Composer AR Rahman promises to break boundaries at Expo 2020 Dubai

Oscar-winning musician creates powerful pieces with his all-women orchestra

The Mozart of Madras explains the unique qualities of Firdaus Women's Orchestra

The Mozart of Madras explains the unique qualities of Firdaus Women's Orchestra
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Superstar music maestro AR Rahman will premiere exciting new music when he first performs with the Firdaus Orchestra at Expo 2020 Dubai on October 23.

The two-time Academy Award and double Grammy Award winner has been in Dubai since July, composing work he hopes will unite people in friendship at the world fair next month.

We didn’t put any parameters. We wanted it to be a hybrid between a classical orchestra and ethnic, combining styles
AR Rahman

In an interview with The National, the composer spoke about breaking musical boundaries and working with 50 female musicians from the Middle East, as part of a new ensemble.

He discussed his state-of-the-art studio and being grateful for the “sense of freedom” to work creatively in Dubai amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Firdaus Orchestra was created specifically for Expo 2020 Dubai, and comprises women from Oman, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the UAE.

To qualify, the women needed to live in the Middle East, were required to read music and had to be “extraordinary musicians".

Between 200 and 300 applied, and the finalists were picked by Rahman's musical directors.

A musical mash-up

The music they will perform will blend western, Arabic and Indian styles, said Rahman, who is known as the Mozart of Madras.

“We didn’t put any parameters. We wanted it to be a hybrid between a classical orchestra and ethnic, combining styles,” he said.

“We were very open. We didn’t want to define that this is what the orchestra should be.”

The ensemble will also perform songs by legendary Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar, as well as classical pieces such as Mozart’s lively Turkish March and Beethoven’s haunting Moonlight Sonata, but arranged on Arabic string instruments.

“We have a qanun, buzuk, oud, Arabic percussion, we have the sitar," Rahman said. "These instruments are also incorporated in some of the pieces. This sound will definitely be unique in a way.

“The Arabic ensemble has come out so beautiful. The uniqueness comes from the players."

He said he aimed to not limit his musicians or place them into categories.

“We want to embrace different cultures, like the Arabic culture, and bring in Indian ethos. In a way we are actually bridging the gaps,” Rahman said.

“Here is an opportunity to mingle, do something beautiful together, to understand each other through music and friendship.”

Known for his foot-tapping beats and uplifting music, he said his orchestral music would be enjoyed and understood by all.

“These are things that are friendly to hear but we will also go deeper."

A sneak peak of rehearsals

Rahman spoke extensively about getting to know his all-women ensemble, and said many of them had not received the support to pursue music as a career, and "felt redeemed" to be selected for the orchestra.

“It’s not this region only where music is not encouraged that much. It’s a global universal thing,” he said.

“To me as well, music has given me respect, love. It’s been really, really good rehearsing with them.”

During rehearsals in a school in Dubai, Rahman listened in as the musicians played instruments such as the riqq, a small tambourine, and the ney, a reed flute.

“Whether it’s the qanun, ney, buzuk, riqq ... it’s exciting when they collide and you can just see a hint of how it’s happening. It’s an exciting experience to watch,” he said.

“It is fantastic to see them even when they were jamming in the break period. It’s fascinating to see them gang up and do a little ensemble.”

Building a studio in Dubai and living in the UAE

Over the past three months, Rahman has also set up a studio at the Expo 2020 Dubai site.

This state-of-the-art space will enable musicians to record soundtracks and create scores for artists, the movie industry and documentary filmmakers from around the world.

Rahman said he was thankful to be able to work in the UAE during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Compared to the restrictions across the world last year, he said Dubai had a “sense of freedom to do creative work”.

“You see suffering everywhere. The whole world went through it, especially in India,” Rahman said.

“That’s one of the fascinating things when I came here, how Dubai has sorted itself out.”

Rehearsing the opening ceremony

Updated: September 23, 2021, 8:22 PM