Expo 2020 Dubai: How 50 women came together to form Firdaus Orchestra

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Dubai - Mentored by A.R. Rahman, a pioneering women’s ensemble, Firdaus Orchestra, jet-sets to shake up the musical landscape of the Arab world


Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 30 Sep 2021, 8:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 12 Oct 2021, 7:11 PM

Picture this. 50 women. 23 nationalities. One stage. Over two years of unwavering hard work has culminated into an all-women’s orchestra, pioneered by the Academy-award-winning Indian composer, A.R. Rahman, which performed as part of the grand opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai, on September 30.

Ready to light up the world stage with their musical notes, the Firdaus orchestra, premiering on October 23 with their first official performance, will perform at all major events and celebrations at the Expo. While attending the orchestra may require us to loosen our purse strings elsewhere in the world, this one comes at no extra cost, other than that of Expo’s standard entry ticket.

“Our first show is going to be around the theme of space day, in line with the Expo’s theme that week. All our main shows are aligned with the overarching themes at the Expo,” says Noura Sulaiman, the official spokesperson for the orchestra. “The repertoire they’ll play will include space-themed songs,” she adds.

Giving us a glimpse of the musical spectacle, Yasmina Sabbah, who’s the conductor of the orchestra, mentions, “You’ll be able to hear the sound of Firdaus. We’ll take pieces known to the public and add in our very special arrangements bringing all these different instruments together that we’re proud of featuring,” she says.

An all-women feat

What sets this orchestra apart is the message it aims to drive home, with an all-women ensemble. Sulaiman, 27, who’s been the bridge between the corporate management and the creative curation of the orchestra, bringing it together, recounts a “spirit of sisterhood” encompassing the rehearsals. “Everyone was so collaborative, there was no competitiveness. They all wanted to help each other,” she mentions.

“The great thing about the orchestra is we have a balanced mix of abilities. So, you can naturally see a spirit of mentorship come through,” says Sulaiman, adding that the youngest musician in the orchestra is just 15 years old. “She’s just so passionate. It’s so amazing to see such talent and ambition at a young age.”

An alumnus of University of Cambridge, the Lebanese orchestra conductor has directed several choirs and orchestras back home, such as the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. “At the end of the day, if you’re a good musician — that’s that. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” says Sabbah, who’ll be conducting an all-women’s orchestra for the first time at the Expo. “The point of having an all-female orchestra is to send a message of empowerment across the world. A message that really strives to break the stereotypes associated with women in this region — fostering an open and inclusive mindset — through the power of music,” the 33-year-old conductor adds.

Not a typical orchestra

With 23 nationalities on board, the Firdaus Orchestra thrives on its cultural diversity, bringing musical minds from all across the world on the Expo stage. “The best part of working with so many nationalities is the different perspectives they all bring — the different flavours of how they learned their instruments and what kind of music they listen to,” says Sulaiman, an Emirati. “We have a violinist from France, who’s originally Moroccan. She plays the violin in a classical way but can also play the traditional Andalusian and Moroccan style,” she adds.

And while the cultural blend brings forth new perspectives, it also gives way to a creative spark, ignited through a cross-cultural understanding of music, creating sounds that are fresh and intriguing. What particularly makes the journey special is the diverse range of instruments the musicians bring to the fore, says Sabbah. “All these musical styles and instruments, lead to a fusion of unique beats, which has created new sounds for this orchestra,” she adds. “We have Arabic instruments like Qanun, Buzuq, Oud and Ney blending beautifully with oriental instruments. We can play classical music but we can play it with Qanun!” Sulaiman adds.

The future: Firdaus Studio

The orchestra, set to perform at every special occasion at Expo 2020 Dubai will transform into a resident orchestra once the Expo draws its curtains. Named after the orchestra, Firdaus Studio will be the first recording studio in the UAE, capable of recording a full orchestra performance, all at once.

The studio will also be used for film-scoring and become the home for Firdaus orchestra, once it’s built and ready. “We’ve done a lot of research and benchmarking with orchestras worldwide to think about how we can put this orchestra in the best possible position musically, strategically and financially,” says Sulaiman. “The orchestra is going to be launched at the Expo, but we’re also thinking ahead, in terms of how to sustain it. Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, Director General of Expo 2020 Dubai, has been so encouraging with this project and she really believes in its future too.”

As a crucial step in the progress of the regional music industry, the studio will be a first of-its kind addition, as no such permanent avenues have yet existed in the country. “We’ve had a lot of discussion around the musicians’ contracts, thinking of how to provide them the stability that people in such fields don’t usually enjoy,” says Sulaiman.

Destination Middle East

Sieving through hundreds of applicants, the audition process for the orchestra focused on hiring talent especially from the MENA region, as an endeavour to provide new opportunities to musicians that live in this part of the world. “You see so many orchestras around the world but a lot of people from this region may not be willing to travel and relocate to those places, to pursue a career in an orchestra,” Sulaiman adds. “We wanted to provide opportunities in the region that haven’t been available before,” she says, adding that people auditioning from Dubai ended up being from every corner of the world, giving the orchestra a very diverse mix of people.

The Firdaus Orchestra as well as its future plans in the city will be mentored by the music veteran, A.R. Rahman, who’s known to sport the image of being a tough task master. On the experience of collaborating closely with the renowned composer, Sulaiman mentioned, “He only wants the best outcome for Firdaus. He’s so conducive to participation. All the women are very comfortable to play their music in front of him and take his feedback,” she says. “He wants to hear people’s compositions and incorporate these into the orchestra,” she adds.

Celebrating a feeling of community, the orchestra has long been cherished as a way of bringing people together to relish the magic of communal viewing experiences in public spaces — all that the pandemic has banished us from enjoying. “Music is made to be shared. And with a live audience, there’s this beautiful energy exchange that happens. It’s so powerful,” says Sabbah.

Barely three weeks to go before their first official performance, the Firdaus Orchestra hopes to bring back this spirit of community, by letting the music do all the talking. “No recording and no video can replicate the feeling of having the music physically wash over you — hearing those first notes — it’s amazing,” Sulaiman signs off.


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