One of the UAE's finest artists has returned with fresh music. After a gap of more than six months, Emirati singer and composer Fayez Al Saeed, 44, has released a new single, Ashlounak (How Are You?).
The title is apt. The mid-tempo Khaleeji pop song is a welcome comeback and marks a solid addition to a celebrated catalogue of hits including #Selfie and Ana Yensa (I Am Forgetful), as well as his songs composed for Arab pop superstars.
Those artists include the UAE's Hussain Al Jassmi, Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Abdu and Kadim Al Sahir of Iraq.
Al Fayez will also make a return to the stage on Thursday night with a performance at a glitzy charity gala, the Abu Dhabi Dream Ball, which will be held at Emirates Palace. Tickets for the event cost from Dh2,500, with the funds raised going to the UN Children's Fund to aid its efforts in helping children in war-torn countries around the world. Al Saeed says that it was an easy decision to make the event the launchpad for what is set to be a busy year of music.
Working with a prince
Despite his solo and collaborative accolades, Al Saeed says his greatest achievement was being the official composer for Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai – Al Saeed is the man who puts music to his poetry.
Sheikh Hamdan has been writing and releasing poems to the public under the pen-name Fazza since he was a teen. Impressed by Al Saeed's 1996 landmark debut album, Sa'at Wa'ed (The Hour of Promise), the royal approached the musician to turn some of his poetry – written in the classical Arabic form of Nabati – into songs.
The partnership is still going to this day, with the duo releasing a string of regional hit songs featuring Fazza's poetry. Sheikh Hamdan's words have been performed by the biggest voices in Arab music, including Syrian singer Assala Nasri, who belted out 2004's Rouh wa Rouh (Just Go Away); Rashid Menhali, who sang 2005's Limany Fi Mahjir Ayounak (Hold Me In Your Eyes) and Abdu, who took the lead on the 2016 song Sahet Al Sha'ar (The Poet's Space).
"And there is much more on the way," says Al Saeed, who lives in Dubai. "We have a great relationship and that has resulted in us producing some great work together over the years."
The chief reason for that, he says, is the honesty that drives their partnership. "When we are working together it is not a sentimental process," he says. "We both have the ability to be forthright with each other. It is that honesty that has been responsible for building our relationship. And, while Sheikh Hamdan is a great poet, he also has great taste and an ear when it comes to the music composition. He tells me what I can do to improve the song."
Khaleeji music is stagnating
Al Saeed considers himself to be a composer first, and apart from his work with Sheikh Hamdan, he is always on the look out for lyrics that inspire him. "That's what gets the process started," he says. "I love great lyrics. I read and study them intently. They give the song its mood, shape and style. The lyrics are absolutely the key."
Al Saeed expands on this point by explaining he believes Khaleeji music is stagnating at the moment due to the lack of original lyricism. "The music and rhythms are fine, but we can definitely do more on the lyrical front," he says.
"The fault lies in the fact that there are too many people trying to copy each other and recycling the same concepts. A good lyricist takes an existing topic and develops it further, and perhaps tackles it from a different point of view."
Al Saeed also lays some of the blame at the feet of Gulf singers themselves, insisting that they need to look beyond the existing pool of writers and source some fresh talent. "That's the great thing about online. Anybody can be reached now," he says. "Before, a lyricist would have to work hard to have his material seen by an artist or producer. Now, they can post their work on social media, or even record the poetry on their phone and post it online. There is talent out there and their work can now spread more easily."
When it comes to his own material, Al Saeed says there are plenty more tunes on the way. He earned his latest songwriting credit this week, with the release of Saudi Arabian singer Nasir Al Saadi's latest single Arsh Al Wad (The Throne of Affection). That will be followed by another new song, the title of which is yet to be released, featuring Emirati singer Walid al Jassim.
“We just returned from shooting the music video in Ukraine and that was a beautiful experience,” Al Saeed says. “The song is basically a different take on the premise of two people falling in love with the same woman. In the end, she actually leaves us to fall in love with someone else.
“While the song is about love and loss, there is some humour in the video that I hope many will enjoy.”
The power of prose
Fayez Al Saeed’s collaboration with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, is not at all surprising. The UAE’s ruling families have always had an affinity for poetry, particularly the classical form of Nabati.
Just last week, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, acknowledged the importance of the art form to the country, and Arab culture in general. Speaking at the opening of the cultural body Al Hira Literary Council in Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan praised the role of Nabati poetry for “documenting incidents and triumphs and the transfer of science, such as geography and others.”
The art form has reached a new audience over the past 12 years, thanks to Abu Dhabi TV talent quest, Prince of Poets and Million's Poet, where aspiring scribes from around the Arab world compete for cash prizes of up to Dh5 million.
That appeal is only growing with the acclaim and popularity of Sheikh Hamdan’s verses, which are published under his pen-name Fazza, and disseminated through songs sung by Emirati artists, as well his social media channels.
Sheikh Hamdan follows an illustrious line of UAE leaders who have written their thoughts and reflections in prose. It began with Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, whose poetry crystallised his humanity. Messages of support and official invitations to rulers of other Emirates, as well as friends, were often delivered in poetic prose.
This was carried on by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister. A prolific poet, Sheikh Mohammed's pieces have been collected in various compilations, including 2011's 40 Poems from the Desert and 2014's Flashes of Verse.
With the guidance of the UAE leadership – in addition to various literary festivals and institutions across the Emirates, such as the Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy – poetry continues to be a very current and evocative method of documenting the country’s story.
What to expect at the Dream Ball
Held under the patronage of Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, the inaugural Dream Ball is a gala dinner held to raise money for the UN Children’s Fund. The proceeds will go to the organisation’s efforts to provide young people from war-torn countries and trafficked children with access to education, and the development of other skills.
A number of celebrities will hit the red carpet at Emirates Palace, including Palestinian pop star Mohammed Assaf and actors such as Egypt’s Mona Zaki, Syria’s Bassel Khayyat and Saudi Arabian star Lojain Omran. The ball will also feature musical performances spanning three generations of Arab talent. Here are the artists who will join the UAE’s Fayez Al Saeed.
Abu Dhabi Dream Ball takes place January 31 at Emirates Palace. Tickets cost from Dh2,500 and are available at www.800tickets.com