From Abu Dhabi to the world, why the emirate is a global centre of music

The capital has been behind momentous concerts at home and abroad

Marwa Nagy at the Cairo International Book Fair. Photo: Arabic Language Centre
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Abu Dhabi is more than fulfilling its potential as a City of Music.

Since it was granted the distinction by the Unesco Creative Cities Network in 2021, cultural organisations have led the emirate’s efforts in becoming a global cultural centre, with eclectic events at home and abroad.

This weekend alone is an indication of the breadth of that ambition.

On Friday and Saturday NYU Abu Dhabi's Arts Centre hosts the Barzakh Festival.

The annual world music event features artists from countries ranging from Algeria and Somaliland to Italy and Korea, all celebrating their heritage through song.

Meanwhile, the Cairo International Book Fair, ending on Monday, features a robust music programme by Abu Dhabi's Arabic Langue Centre (ALC), with sold-out concerts, and the launch of a new biography of revered Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

And this is only the start of the year.

From Abu Dhabi Festival co-commissioning a lavish staging of the ancient Egyptian opera Aida in Madrid to acclaimed classical musicians performing at the Cultural Foundation as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics concert series, the past 12 months have showed Abu Dhabi is equally adept at exporting as it is at importing talent.

Covering these events in the flesh I realise their value is measured in more than the full concert halls and amphitheatres.

While there is pride in seeing the city of my birth emblazoned on posters and pamphlets at the influential Aix-en-Provence Festival in France and 16th-century mausoleum, the Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex in Cairo, the insightful conversations and emotions inspired by these events are powerful.

In Cairo last week a youthful crowd was immersed in a performance by Asil Ensemble.

The Egyptian folk troupe, led by the acclaimed blind composer Mustafa Said, featured original compositions paired with the words of 10th-century poet Abu Al Tayeb Al Mutanabbi, born in Iraq, and 19th-century Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi.

These selections of prose were favoured by UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, an esteemed poet himself.

I will always remember the tears of Cairo resident Souad Al Sharif after the show, who impressed upon me the significance of the event organised by ALC.

“This music and this art form is very important,” she said.

“Not everything has to be for a commercial benefit. We have to safeguard the arts and I am glad there are organisations out there that can invest in putting these shows together because of its importance to Arabic culture.”

Spanish flamenco great Maria Pages also has the emirate to thank for rejuvenating a traditional art form.

Her latest Abu Dhabi Festival co-commissioned show, De Scheherazade a Yo, Carmen, sold out its run in Barcelona’s Teatre del Liceu in May.

More than the scintillating footwork by the dancer, the show elegantly displayed the influence of Arab civilisation on flamenco.

It was an aspect the show's Moroccan-Spanish playwright and lyricist El Arbi El Harti wanted to highlight.

“It is very dynamic because you have the Arabs who remained in the Spanish peninsula after their expulsion by the Catholic Spanish kings,” he told me inside the grand venue.

“They found themselves among the Spanish rural communities and it is their mix of high Arabic culture with the popular rural Spanish class that saw the arts in Spain evolve.

“I can say without doubt that the evolution of flamenco has an Arabic influence fundamentally.”

Closer to home, the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex being built on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, inspired an orchestral work, Symphony of Three: Peace, Love, Tolerance, celebrating the values unifying the three Abrahamic faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Also commissioned and produced by the festival, more than 350 artists were involved in the recording process led by Emirati co-composer Ihab Darwish.

One of the talents involved was South African singer Lebo M.

A darling of Hollywood through his contributions to film soundtracks, including The Power of One (1992) and the 1994 Disney film The Lion King, he expressed gratitude for being involved in a momentous project in line with his spirituality.

These moments form only part of Abu Dhabi’s rich musical history dating back to the UAE’s formation.

This was highlighted last month in a concert by Egyptian singer Marwa Nagy in Cairo.

Arranged by the ALC, she performed a selection of the songs fellow Egyptian Umm Kulthum sang in Abu Dhabi as part of a 1971 show marking UAE National Day.

Prior to Nagy taking the stage, the audience listened to an excerpt from the official invitation addressed to Umm Kulthum by Sheikh Zayed.

It all proves that Abu Dhabi's stature as a City of Music is a confirmation of what Emiratis and residents already know.

“Abu Dhabi began its great story with beautiful music,” ALC executive director Saeed Al Tunaiji said.

“And it’s a soundtrack that will continue to play for a long time to come.”

Updated: February 03, 2023, 6:02 PM