x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Omar Khairat and George Benson at the du World Music Festival

The du World Music Festival came to a rousing end over the weekend.

Omar Khairat performs at the du world music festival at Burj Park in Downtown Dubai.
Omar Khairat performs at the du world music festival at Burj Park in Downtown Dubai.

Ten days of global sounds ranging from classical, jazz, funk, Emirati, Afro and Filipino pop came to a rousing end over the weekend.

Bringing the du World Music Festival to a close were the two legends, Omar Khairat and George Benson.

Both artists are responsible for opening up niche genres to the masses without compromising their integrity.

To describe Omar Khairat as a mere classical composer would not do him justice. As well as providing the soundtracks for many classics of Egyptian cinema, Khairat introduced classical music to Egyptian popular culture due to his evocative blend of western orchestral music and rhythmic instrumentation of the Levant.

For Arabian music lovers, the result was a sound both foreign yet comfortable, while for those not used to listening to a qanoon or req as part of classical compositions, his efforts demonstrated the continuous breadth of the genre.

Playing at the intimate Burj Steps before a near-capacity crowd on Thursday night, Khairat performed a spellbinding 80-minute programme that included his signature film compositions and solo classics from a career spanning more than three decades.

Listening to these compositions side by side, one witnesses some of the musical motifs Khairat has been playing with throughout his career, the most prevalent being bringing together the controlled and measured expressions of western classical music with the free-flowing style of the East.

Khairat achieves this in different ways; in Fatima he juxtaposes his classical piano playing with the heavy percussion and oud of Arabian folk, while in 100 Years of Cinema he puts everything in the mixer, adding some funk and Latin grooves on top of an eastern beat.

While those pieces elicited hand claps from the crowd, it was the quiet, ruminative offerings that were the highlight.

The opening of Zayal El Hawa 1 was beautifully rendered with Khairat's weeping piano melting hearts. In Al Alyam, the qanoon player Alae Saber took the lead, with Khairat and company happily following his careening notes.

The venue's intimacy and position underneath the Burj Khalifa was not lost on Khairat.

While he retained a composed veneer throughout the performance, he couldn't suppress his smile when the Dubai Fountain made a return performance just as the group were about to launch into Yearning. Khairat stopped and quizzically observed the water show before looking back at the crowd.

It was a great moment, an acknowledgement perhaps that he fulfilled his goal of bringing classical music to the masses.

Friday night saw the return of the jazz guitar virtuoso George Benson. While his albums are slick affairs combining jazz with R&B and pop, it is in the more raw stage format that Benson is best appreciated.

His 70-minute performance was heavy on improvisation, with Benson singing and scatting away on top of his fiery guitar work. In fact, Benson was in such command of his guitar and voice the audience felt like it was getting two performances in one.

Opening with Breezin', the instrumental responsible for the evolution of smooth jazz, Benson retained the track's lush vibe but at the same time gave it an extra grit, courtesy of his bluesy guitar licks.

Benson then ditched the guitar to showcase his buttery vocals on Love X Love, a track that would fit nicely in a Walt Disney film. Benson and the band truly locked into together on Lady Love Me All the Time, a track highlighting his winning formula of blending jazz with pop hooks.

This was followed by the evergreen Turn Your Love Around; a song that owes so much to its brilliant chorus that Benson could have sung it alone and the crowd would have been pleased.

Nodding to his lengthy career, Benson peppered his set with music anecdotes.

He dedicated part of his performance to his former bandmate and "wild man of piano", the late Filipino jazz pianist Bobby Enriquez.

He also detailed an encounter with an up-and-coming young singer called Whitney Houston who accosted him outside New York's Empire State Building and said: "I'm going to sing your song."

That track was The Greatest Love of All, which Benson dedicated to the singer.

It was a poignant moment underscored by footage of teary audience members still mourning Houston's recent passing.

Earlier in the evening, the British soul artist Gabrielle played an energetic set. While her name doesn't dent the charts anymore, the singer was in fine voice as she beguiled the crowd with her hits Dreams and Rise.



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