Jane Dales, choir singer, at her home in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
Jane Dales, choir singer, at her home in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National

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



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."

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Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”