BEIRUT: Miss Lira was the sole African singer to perform at Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration ball. She dedicated a Zulu love song titled “Ngiyazifela” to the U.S. President and his wife. Long before this particular brush with celebrity, Lira was renowned for blending elements of soul and funk into traditional African tunes, which won her the 2009 South African Music Award. Lira graced the boards of the Dawar al-SHAMS auditorium Monday evening, the enticing rhythms of her performance marking the opening of this year’s Spring Festival. Created in 2004, the venue’s yearly event gathers diverse programs of performing and visual artists from Lebanon and around the world.
This year’s festival promises concerts, poetry readings, artist talks and plays by artists as far afield as Morocco, Egypt, Senegal, Norway and The Comoros Islands. The event is divided into two parts. The first half is devoted to the music and dance of Africa, including Morocco and The Comoros Islands. The second half will have an Arab flavor.
Lira’s concert will be followed Thursday by a performance by Mamela Nyamza. One of South Africa’s most respected young dancer-choreographers as well as an activist, Nyamza will present her work “The Meal.”
“Before a meal can be eaten, preparation is necessary. The most basic division is between the creator of the meal and those who are being served,” Nyamza has said of her work. “This work examines the process in which the eater becomes one with the meal, though the process of reaching satisfaction can take many forms.”
Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukutzi (aka Tuku) is famous throughout Africa for his sensual voice and stage presence, a charisma that in 2011 saw UNICEF appoint him Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Eastern and Southern Africa.
Another internationally renowned artist that the Spring Festival will introduce to Beirut is Comoros Islands’ native Nawal, whose music draws upon local popular and spiritual traditions, interpreted through African and Arab instrumentation.
The program returns to contemporary dance on May 22 with a performance by Senegal’s dance troupe Afreekanam, whose repertoire mingles traditional African movement with hip hop and elements of martial arts.
A true citizen of the world, Canadian-born South Africa-based singer-songwriter Zaki Ibrahim performs a music that mingles her multiple cultural influences, including shards of r’n’b, jazz and soul.
Her May 24 performance will be followed two days after by Moroccan trance musician Aziz Sahmaoui and his ensemble, a practitioner of the Gnawa tradition, which he mingles with a touch of jazz.
The second part of the Spring Festival will be turned over to the freestanding event “REDZONE: Free the Arts” – an annual event created by Norway’s Kirkelig Kulturverksted company, in partnership with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs.
Every other year, the event is taken on the road to a country where the freedom of expression is challenged and this year both Egypt and Lebanon have been “lucky” enough to be selected as hosts.
The Beirut iteration of the event will be staged at two venues – the exhibition at STATION, in Jisr al-Wati, while the performances will be held at Dawwar al-SHAMS.
REDZONE opens May 1 with “From the Square,” a photography project by Egypt’s Heba Khalifa. This installation-cum-photo-collage transports viewers “across time and places ... from the battle of Qasr al-Nile Bridge during the  Egyptian revolution to Holy Family’s visit to Egypt.”
“Tahrir Square,” an installation by Egypt’s Hany Rashed is comprised of plywood works meant to represent one of the iconic moments of the early days of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, along with mock-ups from real famous graffiti pieces.
For lovers of contemporary Arabic literature REDZONE will stage “Spoken World,” an evening of spoken word poetry, featuring Egypt’s Aly Talibab, Tunis’ Ghazi Frini, Lebanon’s Mazen El Sayed and Palestinian Jordanian Tarek Abu Kwaik, all augmented by video and sound installation.
A second Arabic poetry night will be staged May 8, featuring Norway-based Iraqi poet Walid al-Kubaisi, Egypt’s Michael Adel and Morocco’s Mohamed Ellaghafy.
REDZONE will also stage a pair of one-woman shows – “Capharnaüm” by Morocco’s Latefa Ahrrare and “Points of Pain” by Norway’s Kate Pendry. Ahrrare’s work explores taboos applying to women in Arab society, while “Points of Pain” is a theatrical examination of the mass shootings that rocked Norway on July 22, 2011.
The Spring Festival winds down on 10 and 17 May with concerts featuring a pair of female pop singers from different parts of this region – veteran Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat and up-and-coming Tunisian artist Badiaa Bouhrizi.
The Spring Festival runs through May 26 at Dawwar al-SHAMS and continues on May 1 with Mamela Nyamza’s dance piece “The Meal.” REDZONE commences May 1 with the opening of Heba Khalife’s exhibition “From the Square” at Jisr al-Wati’s STATION. For more information, please call 01-381-290.