After a three-year hiatus, the Abu Dhabi Jazz Festival is back by popular demand from Thursday to Saturday. The festival hopes to attract crowds of 3,000 a night and will feature a blend of both local and international talent, set against the chilled-out backdrop of the sands of the Beach Rotana. First organised in 2002, the Abu Dhabi festival was put on the backburner while its sister, the Dubai Jazz Festival, drew upwards of 28,000 fans to its 10-day extravaganza. "Actually, it is back because we received a lot of requests from the fans in Abu Dhabi to bring back the festival," says Rania Hamadeh, the marketing and communication manager for Chillout Productions, the organisers of the event. "In Abu Dhabi we have good fans of jazz music."
Jazz, however is not the only music on offer, as the festival covers everything from rock to electronic to world music. Yes, there are heavy hitters like Anita Wardell and Larry Garner playing on the last night of the festival, but other names such as Jonas Desai or Paul Akiki may be less familiar. In fact, the festival prides itself on encouraging local artists of diverse musical backgrounds. "If you notice, jazz festivals around the world are not only about jazz - there is a mix of fusion artists - blues, rock," says Hamadeh. "There's always a mix to attract more people and fans and to cater to all tastes."
Then why not just call it a music festival? Hamadeh says that when the festival began in 2002, it was much more jazz orientated, and the name stuck as the event evolved. "It's a jazz festival because it's called the Jazz Festival," she says. "We don't concentrate only on jazz because jazz music has a very niche market." The performers don't seem to mind, as long as they get to play to an appreciative audience. "I performed last year at the Dubai Jazz Festival," says Guy Manoukian, a Lebanese-American musician who is known for his mix of world and dance genres. "When they told me 'jazz festival', I wasn't expecting it to be that big, but the crowd was fantastic."
Like many of the other musical styles at the festival, Manoukian's sound doesn't really fit into a category, and it's definitely not pure jazz. Still, he feels that his music jives with the sensibility of the UAE. "It's just like the UAE in the sense that in its core it's traditional and has an oriental dominance but it's very open and experimental music," he explains. Ben Granfelt, a Finnish guitarist and singer who is known for his low, booming voice and folksy sound, also played the Dubai Jazz Festival earlier this year. "I was scared when I saw the other artists and what they played, because they were quite pure jazz," says Granfelt. "So when we went on stage, I asked, 'Does anybody like Jimi Hendrix?' And everybody cheered, so I knew that we were safe and we had a fantastic gig."
Granfelt is also looking forward to gaining fresh inspiration in Abu Dhabi, as touring plays a big part in his creative process. "What normally happens is I bring a guitar to the hotel room and that's where a lot of ideas start," says Granfelt. "Most of the ideas I get are on the road, so hopefully I can come up with some inspiration." The Beach Rotana will play host to some well-known names such as Natalie Williams, an artist who has garnered praise for her single This Girl, an R&B ditty with a hint of 1960s Motown flavour. Though Williams has booked tours all over the world, some of the newer local talent is using the venue as their Abu Dhabi debut.
"I've known [the organiser] for quite a while now," says Paul Akiki, an Abu Dhabi-based Lebanese musician and songwriter. "I performed in the Dubai Jazz Festival a few months ago. Whenever it's possible, [they] give me a call and offer me a gig." Akiki's music has been praised for his emotive lyrics and a freer, more improvisational approach to rhythm; he categorises himself as alternative and cites influences such as Radiohead.
Jonas Desai, 22, is another UAE-based singer-songwriter, moved to Dubai at the beginning of 2008. He has already managed to play the Dubai Jazz Festival and record an album. The half-Indian, half-Swedish musician is just getting serious about his musical career after starting out in semi-pro football. He names John Mayer and John Legend as influences and has been greatly inspired by life in Dubai. "I've written a song called A Sunny Day, influenced by a great day at the beach," he says.
Desai and his brother Andreas, a young record label manager, approached Chillout Productions to play in the Dubai festival. Chillout agreed and Desai's career began to gel. He went into the studio to record a full album, got his single Get Me Out played almost daily on Dubai 92 FM and is now ready to show his stuff in Abu Dhabi. "I think Abu Dhabi has a lot to offer music-wise," says Desai. "It's obviously going to be a big festival and I'm really looking forward to it."
Desai and Akiki are both Chillout Productions finds, and Hamadeh explains that the company also works as a sort of talent scout within the UAE, looking for quality acts that can appeal to people of many backgrounds. "We know that they have very good standards, which means they can compete with international bands," Hamadeh says of the more junior acts in the line-up. There are other UAE-based bands scheduled to play as well, including Marwan and the Mojos, who pull off a kind of Steely Dan-style rock and the Afif Brothers Quartet, a jazz group that borrows heavily from Arabian musical traditions.
Because the Dubai event is bigger and has more sponsors, the Abu Dhabi festival was sometimes dwarfed in the past. But shows of gargantuan proportions are better left to bigger spaces, and the Abu Dhabi Jazz Festival will be a different type of spectacle - more low-key and intimate. Plus, Abu Dhabi's festival has the advantage of a beachside location, something that automatically gives the event a more laid-back vibe. Though Chillout plans to enlarge the festival next year, Hamadeh is coy about specific plans. "We are planning on expanding it for sure, but I can't give you much information because it's not really confirmed," she says. "But I can promise you that it's going to be much bigger next year." Hopefully the festival won't lose its soul in the transition, as when it comes to live music, bigger isn't always better.
"One of the major differences is the venue capacity, because for the Dubai festival we usually have bigger venues and so we attract more fans and that's why we get bigger names," says Hamadeh. Hamadeh also praises the Abu Dhabi festival's fresh mix of performers. The music does come first, after all. "It's really nice for people who like to enjoy music but [who] are not into heavy stuff in terms of atmosphere," she says. "It's a chilled out event."
Tickets are Dh200 per night and are available at all Virgin Megastores, some Spinneys locations, and at @email:www.boxofficeme.com
Chillout Productions is offering free admission to concertgoers who show up at the gate before 6pm on the first night of the show only, Thursday.