Can Dubai’s music scene hit the right notes?

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Working hard to build a reputation as a cultural hub to match its prominence as a commercial center, Dubai has tens of art galleries, and major annual art fairs, Art Dubai and the SIKKA Art Fair, as well as the Gulf Film Festival and the Dubai Festival for Youth Theatre. But what about the music?

Dubai is described as "desperately short of funding and facilities for classical music," according to Tala Badri, executive director of the Centre for Musical Arts (CMA). Music is neglected when the money is handed out for the arts.

“Of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority’s budget, something like 60% is fine art, 11% went to poetry, 5% on literature 3% on theatre and nothing on music! Not a single dirham,” she told Al Arabiya English.

Badri, an Emirati-born woman who studied music at Royal Holloway London, said she found it almost impossible to get a job teaching music in Dubai when she returned to the UAE after graduating in 1991. After completing a business degree in 1995 and working in the corporate world, she set up the CMA in 2005 which now has instrumental teachers for all levels, puts on concerts and does community work.

“The music community in Dubai is tight-knit,” Badri told Al Arabiya. “We form part of the fabric of this country and this community.”

At the moment, Badri says, Dubai lacks a proper classical music scene. Groups such as the Dubai Concert Committee privately organize concerts by outside musicians, but Badri’s institution is one of just a handful of places to study music, there is no conservatory institution for aspiring professional musicians, and performance spaces are hard to come by.

But Dubai music lovers may now have reason to feel a touch more optimistic.
This summer, work began on the ‘Dubai Modern Art Museum and Opera House District’ to be located in Emaar’s Downtown Dubai.

The project was announced in March 2012 by Emaar and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. This project, the sheikh said at the time, “will not only encourage our talented local artists but also facilitate global cultural exchange.”

Emaar’s development is not the first time an opera house has been planned for Dubai. In 2008 plans were afoot for a huge development in Dubai Creek which included a dune-shaped opera house and cultural center designed by British architect Zaha Hadid. It was also to feature a school for performing arts. However, when the global financial crisis hit the plans were abandoned, before the proverbial fat lady even got a chance to sing.

Understandably, Badri says she and the rest of Dubai’s musical community now have mixed feelings about the new project.
“It’s great to build the building, but what are you going to fill it with? Unless you develop and invest in youth it’s just going to be a building where you bring people in from other countries. My fear is it’s going to be used as a performance venue rather than something to develop music.”

Philipp Maier, a German conductor, left the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra last year, complaining of a lack of local talent as well as coordinated support for music in the UAE.
Badri agrees that there should be more government investment in building talent in the UAE from the ground up, rather than just importing star artists from around the world, but insists the talent is there.

“There are so many amazing musicians in Dubai who work either as teachers or in completely different fields,” she told Al Arabiya English.

“They can’t make a living. They’re never utilized – Dubai is always importing things in and sending them back out again.”
Dubai is clearly lagging compared to other Arab countries – Badri points out that much poorer or more troubled nations like Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt all have conservatories and vibrant classical music scenes.
Closer to home, Oman has had a Royal Opera House since 1987 which does education and outreach work, Qatar has invested heavily in music and Dubai’s UAE neighbor Abu Dhabi is also far ahead in terms of interest and investment.

Abu Dhabi’s music scene shows the benefits that are possible with imported musicians. Badri says that while they often pay star orchestras and soloists to come from around the world, they also hold open rehearsals for schoolchildren or master-classes for aspiring musicians.

NSO Symphony Orchestra is further evidence of the burgeoning musical scene in Abu Dhabi. Started in 2011 after Janet Hassouneh, a music teacher, moved to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, the orchestra was originally supported by members of the royal family but has now relaunched as a private organization.

“I saw a need for an orchestra of excellence – there are a lot of wonderful musicians here in the UAE. They do not need weekly rehearsals; they rehearse a day before the concert because their skills are so high,” she told Al Arabiya English.

In March 2012 the orchestra performed its inaugural concert and is now led by renowned British conductor Andrew Berryman, whom Hassouneh persuaded to stay in the UAE. Together they seem ready to prove that Maier was wrong about the lack of talent in the Emirates.

“The word is out that we’re in town and we have been approached by a lot of corporate events and individuals from outside. The cricket stadium in Abu Dhabi is being converted into a performing arts venue; they’re going to start outdoor concerts, including one in October with the NSO and a very famous performer from the UK,” Hassouneh said.

While the NSO is now going it alone, the initial boost from members of the Abu Dhabi royal family was certainly helpful.
It is this encouragement from above that Badri sees as lacking in Dubai.

“There are so many young children who are musical but they’re not being looked at and supported financially. These children have such potential.”

The problem with the music scene in Dubai is not a lack of performers (the NSO shows that’s not the case), nor of lack of interest from audiences.

“If you go to anything put on by the Dubai Concert Committee it’s always bursting at the seams and you can never get tickets, it’s always sold out,” Badri says.

“Sixty percent of the people there are from Dubai, and they are normal people. There are people who will drive to Oman to the Muscat Opera House just to watch something and make a weekend out of it.”

While Badri welcomes the opera house as a much-needed new performance venue in Dubai, she is unsure about what it will bring to the community unless it also becomes a center for training, inspiring and fostering local musicians.

Janet Hassouneh is more optimistic. “That would be so awesome,” she told Al Arabiya English.

“It’s got a good location. I think it will be good for the tourism industry in Dubai, a lot of people will be attending it, including the local population.”

Like Badri, though, she has some reservations. “They really should be using more local talent. The NSO orchestra is comparable to many, many major orchestras around the world – why do you want to bring somebody from outside when you can use somebody here locally? It helps the local economy.”

Hassouneh, however, says it is up to local music enthusiasts to put these projects forward, and that there is a desire to support music in Dubai.

“The last thing I did in Dubai before I moved to Abu Dhabi was launch the Dubai proms – in one month in January I did six opera concerts as part of the Dubai Shopping Festival.

“I put the idea forward to Dubai Culture. If people would go forward with these projects they would support them, as long as it’s commercially viable.”

Badri and Hassouneh are both sure that there is enough raw material in the UAE to have a vibrant music scene – according to Hassouneh, that’s already happening in Abu Dhabi. But Dubai may have a long way to go to catch up.

“I think Dubai is missing out, I have no qualms about saying that,” Badri said.

“The potential is massive, it just needs somebody to believe in it and say right, I’m going to fund it and take people who live in this country to help me do that.”

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