Mohammed Abdullah Al Meqbali, leader of Sokoor Al Magabeel, talks about keeping tradition alive

Ahead of their performance at the Volvo Ocean Race stopover, the leader of the Emirati dance troupe of men who also sing, recite poetry and play a variety of traditional instruments talks about his collaboration with musician Kamal Musallam and performing around the world.
Mohammed Al Meqbali, fourth from right, the leader of Sokoor Al Magabeel, an Emirati dance troupe. Courtesy Sokoor Al Magabeel
Mohammed Al Meqbali, fourth from right, the leader of Sokoor Al Magabeel, an Emirati dance troupe. Courtesy Sokoor Al Magabeel

Mohammed Abdullah Al Meqbali doesn’t remember a time in his life when the solid, deep tones of Emirati folk songs, and the expressive, rhythmic movements of traditional Emirati dance forms, did not form an integral part of his life.

“I’ve always been passionate about this part of our culture and our identity as Emiratis,” says Al Meqbali. “It’s in my blood.”

Al Meqbali, a poet and songwriter, is the leader of Sokoor Al Magabeel, an Emirati dance troupe of men who also sing, recite poetry and play a variety of traditional instruments from the Arabian Gulf and the wider Arab world. In 2009, Sokoor collaborated on an album with the ­Kuwaiti-born Jordanian fusion artist, Kamal Musallam, renowned in the region for using the oud and guitar to explore and blend new cultures through different genres. Musallam worked with Al Meqbali and his dance troupe to create the Lulu album, which blended traditional Emirati folk songs and original lyrics and melodies by Al Meqbali with Musallam’s love of jazz, soul and a touch of rock.

On Saturday, Musallam and Sokoor Al Magabeel will come together for a live performance of the Lulu project at the ­Corniche Breakwater in Abu Dhabi, and perform three tracks off the widely acclaimed Lulu album. Al Meqbali says he cannot wait – performing the music and dances he feels so strongly about is all he ever wants to do.

He has never known any ­other job. He has been deeply immersed in learning about the UAE’s different dance forms – and developing them – since his late teens.

“I never had formal music lessons, and yet I grew up tinkering on the keyboard, playing every tune that would ever appeal to me. I was always told I had a musical ear, but more than that or more than having a talent even, I loved it. Music is my passion and specifically the music of our great country,” he says.

Al Meqbali began studying Emirati artists such as Mehad Hamad, one of the oldest musicians in the UAE, who is celebrated for his modern interpretations of traditional Emirati folk songs and his incorporation of the oud into songs about the desert.

“I also wanted to develop traditional Emirati folk songs and patriotic songs – and the dances, of course – into something more, something different. I still wanted them to remain traditional and recognisable – familiar, even – but I wanted to sort of uplift them, and make everyone else fall in love with this part of our heritage.”

Al Meqbali began with the ­Harbiya form of dance, a common performance during joyous occasions in the UAE, at weddings, engagements, Eid celebrations and National Day events. The dance is traditionally performed by two lines of men sporting rifles and confronting one another, melodically reciting repetitive poetry unaccompanied by any music.

“Around 2001, I started developing the Harbiya dance form, and it has now honestly changed across the UAE. It used to be performed as a group, with very little rhythm and with no instruments,” says Al Meqbali.

He created a style of the dance that called for two lines of men to be positioned on either side of one or two poets, 15 on the left and 15 on the right. Props would include wooden sticks and rifles, and the rhythmic sway of men back and forth, or side to side, remained. However, Al ­Meqbali saw no reason not to add musical instruments to ­accompany the dance – everything from a qanun and oud to percussion, keyboards and violins.

By 2003, Al Meqbali had formed a troupe of dancers and musicians.

“I gathered a group of men to be proud of. The criteria is they have to be handsome and good looking, tall, with experience and, of course, not just anyone from the street – they are all from well-known families who appreciate this genre of Emirati music and dance.” The troupe’s numbers vary according to their dances and performances. Sometimes they perform as a small group of eight. When the occasion calls for it, Al Meqbali gathers 30. And though the men may come and go, Al Meqbali is always the constant.

“I began educating myself and teaching my group,” says Al ­Meqbali. “We wanted to learn about sound engineering, how to use the microphones on stage in the best way while preserving our dance, how to set up the instruments around the dancer. We began gathering speakers, buying equipment, learning how to become professionals.”

Their first album, Majnoon Leila, was a collection of eight songs written by Al Meqbali in the traditional genre of Harbiya. “It was the first time an album of new songs in this traditional colour of Emirati dance form is released, and I admit, I was afraid,” says Al Meqbali. “I was afraid of the critique I would face, because this is our heritage and people might not like what I’ve done with it, they might say I ruined it or who do I think I am messing with it. But thank God, that first album sold almost a million copies across the Gulf region and paved the way for success with Sokoor Al Magabeel.”

Slowly, the group’s repertoire began to grow as they performed in celebrations across the UAE and Arabian Gulf. Al Meqbali can’t even keep track of how many albums they’ve released so far – “maybe a dozen?” – or the numerous videos of their work. There have been 26 filmed in ­Syria and Lebanon alone. “We love filming there, such beautiful, green countries,” says Al ­Meqbali.

He continued to write poetry that he would later put to music, or adapt poems by great poets of the UAE and put them to song and dance. But the group’s collaboration with Musallam is what launched the troupe’s ­international chapter.

“We got to go with him to the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 and perform pieces from the Lulu ­album there, and we even filmed a video clip to accompany one of the songs, in France,” says Al Meqbali. After that, collaborations began pouring in, and Sokoor Al Magabeel began performing all over the world.

“We’ve taken our traditional Emirati music to Munich and London, China, to Brazil and Vietnam and the Philippines, and to Ireland and Switzerland and Italy, and so many times to the United States. We just came back from San Francisco, just a few days before we’re due to perform in Abu Dhabi as part of the Volvo Ocean Race celebrations,” says Al Meqbali. “Everywhere we go, the reception is amazing, and people love what we show them. This is what I wanted, for the world to see the beauty in our traditional Emirati music.”

• Kamal Musallam and the Emirati folkloric group Sokoor Al Magabeel will perform selections from Lulu in a free concert on Saturday at 7pm in the Destination Village on the Abu Dhabi Corniche Breakwater, as part of the Volvo Ocean Race stopover

Published: December 23, 2014 04:00 AM


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