It's a Tuesday night and some 600 jazz aficionados are pushed up against the outside entrance that leads down to Music Hall, a cabaret-style club located in the bowels of the Starco Center in downtown Beirut. The doors are still closed as the time ticks passed 9pm. Inside the club, the Swiss-born, France-based trumpeter Erik Truffaz is completing his sound check with the pianist Malcolm Braff, the singer Indrani Mukherjee and the tabla player Apurba Mukherjee. Earlier in the day, all four musicians were delayed on the Lebanese-Syrian border for hours. They have only just arrived in Beirut and they are running late. When they finish their pre-concert preparations, the doors open, the audience crams in and, without fuss or ceremony, the musicians begin to play. This no-nonsense approach to music, and to sidestepping what could otherwise be considered logistical nightmares, perfectly encapsulates the itinerant, peripatetic festival known as Liban Jazz.
Karim Ghattas established Liban Jazz in the summer of 2004. It began as a festival in much the same mould as the other festivals that occur annually in Lebanon - such as those held in Baalbeck, Beiteddine and Byblos. It took place outdoors, in an amphitheatre in Zouk Mikhael, and it unfolded over the course of a month or two, with clusters of concerts in clearly delineated, heavily concentrated periods of time.
But when the war with Israel broke out in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Ghattas cancelled the third edition of the festival and gave the entire format a re-think. In Paris, he organised a one-off event - called the Concert en Blanc and featuring performances by the likes of Archie Shepp, Anouar Brahem and Dhafer Youssef, all of whom had participated in the first two iterations of Liban Jazz - to raise money for the Lebanese Red Cross. That event was a revelation. Ghattas realised the single-concert structure was better suited to both the artists he wanted to attract and the audience he wanted to entertain.
"This was a turning point for the festival," says Ghattas. "After we cancelled the 2006 edition, we decided Liban Jazz would no longer be a festival but a series of concerts, all year round. It's much more respectful for the artists to be presented alone, to be presented as unique. When we started doing this, I had the feeling that doing a festival was like putting yourself on the top of a mountain and looking down. I realised I wanted to be closer to the audience, and closer to the artists."
Since 2006, Ghattas has indeed transformed Liban Jazz from a rigid festival into a looser, more fluid and ongoing series of events (he has added Liban World, with an emphasis on world music, to his stable, and has set his sights on further permutations of the name, such as Liban Rap). "Now I have the liberty of choosing exactly who I want because the dates are open. The contacts with an artist's management are easier," he explains, because he is no longer locked into a specific time frame.
Breaking the festival mould was, for many, an audacious move. Liban Jazz was, when it began, the new kid on the block already. But Ghattas has made good on his move. The first few Liban Jazz concerts attracted around 200 people. Now Ghattas' events routinely sell out (the capacity of Music Hall is 750). And he is committed to maintaining an atmosphere of intimacy. Someone of Anouar Brahem's stature, he explains, can easily sell 1,000 tickets. But Ghattas would rather book the Tunisian oud player for two nights at Music Hall than throw one massive show at a larger, more impersonal venue.
"Everyone is much more free to approach Liban Jazz in the way he or she wants now. For some it's still a festival. For others it's a series of concerts. For others it's a night out at Music Hall. After 10, 12, 15 concerts, we have learnt some lessons and we are doing our best not to repeat any of our errors. We understand the audience more, what people expect and what they want. Things have become much more professional. It's been an important step for me and for the festival. Doing one concert after another, with some space in between, it also gives people the time to talk. So Liban Jazz spreads through word of mouth. This is why the number of people coming to the concerts is increasing. This is a moment when, in everyone's mind, if you want to hear good jazz, you go to Liban Jazz," says Ghattas. "This will be the best lesson for the other festivals, that by doing it calmly, you can build your reputation."