Oscar and Grammy-winning musician AR Rahman is on the lookout for exceptional talent from the Middle East to perform in an all-female orchestra at Expo 2020 Dubai.
India’s music maestro will mentor the musicians he believes will help dash pre-conceived notions of Arab women with powerful, standout performances.
Auditions for the Firdaus Women’s Orchestra, with a 12-strong core group and 50 to 100 members, will begin soon.
The celebrated composer is also setting up a recording studio at the Expo Dubai South site that will remain as a permanent fixture after the world fair ends in April 2021.
“For me this is probably one of the most exciting things in this decade,” Mr Rahman said of the studio and orchestra, during a recent visit to the expo site.
“We want this orchestra to be unique. We are hoping we can set an example because, from this part of the region, you always hear a certain narrative about women. But this [orchestra] will demolish all those preconceived narratives; it will be a whole new philosophy.”
To qualify, the women must live in the Middle East, be able to sight-read music and should be “extraordinary musicians.”
“It will be multicultural, they can be Emirati, Chinese, Indian, Western, it’s about how they embrace this place and make music,” he said.
The troupe will play classical and fresh compositions in concerts beginning October.
They will hold performances in different areas of the Expo 2020 and lead workshops for children.
Finer details about the number of instruments and performances are yet to be determined ahead of the fair.
"I don't want to limit myself to one genre of music," said Mr Rahman, who received the nickname Mozart of Madras, the city he lives in, early in his career.
“In the workshops, we want children to learn how music is made from composition to arrangement to recording.”
Mr Rahman has won two Academy Awards, two Grammy Awards and a Golden Globe for compositions that cross film genres, languages and industries.
One of his best-known songs Jai Ho from the Oscar winning rags-to-riches movie Slumdog Millionaire. Music from Bollywood hits such as Lagaan and Taal remain popular anthems more than a decade later.
"Music is a medicine to me," he told The National. "It speaks when words fail and keeps me going."
The singer and songwriter plays many instruments and has collaborated with global artists including Mick Jagger and the Pussycat Dolls.
Mr Rahman hopes the state-of-the art studio Firdaus, which translates to paradise from Arabic, will attract world-class talent.
“Anybody who wants to score movies or documentaries can use the facility,” he said
“I conceived the studio, its function, the quality, what equipment needs to be kept there.”
With a minimalist design and a sound wave across the façade, the structure will hold about 100 people.
His ambition is for the space to inspire new scores and record soundtracks for Hollywood, Bollywood and other movie industries.
Mr Rahman conceived the idea when Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur, an advisor with the Expo 2020, asked him to team up with the world fair.
When a female ensemble was suggested, Mr Rahman put forward the concept of a studio.
“Why don’t we build a studio and a lab where we can experiment?” he asked.
“It’s not only about music but also about neural healing and mental healing with music. I want to bring different aspects to the studio so we can go deeper into music.”
Expo officials said they were looking forward to working with Mr Rahman.
“This will be special and critical in context of the Dubai Expo because World Expos should have that quality that people keep as memories forever,” said Marjan Faraidooni, chief pavilions and exhibitions officer at Expo 2020 Dubai.
"This collaboration will create a very big element of legacy which is a very important to us."
Dubai government granted the land for the studio and Mr Rahman said he was grateful to a country that was a second home to his countrymen.
“For me the fascinating thing about Dubai is that it’s the hope for the Middle East,” he said.
"I see how everything coexists, you see bikinis and burqas both and [people] are okay with that."
He said the country gave people the opportunity to shine as it embraced multiculturalism.
“It’s a beautiful thing that is inspiring in today’s divisive world. It’s like a beacon of light for many people to follow.”
Female musicians, from intermediate to semi-professional level, can find out more by visiting the Expo 2020 website