Lebanon’s traditional summer festivals harked back to the Arab world’s musical past this year, highlighted by a performance by the great-granddaughter of the legendary 1930s diva Asmahan in a mountain palace.
Asmahan captivated audiences at a moment when European colonialism had replaced the Ottoman Empire, and cultural icons reached the masses via the new media of cinema and radio, tapping into a surging spirit of Arab nationalism.
Nearly a century later, her great-granddaughter Yasmina Joumblatt took to the stage on Thursday to sing at the Beiteddine festival in an Ottoman-era palace in Lebanon’s Chouf mountains, accompanying the music of French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared.
“I was a great admirer of her as a woman. I discovered her art later in life. What we tried to do is honour her and revisit her work while living abroad,” said Joumblatt.
She sang two Asmahan songs arranged by Yared, as well as other pieces. “It’s [a process of] rebuilding the songs. I treated this as if I was treating great music,” said Yared, who won an Oscar for writing the music to "The English Patient" and has also scored many other films.
Bats flitted across the starry sky and colored lights illuminated the ornate stonework of the triple-arched palace gate and the long arcade running to one side of the stage.
To the left, a constellation of distant lights showed where roads and villages tumbled down the long valley towards the Mediterranean, and behind the audience, a stone village crept between parasol pines up the hillside.
Asmahan was at one time seen as a rival even to the brightest of the region’s singers, the Egyptian diva Um Kulthoum, but she was killed in a car crash in 1944.
Joumblatt’s appearance provides a direct link to that earlier era when, the festival head Nora Jumblatt, a distant relation of Yasmina, said, “everything was possible”.
Asmahan was a scion of the Druze sect’s powerful al-Atrush dynasty, which led a rebellion against France in the 1920s.
Lebanon’s summer music festivals, set against the backdrop of its most impressive monuments like the Roman temples at Baalbak and the Crusader castle of Byblos, are an important feature in the country, Nora Jumblatt said.
“It is across society, not just for the elite. When great artists play, if you look up there are people sitting on the roadsides or on the roofs of their houses listening,” she said.