This weekend, the region's first public hologram performance will take place in Saudi Arabia's desert city of Al Ula, which is home to Madain Saleh, an archaeological marvel that became Saudi Arabia's first Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008.
A hologram of Umm Kulthum – the late Egyptian singer – will be projected on to the stage as part of Virtually Spectacular, a landmark concert. A small audience of 500 will see the event at the Winter at Tantora Festival.
The Egyptian diva’s hologram will move around the stage, just as she once did, alongside a live backing orchestra.
The production continues the modern trend of hologram concerts, with tours by digitised versions of rock legends Roy Orbison (who died in 1988) and James Dio (who died in 2010), as well as opera great Maria Callas (who died in 1977), selling out across Europe, North and South America. The Umm Kulthum show is being organised by Dubai's pan-Arab television broadcaster MBC, and UAE production company NDP.
“Such a production doesn’t come easily,” explains MBC’s Imad Salibi, who is project managing the event. “The concert is the result of a year-long research process covering every aspect of the performance – from the technical to the creative.”
But the seeds of the Umm Kulthum's posthumous concert can be traced back even further – her hologram first debuted in Cairo in 2013 during a 10-minute performance as part of the private launch event of new entertainment channel, MBC Egypt. The response of those in attendance, including celebrities and industry leaders, was so positive that the idea of a fully fledged public concert took hold.
However, it took five years for the technology to catch up with the enthusiasm. "What we had back then was the ability to create an impressive show that ran up to 10 minutes, but not a bigger show," he says. "Not only has the technology changed and developed since then, but the artistic and technical human talent has as well. We eventually learnt how to use that technology and apply it to [put on] a longer concert."
The artist hologram has grown leaps and bounds since it first emerged into the public consciousness in 2006, when animated pop group Gorillaz "performed" at the Grammy Awards, by being projected onto a large screen. Another huge moment arrived six years later when a life-sized hologram version of rapper Tupac Shakur, who at the time had been dead for nearly 17 years, performed to stunned audiences at the mammoth Coachella festival in the United States.
Holograms have since been used to revive deceased artists, ranging from rapper ODB and Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera (the first Latin artist to appear as a hologram) to last year's projection of rocker James Dio for the first time.
Accuracy is key
While it may all whiff of commercialisation, a full concert cannot be achieved without the direct involvement of the artist's family or official estate. And this was the case when it came to Umm Kulthum. Salibi says the year-long development process involved extensive talks with her surviving family and professional associates. Their general response to the project was excitement over the prospect of introducing the singer to a new generation of audiences, however, it did come with some caveats.
“Authenticity was key. They wanted her art to be represented in the best and most truthful way,” he says. “As long as the images that we used were right and the songs were not altered, then they were OK with it.”
This meant creating the hologram from scratch. So, on the night, none of Umm Kulthum’s movements on stage will stem from grainy pre-recorded footage.
Instead, a team of international technicians hailing from the Arab world, China and the US studied hundreds of hours of her performances, some publicly available and others offered by the artist's family, to recreate her presence, her regal gowns, and to ensure the hologram lip syncs accurately to the music used in the concert.
Also lending a hand was Sabreen – the Egyptian actress, who starred as Umm Kulthum in the popular 1999 eponymous Ramadan television series – who helped the technical team nail her movements. "She was very effective," Salibi says. "We used her as a model because she understands Umm Kulthum. Sabreen knew her stage presence – from how she stood, to the little details such as her head movements. It helped us in making it all realistic and very accurate."
As for the concert's backing orchestra, the only thing Cairo's ensemble, Sounds of Egypt, need to do is stick to the tunes. With the hologram tightly synchronised to the original music score, Salibi says the orchestra's role is to bolster the sounds to create a truly natural live show environment.
Umm Kulthum on the road again?
While he won’t confirm if the Umm Kulthum’s hologram will eventually make its way to the UAE, Salibi says the show will tour the region, and that the audience reception to this performance will determine if more Arab music legends will be revived in 3D.
But more than the ticket sales, Salibi – who was not old enough to see the Egyptian singer perform live – states that the hologram initiative is an opportunity to remind audiences of the Arab world's cultural riches.
“It is definitely one of the most important events I have been involved with,” he says. “Because this show is entertainment with meaning. There is art, culture, history and a great opportunity to create – and in some cases bring back – some great memories.”
Other holograms concert we want to see
While the prospect of more hologram concerts by Arab music legends is tantalising, Umm Kulthum concert organiser Emad Salibi doesn’t view it as a serious rival to the region’s thriving live music industry. Instead, it will all be friendly case of living artists co-existing peacefully with those that passed.
“I simply view it as a new genre of music and nothing will overtake each other,” he says. “Each genre of music has its own audience and that will continue to be the case.”
With that said, here are three late Arabic stars we would like see in all their technological glory.
Abdul Halim Hafiz
The ingredients are all there for the singer, referred to as Al-Andaleeb Al-Asmar (The Black Nightingale), to make his stage return nearly 38 years after his death. Similar to Um Kulthum, there are hundreds of hours of live footage and music to study from, in addition to the potential services of Egyptian actor Shadi Shamel who played Hafez in the 2006 television biopic series Al-andaleeb hikayt shaab.
With the tragic Egyptian-French singer’s mystique still strong in the region and internationally – she was the subject of a Google doodle last week - the chance to experience her swooning ballads and colourful stage presence could result in a hit international tour.
While the Lebanese singer remains alive and well, she has pretty much settled into a quiet life with her last major performance over decade ago. With Fairuz’s heroic Lebanon concerts of the 1970’s and 1980’s still widely watched on social media, the opportunity to experience it in the form of a Fairuz-in-her-pirme hologram concert would be a golden opportunity. Best part of all, she would – God willing - be around to ensure it’s all accurate and authentic.
Virtually Spectacular runs from Thursday to Saturday at Winter at Tantora, Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. Tickets cost from 712.50 Saudi riyals (Dh697), and are available from www.winterattantora.com