9 of the biggest concerts to take place in the Arab world: from Frank Sinatra at the Pyramids to Ella Fitzgerald in Lebanon

They may be gone, but these influential performers left their mark on the region

American singer Frank Sinatra is seen during his concert performance in front of the Sphinx in Giza Thursday night, September 27, 1979, in Cairo, Egypt.  Sinatra was invited to perform at the benefit concert for the Wafa Amal rehabilitation center for handicapped children by Egypt's First Lady, Jihan Sadat. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
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It's been almost 42 years since James Brown played his debut concert in the Middle East, an event that would go down in regional music history.

On December 16, 1978, the Godfather of Soul wowed fans with a frenzied and sweaty performance in Kuwait, the first of six sold-out shows in five days, for which he played classics including Papa's Got a Brand New Bag and It's a Man's Man's Man's World. 

A poster advertising James Brown's Kuwait series of shows. Twitter

The upcoming anniversary was pointed out on Twitter by Ali Al Saeed, who shared newspaper clippings from the time. Four decades may have passed since Brown took to the stage, but the concert's legacy is still being felt as part of the wider story of the region’s burgeoning history of live performances.

While Brown's sell-out show was one of the biggest of its era, even in the 1970s, the Arab world was used to hosting some of the biggest names in western music.

From jazz great Duke Ellington's 1963 show in the Syrian capital Damascus, to King of Pop Michael Jackson's blockbuster stadium concert in Tunis in 1996, these huge acts left their mark on the Middle East and awakened the US and European music industries to the touring opportunities to be found in the region.

Here are eight classic concerts by late legendary artists that took place in the Arab world …

1. Duke Ellington

Middle East – 1963

AMMAN, JORDAN - 1963:  Composer Duke Ellington performs with his orchestra in a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre during their tour of the Middle East for the US State Department in 1963 in Amman, Jordan.  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This was a historic tour with US government approval. Supported by the Department of State, legendary composer and pianist Duke Ellington swung through the Middle East and South Asia on a three-month tour that included stops in Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Kicking off the tour at the Roman amphitheatre in Amman, Ellington and his orchestra tore through a 16-song set that included Take the A Train, Tutti for Cootie and One More Once.

2. Louis Armstrong

Beirut, Lebanon – 1959

At the peak of his fame, the American trumpeter and jazz singer came to Beirut to perform a run of sold-out shows at the Unesco Theatre on April 6 to April 9, 1959.

The concert was part of a flurry of cultural diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the US government to counter Soviet communist influence.

A copy of the programme is available for private sale online at the Ian Brabner Rare Americana website. The set list is a jazz aficionado's dream with "Satchmo" performing the hits Mack the Knife, St Louis Blues and I Can't Give You Anything But Love.

3. Frank Sinatra

Giza Pyramids, Egypt – 1979

Ol' Blue Eyes graced the stage on September 27, 1979, with a classic set that included Someone to Watch Over Me, I've Got You Under My Skin and Strangers in the Night. Such was the significance of the event, the US press sent along a handful of journalists to document the performance of the "Chairman of the Board", as he was known.

It was reported that Sinatra was his usual charming self on stage and quick with a pun or two. According to The Washington Post, he expressed his amazement of the Pyramids behind him, quipping of his own heritage: "If the Italians had done it, they would never have finished it."

4. Ella Fitzgerald

Baalbeck International Festival, Lebanon – 1971, 1972

On July 17, 1971, the jazz great took to the festival stage for a heart-warming set. Aided by a cracking band, she performed solo and jazz standards such as Night and Day, Body and Soul and I Loves You Porgy to an enraptured crowd.

In the audience that night was Ahmed Kassab, who told BBC Radio programme Outlook the concert was a joyous affair. "The atmosphere was just one of positive energy all around," he said. "There was laughter, smiles, chit chat and pure joy." Fitzgerald enjoyed herself, too, returning to perform at the festival the following year.

5. Miles Davis

Baalbeck International Festival, Lebanon – 1973

The mercurial jazzman is known for his reticent stage presence, but surely even he must have cracked a smile at performing with the stunning Temple of Jupiter as his backdrop. While there is no information on what was played as part of his Baalbeck International Festival gig on July 6, 1973, his European tour had him dropping crowd favourites such as Calypso Frelimo, Right Off and Funk.

6. Ray Charles

Carthage, Tunisia – 1976

With his music out of fashion thanks to the rise of psychedelic rock, soul man Charles took to the road and performed his one and only date in the Arab world. With no album to promote, Charles's July 30, 1976 show was part of a run of greatest-hits gigs that included classics Georgia On My Mind, How Long Has This Been Going On? and What'd I Say

7. Michael Jackson

Tunis, Tunisia – 1996

It is only right that one of the biggest tours in pop music history resulted in one of the region's biggest concert gatherings. More than 60,000 fans crammed into the Stade Olympique d'El Menzah in the Tunisian capital to witness Michael Jackson's ground-breaking HIStory World Tour. Split into five sections, the blockbuster show had state-of-the-art screens, light shows and special effects. And then, of course, there were the classic hits including Smooth Criminal, Billie Jean and Thriller.

Jackson was more than up for the occasion. He released a statement four days before the show in which he underscored the importance of the performance.

"This concert will be of special significance for me because it will be my first in Africa and the Arab World,” he said. “The people and nations of both regions have always held a special place in my heart and I always wanted to perform for them.”

8. Chuck Berry

Dubai – 1998

A dream gig for any rock'n'roll fan: an intimate concert by one of the genre's architects at the Hard Rock Cafe's opening. Held at its original venue in an area that would become Dubai's Media and Internet cities, Hard Rock Cafe remained there until 2011 before relocating to Dubai Festival City. Berry's blistering performance and the original location will go down as one of the UAE's best rock 'n' roll memories.


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