But in the cultural melting pot of the Emirates, the local community has long been known for the prodigious talent of hotel cover bands, karaoke singers or just taxi-driving amateurs.
Filipino musicians go global
ABU DHABI // Along with all the sounds of streetlife reverberating in the UAE - the horns, the call to prayer, the revving engines and snatches of song from across the world - a constant soundtrack is provided by one of the most thriving of expatriate communities. Big ballads and belting rock classics are the signature anthem of Filipinos, whether they are hotel house bands, taxi drivers crooning along to the radio, groups of friends harmonising while waiting for taxis - even bathroom attendants warbling as they go about their work.
Explaining why many Filipinos - or 'Pinoys' as they affectionately know each other - love to sing is not easy, said Miller Timogan, 35, the front man for the Filipino band Power Mix, regular performers at Mardi Gras, the jazz bar and restaurant at the Capital Hotel in Abu Dhabi. "For me, it's in my blood," he said. For Quay Evano, 37, a Filipino in Dubai who writes songs, plays bass and rhythm guitar and sings, music "embodies the Filipino psyche".
"In everything we do, music and dance are very much part and parcel of the Filipino culture," he said. "We find music a form of expression. It relieves us from stress, gives us great joy, and is a form of catharsis." Amorsolo Dagdag, who once dreamt of becoming a radio DJ, is so passionate about music he set up his own online radio station. The Dubai-based Filipino photographer, who used to sing in a band back in the Philippines, launched www.tunogpinoyradio.com in 2004.
Three times a day, he takes to the web to play original music from the Philippines, Tagalog-language hits and classic English tunes. "My listeners are Filipinos from all over the world - the UAE, the Philippines, the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand, and many other countries," he said. Between 8pm and 11pm each day, he is joined by Filipino DJs via Skype from Canada, US, Australia and Manila. "It feels like we're all in one studio having a great time," he said.
Among the station's most requested songs are those heard over and over throughout the Emirates: Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You; Bon Jovi's Always, Bed of Roses and Never Say Goodbye; and Bryan Adams' Heaven,and (Everything I Do) I Do It For You. And a major inspiration for local talent is the new generation of Filipino stars, who are achieving new recognition and acclaim on the world music stage, with stars including Charice Pempengco, Arnel Pineda and Jovit Baldovino.
Charice Pempengco, a teen singer who has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and Ellen Degeneres talk shows, was trained by the influential producer David Foster, and recently landed a gig on the hit US television show Glee. Meanwhile, Arnel Pineda has held his own for almost three years since his surprise choice by the US rock band Journey as replacement for their lead singer, Steve Perry. And last month Jovit Baldovino, a 16-year-old siomai, or steamed dumplings vendor, became the newest Filipino talent to emerge, becoming the grand winner of Pinoy Got Talent on June 13 in Manila. He won two million pesos (Dh 156,169) and an exclusive one-year contract with ABS-CBN, the Filipino TV network that launched the nationwide talent show based on the worldwide Got Talent franchise. The new profile of the country's performers has "shown the whole world that the Filipino has world-class talent", Mr Evano said.
"And we can make it on the international music scene. "These stars prove that talent alone will not bring success, except through hard work and perfecting one's craft," he added. A concert in April last year that featured Pempengco and Billy Crawford, a Filipino-American actor and musician, sold out at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. Its organiser Ron Renomeron, 39, confirmed he had invited both Pempengco and Pineda, who performed in another concert on Dubai on Valentine's Day, to stage another concert in December. He also plans to bring in Baldovino to perform before the year's end.
Oliver Conti Ramos, 29, a Dubai-based Filipino advertiser, paid tribute to the a long tradition of music in his culture. "In earlier times, we had sarzuelas [Spanish musical plays] and dramas where music and singing were incorporated," he said. "Viewers were always fascinated with these live shows, which were a sough-after form of entertainment." Music is not only a form of entertainment for Filipinos: it is a vital emotional outlet, and a social bonding activity among families and friends. "I do not know of any Filipino who does not know how to sing, or at least hum with the melody from a videoke system," Mr Ramos said.
On April 30, Mr Ramos organised the first season of "Yan ang Boses" - translated as "That's how a voice should sound" - a 'videoke' singing contest at the Hibiki Karaoke Music Lounge at the Hyatt Regency in Dubai. The event was staged by the University of the Philippines Alumni Association in the UAE (UPAA-UAE) to raise funds for its scholarship programme. Mr Ramos is seeking a larger venue for the second round, which will be expanded to include non-members, and will take place later this year. "We know music will be the best-selling point to draw a Filipino crowd," he said.
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Jovit Baldovino, 16 Before winning the debut season of Pinoy Got Talent, Baldovino sold steamed dumplings after school to make money. As both his parents were jobless, he used part of his cash prize of two million pesos (US$42,553) from the show to buy a house for them. A video of the young singer performing Journey's Faithfully during his audition has garnered more than two million hits on YouTube. The song became the first single from his debut album. Charice Pemengco, 18 This Filipina singing sensation, who was raised with her brother by their single mother, sang in local contests and appeared on TV talent shows in the Philippines and South Korea before she got a big break on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in the United States at the age of 15. She later made several appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show and credits Winfrey for helping push her career. She has performed with the likes of Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, and released her first album in English in May with the backing of the influential Canadian music producer David Foster. She has also landed a role on the hit American TV show Glee, and begins filming at the end of the month. Arnel Pineda, 42 The singer-songwriter had a successful career in the Philippines with a number of bands for 25 years, and then the members of Journey chose him to replace Steve Perry as their frontman. Videos of Pineda singing with a band called The Zoo that were posted on YouTube in early 2007 caught the eye of the US rock group, leading to an audition. He was performing with the band by the end of the year. Pineda was singing by the time he was five, and says his mother, who died when he was 12, instilled in him a love for music.