Aga Khan Music Awards: a guide to the Arab finalists at this inaugural event

The competition has begun in Lisbon, Portugal. These are the Arabic musicians and nominees you need to know about

The Aga Khan Music Award began with an opening ceremony featuring the Gulbenkian Orchestra with a range of master musicians from central Asia and Middle East. Courtesy Aga Khan Development Network
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The inaugural Aga Khan Music Awards began last night with a high-profile opening ceremony in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim community and the award's benefactor, led a delegation from the royal family and a selection of Portuguese government ministers in attending the event, which was held in Lisbon's famed performance venue The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

In his opening remarks, Prince Amyn Aga Khan said the awards is a timely reminder of the role arts plays in strengthening society. “Each musical genre and styles remain important in today’s world as they embody music’s traditional role as a source of spiritual enlightenment, model inspiration and social cohesion,” he said.

“At a time when strengthening tolerance and pluralism has become an acute world-wide priority, music is one of the arts which offers a medium for reaching, involving and uniting global audiences by engendering emotions we all share as human beings.

"I once said music is made of dreams and the echoes of dreams, and I believe mankind shares the same dreams in large measure.”

The opening night concert

The stirring address set the scene for an evocative concert that paired the Orquestra Gulbenkian with a range of master musicians from south and central Asia. With all the five pieces of music orchestrally arranged by Uzbekistan’s Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, the works attempted to describe his relationship with the region.

A case in point was the wonderfully atmospheric Golden Waves. The orchestra here swayed to the elongated notes of Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub. As the composer of the piece, he explained how the work was about "two melodies born of sound and image that are woven together to tell two different stories from the Mediterranean Sea".

Let the competition begin

With a total of $500,000 (Dh1.83m) in prizes up for grabs, 14 finalists will compete for the prestigious Award in Performance. Each artist will take the stage – over three separate heats – to perform an original work in front of a live audience, as well as the award’s Master Jury, which consists of artists and musicologists.

Some of the big names on the panel include David Harrington, the violinist and founder of the revered experimental group Kronos Quartet, and Nouri Iskandar, composer and former director of Syria’s famed conservatory Arab Institute of Music. The panel will announce the winner this evening at 9.30pm Lisbon time, which is 1.30am Sunday morning in the UAE.

A healthy number of the finalists hail from the Arab world.

These include the following:

Nai Barghouti (Palestine)

A Palestinian singer, composer and flautist, Barghouti is viewed as future world music star. She is another graduate of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, and she earned praise for her flute compositions, four of which became part of the curriculum at Spain's International Institute of Iberian Music. As well as performing a vocal and flute set at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2013, she went on to tour the UK with a repertoire that consisted of Arabic classic tunes with a modern jazz twist. She is presently studying jazz performance at Holland's Conservatorium van Amsterdam.

Mustafa Said (Egypt)

Abu Dhabi fans will know Said from his brilliant and sold-out 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival performance as the leader of the Asil Ensemble. Said, who was born blind, learned to read and write music in braille from an early age before studying at Cairo's renowned Arabic Oud House and learning western music composition in correspondence with the US-based Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Through the Asil Ensemble, Said aims to reintroduce the beauty and the complex musicianship of traditional Arabic music, called Tarab, to a new generation of listeners.

Abeer Nehme (Lebanon)

An artist as well as a scholar, the Lebanese soprano and composer Abeer Nehme has been celebrated for her expansive repertoire, which includes everything from sophisticated Arabic pop to liturgical and traditional music. She has sung in various languages and delivered concerts throughout the Middle East (including Dubai Opera in 2017) as well Europe and North America. She is also the composer of the theme of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which will be heard when the award presentation ceremony takes place in Abu Dhabi on April 25.

Ahmed Alkhatib (Palestine)

Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, Alkhatib learned the oud under the guidance of Palestinian master Ahmad Abdel Qasem before going on to teach the instrument to a new generation of musicians in Palestine's the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. That's where he was the head Oriental Music department. Alkhatib presently resides in Sweden where he is a lecturer at the University of Gothenburg’s Academy of Music and Drama.

Huda Asfour (Palestine)

Huda Asfour is an oud and qanoon player who also studied at the Edward Said Music Conservatory, where she was mentored by the acclaimed oud player Khaled Joubran. Asfour is the co-founder of the Jehar project, a regional music collective that aims to “reintroduce tunes that represent our identity, but in new arrangements that represented us as youngsters connected to global music”.

The details

The Aga Khan Music Awards is being held at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal and runs until March 31. For more information on the award and the full list of nominees go to You can also follow The National's coverage of the award ceremony over the next few days.