Berklee Abu Dhabi opens for business: 'It’s mesmerising, inside and out'

The striking building on Saadiyat Island has a recording studio, a multimedia lab, performance spaces and multipurpose rooms

Powered by automated translation

Few schools have shaped the contemporary musical landscape as much as Berklee College of Music.

The school, founded in Boston in 1945, was established with the premise of teaching music through the music of the time. As the popular genre of the day morphed from jazz to rock, RnB , hip hop and EDM, the school adapted.

Its star-studded alumni – which includes big names such as Quincy Jones, John Mayer and St Vincent – have consistently dominated the charts and pushed the limits of their respective genres.

As the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world, Berklee offers undergraduate and graduate degree programmes at its campuses in the US and Valencia, Spain, and through its distance-learning programme, Berklee Online. Its courses are also offered across a number of universities and centres around the world. 
Now Berklee has opened its doors in Abu Dhabi, bringing its unique take on fostering talent and teaching music to the region.

But, as it turns out, Berklee is no stranger to the Middle East.

"A number of artists in the region are graduates of the college, such as Palestinian cellist Naseem Alatrash, who will be teaching in the Abu Dhabi centre," Mayssa Karaa, the artistic director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, says.

"The campus in Boston also hosts an annual Middle Eastern music festival, highlighting the musical traditions of the region.”

Karaa is an alumni of the school herself, having graduated from the Boston campus in 2012. The Lebanese-American singer-songwriter was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for her Arabic rendition of the 60s Jefferson Airplane hit White Rabbit. Karaa has also worked with Oscar-winner AR Rahman, and released her debut album, Simple Cure, last year.

Mayssa Karaa, the artistic director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, is an alumni of the Berklee College of Music. The Lebanese-American singer-songwriter was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for her Arabic rendition of the 60s Jefferson Airplane hit White Rabbit. DCT

"Berklee did so much for my music career. The school brings people together and inspires the best out of us. There is so much talent in the region," Karaa says. "With everything the school stands for, it made sense to bring Berklee to this part of the world."

Berklee Abu Dhabi, launched in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism, has made its home in the UAE Pavilion building on Saadiyat Island. With its dark facade and undulating, dune-like shape, the structure is striking. The building, designed by Fosters+Partners, was first unveiled as the UAE's national pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010. It was reassembled in Abu Dhabi in 2011 as a venue for Abu Dhabi Art. Since then it had been sparingly used until Berklee Abu Dhabi moved in.

“It’s mesmerising, inside and out,” Gael Hedding, director of Berklee Abu Dhabi says. “It’s important to have a space that sparks creativity, inspires and puts people at ease. The structure certainly does that.”

The building has been fitted with all the necessary amenities of a music school. It has a recording studio, a multimedia lab, and a number of performance spaces and multipurpose rooms that double as dance studios.

“We also have a number of ensemble rooms and practice rooms, where people can come to rehearse and jam. And you don’t need to be enrolled at Berklee to rent them out,” Hedding, who is a Grammy-winning music producer and Berklee alumni himself, says.

Gael Hedding, the director of Berklee Abu Dhabi, is a Grammy-winning music producer. An alumni of the school himself, Hedding was a former faculty member of the school's Valencia campus. DCT

Berklee Abu Dhabi's official opening was held on February 29, with a colourful concert. A lineup of world-renowned musicians performed at the venue, such as three-time Grammy Award winner Steve Vai, Emmy-winning composer Stephen Webber and jazz singer Annette Philip, all of whom are graduates of the school.

The school's first semester began the next day, and will run until June.

A variety of workshops and masterclasses are being offered at the centre including turn-tabling, song writing, music production, film scoring, creative entrepreneurship, as well as acting and dance. Unlike their counterparts in the US and Spain, the courses at Berklee Abu Dhabi are not for credit, meaning the courses won't count towards obtaining a college degree.

However, they are all taught by faculty members of Berklee College of Music.

Alatrash will be teaching a number of classes on Arabic music, from the application of the poetic melodies of the Arabic maqams to blending traditional musical approaches with the music of today. Webber, who wrote the 2010 bestseller Turntable Technique: The Art of the DJ, will be teaching courses on DJing, turntablism and music production. Ruka Hatua-Saar White, an instructor of ballet at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, will be spearheading a number of dance classes, covering a wide range of styles.

Hedding says the school is looking to offer weekend courses as well, which will be designed to cater to the wider region. "We realise that there is a huge demand for what we are offering and there is a potential to serve the wider area."

The workshops and masterclasses are open to everyone. Unlike the Berklee schools in Boston and Valencia, you don’t need to go through a stringent audition process to sign up for the workshops. You can enroll in the offerings whether you’re a hobbyist or a seasoned musician looking to polish your skills.

“There is no age cap either,” Hedding says. “You could be 99 years old and enroll in the workshops.”

A fellowship fund of $5 million (Dh18.4m) will allow distinguished students at Berklee Abu Dhabi to pursue degrees in Boston, New York, Valencia or on Berklee Online. The scholarship also gives students the chance to attend summer programmes in Boston or Valencia or attend a programme in Abu Dhabi.

Workshops and masterclasses at Berklee Abu Dhabi start at Dh1,300. To enroll visit