The Aga Khan Music Awards began its three-day ceremony in Oman on Saturday, featuring evocative performances from world-class and regional talents from South-East Asia and West Africa.
The opening night of the lavish event — broadcast on Oman TV — was held at the Royal Opera House Muscat in the presence of Prince Amyn Muhammad, the younger brother of the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community.
First held in 2019, the triennial celebration aims to honour and support artists in preserving musical heritage in regions such as the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and North Africa.
This year's 10 winners were chosen by a jury consisting of international arts professionals including Sheikha Hala bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, director-general for Bahrain's Authority for Culture and Antiquities, and British dancer and choreographer Akram Khan.
All Aga Khan Music Award winners receive cash prizes that total $500,000.
In his keynote address, Prince Amyn Muhammad described the award’s return as poignant owing to the economic and cultural disruption caused by the pandemic.
“The disappearance of live performance opportunities literally overnight meant more than the loss of livelihood; it also meant the loss of a vital source of inspiration,” he said.
“It is the inspiration that arises in performers when they perform directly in the presence of audiences and can feel the emotions, the thoughts that their music engenders.”
'A great pat on the back'
All 10 winners will be honoured over the course of the ceremony, which ends on Monday.
On the opening night, Indian musician Zakir Hussain received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Born to revered Indian percussionist and composer Alla Rakha in Mumbai, Hussain was acknowledged for an expansive six-decade career during which he has elevated the global status of Indian percussive instrument the tabla. He's also built cultural bridges through various world tours and musical collaborations ranging from Hollywood and Bollywood to working alongside Beatles member George Harrison.
Speaking to The National, Hussain expressed delight at the award.
"The award is a great pat on the back that tells me that I am on the right track and I should keep going," he said. "I look at it as the beginning of the next phase of my journey towards something in which we all try to achieve, which is perfection."
He cited his latest album, In the Groove, as part of the international percussion collective Planet Drum, as an example of his continuous search for new creative ground.
As one of four collaborative performances on the first night, Hussain teamed up with the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra to play a section of his tabla concerto Peshkar.
Weaving through the strings and brass of the muscular score, Hussain showcased his mastery of the instrument with improvised, elegantly morphing from languid to strident.
“Improvisation is key if you want to interact and converse with musicians from other genres,” he said. “It is by concentrating and focusing on the moment at hand that you can really open yourself up and make those connections.”
It is a principle exemplified by other award winners who took to the stage on Saturday.
Tabla player Dilshad Khan joined fellow Indian artist Asin Khan Langa for an evocative instrumental performance featuring the latter's sarangi, a bowed, short-necked string instrument closely resembling the quavering human voice.
Also performing was Tanzanian spiritual singer Yahya Bihaki Hussein and there was a duet by Malian guitarist Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane and Mauritanian singer Afel Bocoum.
Award winners playing on Sunday and Monday include Indonesian dancer Peni Candra Rini and British-Indian sarod player Soumik Datta
'Rich wellspring of knowledge and civilisation'
The sultanate’s rich musical history was outlined by Jamal Bin Hassan Al Moussawi, secretary-general of Oman's National Museum.
During his keynote speech at the awards, he traced the country’s cultural history from the discovery of Oman’s oldest instrument, the gim (a 7,000-year-old traditional trumpet available for viewing at The National Museum) to the establishment of the Royal Ensemble for Folk Arts and Music in 1976, followed by the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra in 1985 and the inauguration of Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011.
“Music is a universal language spoken and understood by all peoples with ease, which facilitates dialogue among civilisations,” he said.
“Through the language of music, we are working to highlight the role of the Sultanate of Oman and what is specific to its rich wellspring of knowledge and civilisation.”
Aga Khan Music programme director Fairouz Nishanova welcomed Oman contributions to the organisation, which aims to build a more inclusive society through art and culture.
"This musical fellowship and family that we have created is the most important and gratifying outcome of the Aga Khan Music Programme," she said.
"At the root of this community is the key idea of pluralism as a fundamental condition for a peaceful and prosperous world”.
The full list of winners is available at www.the.akdn