Abu Dhabi was full of high profile concerts during the Formula One race weekend, November 20-23. The concerts were part of an entertainment festival called Yasalam, organized by the Abu Dhabi-based live events company, Flash Entertainment. The festival culminated during the race weekend with huge, simultaneous concerts in different parts of Abu Dhabi. I went to the opening Arabic night of the after-race concert series at du Arena on Yas Island (where the race circuit is also located), a half hour drive from downtown Abu Dhabi. The Arabic night featured four singers—Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, Lebanese artist Carole Samaha, Emirati Fayez AlSaeed, and Egyptian Tamer Hosny.
From top left, moving clockwise: Carole Samaha, Mohammed Assaf, Fayez AlSaeed, and Tamer Hosny
Entry for the after-race concerts was for F1 ticketholders only, but most of the people around me had gotten ahold of complimentary tickets, like I did. I was amazed by the familial atmosphere of the concert, and the fact that no one was having any less fun for it. It was my first time attending a huge, late-night concert with fans of such a wide age-range– children, toddlers, and even infants, accompanying their happy parents. By midnight, most of the youngest listeners were peacefully asleep on their parents’ shoulders, in their laps, or on make-shift beds in the grass.
The first performer was Mohammed Assaf, a 25-year old from Gaza who rose to international fame as an Arab Idol contestant in 2013. Assaf won the title of “Arab Idol” in the show’s second season, having already won the hearts of audiences in the Arab world and beyond. MBC, which broadcasts Arab Idol, estimates that viewership during the season finale was around 100 million viewers in 21 countries (compare that number with American Idol’s peak viewership of 30 million). You can watch Assaf’s final performance of “Raise Your Keffiyeh” here. I watched Assaf on Arab Idol, but I was still impressed by his live performance. He sang with the greatest accuracy of the four, and his stage presence was both humble and strong.
Mohammed Assaf is an ideal case study for research in contemporary music as a cultural force. He is widely respected for his loyalty to the Palestinian cause and continuous elevation of political and humanitarian messages above personal gain. Assaf’s mission is Palestinian and Arab unity, and his mixture of hopeful youth and old-fashioned charm attracts fans of different ages and tastes. Many love him for his resemblance to the beloved Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, also a powerful symbol of Arab unity. Less than two weeks before this concert, Assaf was voted Best Middle East Act at the 2014 MTV European Music Awards (EMA). You can listen to his new album here, or watch him in his capacity as UNRWA goodwill ambassador for Palestine.
I was close to the stage, and one of the things I enjoyed watching were peoples’ hands. Around me, no one was full-out dancing, but their hands were. Dancing, waving, clapping, stretching out, forming heart shapes. And like at all concerts, they were holding things, creating a sea of cell phones, Palestinian keffiyehs, water bottles, and even toddlers boosted up for a good view.
Assaf’s performance generated a lot of electricity in the crowd, but the following performances had their own strengths. Fayez AlSaeed was hesitant on stage, but the audience still sung along with many of his songs. Carole and Tamer, in particular, inspired a lot of singing. Given their longer careers they could perform older songs, and awaken the audience’s nostalgia. Carole had a presence that was both graceful and strong, and she customized her stage with a series of backdrops that took the place of live video. I couldn’t help liking one of her Disney-like backdrops of twirling autumn leaves. Tamer was skilled on stage, too—he joked with the crowd as if he were at a small party among friends. One of my favorite scenes from the concert was several nearby groups of teenage boys, jostling and serenading each other to Tamer’s songs. It’s a kind of happy, unselfconscious interaction I don’t see as often in the U.S.
To read my posts in Arabic, please visit corinnestokes.com.