Mid-August is exhausting in Lebanon. It isn’t simply the thickening humidity of the coast. It’s also that Baalbek and Beiteddine are winding down or done, leaving concert-goers sated or broke. Sometimes both. Only something very special can relieve the torpor. Something special happened in Jbeil’s citadel on Saturday night.
What happened was A Filetta, a seven-man choral group from Corsica brought to town by the ‘Mediterraneo’ portion of the Festival International de Byblos. As the name suggests, the Mediterraneo’s acts evoke Lebanon’s traditional relations with the sea and the venue is, appropriately enough, by the sea, at the Roman amphitheater.
The whole site has been tastefully tarted up to overcome late-summer skepticism. Any festival goers who got lost amid the ruins’ attractive but indirect lighting were assisted by brightly tee-shirted volunteers, strategically positioned to lead the confused.
The Roman amphitheater itself was sparsely but tastefully outfitted. A dozen or so red candles (three still burning when I arrived) were set up on the corner of the stage. The stage lighting was kept to a minimum to take advantage of the opaque background provided by the Mediterranean.
While the audience equally sparse and tastefully outfitted was awaiting the opening act, it was plied with a variety of mood-altering music, from vaguely avant-garde classical (female voice with minimalist oboe, for instance), to oud and polite, ethnically-flavored House. Every now and then someone set fire to a handful of incense to implicate another sense in the experience.
The opening act in question a flamenco guitarist and dancer never showed. When I conferred about this with festival organiser Michel Elefteriades after the concert, his eyes fell to the ground. “I’ve been working with gypsies for years. They can be very unreliable.” He smiled then. “But when they do perform they are spontaneous brilliance.”
Gypsies have a prominent role in the Mediterraneo. From 26 to 29 August the Kocani Orkestar will present the Musique des Gitans Yougoslaves at the amphitheater. Kocani, a gypsy band, will be performing music made famous in the last few years by the films of Emir Kuturica, “Black Cat, White Cat” and “Underground”.
The gypsy element returns on Sept. 4, when José Fernandez comes together with Wadih Safi to present Rencontres Mediterraneennes: A musical blending of the eastern and western Mediterranean that revives the musical spirit of Andalusia.
The Corsican musical traditions brought by A Filetta is not well-known in this part of the world. Redolent of loss, the lyrics have the quality of sustained dirge. The songs tell the stories of mariners who went to sea for fish or trade but never returned. Some are political, like the group’s encore, dedicated to the Corsican rebel Marco Maria, who was hanged by the French king at the age of 15.
But the effect of A Filetta is not as morbid as the lyrics might suggest. The beauty of the form and in this case the sheer talent of the performers elevate the music beyond the mundane subject matter of its lyrics.
At the same time, you won’t hear polyphony on Radio One. The form is still restricted to ‘early music’ meaning early European music and ‘world music’ audiences. Among its better-known practitioners are England’s Tallis Scholars and those Tibetan monks that we’re always hearing about the ones who can chant in two tones simultaneously.
A Filetta fall more naturally into the class of folk polyphony, or ‘world music,’ if you like. Jean-Paul, the group’s leader, is responsible for the Festival International de Polyphonie in Calvi, Corsica which brings the world’s polyphonic traditions together. A Filetta have also enjoyed popular exposure with the soundtrack of Jacques Weber’s film “Don Juan,” and are soon to work with those Buddhist monks on the soundtrack of “Himalaya.”
Throughout their performance it was difficult to decide whether A Filetta should be praised for complementing their venue or superseding it. The seven men, dressed in black, walked on stage just after 8.30pm. They stood in a crescent, as if performing for themselves as much as for the audience.
Their opening strains took the air just as the first merciful breeze wafted in from the Mediterranean. The singers’ control, and the quality of co-ordination among them both vocal and physical were instant.
In this they differ from the Tallis Scholars and the monks. Though they are serious throughout, there is an earthy intimacy in their stage presence. It was common to see the singers clutching each other at the shoulder or at the back. It was like watching the shabab having a drink and a gab at the local pub. But the appearance is belied by their voices. The harmonies are at once soothing and spine-tingling as much as any of the better-known polyphonic ensembles.
As A Filetta began their second number, the group fell back into their crescent. A couple of the singers raised a hand to their ear, and as they inhaled a muezzin’s commenced his call to prayer in the distance.
A Filetta paused for a second, then embraced the muezzin’s call, enveloping his harmony and carrying it on into a series of Corsican variations on a Muslim Lebanese theme.
It’s a shame so many people missed it.