DUBAI, – Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman will premiere exciting original music that aims to change the world’s view of the Middle East when he performs with the pioneering all-women ensemble Firdaus Orchestra on 23 October at Expo 2020 Dubai.
The two-time Academy Award and double Grammy Award winner has been in Dubai since July, composing work. In an interview with Expo News Service, the composer revealed what is so special about working with 50 musicians from across the Arab world as they prepare to debut a fusion of styles and genres at Expo 2020 next month.
What inspired you to form the Firdaus Orchestra?
A couple of years ago, I received a call from Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General, Expo 2020 Dubai who asked if I would be interested in forming a female orchestra.
I was very fascinated by this idea because I founded a conservatory [KM Music Conservatory] in India more than 12 years ago, where we’ve been nurturing Western classical and Hindustani music, and so, in a way, this has brought me closer to classical music, plus I have a fascination with Arabic music, too.
Talk us through the process…
The initial talks led to auditioning and setting up a team, and building a studio. It [Firdaus Studio by A.R. Rahman] is a scoring studio, so it won’t just be used for performances, but for the film scores, for albums and for deep listening and workshops and many different things.
And how are rehearsals coming along?
We’ve been rehearsing for the past three months and we have already recorded some pieces. I have previously worked with the likes of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Prague Symphony, with men and women. However, with Firdaus Orchestra, we have a combination of classically trained musicians and also Arabic, classical, and folk musicians. So we’re trying to get all the arrangements close to how they should sound because we want to integrate all these extraordinary Arabic instruments, such as qanun, buzuq, oud, and Arabic percussion, in a way that really complements classical music, perhaps not for every piece, but for some of the pieces that we’ve chosen, such as Mozart’s Turkish March – and everyone seems to like the preview of this that we’ve released.
What’s the aim of the Firdaus Orchestra?
Firdaus Orchestra is a statement and an inspiration. It will diminish negative narratives about Middle Eastern people, narratives that say music is banned and women cannot come out and play music. In contrast, we’re talking about women forming an orchestra and entertaining everyone in a very pure way.
What makes the orchestra so special?
Most of the ideas actually come from the orchestra. Our interpretation of Turkish March was initiated by Sahar [Koueiry], who plays the qanun and also performs Mozart’s compositions. Hanan [Halwany], who plays the buzuq, was playing her own compositions when I said to Conductor Yasmina [Sabbah], ‘Why don’t we take that and make it into a whole orchestral piece?’ We have a lovely team – as well as Yasmina, we have Mayssa Karaa, a creative consultant, and of course, great solo players from this part of the region. This orchestra is an inspiration for the younger generation to take up music, and for those who want to take art as their major subject and change the world for the better.
Why do you think Expo 2020 Dubai is so important for the region and for the world?
The whole world is going to be at Expo 2020. I think the entire team at Expo feels that we are going to make a great statement – we are going to change a lot of views of how people from here, including artists from this region, are portrayed around the world. And also, we’re creating something truly original that comes from the heart of people – we’re pushing their individualities.
Every nation has suffered during the pandemic, and when I arrived here in the UAE, I felt like COVID-19 had been dealt with in the most brilliant way – people are going to restaurants and theatres because there’s a good protocol in place. Everybody is cooperating and the world is functioning here. That is very energizing for me, coming from a place where scores of people have died in India. I personally wanted to come here and see how everything functions, to see how this orchestra is going to perform. I have come back to real life again and to Firdaus Orchestra and its most inspiring people.