Saeed Al Salem is thrilled to be given the chance to perform for a second time with Catalonian virtuoso Jordi Savall this weekend.
“Maestro Savall’s music touches the soul,” says the renowned Emirati singer, oud player and composer. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, despite years and years [of] pursuing my love for music, and I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to get to work with Jordi and his amazing musicians all over again.”
Al Salem first performed with Savall's troupe in 2015, when the Grammy-winning composer – who plays the viola and the rebab – assembled an ensemble of Arab and Western musicians to perform his epic Ibn Battuta: Voyager of Islam I: From Morocco to Afghanistan (1314-1336) at a number of iconic locations as part of the 2015-2016 Abu Dhabi Classics season.
This time around, Al Salem is reunited with Savall for the debut performance of the sequel, Ibn Battuta: Voyager of Islam II: From Afghanistan to China (1336-1346), again as part of Abu Dhabi Classics.
Savall’s compositions attempt to trace and recreate the music that Ibn Battuta would have heard during his journey from Afghanistan to India, Indonesia and China.
It is a challenging programme for Al Salem to be part of. The pieces fuse Western and Oriental musical influences, styles that he, with his fondness for local folk songs, is not used to. He described the rehearsals with Savall and his group, Hespèrion XXI, as revelatory.
“To be completely honest, and I’m not flattering anyone here, working with such talented, professional musicians was eye-opening for me,” he says.
“Jordi was so distinct in his choice of melodies and his musical phrasing, and the concert itself was out of this world. I felt like the musicians had some kind of a magical touch.
“The entire orchestra were amazing to me, each musician I met was a maestro, and the group as a whole was so in sync with one another. So as an artist, working in this environment is a privilege to me, and I learnt so much.”
Al Salem found music relatively early in life, asking for an oud at age 14.
He never had any formal instruction, relying instead on a love of traditional music from the Arabian Gulf and a talent for playing by ear to turn his hobby into a career.
“I learnt to play the oud on my own, just tinkering on the instrument and basically becoming inseparable from it,” he says. “I used to listen to a song I liked, tape it and then practise on my own, working at it bit by bit until I got it.
“I would practise, read books about music, surround myself with musicians and composers, until I had a network of people I could learn from and use as a sounding board. They are my foundation even today.”
Al Salem began to compose his own songs, seeking words from poets he admired.
“When I write the music, it depends on the lyrics of the poet,” he says.
“If the words are emotional, then the music reflects that. If the words are patriotic, then I am to write music that is big and grand.
“Then I play what I wrote to my network of friends and colleagues, to get their opinion. ”
With three albums to his name and scores of solo projects and singles under his belt, Al Salem says he has big plans for this year.
It started with the release of the single Kul 'Am Wa Anta Al 'Am, to celebrate the start of a new year.
"The song is a hope that the year is filled with blessings for us all, with lyrics by Sultan Mjalli and my own music and singing," he says. "I have another song coming out soon that is typical Emirati folklore, with lyrics by the poet Juma'a Bin Eid Al Muhairy, called Thaak Al Waqt. And of course, this year is already a blessed one because I get to begin it by performing with Jordi Savall again."
Al Salem is not entirely sure exactly what his performance this weekend will entail, but he’s not too worried.
“I am so humbled to be asked to take part in this continuation, especially since I feel this music has a soulfulness and a delicacy that is really so beautiful,” he says.
“I’m so thankful that an Emirati artist like me has been supported, welcomed and appreciated in this way, with my music valued so much. What an honour.”
• Jordi Savall performs at Emirates Palace on Saturday, January 14 (not Friday, January 13 as previously booked) and at Bin Hamoodah Fort, Al Ain Oasis, on Sunday, at 8pm. Tickets from Dh80 (students Dh30) at www.abudhabiclassics.ae