululating.
When they finished, many darted to the intersection beneath war-scarred neo-Ottoman structure housing Beit Beirut.
The sight of Ma playing from the house’s exposed central axis was perhaps the most stirring image of the day. After his own solo, he stepped back and Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh, Lebanese vocalist Oumaima al-Khalil and oud player Ziad al-Ahmadieh took the musical lead. As Azmeh’s clarinet keened, the crowd below was hushed into rare silence.
The third phase of the performance was staged at AUB’s Assembly Hall, where the capacity audience hung on Nadine Touma’s Hakawati-style storytelling.
The storytelling was followed by a panel discussion on freedom of expression. Nada Sehnaoui deconstructed the evils of Lebanon’s confessional bureaucracy. Veteran actor-playwright Hanane Hajj Ali drew applause with her passionate description of the fight against censorship in her own work.
Not all interventions were as forthright. Whether because he was not an adept at local political issues, or simply growing a bit knackered, Ma himself didn’t condemn censorship as such, but spoke of the need for the human body to reach “homeostasis,” which left some listeners a little confused.
Actions speak louder than words, though, and the cellist’s decision to close his Saturday Byblos Festival performance with a tune by Mashrou’ Leila, whose Byblos gig had been canceled after social media pressure, was as strong a statement as any.
The AUB phase of this day finished with a rousing performance by the Tripoli-based Fayha choir, whose emotive performance left some audience members in tears.
The final act of the day’s drama was a by-invitation-only warehouse party produced by underground artistic collective Frequent Defect – a bit incongruous given that cultural inclusiveness had been the theme of the day.
Musically, however, Ma’s performance was the most innovative of the day, even ground-breaking. Crouched over his cello in the dark, smoke-filled room, sweat dripping from his brow, he created an extraordinary atmosphere of tension in the room, pushing the boundaries of improvised dissonance, without tipping over into mere noise.
He went so far as to detune his cello, midperformance. Deep house DJs captured the notes, transformed them, echoing around him in dissonance.