AR Rahman’s Firdaus Orchestra shines brightly at Expo 2020 Dubai –
They come from 23 nationalities from various parts of the region and are proud to be part of an all-female orchestra named Firdaus
From the idea of His Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and Managing Director of Expo 2020 Dubai and the Grammy-winning Indian Academy and Composer AR Rahman, the Firdaus Orchestra is one of the few all-female professional orchestras in the world and certainly the first in the Middle East.
Another feature that sets it apart from other orchestras is its repertoire of fusion music as well as classical pieces. Medieval oriental instruments like the sitar, the oud, qanoun, buzuq, and the darbouka play alongside modern western instruments.
“People have never seen anything like this before,” says Noura Sulaiman, spokesperson for the orchestra, “Or even the exciting new arrangement of pieces that already exist”.
Fatine Garti, a Moroccan violinist, who has played in traditional female orchestras before, says: “I could not imagine that one day I would be part of an all-female ensemble that plays both classical and oriental music. “
The Orchestra’s first performance at the Expo on October 23, 2021 was a resounding success, and AR Rahman fans were also thrilled. The theme of the concert was space, where Rahman included symphonies from popular classic and Hollywood films, including his own composition of the film. Bombay. He concluded the performance with his new composition which included a classical Western symphony in collaboration with sopranos and a Hindustani choir, adding a touch of Dhrupad and Raag Darbari. The musicians would have been surprised by the enthusiastic reception their mentor received at the concert. Few people knew about his work in Bollywood and Tamil cinema, and his popularity in India.
The Firdaus Orchestra currently consists of more than 50 musicians. Like their instruments, the musicians also come from different backgrounds and have different levels of training. The oldest musician is over 50, while the youngest is 16. Most of the artists received formal training, while some learned through practice and performance.
For example, Yasmina Sabbah, a 33-year-old conductor of Lebanese origin, obtained her Masters in Choir Conducting from the University of Cambridge, UK. Sabbah’s training shows that she is taking complete control of the scene. On the other side of the spectrum are self-taught musicians like Hanan Hassan Halwany (pictured above), also from Lebanon. She plays the traditional buzuq and she was playing in a local band in Beirut. She also composed the music for a Lebanese film.
Isn’t there a communication problem between the musicians because not all of them speak Arabic or English? “Yes, the language barrier is a problem,” says Lea Haddad (pictured above) from Lebanon, who plays electric bass guitar. “But their common language is music,” says Fatine, who speaks French. “And we encourage each other to do the best we can,” Lea adds. She says she finds it easier to work with women than with men. “You are not worried when you go to work. The person next to you is the same as you and you are not being judged. It’s so reassuring, ”she concludes.
Sabbah, Olena Ponpon, first violinist and first violin of Ukraine, pianist Tamara Tomnovic of Montenegro and Indian pianist Nerissa Lobo have all performed with mixed orchestras (male and female). They find no difference between the two. They are of the opinion that it is not the kind but the quality of the work and the way you
contribute to the orchestra that matters. “The difference, if there is any, is in the power of the breath,” says Ponpon. This is the reason why fewer women are turning to copper.
Firdaus is a legacy project from Expo 2020 Dubai, which will remain even after it closes on March 31, 2022. The other legacy project is the creation of a state-of-the-art Firdaus studio by AR Rahman. It is not only a space for orchestral rehearsals, but filmmakers can also compose the music for their films there, using projected scenes, just like in Hollywood. “Live streaming will also be possible,” Rahman said. It will be the region’s first high-tech studio.
“That’s what I love about the UAE,” says Tomnovic, (pictured above) who has lived in Dubai for six years. “He is constantly innovating. Every day there is something new to motivate me and inspire me to grow. Firdaus is one of many firsts and I am proud of it.
When the demand for women musicians was broadcast in the Middle East as newspaper advertisements, they were inundated with demands, Rahman recalls. “Some of the auditions were very emotional,” he says. The applicants stated that even if they were not selected, the idea of an all-female resident orchestra in an area which has very few music schools and where music as a female profession was scarce was under consideration. progressive self.
Some of the families the girls came from have faced intimidating hardships because of the conflict in the Middle East. Halwany remembers being rescued the day the port explosion erupted in Beirut last August because she was inside. When she told her parents about Firdaus, they encouraged her to audition and were thrilled when she was selected. They saw it as an opportunity for her to make a career. It was the same for Haddad.
Olena says the spirit of the business attracted her. Her husband, who left her nine-year job in Singapore to accompany her, “was in tears” when he saw her perform his solo piece in the orchestra. “He feels that I am living my dream and that he should support me,” she said.
The women are all passionate musicians and are aligned with the goals of the orchestra, which Sabbah says are equality, a sense of responsibility, strong musicality, kindness, respect, honesty and integrity. . Nerissa Lobo from Mumbai heads two sections of the orchestra, and adds “self-actualization” to them. “Meditation classes help control the ego. A transformed woman can change the generations to come ”, she philosophizes.
What is the future of the orchestra? Rahman says he has already heard from his Hollywood agent who offered to play at the Hollywood Bowl. All the women are really horny and are hoping to perform all over the world.
“It will be an inspiration to all female musicians in our part of the world, who cannot turn professional,” Halwany reiterates. Firdaus has a few concerts planned throughout the Expo, where Rahman will expand his repertoire to include some of his original pieces. We hope that this team spirit will only grow stronger and that the orchestra will open doors to many other musicians.