Heartfelt ballads from home

The UAE's Filipino community comes out in force for a showcase of the islands' biggest stars

The smell of barbecue and the warm-up chords of the Black Eyed Peas' I Gotta Feeling floated across the expectant crowd at Zaabeel Park on Friday night. Not that we were looking for the Peas themselves. Instead, a largely Filipino gathering milled about waiting for the start of a gig featuring some of their best -loved stars from home. Regine Velasquez, also known as "Asia's Songbird", was top of the bill, with her singer boyfriend Ogie Alcasid given equal prominence alongside her. The heartthrob Dingdong Dantes was listed, as was a past flame of his - Marian Rivera - with the oldest of the group, Rico J Puno, completing the quintet.

Picture a small Roman amphitheatre. That gives some idea of the arena at Zaabeel Park. Behind the seats at the back were several stalls, flogging all manner of things Filipino. Squeaky music played from one, which was trading in top-notch karaoke machines for Dh1,088. Nearby, a make-up artist and beautician called Elvie was touting her wares. Over by the food stalls, I met Sonia, who had come with a friend, having been given tickets by her husband. "I love this venue," she said from the back of the amphitheatre. And who was she most excited about seeing? "Regine Velasquez," she said.

Down another few rows were Sam and Ven, two middle-aged gentlemen eating mani, or peanuts, from a bag. They, too, were both looking forward to seeing the beautiful Regine. Big smiles accompanied the mere mention of her name. "I think her boyfriend is here too," added Ven, less happily. At the front (where there was seating for the VIPs and VVIPs) stood a young lady called Sheila and her friend's daughter, Eva. Were they excited about seeing Dingdong? "Of course, he's so handsome," said Sheila. Eva giggled.

The show kicked off with the doling out of various prizes to ticket holders among the crowd, then on came the same Black Eyed Peas track and out waltzed Regine - plus Ogie. Well, they were off. The crowd leapt to their feet as if electrified. "I gotta feeling ...'" they sang in happy union, Regine swaying on a spindly pair of stilettos, Ogie faintly matador-like in a black suit with maroon waistcoat.

"Well, Valentine's Day is just around the corner," said Regine, with a flick of her glossy black hair (the kind of hair that L'Oreal should sign up pronto). "So we've prepared a lot of love songs." That they had. Love was the general tone for the evening. We had Maureen McGovern's Can You Read My Mind?, Bryan Adams' Heaven, a solo of Beyoncé's If I Were a Boy by Regine, and a duet between Marian and Dingdong of Mariah Carey's Always Be My Baby. Ogie let the saccharine side down with a dash of Filipino reggae, but the crowd didn't seem to notice.

"This is the third sexiest man alive," shouted Ogie, referring to a magazine article and pointing at Dingdong, who was wearing a red and blue Hawaiian shirt (which went some way toward explaining how he missed out on the two top spots). Cue much female shrieking. "You're the best audience we've ever performed to in our whole lives," shouted Rico. The crowd cheered back.