Inside AR Rahman’s extraordinary all-women orchestra at Expo 2020 Dubai

Exclusive: The 50-strong ensemble have a message to young girls that they too have a shot at a career in music

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The all-woman ensemble of the Firdaus Orchestra takes centre stage today at Expo 2020 Dubai led by AR Rahman, the Oscar and Grammy-winning composer.

Mr Rahman will premiere original compositions during the hour-long performance at Expo’s Jubilee Park that will feature western classical, traditional Arabic music, Hindustani classical vocalists and a tribute to space explorers.

The all-woman orchestra are tuning up to be instruments of change when they play on Saturday, the first of six performances during the world's fair.

A common thread unites the 50 talented musicians mentored by Mr Rahman.

They spoke to The National about transforming perceptions in the region about young women performing on stage and taking up a career in music.

Drawn from 23 countries, the in-house orchestra will be among the legacies that continue when the Expo ends in March next year.

Meet the all-female orchestra playing at Expo 2020 Dubai

Meet the all-female orchestra playing at Expo 2020 Dubai

The ensemble promises an original sound featuring Arabic and Indian string instruments, such as the qanun, buzuk and sitar, rarely heard alongside the typically orchestral flute, violin and harp.

Over the past several months, the musicians have rehearsed daily at a Dubai school to perfect Mr Rahman’s original compositions and distinctive arrangements of Western classics and Bollywood favourites.

The conductor keen to lead by example

Led by conductor Yasmina Sabbah, the orchestra has in its ranks women who refuse to be typecast.

“We have a stereotype about women in this region and this orchestra is a very powerful message to break the stereotype,” said Ms Sabbah.

She spoke of the hesitation “to perform, to be on stage, to be looked at”.

“This is something that we want to change in this part of the world, and also the idea that music is not a career, that it is just a hobby.

“For the conductor, we always have an image of someone in a suit and I think it is nice to break that, especially in this region.”

Create your own opportunity

Ms Sabbah dips, sways, snaps her fingers, gestures to the horn and trumpet in the brass section to go quiet and motions to the violin, cello and harp to a crescendo.

She is keen to brush aside sceptics who doubt a woman can lead an orchestra.

“It was important to take my place in a position of leadership,” said Ms Sabbah who has a master’s degree in conducting from the University of Cambridge.

“I had to really fight, create my own opportunities and not wait for it to be given it to me.”

She founded a 60-member choir in Lebanon, where she is also guest conductor with the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.

While people were comfortable seeing a woman leading a choir, she has been asked, 'who is going to conduct the concert on your behalf? Are you capable of doing that, to actually conduct the orchestra?'

Ms Sabbah described being on the stage as “a statement and message of empowerment”.

We are all standing strong to try to pave the way for all women after us to be encouraged to pursue music.”

A legacy project with Expo the launch pad

The orchestra has already had a taste of the spotlight when some members performed at the opening ceremony and accompanied world-famous musicians such as Andrea Bocelli.

The plan is for the orchestra to continue after the Expo ends in March with organisers keen to give the performers stability.

Noura Sulaiman, spokeswoman for Firdaus, said the project was conceived in 2019 during a conversation between Mr Rahman and Reem al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation and Expo’s director general.

The team then researched how other orchestras around the world functioned.

The musicians have contracts with leave and medical insurance benefits with an option of continuing to be part of the orchestra once the six-month extravaganza ends.

“The idea is to build something for Dubai and the UAE,” she said.

“We are trying to show that being an artist is a viable job.”

Ms Sulaiman hoped it would spark the dream of being part of an orchestra in others.

“I hope young girls and boys alike see these women on stage, see the power, passion and love they bring to their art and say 'yes, I can do that too'.”

Inspiring transformation from within

That change is already taking place within the ensemble with younger musicians keen to follow the example set by established women musicians they have grown to know.

Reemaz Oqbi plays the flute and has always been passionate about music.

The Saudi Arabian citizen is studying politics with a minor in music at the American University of Sharjah.

A legal career was her chosen path before the Expo but that plan is changing.

“I might pursue a master’s in music,” said Ms Oqbi, who is at college by day and rehearses with the orchestra at night.

“I see it’s possible for me to have a legitimate career in the place that I love.

“Things have definitely shifted for me since joining the orchestra.”

Watching the musicians perform, she said would “reassure young girls in this region that there is a place for them. It’s really important to open that pathway for women in the Middle East to have access to the music industry.”

Listening to Arabic voices

Experimenting with Arabic instruments has been part of months-long practice sessions.

Mr Rahman told The National in an earlier interview that it was “beautiful” to hear pieces composed by orchestra members such as Hanan Halwany.

Her composition on the long-necked buzuk has been arranged for the orchestra by the maestro conductor.

The Beirut musician’s mission is to help familiarise people with the buzuk.

“It’s a very rare instrument so even if you are a musician, you forget there is such an instrument,” she said as her fingers fly across the strings.

“The buzuk tells me the melody to compose. AR Rahman has encouraged me and I feel happy my music will be heard at Expo.”

Another voice heard was that of Sahar Khoueiry.

The Lebanese musician was taken aback when her suggestion to play Mozart’s Turkish March on the qanun was taken up by Mr Rahman.

“When he directly accepted my idea and said, ‘Let’s build on that piece,’ I was really surprised,” she said, quickly alternating between plucking the strings with her fingers and the flexible plectrum attached to her finger rings.

“Firdaus is a beautiful dream and I’m living that dream every day.”

Breaking the mould

Firdaus means paradise in Arabic and classically trained musicians accustomed to working with Western musical instruments said they have had “mind-opening” experiences as they collaborate.

“We are from so many different musical backgrounds so it is a blending of cultures,” said Nerissa Lobo, the lead pianist from India who has lived in Dubai for more than 20 years.

“Firdaus is breaking the mould to create its own sound. It has been mind-opening to collaborate with women from different nationalities.”

Jo Cathrine who plays the bassoon, a woodwind instrument, said this was her first time playing alongside the traditional ney, a reed flute, and the oud.

“As classical musicians, we are sometimes a little constrained. But the girls on the Arabic instruments, their creativity is amazing,” said the British citizen who moved to the UAE five years ago.

Aisulu Auzhanova, who plays the oboe, moved from Kazakhstan to Dubai shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“This has become my life,” she said. “Every day I come with such a happy feeling to rehearse with these great musicians.”

Elham Al Marzooqi, an Emirati cellist, said she felt blessed to work with talented musicians.

“Having AR Rahman as a mentor and seeing the symbiotic relationship develop with the orchestra is a learning experience,” she said.

“It’s become a relationship where we can read each other.”

Updated: October 23, 2021, 8:12 AM