x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Dubai's got talent

As the finals of the Radio Star talent search kick off, our correspondent goes behind the scenes to meet some of the budding talent involved.

Anisha Senaratne, 17, shares a lighter moment with DJ Moe during the Radio Star 2009 talent search at the Arabian Centre Mall.
Anisha Senaratne, 17, shares a lighter moment with DJ Moe during the Radio Star 2009 talent search at the Arabian Centre Mall.

As the finals of the Radio Star talent search kick off, Gemma Champ meets some of the people involved Apparently, video didn't kill the radio star. Turns out it's alive and well in a shopping mall somewhere on the outskirts of the Mirdiff area of Dubai. The Radio Star being, of course, the talent competition that has been run by Channel 4 radio for the last four years. Having moved from Reef Mall in Deira to the Arabian Center on Al Khawaneej Road, the 2009 Radio Star competition is already well under way. The finals start tonight and prizes are worth Dh150,000 in all.

The host of the contest, DJ Moe, auditioned a gruelling (and in some cases gruesome) 1,000 contestants across three language categories (English on Channel 4, Arabic on Radio Rabia and Hindi on Radio 4 FM) and heard more than 10,000 hours of recordings by artists from 20 nationalities. He's had to hold the hands of 20 nervous semi-finalists as they try desperately to persuade the public that they are the new Kelly Clarkson (or at the very least, the new SuBo). After all that, one might expect him to be a little less than chirpy.

But he's a kindly soul and sanguine in a way that Simon Cowell can only dream about. Where Cowell vocally and brutally declaims his despair as some poor hopeful wobbles on a note or wears a distracting frock, DJ Moe simply crinkles his eyes, slaps on a smile and warmly congratulates the contestants. They're trying, after all, and for him that's what counts. "In the beginning you were a little nervous, but the thing is that you picked yourself up and you carried on, and that takes guts," he tells one contestant.

To another: "Abba is very, very difficult to sing. It really is. So singing a song like this is really courageous, and I think you did an excellent job." He never actually says: "That was a little pitchy for me, dawg", but you get the feeling he's modelling himself more on American Idol's Randy Jackson (with a touch of Paula Abdul's trademark enthusiasm) than on Cowell. At the second English semi-final, five under-14s and five over-14s compete live on DJ Moe's evening show from the Arabian Center for the votes of the audience. With the mall's food court on one side and the children's play area on the other, the tiny stage has a ready-made audience, but certainly presents a challenge to the singers, whose performances are simultaneously being filmed on camcorders by their proud families, cheered by passers-by and jeered by some diners in McDonald's. It's an unusual scene with some unlikely characters.

During one rich, smoky rendition of Mariah Carey's A Hero Lies In You, a sad-looking clown shuffles past a few times (from food court to play area and back), comedy trousers flapping, giant shoes slapping the floor, fist raised in mute solidarity with a fellow ballad lover. In other words, this is no American Idol. There are no flashing lights, no live instrumentalists and, happily, no Ryan Seacrest. The audience is small, the entries almost off-the-cuff casual and the accompanying music a karaoke soundtrack. It's actually a refreshing return to a pre-MTV music market: without watching videos and wondering if Britney's gained weight or lost touch, the voters get to base their decisions entirely on whether they like the singers' voices. It's a radical notion, though certainly it seems that the radio star will never quite go as far as those television faces with flashy costumes or cute smiles. DJ Moe admits that he knows of no former Radio Star winner who has gone on to greatness. "At least, if they have, they haven't contacted me about it," he says.

But just as the show is on a different scale than the big TV versions, so the contestants are considerably less histrionic and ruthlessly ambitious than those on American Idol or The X Factor. While the under-12s are of course full of dreams of theatre and drama and Miley Cyrus, among the adults there is a strong sense of realism. "I'd like to go into music professionally but it's unrealistic, so I wouldn't pursue it," says the sensible 17-year-old Anisha Senaratne, who has overcome a technical failure on the karaoke machine to belt out an impressive version of Heaven by Bryan Adams, one of the best performances of the night. Her excited parents, Manouri and Ravi, are clearly both so delighted with their daughter's excellence that they'd agree to anything that made her happy.

"She's taking singing lessons at school, at Dubai College," says her mother. "She loves singing, and she writes her own songs and plays the guitar. Whatever she wants to do, we'll encourage her." Her father adds that she's head girl at Dubai College. Another realist is the 18-year-old Jessica Johnson, the singer who so inspired Pepe the Clown with her Mariah Carey song. Her self-deprecating attitude is a world away from the look-at-me braggadocio of the contestants on the TV talent shows, for whom anything seems possible if they want it enough. (Of course, they're usually proved wrong by their laugh-out-loud performances; nevertheless blind, unswerving faith in their own brilliance is what drives them.) Johnson combines a powerful voice with an endearingly embarrassed manner.

"I guess I just wanted to see how good I really was," she says quietly. "I thought I might as well give it a try, as I had the opportunity. I was not as good as I thought I would be. I was a bit nervous." Would she like to try a career in music? "If I'm good enough, yeah. Why not?" Like the Senaratnes, Jessica's father, George Johnson, who hails from Bangalore, is no stage parent pushing his daughter onto the stage. He's delighted for his little girl but has her priorities sorted out. "She's not a trained singer, but she has trained herself," he says proudly. "She can pursue it if she wants, but I want her to finish her graduation. Finish your basic foundation first."

The younger contestants are far more sure of themselves. Clearly enunciating their words, they are articulate, keen and still full of the possibilities of life. Holly Jhoolun, 11, sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow with all the wistful sadness of a young Judy Garland. Talking about her performance afterwards, with her mother looking on, she says: "I've been in a couple of theatre productions and my school productions and I really enjoyed it. And I've been doing Vox Theatre group, where I was Dorothy, so I was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Then my mum said: 'There's this thing on the radio. Do you want to do it?' So I tried it out and I really loved it."

Already well versed in the language of the talent show, Jhoolun says of her song choice: "I'm very familiar with that song and I think it's a good song for me." She is perhaps pre-empting an imaginary Cowell's common claim that his Idol contestants (victims?) have chosen the wrong ballad. Annie Halloran, 12, from Australia, is also a regular theatre actor and singer in Dubai. She sings the High School Musical number Start of Something New. She's about to start singing lessons at Ductac, and will play a cheerleader in the Dubai production of High School Musical 2, having already been in the first production. She clearly has a passion for performance - and the vocabulary to express it.

"I definitely want to go into this professionally. I like the way you can change into different characters or excel yourself or set yourself a challenge. And it's something you can do to take your mind off things and go into a whole different world of opportunities." Annie's mother, Robyn, is as enthusiastic as all the other parents. "She loves it and I could leave her in her room all day, singing, dancing; it's what she wants to do," she says. "So this sort of thing will help, hopefully."

Of course, a talent competition wouldn't be complete without the requisite underdog, who against all the odds could sweep all aside and take the prize. Jfrry Concha, 27, came to Dubai from Manila four months ago and works in a Johnny Rockets burger joint. At the semi-final, his eager face drops as he learns that because of an administrative error and timing issues he won't be able to perform live on the radio like his fellow contestants. Downcast, he sits by the stage and waits for his chance to record the short clip that will be played repeatedly on the radio and on the Channel 4 website, www.channel4fm.com, along with those of his rivals.

"This is the first time I have sung at this kind of competition," he says. "I just wanted to prove something to myself, that I can do it - that I have showmanship or something. I've sung since I was nine, but I didn't continue it because I had to work and study. So this is the time that I decided to set a priority to my singing." Could Concha be the one that makes it through in spite of his disadvantage? If you needed a reality TV-style cliffhanger, here it is. In the words of the dreaded Seacrest, the lines are open.

gchamp@thenational.ae