x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Whistle while you work

Saloon An unlaboured concert in Dubai

Some of the winners of the Western Union
Some of the winners of the Western Union "Camp Ka Champ" competition perform at the Jam Jar gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz district.

An unlaboured concert in Dubai The other night, Mukesh Manilal Patel stood in front of a jam-packed room and opened his mouth to sing. "Hera, hera", he started, hushing the raucous crowd as his voice filled the space: up to the tall industrial ceilings, across the floors strewn with giant bean bags and down the shelves full of art supplies along the walls. It was standing-room only at the JamJar art gallery, and home-made cupcakes were Dh10 each. The winners of Western Union's inter-labour camp "Camp ka Champ" singing competition had come to make an appearance in the heart of Dubai's Al Quoz hub for the aspiring creative class.

Patel, the 2009 winner of the competition, wore a cream-coloured button down shirt and khaki slacks. A shy and handsome Gujarati man with glasses, his body language all but yodelled "don't pay attention to me". Hardly anyone could hear him pronouncing the title of his song, but as he launched into the lyrics, he relaxed, spread his arms out to the crowd and raised his eyes in supplication. "Tum ho, ghazal", he sang - "You are a poem" - and audience members snapped their fingers in rhythm to his voice. After the performance he donned a baseball cap that all but covered his eyes. "Gaane ka shauk hai, mera," he said quietly: "Singing is my passion."

Some of the people lounging on beanbags had fallen asleep during the evening's preceding screening of Sita Sings the Blues, an animated film that couples a re-enactment of the Ramayana with a modern break-up story, which was part of the MahMovies series organised by the filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour. But they woke for Kaabour's enthusiastic introduction to the singers' performance ("possibly the most historic concert in Dubai") and stayed awake, at the edge of their pillows, for the next hour.

"We need to break through that invisible barrier," Kaabour told the audience, "to meet people from the underbelly of Dubai." But 21-year-old Ashraf Alum did not comport himself much like the denizen of an underbelly. Wearing a red button-down shirt, a white belt and flashy black trousers, he sang Dupatta Tera from the film Partner, and then, as an encore, donned his aviator shades, strutted to the front chanting, "Here now here now everybody put your hands up in the air now" (which not quite everybody did), and continued with the song Dus Bahane from the movie Dus. Uski aankhon mein baatein, baaton mein jadu, he sang: "There are words in her eyes, magic in the words."

One after another, the singers sang Bollywood songs, a cappella and un-microphoned. And despite the audience demographic - less than half could understand Hindi - those on the beanbags and stools were visibly and audibly pleased. "Happy Valentine's Day, Mukesh!" a woman yelled from stage right. He smirked, embarrassed. Mohammed Amjad, a tall, clean-shaven 29-year old, wore a yellow striped polo shirt and brown jeans, and strode the length of the stage confidently. His song Dard-e dil dard-e jigar was so popular that his eight fellow singer-labourers joined in to back him up. Mohammed Faruk, a 24-year old shift supervisor with Danata cargo, also seized the limelight. "I love to sing with my family and friends," he said after his performance in English. "Why sing alone? Why be nervous in front of everyone? I love it." Or as another champion singer named Vijay Kumar, who lives at the Kahnsaheb labour camp, put it: "Yeh hero ko nikala" - "This brings out the hero in us."

One singer had been suffering from the flu for a week but still had the strength to croon Teri Yadon Mein, mimicking holding a microphone in his hands while softly murmuring "Tu hai kaha, main kaha?" - "Where are you, where am I?" Standing nervously in his teal shirt and black jeans, he said: "This is the best crowd I have ever seen in my life." * Rose Dakin