Emirati pianist who learnt to play by ear entertains at The Galleria

Hamad Al Taee is The Galleria's only Emirati pianist and his talents don't end there. He is also a pilot, a volunteer with the police, a horse rider and a cyclist as well.

Hamad Al Taee can be found at the Galleria mall’s atrium every Thursday and Sunday, playing Arabian tunes as well as popular tunes from India, China and the Philippines. Lee Hoagland / The National
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On Thursday evenings, when the crowds swarm through The Galleria mall on Al Maryah Island, they do so accompanied by the tinkling of a grand piano’s ivory keys. The piano is positioned strategically in the mall’s atrium, offering the musician playing it a wide view of the shopping centre.

“I like it that way,” says Hamad Al Taee, the mall’s only Emirati pianist and a regular every Thursday evening and Sunday morning. “I get to see how people are reacting to my playing, and I get to see what nationalities are passing by and then play them a song from their country, which will make them stop and listen because they are surprised to hear a familiar tune played so differently.”

The title of pianist is one that Al Taee holds dear to his heart. To him, it is both an achievement and a source of pride, considering he is entirely self-taught.

“My father bought me my first piano when I was 4,” says the 21-year-old. “Our whole family loves classical music and ‘new age’ type music; my father used to have old records and albums of Beethoven that I still have in my room, he loved that music and it’s all we used to listen to in the car, so my love for it started with my father.”

Al Taee has never had a professional lesson and can’t read music. “If I hear a song, I can figure out how to play it, but in my way,” he says, adding that the piano tutorials on YouTube are great for when he gets stuck.

By day, Al Taee is a cadet pilot currently in training while enrolled in a work/study programme at Abu Dhabi University, studying towards a bachelors of science in aviation. By night, the young man is one of several musicians hired by The Galleria to play at various times throughout the week, adding a unique cultural element to the high-end shopping centre. It’s also Al Taee’s first paying gig as a pianist.

He has been performing publicly since 2009, approaching shopping malls and hotels and asking them if he could volunteer his musical services. Once they hear him play, he usually gets asked to come back and becomes a regular.

“I like to make people happy and to play my music – I compose my own pieces, too – and it’s my chance of getting some public practice in because when I started I was so bad and needed to play in front of people to get better. I played in Marina Mall and in the Viceroy Hotel and other places like Eastern Mangroves,” he says. Similarly, four months ago, he approached the information desk in The Galleria mall and explained that he’d like to volunteer his talents and play the piano for them, if they were interested. One quick audition later, and he was offered a job. “They were surprised a local guy can play this kind of music; they said ‘absolutely yes’.”

He has come a long way since the days he could only play one-handed, struggling to produce the music he loved. “Now, I’m teaching myself the violin, but I love the piano more.”

He likes to bring his laptop with him on Thursdays evenings to The Galleria, to record his playing against thew cacophony of shoppers jostling through the mall.

“When I go home, I listen to it to see how I can improve, and sometimes I add other instruments to it and create a song with a full band, just with my computer. I love doing it,” he says.

His piano playing is certainly not without fault, nor free of errors. But what he lacks in technical finesse, he makes up for in both feeling and passion. He is completely at ease behind the piano, sporting a confident, relaxed smile and obviously happy to be doing what whe’s doing. His favourite time to play is on Sunday mornings – he recently requested mall management to allow him to play on Sundays at 10am because, as he put it, “the sun is shining in behind me and it’s such a beautiful atmosphere”.

“I have regulars now. One man comes from Dubai every Thursday evening and sits in the same spot in the Godiva Cafe to listen, and he always requests that I play some Yanni music. I love it! I love Yanni so much and so does my whole family. When Yanni came to Dubai, I was there in the second row. So of course I play Yanni for him.”

Godiva, says Al Taee, does brisk business on Thursday nights; there’s usually a long line of patrons waiting for a table where they can sit and watch him play. “The waiters in the cafe always bring me something to drink as a thank you for bringing them so much business.”

Al Taee has managed to put his own spin on popular tunes from India, Africa, China and the Philippines, as well as traditional Arabic tunes – Gulf favourites or Fairuz songs – adding trills and embellishments to classic tunes, or filling in the gaps with his own improvisation. He has a huge repertoire of music to choose from, having lived all over the world with his ambassador father. “I remix the songs to match the atmosphere of The Galleria: calmer, classical, elegant.” It’s his way of making tourists feel welcome.

“When I see a lot of Emirati shoppers, I play them some local music but in my style; they love it actually. When I see a large group of Chinese tourists, my mission is to play them something they will recognise and I am happy when they stop and start taking photos and videos,” says Al Taee.

When time allows, Al Taee expresses his love of music by inviting friends who also share his passion for a jamming session. “I have a friend who plays the oud, and one who plays the tabla, and one who sings – all Emirati. We love to get together and play, but we don’t have the time these days, they are all married.

“With the piano especially, it’s good for people to see an Emirati doing something so cultural, I feel like it’s a public service from me.”

A busy life

Beneath his profile picture on Instagram, Hamad Al Taee has a long list of words to describe himself: “Pilot. Pianist. Police. Horse rider. Cyclist.”

“I can’t just pick one,” he explains. “I’m passionate about all these things; all of them are my way of serving my country.”

And how. Al Taee was the first to sign up for Abu Dhabi Police’s volunteer programme when it was launched in 2011. “Sheikh Saif bin Zayed, our Minister of Interior, said it was for everyone, and I signed up immediately, without telling anyone. Turns out I was the first.” From giving lectures at labour camps about the dangers of drug abuse, to patrolling the city, visiting schools and partaking in community service, Al Taee has done it all. Then, he decided to take his volunteer work with the police force one step further.

“I absolutely love cycling so much, it is my passion – I go to the Yas Circuit every week to cycle - so I thought I should invent a bicycle that the police can use when cars are not a good idea,” said Al Taee.

He worked on a demo and presented it to Sheikh Saif, who commended him for his efforts. The bicycle is now being made, and will be deployed for police use early next year, says Al Taee.

“It’s friendly to the environment and very easy for the police to use when they need to get to their location quickly during public events, like National Day, when there is a lot of traffic. It has a GPS tracking system, which allows the operation room to see the bike as well as its speed, height, everything in details and in real time. It has LED lights and a siren for safety, it is made of aluminium so it’s very light, it has an HD recording camera that is also a flashlight. And of course it has a first-aid kit and built in gas cylinders so that if the tire gets punctured, it is easy to repair.”

When he’s not playing the piano, training towards his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, or riding his bike around the Formula One circuit on Yas Island, Al Taee is usually found pursuing his latest passion: horse-riding. “I just started and I really love it,” he says.

“I like keeping myself busy like this, and I know I’m doing something for my country. At least, I know what I like and care about and I go and do it.”

Hamad Al Taee can be found playing the piano in The Galleria's atrium on Thursday evenings from 7pm and every Sunday morning from 10am.