The Abu Dhabi Festival’s main programme kicks off with arguably the most-important singer from the region.
Tickets to Mohamed Abdo’s long-awaited concert on Tuesday evening at Emirates Palace have been sold out for a while now.
Popularly known as “Fanan Al Arab” or “Artist of the Arabs” (a title he was given in the 1980s during a concert in Tunis by then president Al Habib Bou Rakiba), the Saudi Arabian singer, composer and oud player is considered a legend in the Middle East and a cultural treasure in the kingdom. He performs at Abu Dhabi Festival with his homeland announced as the guest of honour for this year’s edition.
It will be a challenge to choose a set-list when performing at Emirates Palace. With a career spanning more than five decades and over 100 albums, the 67-year-old says he labours over the choices.
“Each and every song of mine is special to me and has the appropriate place to be performed, that is why I select the songs I sing in festivals, commercial concerts and weddings. Every occasion has its own musical programme,” says Abdo.
With that in mind, he says Tuesday’s performance will aim to appeal to a more varied audience.
“I look at this type of festival from a special perspective because these cultural festivals usually have a special audience and are directed to a particular category,” he says. “I usually adopt a particular type of song for this kind of events, such as love songs and the songs that hold social messages.” When khaliji music (a popular term for music from the region) began to emerge as a genre, one of the principal figures was Abdo.
He gained unprecedented popularity in the Arab world through albums such as Masa’ Al Khair (Good Evening) and Al Amakin (The Places).
He did for khaliji music what Bob Marley did for reggae: he made it mainstream with artists such as Lebanon’s Najwa Karam and Tunisia’s Saber Rebaï now composing khaliji songs complete with the accent.
“My musical journey began in the sixties when I started building my musical glory through [radio host and producer] Abbass Fa’iq Ghazawy, who was part of discovering the voice of Mohamed Abdo,” says the legendary singer about the early days of his career.
“I sang on the local radio on the Baba Abbass Show in 1960 [at 12] and this discovery was blessed by the famous poet, Taher Zamekhshry.”
Giving credit to those who helped launch his career or to those responsible for his impressive repertoire is characteristic of Abdo.
His quiet and enigmatic demeanour has only served to enhance his career.
Unlike his peers, Abdo is not really interested in social media.
His Twitter account only has 10 posts and his Facebook is mostly used for announcements. Ironically, one of his biggest fans is none other than the Emirati singer and social-media butterfly Ahlam Al Shamsi, who repeatedly calls him “ustadhi”, which means “my teacher”.
“There is no greater artist, no better gentleman,” said Al Shamsi about Abdo on television as judge on Arab Idol. “There will never be a voice like the great Mohamed Abdo, or a singer with his manners and character.”
Abdo’s quavery and heartfelt vocals are deeply emotive and born from a life of hard knocks.
Orphaned as a young child, Abdo was raised in humble surroundings in Jeddah. “My father was a sailor and barely lived on land; he lived his whole life in the sea,” he recalls.
“Our house was humble, simple. When I was so little, since I lost my father I lived a journey of poverty and need. But I managed to enter the industrial institute and to specialise in the shipbuilding industry. I was also fond of music and singing and that led me to this other ocean of melodies, which I was loyal to.”
Abdo began as a singer of anasheed (Islamic spiritual odes) before moving on to his signature blend of folk songs laced with classical Arabic lyrics.
The UAE also has a special affinity for Abdo, with the artist being one of the first to tour the country in the early 1970s as a guest of its founder, Sheikh Zayed.
Since then, Abdo has performed regularly in the UAE as part of the country’s biggest festivals. It was in a previous exclusive backstage interview with The National, after a show in July in 2015 as part of Abu Dhabi Summer Season, when Abdo recalled his first visit to the country.
He praised Sheikh Zayed’s forward vision when it comes to building an cultural scene in the UAE – one which came to fruition with key events such as Abu Dhabi Festival.
“I remember the great Sheikh Zayed would always provide encouragement to us artists and was a big supporter of live music,” he recalls. “Every month, he would organise one or two concerts for the people. He did this because he wanted to cultivate a sense of appreciation for music and culture very early. You can see the results of that today, in the following generations where there is now a very healthy arts-and-culture scene here in the UAE.”
• Mohamed Abdo: One Moonlit Evening will be held at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday from 8pm. Tickets are sold out. To register in the waiting list, go to www.abudhabifestival.ae