The biggest surprise during the Dubai auditions for the season three premiere of Arab Idol on MBC 1 on Friday was a 29-year-old woman from Japan, who blew the judges away with her spot-on rendition of the Fairouz song Aatini al Nai.
Speaking to the judges in classical Arabic, yet capably pulling off the Lebanese dialect in the song, Nao Koyasu claimed to be the only person in Japan to sing in the language. She explained that she memorises each song by writing the lyrics over and over. She also seemed as though she could have a shot at a sponsorship deal with Dubai’s carrier, proclaiming: “I have an Emirates boarding pass and I hope to get my Emirates Golden Ticket.”
Koyasu, whose unlikely capability in Arabic is reminiscent of the American singer Jennifer Grout's third-place finish in last year's Arabs' Got Talent, so impressed the judges that they not only advanced her to the second round, but asked her to pose with them for a selfie.
As Koyasu left the room with her golden ticket and came face to face with the Arab Idol host Ahmed Fahmy – the Egyptian singer and songwriter who used to be part of the boy band WAMA – she froze and gave every indication that she had fallen in love at first sight. She breathed out one word as she stared at Fahmy: "Jameel". In Arabic, it means beautiful.
The only Emirati chosen to advance from the Dubai auditions was 23-year-old Humeid Abdulla, from Fujairah.
Abdulla, who performed a Khaleeji number, took a while to start singing – but once he did, was incredible. “I was so nervous when I went in there, but once I started singing it became just about the song,” he said.
In the end, it was tough competition at the Dubai auditions, held at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel last March, with only four singers chosen to advance.
It also became apparent that the fissure of electricity that had become synonymous with Arab Idol's judging panel in the previous two seasons was gone. The Lebanese pop star Wael Kfoury replaced the Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama on the judging panel, following rumours that the Emirati megastar Ahlam had something to do with getting rid of Alama – the two had loudly, vocally and frequently disagreed on previous seasons.
When The National spoke to Alama this year ahead of his Abu Dhabi performance, when he was still expected to rejoin Arab Idol for its third season, he said: "At a personal level, I have nothing against Ahlam. But I also must say that some of the things she says to the contestants on the show are too negative and that is something that I can never accept."
The announcement of Alama’s sudden departure a few months later opened up a spot that Kfoury appears to have filled seamlessly. He got along exceptionally well with Ahlam, the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram and the Egyptian music producer Hassan El Shafei.
The episode began with a recap of the auditions that were held in Beirut, a regular stop on the Arab Idol jaunt through the Middle East. This year, in addition to the usual suspects – Cairo, Beirut, Alexandria, Dubai, Erbil and Casablanca – the judging panel also visited several new locations in the search for fresh talent: Paris, Algiers, Berlin, Bahrain, Kuwait and Palestine.
Seven contestants moved on from Beirut, with the Lebanese contestants in particular seeming nervous to perform in front of Kfoury and rightly so – the singer did not pull his punches.
Of Ridwan Sadek, a 24-year-old from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, Kfoury said: “There’s no doubt you have a strong voice and can sing, but why are you showing off like this? We have been singing for years but we wouldn’t dare add to a song like you are adding?”
Sadek still got a resounding “yes” and the highly coveted Emirates Golden Ticket.
Many of the contestants had decided that the best way to impress Kfoury would be to sing one of his songs, which turned out to be a terrible idea.
“Do you realise that 99 per cent of the people who come in here and sing one of my songs get a big ‘no’ from us?” Kfoury asked one of them.
The episode also featured Cairo auditions, with another seven contestants advancing.
The city is key for contestants because it is where last season’s winner Mohammad Assaf, a Palestinian, auditioned. Since then Assaf, who became a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN and a Youth Ambassador to UNRWA, has become an international sensation. The 24-year-old was even scheduled to perform in Abu Dhabi last month but cancelled amid the political crisis that had engulfed Gaza. While that concert is expected to be rescheduled, he is also expected to perform on November 20 at Yas Island’s du Arena as part of the F1 concerts.