x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Abu Dhabi Festival is right at the heart of the culture

Hoda Kanoo, the festival founder, is using its success as leverage to lobby for the placement of arts and culture in the public school curriculum.

Plácido Domingo is one of the major attractions at this year's Abu Dhabi Festival. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival
Plácido Domingo is one of the major attractions at this year's Abu Dhabi Festival. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival

Next week, the Abu Dhabi Festival will celebrate a decade since its inception. Its very survival, says its founder Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, is an achievement in and of itself.

"It is such a privilege," she says. "To announce and witness the 10th anniversary means the world to me.

"It also means one thing: Hoda never gives up."

Run by the non-profit Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, which was founded by Kanoo in 1996 as the first organisation in the capital solely dedicated to the advancement of music, education, culture and creativity, the growth of the Abu Dhabi Festival over the past 10 years is a direct reflection of the UAE's artistic and cultural growth.

From relatively small beginnings in 2004, the festival developed to attract many of the world's leading musical names and cultural institutions. With past performance by legends such as Al Jarreau and Natalie Cole, as well as influential artistic companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra, and forthcoming performances next month by headliner Plácido Domingo and Russia's Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra, the Abu Dhabi Festival not only exposes residents to the best of the arts but allows the country to take part in the global cultural conversation. "People know Abu Dhabi now," says Kanoo. "The icons of the music world can see that we are serious, that the festival is aiming for a greater future and that it is an opportunity for all artists from East and West to come here and meet."

It is this balancing of cultures that defines the Abu Dhabi Festival. Unlike other cultural and music events in the UAE, the programming is not solely defined to meet commercial ends. You will not find any 1980s nostalgia acts, DJs or super-pop acts gracing the Emirates Palace stage just because Abu Dhabi was on their flight route.

Kanoo stresses that each artist or company is invited on account of what they can offer in terms of entertainment and education to the audience.

"The core of the festival is music," she says. "But the balance I try to find is in having these icons of the world here and making our culture relevant to them and the rest of the world.

"We want to bring young artists from the Arab world and also the legends of international music and weave them together. It is about cultural respect and that we can combine with each other no matter what."

It is the promise of such an immersive experience - which, for some artists, includes conducting workshops with students across different Emirates - that convinced the renowned Spanish tenor Domingo to sign up for the festival.

His performance at Emirates Palace on March 20 is the centrepiece of the festival and the result of dozens of attempts by Kanoo to tie him down.

It was after his 2011 performance in Oman, at the Royal Opera House Muscat, that Kanoo finally managed to corner him.

"He has the most busiest schedule that I have ever seen," Kanoo says, laughing. "We spoke about the Abu Dhabi Festival and its outreach, its educational value and the social unity behind it and finally Plácido said: 'I am coming. Allow me to teach and share my knowledge with the young.'"

The challenge in bringing Domingo here pales in comparison with initially convincing local authorities and the wider Emirati public that such a festival was needed in the first place.

While studying French literature and art history at The American College of Paris, Kanoo had the opportunity to travel across Europe and the Middle East widely. And it was while watching the legendary Lebanese songstress Fairuz at the Baalbeck Festival in Lebanon that she realised the communal spirit an arts festival can offer.

"That was really a magical moment for me. I saw how the festival really brought the city to life," she recalls.

"I was very happy at that moment and I remember feeling that I wanted to share it. That I wanted to invite people to experience such a feeling together."

While Abu Dhabi was already emerging as a global financial powerhouse at the turn of the century, the thought of investing in the capital's cultural scene wasn't high on its list of priorities.

"At that time, there was no Science Festival, Abu Dhabi Classics or [the entertainment company] Flash," she says.

"There was no concept of people coming together to share culture. Some people thought that we were not ready. That was simply not true."

The initial government cash injection was enough to build the festival's infrastructure, but it wasn't enough to afford the A-list talent on Kanoo's invite list during the first three years.

Unperturbed, she appealed to the artist's conscience rather than financial incentives.

"Every person that I invited came because I spoke with such passion about this place," she says. "I spoke to [2004 festival headliner, the Iraqi oud virtuoso] Naseer Shamma and his orchestra and I told him my budget was this much. He said: 'Forget it, I will come.' I told [the late Lebanese composer and 2006 performer] Walid Gholmieh: 'I need you in Abu Dhabi.' He told me that my budget was not even close but he was still coming. He said: 'Don't worry about my payment, but try to get what you can for the musicians.'"

As well as cementing the Abu Dhabi Festival's standing as a leading arts festival in the region, Kanoo is using its success as leverage to lobby for the placement of arts and culture in the public school curriculum.

She hopes such a focus will unearth new generations of Emirati artists who can take part in future editions of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

"Once I know that the arts is embedded in the school system, this means that we truly had the ability to influence," she says. "This is for our children and generations to come. They need to know the true value of culture."

It is no mistake that Kanoo links the festival's success to children. She often describes the event as "my baby".

"When you give birth to a child, you nurture it and pray to God to give it a long life," she says.

"I planned this festival to stay and after I am gone, I want it to be here forever, for Abu Dhabi and the UAE."

The Abu Dhabi Festival runs from March 3 to 28. For details and tickets go to www.abudhabifestival.ae

sasaeed@thenational.ae