Play me, I’m yours: UAE gets its first pop-up piano community gig

The UAE’s Flow Piano initiative follows the original idea: building community through spontaneous piano recitals and performances by cross-discipline musicians in an alfresco set-up, complete with large pillows for an appreciative audience to sink into.

Hula-hoop artist Teeba Al Khudairi and pianist Maan Hamadeh. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Need to brush up on your piano skills? Always wanted to play Symphony No 40 to a live audience? Virtuosos and appreciators of collaborative sounds are invited to keep the music alive when the UAE's first pop-up piano opens to the public at Dubai's Barsha Pond Park on Saturday.

Flow Piano is an eight-week interactive installation curated by Noor Al-Dabbagh, founder of the mixed-media collective Banafsajeel, and commissioned by local private patron Abdulrahman Hammad.

The piano is the curatorial platform’s first project under the Flow Forms theme for this year. Received at a discount from Newfound Pianos in Dubai, the instrument has been transformed into a work of art with modernistic calligraphic strokes in primary colours by Dubai artist Majid Alyousef.

After a soft opening last weekend, the piano will be officially launched with a performance by Lebanese contemporary pianist Maan Hamadeh and hula-hoop artist Teeba Al Khudairi, who is also the founder of the Flowground arts centre in Dubai.

A special debut

Artist Luke Jerram pioneered community engagement through music and art in Birmingham, in the UK, when, in 2008, he turned his piano into a canvas and set it up on the street for anyone to play.

Dubbed Play Me, I'm Yours, the phenomenon spread around the world, with spin-off whimsical piano events popping up in public spaces across Australia, the United States and Hong Kong.

The UAE’s Flow Piano initiative follows the original idea: to build community through spontaneous piano recitals and performances by cross- discipline musicians in an alfresco setting, complete with large pillows for an appreciative audience to sit on.

“The concept of a pop-up piano is common in cities in the US and Europe but it hadn’t made its way into the region until now,” says Al Dabbagh.

“So, when I was approached by a patron with the idea, I decided to include an element of visual and performing art as well.”

Al Dabbagh says she experienced a public piano during a holiday in Amsterdam last year, which she describes as “riveting”.

“I was in a park with friend and there was someone playing this piano and we loved it,” she says.

“It just added to the ambience – being in nature and having this beautiful live music was so ­pleasant.”

The organisers also want the art to “flow” from offline to online by encouraging visitors to record their own moments with the piano and upload them with the hashtag #PopUpPianoUAE.

“I curated the project to reflect the city of Dubai and its people. It has the spirit of fusing East and West and reinventing the old to create something new,” says Al Dabbagh.

The artwork

Saudi contemporary artist Majid Alyousef has used his signature style, channelling the Bauhaus style and traditional Arabic calligraphy strokes, to imprint Arabic words representing love in blue, red and yellow all over the piano.

“We often find performance arts independent of the fine arts,” says Al Yousef. “This is an attempt to bring both together. The piano, as an instrument, has a very nice character. The art on it just uplifts it.”

Alyousef says the artwork represents the Arabic culture, but is also influenced by Western art, a fusion they wanted to represent through the project.

“You will recognise the style from Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s works in the early 20th century, and it forms a good dialogue between Eastern and Western art,” he says. “The idea is to communicate that Dubai is a melting pot. That’s why the design is a hybrid ­mixture.”

The artist worked with separate sketches to make each side of the piano unique. “I tried to make each side look like a different art piece, but at the same time they fit together,” he adds.

The performances

Teeba Al Khudairi will dance with a hula hoop to the cheerful notes of Maan Hamadeh’s fusion music on the piano at the launch on Saturday.

Hamadeh, has previously joined Play Me, I'm Yours pop-ups in Europe – a video of his performance on a public piano in Prague went viral on YouTube in 2014, racking up more than 25 million views.

For his performance in Dubai, Hamadeh has remixed the classical song Ahwak by Abdel Halim Hafez.

“I begin with a slow pace, like the original, then continue into a more contemporary, fast, pop rhythm, add the European waltz and then end with Arabic notes,” he says.

“We chose this song because it represents love and conveys the overall theme of the event, which is harmony and flow.”

• Flow Piano is at 4pm on Saturday at Barsha Pond Park, and will be open to the public for eight weeks