Friday June 14th, 2024
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How Lebanon’s Aegis Festival is Lighting Up Arnaoon Village

We sat down with Emile Houkayem, the founder of the electronic music festival, to discuss Aegis’ birth and evolution.

Riham Issa

How Lebanon’s Aegis Festival is Lighting Up Arnaoon Village

Perched on the coastal city of Batroun in the idyllic sanctuary of Arnaoon Village, Aegis Festival is one of Lebanon’s most highly-anticipated electronic music festivals –a melting pot of arts, culture and music in a remote village amidst verdant hilltops and lush greenery. It’s a fully formed aesthetic, a lightning rod of aspiration, and a way of being. Think aviator sunglasses with mini plastic daisies affixed to the rims, and cowboy boots dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

Following the success of its first edition in 2023, the festival is returning this year with a sizzling summer edition, a 72-hour run of electronic music featuring regional and international DJs performing across three open-air stages amidst the mountains from July 12th to the 14th. They have recently announced the first wave of performers including global acts like Seth Troxler,  Âme (live) B2B Trikk, Dyed Soundorom, Elie Verveine and Tia B2B Romax, alongside regional favourites like Zone+, Misty, Omar Fayyad and more.

Beyond the non-stop house and techno music and partying on the beach, the three-day festival serves as a separate universe; a heaven of free-spiritedness for like-minded souls seeking to disconnect from reality, with a diverse range of wellness activities and interactive art installations, alongside flea markets and local food carts.

Ahead of its 2024 edition, we caught up with Emile Houkayem, the founder of Aegis Festival, as he shares the story behind the birth of the festival, how it can help Lebanon’s music scene evolve, and why he never plans to sell his baby out.What made you decide to launch a music festival? How did it come to be? 

I lived my whole life on the beach in Batroun, and though I wasn’t a musician or an artist by any means, I always had this passion for electronic music and the way it makes you feel. Clubbing has long been an integral part of our culture’s traditions as Lebanese people, and being away during COVID-19 just kind of filtered everything out. It made me realise the importance of celebrating our cultural heritage through music.

So, with my extensive background in hospitality, I wanted to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before, one that is quite different from what people were used to because I never felt a one-day party was enough.

You see, with an event series, it’s something very momentary because you only party for like, what, a couple of hours? And that’s it. I wanted to create a well-rounded experience, like a getaway destination for music heads for a couple of days.

So it’s more of a travel destination than a music festival?

Yeah, in a way it is. Aegis Festival is more about building a community, where like-minded people can come and live together for three days, sunbathe on the beach, do some yoga, listen to music and make new friends along the way.

Festival-goers always have very high expectations of the music, and little to no expectations of the setting or the experience they are going to have there. I wanted to change that and showcase the beauty of Lebanon’s arts and culture scene. And man… Batroun has one of the best seascapes in the world, especially Arnaoon Village. It just didn’t make sense that it didn’t have its own festival.

Why did you choose Arnaoon Village specifically to be the host of the festival? 

It’s my home! It’s my family business, and where I grew up. I used to host birthday parties for me and my friends there. It is also where I threw my first underground music parties. I would sit there by the beach and imagine where the main stage would be and all that! 

It has this kind of homey feeling to it. No matter who you are, regardless of your ethnicity or religious background, Arnaoon is for everyone. In Lebanon, we call it the village for the people who don’t have a village. For those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere. 

And, my whole idea of starting the festival was to create a feeling of home away from your home. So, it was impossible to have the festival elsewhere. It’s the beating heart of the festival. To truly experience Aegis, you have to come to Batroun, you have to come to Aranoon. It’s part of the whole experience.

Does this mean you have no plans to expand the festival to different areas within the region? 

Yes. I can never pull the festival out of Arnaoon. Aegis Festival was born in Arnaoon Village and it is going to remain in this village, it is not going to go out. 

I know that for a festival to go big, you have to migrate to different areas once in a while, it is for its commercial benefit. But, I am not planning on doing that. I would like to keep it as genuine and authentic as it is. This is how it should be experienced. 

It’s my baby, I am not going to sell out my baby!Of course! So how do you see Aegis contributing to evolving the music, arts and culture scene in Lebanon then?

Well, amidst the ongoing turmoil in the country, I believe that it’s very important to remind people of the beauty of Lebanon. So, the Aegis Festival is like a form of celebration of Lebanon’s cultural heritage and its musical wealth.

Our plan is to keep spotlighting emerging local talents and introduce global audiences to new sounds from our region. The festival also serves as a platform for cultural exchange between the regional and global electronic music scene. We are introducing big global headliners into the local music scene and establishing Lebanon as a vital organ of the global dance music circuit, which will ultimately push the scene forward. 

In terms of the activations, how will this year’s edition be different from last year? 

Last year, it was a spring edition. This year, we are launching our first summer edition. So, it will be more like a summer vacation for festival-goers. You can spend the morning sunbathing at the beach or hanging out in the pool. There are a lot of summer activities. We also have new activations, like the art zone, where people can come in and unleash their inner artist and get as creative as they want. 

A new addition to our immersive activations is the ‘Art Maze’. It’s a walk-through audio-visual experience, featuring lights, sound effects and wild art pieces. 

This year’s wellness activities are also way bigger and advanced than last year’s. We have a dedicated spa area, where you can go in mid-party to recharge, and relax your muscles a little. And of course, there is a bigger market that caters to everyone. There, you will find handcrafted goodies by different local vendors, and you will also find exclusive merchandise for the Aegis Festival.

Last but not least is the food court, which I believe is one of our most anticipated activations. We’ve added more vegan and healthy options this year. I had a couple of people approach me last year, saying, “I got lost at the shawarma cart, man, what do you put in there?!”

How about the lineup and the stages? What is your process or strategy behind curating the acts? 

When curating the lineup, I always focus on pushing new sounds as much as I can. I work on this with my partner and booker Ali Saleh. This year, we are pushing a lot of tech-house and melodic sounds from Lebanon. We are also bringing in a lot of acts from every corner around the region, Egypt, Dubai, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, everywhere. 

However, I try to stay away from the afterlife sound, because, for me, I believe it makes people stay on their phones the whole time to capture it, and this is the opposite of what I want the experience of Aegis to be. That’s why we don’t have visuals or massive screens installed on stage, not because we are not capable of doing it, but because I believe it takes people’s attention away from living the moment and enjoying the music. 

With the stages, we originally launched the festival with only two stages, the main stage and the alternative stage. However, this year, we are adding new small ones. One is the SceneNoise stage we’ve set up with you. It’s a very cool setup, with a dance floor in the pool, along with a bar on the side. The second one is an exclusive stage, which we will only open on the third night of the festival. It’s still a secret for now but will be set up within the Art Maze. But, I would say it’s more of a pop-up party rather than a stage. 

The alternative stage is where we showcase the new sounds of the region, featuring electro and minimal house, along with some experimental live acts. Meanwhile, the main stage is where the global headliners will be performing.

What is one of your personal favourite performances from last year’s edition? 

It was a performance by a French artist called Lamache. He was playing at the alternative stage. His set was on the first night from 9 PM to 11 PM, and the crowd was just going wild and interacting with him in a way that was mind-blowing. It was like a peak partying moment. Everyone was just dancing and having fun. The energy was insane. 

I looked at my friends and said, “I created a monster I can not control.” It is by far the most enjoyable performance I have ever witnessed. It reminded me of why I started the festival in the first place, to create special moments like this.How do you envision the future of the Aegis Festival? Like what are your long-term goals for it?

Okay, so this is the first time for me to ever talk about this plan.

My dream is to establish an extension of the Aegis Festival that runs the whole week, not just for three days. We’d start off in Arnaoon Village, and take festival-goers on a journey around Lebanon with multiple pop-up parties. Something similar to what Sonar Festival is doing with Off Sonar. It will be like a hub, which will host a lot of sub-events, organised by different party series or music platforms from across the region, yet carrying the same feeling of Aegis Festival. 

It definitely requires a lot of work, but I believe it will happen very soon!How soon do you think?

Like on our fifth edition maybeYeah, it will definitely be our fifth edition. 

Anyways, that’s Aegis, in a nutshell, everyone.


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