Dubai City Sound: let's hear it for the ladies

Barbershop singing isn't just for the men – there's an all-female choir in Dubai that's been creating close-harmony magic for more than 20 years.

Jane Dales, choir singer, at her home in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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It all began more than 20 years ago with a hand-scribbled note placed in the window of a Dubai supermarket.

It read: "Do you love to sing in the shower or the car? If so, come along and join like-minded ladies at 7.30pm on Tuesday evenings."

Few could have predicted that two decades later, 17 ladies and many original members would still be meeting weekly to sing barbershop songs.

The co-founder and longest serving member, Jane Dales, recalls the humble origins of the Dubai City Sound chorus.

"We used to meet at the old Art Centre on Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Road, which has long since been demolished," says the 49-year-old from England. "Myself and four other ladies got together and decided it was good fun! The lady who placed the advert was an American from Oklahoma; she'd been singing barbershop for years and decided to recreate a group here because she missed it so much."

So popular have the public performances of the all-female a cappella quartet become in recent years that the group director and music teacher Gayle Powell is on the hunt for new recruits for the summer season.

"We'll start rehearsing on Monday, January 7 at Safa school in Dubai," says the 54-year-old British national. "However, people will need to get in touch with me prior so I can hear them sing, as it's very difficult to get the group balance and blend right."

Equilibrium is essential to the group's success, with the ladies split roughly into four equal singing parts.

"My part is the lead, which is basically the melody," says Dales. "There's the bass, which is our foundation, if you will. The next part is the baritone, which is very harmonic. Above that is the lead - which is very melodic and sings closely with the baritone, with the latter weaving in and out and creating those lovely harmonies. Then there's the top part, called the tenor - it's very high and the cherry on the cake."

With public shows pencilled in from spring/summer onwards, rehearsals begin in earnest next month, with the ladies harmonising to well-known tunes including a medley of Abba's greatest hits.

One newly signed soprano - born long after the Swedish band's heyday - is Victoria Canal, who at 14 is the troupe's youngest member.

"I don't mind being the youngest because it means I can learn from my elders who are more mature and experienced," she says. "If it happens that I become a recording artist, producer-songwriter that would be fantastic. Adele is a great inspiration and I'd love to work with artists such as John Mayer and Bruno Mars."

Despite her tender age, the Gems World Academy student will be expected to keep pace with her elders when it comes to learning the new repertoire by heart.

Powell runs a tight ship and demands all singers be "off paper" just three weeks after being introduced to new songs. The group member Annie Alistair Jones, 62, also a teacher and British, has devised her own method for committing the many lyrics to memory.

"With a lot of the songs - once you know the tune - they are not that difficult to learn," says the bass singer. "So it's a matter of playing the CDs in my car and singing all the way to work and all the way home again!"

While Powell has few ambitions for the group to record an album or tour regionally, she is determined to make the troupe a much more international affair.

"In the past, we've had around 17 countries represented and I'm hoping to expand that again," she says. "From January, for example, our group will include people from England, Nigeria, Poland, India and Australia. No Arabic ladies yet, unfortunately, which is such a shame."

Should you fit the bill and aspire to join the musically minded ladies, the audition is a lot less intimidating than you might have feared.

"All you'll need to do is sing Happy Birthday!" says Powell. "Because we have so many nationalities and it's a song everybody knows - it's a great way for me to check someone's range. If you can make that octave jump, it's an indication of good pitch and musical ability. I should add, it's not a requisite to be able to read music and we'll supply you with all the materials you need."