Descendent of Arab musical legend brings nostalgia to fest

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Yasmina Jumblatt – festival

‘Once Were Brothers’ to open Toronto festival

BEIRUT, July 21, (RTRS): 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 recently 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 coloured 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.


LOS ANGELES: “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” will rock the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The documentary recounts the story of one of Canada’s musical legends – a man who served as both lead guitarist and primary songwriter on a group that introduced the likes of “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into the pop culture lexicon. “Once Were Brothers” will have its world premiere at the festival. The gala presentation will be on Thursday, Sept 5, at Roy Thomson Hall.

It’s the first time a Canadian-made documentary will open the festival. The track record of opening night films at Toronto is a spotty one. Last year, the festival got things started with Netflix’s “Outlaw King,” a period drama about Robert the Bruce that drew a muted response. Other openers, like the critically derided “The Fifth Estate” and the box office duds “Borg vs McEnroe” and “Demolition,” failed to generate much heat after kicking off the festival. To be fair, Toronto has also gotten things started with winners, such as “Looper” and “The Sweet Hereafter” over the course of its four decades.

“Once Were Brothers” is directed by Daniel Roher (“Ghosts of Our Forest”) and was inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir. The movie features interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, the legendary director who shot The Band’s 1976 performance at the Winterland Ballroom for “The Last Waltz,” along with musical giants such as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, and Ronnie Hawkins.

“This is one of Toronto’s great stories of a hometown hero,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head.

“From his early years in this city, to the inspiration he took from life on the Six Nations reserve, to the impact he’s had on generations of music lovers, Robertson emerges in Roher’s film as a truly Canadian-made superstar.”

The Toronto Film Festival is a key launching pad for awards season releases. Past Oscar winners such as “The Green Book” and “The Shape of Water” have screened at the Canadian festival, emerging as Oscar frontrunners. Next week, the festival will unveil the movies that will show as part of its 44th edition.

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