United under a flag of music

The crowds who gathered at Abu Dhabi's public beach for Womad were wowed by the infectious atmosphere.

United Arab Emirates - Abu DHabi - April 24th, 2009:  Dhol Foundation preforms at WOMAD (Galen Clarke / The National)  *** Local Caption ***  GC10_24042009_WOMAD.jpg
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The crowds who gathered at Abu Dhabi's public beach for Womad were wowed by the infectious atmosphere provided by a host of performers who satisfied the faithful and won a host of new fans with some inspired performances. They all came for so many different reasons, but in the end they reached the same conclusion: the Womad effect swept them away. Some people had turned up to see their favourite acts, and stayed for the rest of the show, such was the magic being worked on the crowd.

By the end of the second evening of performances at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (Womad) in the capital, one thing was crystal clear: the success of hosting a series of free concerts on the beach was visible in the delighted expressions on the concert-goers' faces. From entertaining and enthralling to absolutely amazing, these were evenings for which the city had waited a long time, an opportunity to dance together.

Parents with babies in buggies, teenagers and grandmothers, taxi drivers taking time off from their shift and shop staff dropping in on their way home; they shared the songs and beach together irrespective of age, profession or musical taste. Dancing off the stresses of a hard day at the office were two Emirati engineers, Adel al Kindi and Adel al Maskari. "I think it's the perfect event for a place like Abu Dhabi. They should have more of these," enthused Mr al Kindi.

"I came tonight because I have to work tomorrow, unfortunately. But this is great. Everyone is here and everyone has come out to see this," his friend added. The previous night's exertions were all but forgotten as some of the same crowd turned up again yesterday for another day of partying. They gathered on the beach, 10,000 of them, to relax in the sunshine and soak up the atmosphere. Children made sandcastles with their buckets and spades. They paddled in the water or tucked into the blue candyfloss on sale at the food stalls dotted around the site.

Steven Chambers, six, and his nine-year-old sister, Christine, were showing off their latent musical talents on instruments in one of children's workshops. As night fell, fireworks lit up the sky high above the Corniche. To a cacophony of crashing drums and guitars, the Dhol Foundation burst on to the stage for a truly memorable opening act with a mix of Celtic tunes and traditional Bhangra-style music. When Johnny Kalsi, its founder member, urged the crowd to raise their arms, a thousand hands reached up to the sky simultaneously, and then he proceeded to give them an impromptu lesson in Punjabi dance. Children swayed on their parents' shoulders and complete strangers laughed together as they tried out the moves.

It was certainly a big night for Surinder Saini. An unknown singer discovered by the band in a village in Punjab, the 25-year-old had never left the region before, let alone his country. Last night, he stood on a stage in Abu Dhabi to give his first public performance and almost stole the show. Judging by the crowd's reaction to his two songs, a career of his own beckons. The night before, Kalsi had appeared on stage with the Algerian sensation Khaled and, as they performed, the crowd broke out into any form of dance that was possible to the beats of the infectious Algerian rai and the Indian dhol.

The past few nights have offered an embarrassment of riches. Souad Massi, the soulful and sultry Algerian singer, had the crowds pleading with her in Arabic, "Where are you going? Stay," as her set drew to a close. "Aren't you guys tired?" she replied in Arabic, followed by a burst of French, "ca va!" and then she gave the crowd, who were applauding, begging and whistling for more, one last song. "I don't understand a word she is saying but it is so beautiful that I cannot help dancing slightly with the music," said Mark Sims, a New Zealander who lives in Abu Dhabi. "I heard about the festival on the radio so I came to see what it was all about."

Her performance was immediately followed by Jivan Gasparyan on the South Stage, where the two big screens on either side lit up with the sombre face and weathered hands of the Armenian and his duduk, an ancient oboe-like instrument that is made of apricot wood, its sound having been made famous by his contribution to the soundtrack of the film Gladiator. Before long, it was back to the North Stage with the Brazilian band Marcio Local, who conjured up some samba fever, which led to the inevitable: a wild break-out of impromptu dance parties, in clusters big and small.

By the time Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali from Pakistan started synching their harmoniums to their tablas, Shamsher Khan from Dubai was seen half-sprinting across the sand to find a good spot near the stage. A few days ago, a friend had called him from Abu Dhabi telling him "the good news". So Mr Khan, a minibus driver, piled his van full of friends and drove 119km to see the nephews of the late and revered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan perform some of his favourite qawwalis - a vocal music of the Sufi mystics. An excerpt from their opening qawwali: "When there was no earth, or sky, or sun, or moon, or stars. There was only you. Only you. Allah."

"They sing just like their uncle," said Mr Khan, before joining a group of men in shalwar kameez, who, after trying to crowd-surf, started dancing in circles with abandon as the group mesmerised the audience with their duelling vocals. Meanwhile, a very serious Amin Haider, aged nine, scurried around, followed by his parents, as he looked for the workshop tent so he could learn to play the drums just like the Dubai drums band plays them.

But they saved the best for last on Thursday night in the shape of Khaled. The ranks of concert-goers around the stage swelled while children and fully grown adults took to their families' and friends' shoulders, cheering and waving Algerian flags at him. Others brought out mobile phones and lighters to wave to him as he serenaded them. He sang, smiled, danced and even played the keyboards while singing, draping his national flag over his shoulders before tying it to his microphone.

Tonight the big draw and surprise headline act, the former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, is due to take to the stage for his eagerly anticipated set. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae