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Rima Khcheich with her band the Dutch Yuri Trio playing live in Damascus. She is known for playing "Arabised" versions of music from other cultures.
Rima Khcheich with her band the Dutch Yuri Trio playing live in Damascus. She is known for playing 'Arabised' versions of music from other cultures.

Future classics: the third annual Sounds of Arabia festival

The Sounds of Arabia music festival opens with its biggest line-up of 14 concerts, and performers from countries including Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, Morocco and the UAE.

The third annual Sounds of Arabia music festival will focus on "the future of Arabic classical music" when it returns today, with its biggest line-up to date. The nine-day Abu Dhabi event - presented under the motto New Sounds of Arabia - will see 14 performances by artists from across the region. Although this year's festival is focused primarily on emerging talent, organisers have not turned their backs on well-know artists as the Arabic music favourites Lotfi Bouchnak, Sabah Fakhri and Medhat Saleh are all set to play the event.

"The senior generation will leave us one day, it's unavoidable, so it's good to build up newer generations," says Neil van der Linden, the co-curator of Sounds of Arabia. "[The festival is] intended to have lots of diversity and variety. We aim to honour some of the established names and also to present some younger, newer names - the future of Arabic classical music." The event's opening night, which will be held at Emirates Palace, will focus on the traditional music of the UAE. The Emirati master musician Said al Salem will collaborate on a number of orchestral and choral pieces with Bouchnak, the renowned Tunisian singer, oud player and composer who also played at last year's event.

Their fellow Arabic music master Fakhri will perform on May 12. The Syrian singer is perhaps the best-known living exponent of Tarab music and widely recognised for keeping the art form alive today. He has also become renowned for the duration of his live performances, which have reportedly reached up to 10 hours in length. One of Egypt's most popular singers, Saleh, will take to the stage on Saturday, with a tribute to his countryman Mohammed Abdel Wahab. As well as being one of 20th century Egypt's best loved composers and performers, Abdel Wahab was also a silent film icon.

"Medhat Saleh is famous for doing this tribute and audiences always love it, so that will be really popular," says van der Linden. The festival's second night will feature a double bill of performances; the Egyptian singer and oud player Mustafa Said, followed by the well known Lebanese musician Ahmed Kaboor. The following week, Abu Dhabi Theatre will host the Syrian clarinet virtuoso Kinan Al Azmeh and his band Hewar, as well as a performance from the singer Rima Khcheich, who plays with a group of Dutch musicians, on the same night.

The Algerian musician Nassima will also play the festival, before the Palestinain-American oud virtuoso Simon Shaheen takes the stage. The famous US-based MESTO Orchestra, conducted by Nabeel Azam, will perform with Karima Skalli, who also played last year's festival. The event's penultimate night will feature two female singers, the Syrian soloist Waed Bouhassoun and the Moroccan diva Aicha Redouane.

Sounds of Arabia will close with The Iranian Evening, with concerts by musical collective Neyestan and the masters of Persian percussion Zarbang. "There are lots of interesting things happening among these artists," says van der Linden. "Some of them, like Mustafa Said and Aicha Redouane, try to go back to a very pure kind of early 20th century music - long before the popular songs of their time. Others, like Rima Khcheich and Kinan Al Azmeh, experiment with [bringing] new instruments to Arabic music."

In keeping with previous editions of the festival, this year's event will also include lectures and film screenings. These will include a question and answer sessions with Mustafa Said, Kinan Azmeh and members of each artist's ensemble on Sunday at the Abu Dhabi Theatre. Said will also take part in a discussion with the Spanish musician Manuela Cortes Garcia, a specialist in the music of the Umayyad period in Islamic Spain on May 15 at Bait al Oud.

Two films by the British journalist Simon Broughton, Breaking the Silence: Music in Afghanistan and Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam, will be shown at the Abu Dhabi Theatre on May 13. For information about tickets, visit www.adach.ae.

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