The Emirati composer Ihab Darwish is looking forward to the premiere of a major suite of music this week at the Emirates Palace as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. But when he spoke to The National during rehearsals with the orchestra, he immediately wanted to talk about the first piece of music he ever played: the theme to the Godfather, which his mother taught him to play on the piano when he was 10 years old.
Since then, the Abu Dhabi native has developed his love for music, which has culminated in the world premiere of Waves of My Life: Every Real Story Begins with a Note tonight .
“I’m honoured that it will be performed in my beloved city,” says Darwish. “This has been my dream for a long time, to have my first premiere in Abu Dhabi. It means a lot.”
Waves of My Life, which will be distributed as an album by Universal Music, consists of nine pieces inspired by Darwish's own memories, combining Arabic and Western motifs. Eastern instruments, such as the ney, the qanoon, the oud and elements of traditional Khaleeji percussion, as well the duduk, an Armenian wind instrument, work with the traditional Western complement of the Beethoven Academy Orchestra. The young orchestra, based in Krakow, is performing the works in Abu Dhabi and for the album recording.
"When you get musicians from different nationalities, and when they start playing together, that's the magic behind the music," he says. "It was a new experience for them but they really enjoyed… and learnt from each other."
In rehearsals at the Marriott Downtown in Abu Dhabi, the orchestra sat packed into one of the conference rooms, with the Arabic musicians in the front row facing the conductor, Stoyan Stoyanov, who lives and works in Dubai. Tucked to the left of Stoyanov, was Darwish at the piano, keeping one ear on his cues and the other, no doubt, on how the ensemble was coming together. "They have such talent," he enthuses. "Hearing them performing my music is one of the best things I've ever had in my life."
True to his beginnings, Waves of My Life resounds with the soaring chords and expansive sound associated with cinematic music. It could be a soundtrack for Darwish's own life: each of the album's nine tracks has a personal tale to inspire it. "One of them is for Abu Dhabi," he says. "Beyond Limits focuses on the fast pace and growth of Abu Dhabi. Not forgetting our roots and heritage, it has Arabic and western instrumentation."
Another piece, Desert Knight, is "dedicated to our late father, Sheikh Zayed – a small appreciation that portrays how we started from humble beginnings. Another is about the importance of women in society." And another, he says, is for his wife.
The stories behind the works reveal the important role music has played for Darwish. But he has not always been a composer. Darwish studied advertising and art design at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He still works in human resources and branding.
“I carried my passion for music throughout school and university,” he says. “Finally I decided, about seven years back, to document my melodies.”
He set up a studio in his house and bought some equipment – mixers, instruments, software – and began working. He was asked several years ago to work with Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation and began composing what has become Waves of My Life.
Rather than seeing his day job and his music as separate, however, he emphasises the continuities between them. "I feel there's a link between what I do at work and what I'm doing in music. When I do branding, I usually find the theme, which exactly applies in music," he says. "You find a strong theme and then you start building off that."
Waves of My Life is being performed tonight at Emirates Palace