The sounds of Arabia music festival starts today at the Cultural Foundation. Nicole Hill / The National
Don’t know your ney from your naqqara, your riqq from your darbuka? What about the qanoon, santur, djose and oud? If this list of Arabic musical instruments reads like a foreign language, a visit to the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation this week could improve your vocabulary. The Sounds of Arabia music festival, which starts today, offers six days of live musical performances, a series of Arabic films inspired by musical themes, a lecture on the evolution of music and an oud-playing workshop.
Furat Qadduori's father encouraged him to play a traditional instrument.
Isadora Papadrakakis, who is organising the festival with Abdulla al Amri, the foundation’s director of arts and culture, said their aim was to stimulate interest in Arabic music in a region where western classical and popular music still dominate. “There is a gap in the market when it comes to Arabic music,” she said. “What we want to do is to create a festival that will grow every year which doesn’t focus on popular music, but errs on the artistic side of the Arabic scene. We want to introduce new performers that people might not know well. We’re not really interested in the big names but in performers who are brilliant musicians.”
The Egyptian composer and pianist Omar Khairat.Papadrakakis said she was surprised by the level of interest in the festival from Emiratis. “We put announcements in newspapers and have had an enormous response from locals. People are dying to hear their own music. Hopefully people will travel from all over the Emirates for a fiesta.”
Sounds of Arabia will include individual performances from the Egyptian composer and pianist Omar Khairat, the Lebanese singer Jahida Wehbe and the Iraqi qanoon player Furat Qadduori.
They will be joined by Farida Mohammad Ali, who performs with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, the Moroccan oudist Tariq Banzi and flamenco guitarist Julia Banzi, the Al Fayha Choir from northern Lebanon and the Reda Folkloric Troupe, a combined orchestra and dance troupe from Egypt.
“We want to provide the audience with a big overview of the different styles of Arabic music,” Papadrakakis said. “Arabic music is very diverse and because of the influences from and on Western music, there is a surprising amount of fusion going on. We wanted to emphasise this fusion because it means that this is music that everyone can relate to.”
The Al Fayha Choir is composed of 40 non-professional young people from different social and religious backgrounds.
The festival also hopes to develop a wider appreciation of the acoustic performance of traditional musical instruments like the qanoon and oud, which some musicians fear will become obsolete if they are not supported. “The qanoon is an instrument very particular to the Arab world which many people don’t even know exists,” Papadrakakis went on.
“We also really want to promote the existence of the Arabic Oud House in Abu Dhabi because as well as being a school it houses fantastic musicians. We want to encourage different forms of musical improvisation and help local musicians to have a creative dialogue.”
Bait al Oud is located in Camp al Nahayan, between Defence Road and 13th Street (Delma Street) and is under the artistic direction of Naseer Shamma, one of the world’s most renowned oud players.
Furat Qadduori, a professional qanoon player based in Dubai, was encouraged to play the instrument by his father. The qanoon is a rectangular stringed instrument comparable to the harp. The strings are tied parallel to a wooden music box.
The singer Jahida will be performing in the 2008 Sounds of Arabia Festival this weekend.
“I hated the qanoon at first because my father was a teacher at the School of Music and Ballet in Baghdad and he pushed me to do it from the age of six. I told him, ‘No, it’s too difficult’. He said: ‘Trust me, there is nobody playing this instrument. Play something from your own tradition’.”
Yet even now, Qadduori says, too few people are interested in traditional Arabic music. “The Europeans appreciate it more than the Arabs,” he said. “My instrument is not very well known here because here we focus mainly on singers. We don’t have much of an instrumental culture. People just don’t like them. They say it is too heavy and they prefer the piano, the guitar or the violin. I find European audiences are much more interested in our culture. This instrument comes from Babylon and people in the West are fascinated to know where it came from and how many people are playing it.”
To broaden the appeal of the qanoon, Qadduori also performs with a fusion band, mixing traditional instruments with Arabic jazz, the electric piano, Western percussion and base. “I am now doing well in Dubai,” he adds. “DJs play my music and Arabs are starting to become interested. But I still like to put the qanoon centre stage, not sitting behind the singers.”
Tarik and Julia Banzi, who have released five albums under their record label Al-Andalus, will perform classical Arabic, Latin and Flamenco compositions with Charlie Bisharat, a violinist. The pair take as their inspiration the Spain of Al-Andalus, which Julia says “witnessed the closest encounter possible between Judaism, Christianity and Islam” between 711 and 1492. Tarik Banzi is a Moroccan-born oudist who grew up in the Andalusian musical tradition and holds a degree in fine art. Julia, an American, is one of a handful of female Flamenco guitarists; she also holds a PhD in ethnomusicology. While performing primarily on the oud (a plucked, fretless lute) and flamenco guitar, the pair also play the ney (a reed flute), the kamanja (a form of the violin), the darbuka (a goblet-shaped drum), the Andalusian tar (a small tambourine) and the bendir (a framed drum).
The singer Fairuz will be performing in the 2008 Sounds of Arabia Festival this weekend.
On Friday, May 2, Julia will give a lecture called “Music of the East”, which, it is hoped, will put modern-day Arabic music in its historical context.
“The music we hear today is an evolution of formal principles and adaptations which have taken place over thousands of years,” Julia said. “Many of us are familiar with the contributions of Europe and the ancient Greeks and Romans, but far less is known about the equally important contributions of the opulent courts of Baghdad, Persia, Cordoba and Syria. Here we find the origins of the first ever orchestral music, as well as the origins of most of all the instruments we use today.”
Of particular interest to Julia Banzi is the significance of Andalusian women’s orchestras.
“While the historical record is rich with mention of women Andalusian musicians of the ninth to thirteenth centuries, there is a void in documenting the existence and significance of women’s ensembles during the seven centuries that followed,” she said.“It is one of the longest continuous traditions of art music in the world, but with few exceptions scholarly literature on Andalusian music focuses exclusively on the male version of the tradition.”
On Saturday May 3, Tariq and Julia Banzi will offer a workshop of Arab Andalusian music with students at the Bait al Oud.
Farida Mohammed Ali, who was born in Kerbala, Iraq, and has lived in the Netherlands since 1997, performs with the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble, which attempts to revive the Iraqi maqam, a system of melodic modes which are used in musical composition and improvisation. Iraqi maqam texts were derived from classical Arabic poetry and the genre utilises traditional instruments including the riqq, similar to the tambourine, and the tar, a form of lute. The Iraqi Maqam Ensemble has produced nine albums since 2000 and its latest, Sun of Iraq, was released last week. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, militant extremists have been attacking musicians and music shops across Iraq.
Jahida Wehbe, who performs a variety of classical, Sufi and patriotic songs, has worked with dozens of prominent Lebanese composers and singers and taken part music festivals all over the world. She is preparing for a series of concerts in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe and China.
“Although my music mixes oriental and occidental, I rely on the maqam rhythm and tempo,” she says. “Arabic music is sometimes misunderstood by Western audiences, although we have to work to make sure it is better archived, documented and computerised to put it at the disposal of audiences.”
Wehbe has recently developed a fan base in Abu Dhabi. “Every day I receive letters from fans in the UAE and I have many friends in Abu Dhabi,” she says. “The emirate is similar to Lebanon in the way it deals with culture, promotes cultural activities and aspires to the future.”
The Al Fayha Choir was formed in Lebanon 2003 and is comprised of 40 non-professional young people from different social and religious backgrounds. The conductor is Berkev Taslakian. Roula Abou Baker, the choir’s president, said the group’s main objective was “raising the name of Lebanon and the Arab countries all over the world, and showing their openness to all civilizations.”
The majority of its songs are Arabic, from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Andalusia, but the choir sings in several languages including Armenian, English, Latin, French and Spanish. It is preparing for a world tour.
Three music documentaries will be screened at the Cultural Foundation on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Sacred Sounds (2000), directed by Carmine Cervi, is set in Fez and documents the ways sacred music is used to communicate and celebrate God. We Loved Each Other So Much (2003), directed by Jack Janssen, is a melancholy commentary on the history and contemporary state of Lebanon, told through the eyes of ordinary Beirut residents who share a love of the singer Fairuz. Improvisation (2005), directed by Raed Andoni, is a film about the Palestinian music group Trio Joubran. The three brothers travel among Ramallah, Nazareth and Paris, working, laughing, crying, arguing and passing with difficulty through checkpoints. The films are in Arabic with English subtitles.