Sharjah is fast establishing itself as the UAE’s festival city. Three large events have already been held in the emirate including the Festival of Arabic Theatre, the Islamic Arts Festival (which is running until February 6) and now its first ever world music festival at the picturesque Al Qasba
The organisers took a long-term approach to the event by starting relatively small with a view to expand in future years.
While other such music festivals aim to bring the world to its respective city, the Sharjah event aims to show how regional artists interpret the world around them.
Backed by a cracking six-piece band, including the Pakistani sitarist Ashraf Sharif Khan, the Iraqi oud master Naseer Shamma opened the festival on Wednesday with a musical tour stretching from Spain to the Gulf.
Shamma is a storyteller first and foremost and each piece found him exploring a concept: the aim being not to seek a resolution but to initiate a conversation that would hopefully extend beyond the stage.
The evocative Min Al Dhakra had Shamma delving into the oud’s oriental roots, his solos moving effortlessly between eastern modes and flamenco flourishes. Just when it seemed he had twisted himself into knots, the band – with its percussion, nai, bass and piano – arrived and took the affair in a brighter direction. Such interchange was a hallmark of the set.
In Rihlat Al Arwah (Journey of Souls) Shamma and Khan swapped leads as each virtuoso took turns exploring the existential topic.
Khan’s performance was a reflective affair, with the droning sitar notes adding a mysticism to the voyage. Shamma was more direct, his fierce plucking exuding certainty. We are going somewhere, he seemed to say, and we won’t be taking the scenic route.
The musical odyssey also made a stop in the UAE. Shamma introduced the rather jaunty Etihad as a composition inspired by the UAE’s 40th National Day celebrations two years ago.
The unity Shamma witnessed was reflected in the full band performance, with Moustafa Hussein’s jazzy percussion work a standout.
Where Shamma used the oud to explore cultural links between East and West, the Lebanese singer Jahida Wehbe used her performance on Thursday night to focus on how words and music from both worlds can blend to enhance meaning.
The works of celebrated poets, such as Germany’s Günter Grass and the late Chilean Pablo Neruda, may sound far removed from the region, but Wehbe pairs them with self-composed Arabic melodies – proving love, longing and determination are universal qualities.
This cultural balancing act was maintained by Wehbe’s backing group, The European Fusion Band.
The luscious backdrops normally favoured by classical Arab orchestras were not for them. They challenged Wehbe, as her husky voice soared over tricky rhythms ranging from Mediterranean to Balkan folk.
Whenever these exchanges threatened to overwhelm the audience, Wehbe provided respite with classic Arab tunes such as Asmahan’s Ya Habibi Ta’ala and Mohammad Abdul Wahab’s Jefnaho Allam Al Ghazal.
It all made for an intriguing and challenging set where – for a change – words and melody shared equal prominence.