x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

George Benson looks forward to du music festival

As the du World Music Festival begins, one of the attending musicians, George Benson, talks about serving up the best for audiences around the world.

George Benson.
George Benson.

Some of the best-known artists of the international music world are coming to Dubai to perform at the du World Music Festival.

Beginning today, the festival will feature 14 concerts at Burj Park and The Burj Steps, half of which are free admission to all.

The genres on offer comprise a delightfully mixed bag of jazz, Arabic pop, flamenco, Afro-pop, classical music and Filipino pop.

The biggest name on the star-studded bill is undoubtedly the legendary American jazz guitarist George Benson, who will close the festival with a joint performance alongside the UK soul artist Gabrielle at Dubai's Burj Park on March 16.

A regular performer in the UAE, Benson says his arrival will be as much a performance as a catch-up with old friends.

"It's a great place to come to," Benson says. "The people are warm, friendly and they are always interested in the music - that's always the best thing."

Benson says that after a near 50-year career, he has learnt to accept the fickle-mindedness of audiences.

"If you say go right, they will say go left," he says. "But at the end of the day, what people really want is something they haven't seen. They want something fresh, a new idea."

It was this quest for innovation that led him to release his groundbreaking album Breezin', which brought jazz to the masses and introduced the public to Benson's velvety voice; a feature he hid behind his masterful guitar work in previous records.

Breezin' also marked a turning point for Benson, where for the next three decades he incorporated more pop elements into his smooth jazz stylings.

The results were more hits, including the anthemic Turn Your Love Around and the funky Give Me the Night, a song which he credits mostly to the album's producer, Quincy Jones.

"He was a different kind of producer," Benson says. "He told me that he knew me better than I knew myself, in that he could hear the potential that I did not exploit. He produced this incredible record, which I think still sounds fresh today."

However, Benson says his last few albums may have catered too much to mainstream audiences.

"We went a little far in that direction," he says. "But I viewed the whole thing something like a fishing expedition. I was looking at all these new ideas and I kept saying, yes give me more of that."

His latest release, Guitar Man, which features eight instrumental pieces, finds Benson at his best, jamming out silky contemporary jazz grooves with a cracking band.

Of course, he doesn't ditch his voice altogether, charmingly covering Stevie Wonder's classic My Cherie Amour, as well as Buddy Johnson's Since I Fell for You.

Benson says he is more comfortable speaking of the lessons learnt from the masters, as opposed to measuring his influence on today's jazz scene. He talks about the tips he picked up playing alongside the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and how they continue to shape his music career.

"I showed genuine interest in them and because their music was at such a high level, they felt like I was a genuine fan, so they allowed me in their presence," he says about how these fiercely protective artists allowed a young guitar-strapping Benson into their circle.

"A person like Miles Davis, he was looking for something special. Something that was not supposed to happen. But when it did, it was like magic to him. That's why he liked players who had their own vibe, like Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. He didn't know what they were going to play and he wanted that."

Another music legend responsible for popularising a niche genre is Egypt's Omar Khairat.

The classical composer and his orchestra are set to take to the Burj Park Steps on March 15.

For Arabic film lovers, Khairat's pieces will be familiar, as the composer has provided scores for more than 50 films, including the 1983 classic Arresting Fatema, Mafish Gheir Kida and Adel Imam's The Terrorist.

Khairat says he is pleased his compositions also strike a chord with Arabic audiences; it is a sign classical music is appreciated in the region.

"I believe my score for Fatema was a clear demonstration to the public and to producers on how soundtracks should be well written and customised for the screenplay. This encouraged producers to produce my movie scores as independent audio cassettes and CDs, which was a first in the Egyptian market."

Khairat's quest to bring classical music to the Arab world is a family affair. His uncle, the great Egyptian composer and architect Abou Bakr Khairat, established the Cairo Conservatoire.

Khairat plans to display some of that rich heritage, a style he describes as "orchestrated oriental music", with his performance at the festival in Dubai.

"I would say it is like a small journey where we - the audience, the musicians and myself - move from one mood to another, smoothly and joyfully," he says.

"We move from a classical orchestrated piece to another modern and rhythmic one, to a piece where we can all sing along with the music."

The festival is not all about international stars, however - audiences will also have a chance to sample local sounds by emerging Emirati talents. One of which is the Abu Dhabi singer-songwriter Mansour Zayed, who is headlining the free Emirati Night concert at the Burj Steps on March 16.

"To play with such people from Europe, America, it is really humbling, to be honest," Zayed says.

"I feel that I am still at the beginning of my journey. My album came out and now every step is a development. I am honoured to be part of this festival and I hope to put on a great show."

Zayed's debut album Taala Aasheg was released last year. He describes its mix of Emirati oud and Arabic pop as a growing feature in the expanding local music scene.

He says Emirati musicians are taking their cues from the country's multiculturalism: "From a young age, I was listening to music from local and international artists, Khaleeji songs and Turkish as well."

Despite Emirati music's distinctive plucking and rhythm, Zayed says local culture is best displayed in the lyricism.

"You know, I think we are very caring and affectionate people," he says. "We love to sing about human topics, things that affect us."

• The du World Music Festival begins today and runs until March 16, with ticketed and free performances held at Dubai's Burj Park and Burj Steps. Tickets available at www.timeouttickets.com. Visit www.du.ae

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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