A decade on, the UAE music scene roars with progress

The National at 10: Saeed Saeed takes a look at five concerts that changed the musical landscape of the Emirates

Abu Dhabi, UAE, June 3, 2012:

Madonna dazzled the crowd with dance moves and graphics to match her songs. She is seen here performing on stage inside of the Du Arena.

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The UAE has gone through some remarkable changes over the decade, but few of them heard as clearly as the live music scene. Over the years, the UAE has moved from being a curiosity on the touring circuit to a key destination for pop stars and innovative acts. Here are five landmark gigs illustrating the evolution of the country's concert landscape.

2009: Coldplay at Emirates Palace

We were expecting some cloudy weather, but not the thunder and lightning that landed mid-set during Coldplay's performance on March 28, 2009. While the near 20,000 fans revelled in the experience, the superstars on stage were worried. "It was scarily rainy and there was lightning," Jonny Buckland recalled in his interview with The National the following year. "I could feel the metal in my belt pack - on stage you wear one - and I could feel it rumbling as the static was going off it." The slight fear of electrocution aside, the well-seasoned group made light of the situation and summoned the crowd in a mass singalong of Singing in the Rain. The show resonated with Coldplay so much that they returned three more times to Abu Dhabi, and in the process proved to the live-music industry that the UAE was open for business.

2010: inaugural edition of Sandance at Nasimi Beach

While headliners for the first ever Sandance were the relatively low-key electronic acts Armand van Helden, Chicane and Zero 7, it is what Sandance grew to become that makes it deserving of a place on this list. From a relatively small and boutique quarterly festival catering to dance music, that October 15, 2010 event birthed a live music sensation. Where before music lovers had to wait annually for festivals, Sandance proved that regular mass events are commercially viable, if done right. While ending its run in 2014, Sandance’s success spawned the likes of current festivals such as Grooves on the Grass, Mixtape Rewind and Nasimi Sessions.

2012: Madonna at Du Arena

Being one of the first stops on an anticipated international tour is a double-edged sword: while it’s great to have a show not many people in the world have seen, it may also lack the musical vitality of an act seasoned on the road. That was perfectly exemplified in Madonna’s twin dates at the recently expanded Du Arena on June 3 and 4, 2012. In the second stop of what was to be a nearly two-year tour, more than 50,000 fans crammed the venue over the two nights to witness the queen of pop. While her show was not quite the finished article at that stage, it went another step in putting Abu Dhabi on the map with diehard fans from as far as Argentina and Australia flying into the capital. Madonna’s performance heralded a continuous reign of big names gracing our shores, including mega-acts Justin Bieber, One Direction and Ed Sheeran.

DUBAI,UAE - AUGUST 31: Placido Domingo performs during the Opening Night of Dubai Opera on August 31, 2016 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images)

2016: Placido Domingo at Dubai Opera

It was time to dress up. Where before ballet and orchestral performances was essentially limited to the Abu Dhabi Festival, the arrival of Dubai Opera and its expansive programme of operas, classical music and stage shows meant a good suit and dress were now regularly needed as the UAE made further inroads into the live classical music market. And who better to start the latest chapter than Plácido Domingo? The legendary Spanish tenor performed to a packed house of royalty and music lovers on August 31, 2016 and kicked off an eclectic programme that continues to gain in strength. Dubai Opera’s arrival resulted in more diverse musical offerings ranging from experimental Milanese composer Ludovico Einaudi to British soul music talent Rag’n’Bone Man. Additionally, the 2,000-seater arena was welcomed in a UAE market struggling from the lack of midsized venues.

Dubai, U.A.E., January 20, 2017.   Wasla Music Festival at the Dubai Media City Ampitheatre.    Mashrou' Leila band in action.  ((R)  Hamed Sinno lead vocalist, shares a tune.
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2017: Wasla Festival at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre

Since its formation, the UAE has always been a premiere touring spot for Arab pop stars. Each year sees a bevy of big names performing across nearly all seven emirates, in addition to dazzling New Year’s Eve gala performances. If you were looking for indie sounds coming out of the region, though, then a trip to Beirut was necessary to get your music fix. However, that has changed with the arrival of the inaugural Wasla Festival on January 20, 2017. Armed with a brilliant line-up, including Lebanese indie quintet Mashrou’ Leila, Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi and Jordanian rockers Jadal, the festival made waves across the region. Upon its return earlier this year, which features Jordanian rockers Autostrad and Egypt’s Cairokee, Wasla cemented the UAE as an important hub for young and innovative acts across the Middle East. The success of Wasla also resulted in a range of similar events, including Dxb Beats, featuring Lebanon’s Yasmine Hamdan and Wanton Bishops on April 28.