Radio show Arabesque is dedicated to instrumental music from the Middle East

Arabesque, on Abu Dhabi Classic FM, is striking a chord among expat and Arab listeners. We find out more from the key players behind the show.

Leyann Smili, the host of Arabesque, thoroughly researches every piece of music played on the show. Delores Johnson / The National
Powered by automated translation

Instrumental Arabic music is out there – whether it is classics by Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez or the Arabic hits of today, all arranged for orchestras. The challenge is finding it.

"It's not easy," says Leyann Smili, the 25-year-old Lebanese presenter of Arabesque, an hour-long radio show devoted to instrumentals from across the region, which is broadcast twice a week.

“Arabic music takes a lot of digging, and it’s even more difficult if it’s instrumental music,” she says. “I think it is difficult to get your hands on because it is not as advanced online. The music is being made, it’s just not online yet.”

The show’s producer, Marwa Moaz, is the one in charge of finding the music, but Smili researches every piece played on the show – “who is the composer, who sang it, when they sang it, was it a movie soundtrack, maybe it was part of a concert or TV series, who is performing what, who is on piano or violin – any detail that will help in the appreciation of the music”.

“It’s the kind of show to sit back and relax to,” says Smili. “You get to learn about the classical music of the region rather than the pop.”

Arabesque has only two requirements for the music it plays – it must be from the region (Turkey is included) and it must be instrumental.

“We play the music of different artists on the show, from Umm Kulthum to the Iraqi artist Hazim Faris to the music of Mohammed Abdul Wahab performed by Omar Khairat, to more modern artists such as Malek Jandali to Sameer Suroor to Kamal Musallam and others, but it’s all instrumental,” says Smili. “So if we play an Umm Kulthum song, it will be someone else playing her music and they are usually Arabs and there will be no singing.”

Matthew Sansom, the head of station at Abu Dhabi Classic FM, describes Arabesque as an introduction to the culture of the region.

“Of course, we have a lot of locals and a lot of Arabs who listen in and who love this kind of music and it’s nice to service them with a slightly different, classical version of the Arabic music they adore – without the vocals, though,” he says. “But we also have a lot of western listeners who love it.

"So an expat would go to a hotel and hear music in the lobby but not know where to buy it or how to find it or who the artists are, and that's really where Arabesque comes in."

It's been just over a year since the launch of Arabesque and ratings at the end of last year revealed that the show was the fourth-most popular programme with westerners in the UAE, says Sansom.

Smili says Arabic music is in her blood – she was born and raised in Bahrain and spent her university years in the United States. Preparing Arabesque every week for the past year is a constant reminder of how much she loves the music of the region.

"I've always appreciated older Arabic music, such as pieces by Fairuz and Umm Kulthum – and we play that kind of music on Arabesque, as well as more modern Arabic music," she says. "My favourites from the show are usually the piano pieces, such as pieces by Malek Jandali.

“We’ve received such great feedback from people who are new to this type of music, telling us not only that they enjoy it, but that they’re learning about the music of the Middle East and gaining an appreciation for it,” says Smili.

“That makes me so proud.”

•Abu Dhabi Classic FM (@abudhabiclassic on Instagram) is on 91.6FM in Abu Dhabi, 87.9FM in Dubai and 105.2FM in Al Ain. Arabesque is on every Friday and Saturday from 4pm to 5pm. For more information, visit