DUBAI // Construction workers are usually at home handling concrete, steel and pipes. But amid the cacophony of building sites, hundreds of them are now busy secretly limbering up their vocal cords. Starting in July, the third season of a singing contest exclusively for labourers will see the would-be stars take their first steps towards being crowned in a hugely anticipated knock-out event that has been dubbed 'Dubai Idol'.
Last year, two 24-year-olds from Pakistan, Muhammed Farooq Mazhar and Asim Khan, became instant celebrities when they beat 600 other labourers to be voted the winners of the Western Union Camp Ka Champ, gleaning not just glory but stereos and cash prizes. Both are expected to defend their titles. The contest, organised by Right Track Advertising and sponsored by Western Union, holds more than 200 auditions at labour camps in Al Quoz, Sonapur and Jebel Ali to whittle down the number of contestants.
"The idea was just to bring some joy and happiness into the lives of these workers and help them exhibit their singing skills," said Rupa Vinod, the managing director of Right Track. The contest, whose title means "Champ from the Camp", runs until September. Ms Vinod says she and her team travel to the camps to conduct the auditions. Shortlisted singers go on to the quarter-finals, representing their companies in teams of two. While there is a jury, voting is also done by a live audience of workers, who send text messages naming their favourite singers.
"The idea was to get the workers involved in the contest and cheer their colleagues," said Ms Vinod. Last year, Mr Mazhar and Mr Khan were the jury's as well as the people's choice. The programme roughly follows the same format as the hit US television programme American Idol, but with some differences. A singing round is followed by a buzzer round where the contestants must identify the song being played then sing it. There is also a round in which a Bollywood film is shown; the contestants must identify the film and sing a song from it
Mr Mazhar said he and his singing partner, Mr Khan, both from Lahore, had a dream run to the top and were inspired by Asian stars. "I have been a great fan of Sonu Nigam and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan," he added. He has his own band back home. "I was fond of singing from childhood and used to sing in college," he said. With five sisters and a brother to support in Pakistan, Mr Mazhar has been toiling in Dubai for a year, but the contest helped him forget everything and do what he always wanted to: sing. Speaking about the moment their victory was announced, Mr Mazhar said: "I felt on the top of the world. It was the greatest day in my life and I will never forget it."
He said he was overwhelmed by the appreciation he got from colleagues and from his company, Dulsco. Mr Khan described himself as a "spontaneous" singer: "When we first took part in the auditions we were not aware that we would be competing against other companies. However, when we qualified in the quarter-finals and were aware that we would be competing against three other companies, we were more enthusiastic as it was a matter of the company's prestige to win."
Prasad Kotta, a marketing director for Western Union, said it supported the competition out of corporate social responsibility: "The contest gave workers an opportunity to get on stage and share their talent in front of their colleagues. "However, it has not been easy and the first time we did it, it was quite an experiment." The first season of the contest was held in 2007 and it got off to a slow start. It grew significantly last year. "When we got to the camps, everyone asked us when the contest would start and we got many volunteers," recalls Ms Vinod.
Mr Prasad said the huge responses from workers as well as companies inspired them to keep the event going. "The popularity is significant and we will surely support the event this year, too." firstname.lastname@example.org