x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Sweet notes from Spain

The Life: Richar Ovelar, a Spanish guitarist at an Abu Dhabi hotel, talks about his life as a musician in a hotel and his plans to stay in the UAE.

Flamenco singer Richar Ovelar is vital to the lifeline of Sheraton Abu Dhabi Corniche's Spanish tapas restaurant Bravo. Lee Hoagland / The National
Flamenco singer Richar Ovelar is vital to the lifeline of Sheraton Abu Dhabi Corniche's Spanish tapas restaurant Bravo. Lee Hoagland / The National

In a tight black formal suit and silk tie, flamenco singer Richar Ovelar cuts a dapper figure.

He does not need to dress up every day, only when his hotel, the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort on Abu Dhabi's Corniche, expects dignitaries.

The 38-year-old from Paraguay is vital to the lifeline of the hotel's Spanish tapas restaurant Bravo.

From 8pm every day, he plays traditional, popular and folk Spanish music in four sessions of 45 minutes each and then "comes back to true life", Mr Ovelar says.

Most luxury hotels in the capital feature in-house musicians like Mr Ovelar, most of whom play western classical or popular music, but a handful are Arabic oud players.

These musicians bring lounges and restaurants alive with their renderings of popular songs and lines, but they mostly remain in the background, just like their music.

Anantara's Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort has one musician who plays live Arabic music, while in town Anantara's Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa has two pianists who play classical or contemporary music.

The newly opened Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi features six musicians in its cafes and lounges, including a DJ, an opera singer, pianists and an oud player.

Mr Ovelar has been in the UAE for six years and previously worked for two other hotels before joining the Sheraton Abu Dhabi a couple of years ago.

He taught himself to play instruments at home until he was 12 years, and went to a conservatory in his home country. Despite a degree in agricultural engineering, he has continued to tour the world and play music since the age of 17.

For 15 years, he travelled with Paraguay embassy musicians to France, Brazil and Argentina, moving along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea playing at festivals and schools to showcase their culture.

"My father's side has big property and so I chose [to do the degree]," he says. "But I never felt like working as an agricultural engineer." A decade ago, however, he started investing in his family farm to take care of his parents and the staff there.

He also worked in Switzerland as a freelance musician, playing at parties and working with an agent to get the gigs. He has also played with a philharmonic orchestra and big bands to an audience of thousands.

But Mr Ovelar says he does not mind playing alone at a restaurant, accompanied by the clatter of crockery, and to remain in the background.

"I am very traditional person," he says. "I have performed with some famous people in Paraguay and South America, and I have really nice memories about it. But big stage is incompatible with family life."

And he wants to settle down.

"Once you enter the Bohemian life, you lose contact with the real stuff," he says.

After moving around the world, he found the love of his life in an Abu Dhabi hotel. They got married a few months ago. His wife is Yaryna Telenko, a pianist from Ukraine who has been in the UAE since 2003.

Communicating across the language barrier was tricky, but they share similar plans. They want to stay in the Emirates for the long term. Ms Telenko intends to work as a music teacher.

Mr Ovelar's main instrument is the saxophone, although at Bravo he plays and sings Spanish music with the guitar.

"With the local customers I feel I have some special connection because Spanish music is close to Arabic in rhythm," Mr Ovelar says.

As he sang and his fingers glided over the strings a few nights ago, his eyes were clenched in concentration as his shiny black shoes tapped along. His favourites include the rhumba and flamenco, and the fast and loud El Toro y la Luna and Que Viva Espana.

At the end of each song, the guests pause from their chattering, look up from their tables and break out into claps and cheers of olé.

"Mucho gracias," Mr Ovelar responds softly.

"I play Spanish music but I don't feel European at all, I am all South American."