This returning festival could be the best one yet

From Emirati and Polish musical collaborations to an ensemble that sings in 25 different languages, the returning Abu Dhabi Festival showcases the role of the arts in bridging cultures


Abu Dhabi Festival stands for everything the capital itself is known for and strives to be: a cultural crossroads that celebrates the founding father’s principles of tolerance, respect and enlightenment.

Since its first edition in 2004, the festival, organised by Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (Admaf), aims to be at the heart of this vision, putting art, culture and education in the spotlight by bringing some of the world’s leading international performers to the capital while also celebrating local talent, engaging youth and opening up the minds of adults to new genres and concepts.

Not resting on its laurels, the 15th edition of Abu Dhabi Festival is once again bringing an impressive line-up of live performances from classical music to ballet, including a series dedicated to this year’s country of honour, India, as part of its main programme. Running alongside the headline acts will be a series of events focusing on art education and community enrichment, including the Young Filmmakers’ Circle, The Gulf Capital – Abu Dhabi Festival Visual Arts Award, Ministry of Science – Arabic and film screenings.

This year’s festival is made all the more special by its theme, in keeping with the nation’s year-long celebration as the Year of Zayed. Marking 100 years since the founding father’s birth, the festival’s aim is to support programmes that instil values of ‘wisdom, determination, loyalty and a sense of belonging’ in the community and its people.

Leading line-up

So what’s on the bill this year? Kicking things off on 19th February is Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.


On 8th and 9th March, The Merchants of Bollywood takes over with a musical celebrating Indian cinema featuring a score from award-winning pair Salim and Sulaiman Merchant. Later in the month, classical Indian dance takes centre stage in the UAE premiere of We the Living: Classical Indian Dance by Tanusree Shankar Dance Academy on 19th March, followed by renowned classical Indian musician The Sarod Master: USTAD Amjad Ali Khan on 25th March.

Umm Al Emarat will be buzzing with two nights of live performances on 22nd and 23rd March with the returning Festival in the Park. The community event will feature a Bollywood dance workshop, film screenings including Jai Ho and The Spirit of India and a performance from India’s The Raghu Dixit Project.


The festival concludes with a ballet performance of Don Quixote, a classic tale of friendship, love and loyalty, as interpreted by Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza on 29th and 30th March.

Running alongside the live performances is the From Barcelona to Abu Dhabi exhibition, hosted until 17th March at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Featured as part of the festival’s visual arts programme, the exhibition marks the Arab world debut of works from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art collection, considered one of the most significant contemporary art collections in Europe. Aside from showcasing over 100 artworks by 70 artists from 20 countries, including the UAE, the exhibition will comprise educational activities for young artists including talks, tours and creative sessions.

Making waves


As part of Admaf’s ongoing efforts to support local talent, Emirati composer Ihab Darwish will perform the world premiere of Waves of My Life: Every Story Begins with a Note on 14th March.

“Waves of my Life is my first album; it sheds light on my life cast in a musical journey,” he tells us. “The concert will be performed by the Polish orchestra Beethoven Academy Orchestra and many other international musicians to reach 155 artists on stage, conducted by Stoyan Stoyanov.

“I am proudly an Emirati citizen and raised in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. It is my ultimate honour to perform my world premiere in my city and beloved country; it has a sentimental effect on me.”

Abu Dhabi being a multi-cultural city, it’s the perfect place to embrace music as what Ihab describes as a universal language that we can all share and enjoy.

“We don’t need a translator to convey our messages and thoughts; through music, melodies and instruments we communicate in harmony,” he says. “My cooperation with the Polish Beethoven Academy Orchestra is a perfect example of how music can be the ambassador for your country and the bridge between many cultures. We have learned from each other, combined our expertise from East and West to form a unique musical experience. That is the power of music.”

As an Emirati who’s always dreamt of having his music played by an international orchestra, Ihab says his recent achievement is thanks to vital support: “Admaf has always been the main contributor in discovering Emirati and Arab talents, from all music and art aspects. They invest in them, pave their ways and guide them in their artistic journeys and fame. Admaf has many objectives to position Abu Dhabi among the international cultural capitals. Admaf sponsored my musical project, and created the perfect platform to perform a live concert in one of the best and prestigious places in the country, Emirates Palace.

“I am really keen that Emirati classical music can reach further in this field, and there should always be a starting point to set our goals.”

Open to everyone, Ihab’s performance will be the festival’s only free show, but prior registration is required.

Pink Martini

Set up 24 years ago as a way to prove that bands at political fundraisers didn’t have to be lacklustre, the eclectic and diverse ensemble Pink Martini is the perfect example of how music can be used to celebrate our differences and similarities.


Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale on…

His unique ensemble

It’s old-fashioned global syntonic pop. We sing in 25 languages. If the UN had a band playing in the lobby in 1952, hopefully that’s the aesthetic. It’s like a Hollywood musical in the ‘40s crossed with a global perspective.

It’s currently made up to ten to 12 full-time musicians and sometimes we have a string section.

Setting trends

It would be great if we had but I’m not sure that we have. It used to be in America, for example, that people performed in all sorts of languages – Spanish, Italian, French… That doesn’t really happen these days and it’s a big mystery to me; I find it strange and frustrating that more bands don’t explore more international repertoire. All of us in America, except the Native Americans, are immigrants; we’re all from different places. I think that Pink Martini represents a more accurate portrayal of what American really is, as opposed to the current administration or even American pop culture, which I think is really homogenous in a way.

Performing in Abu Dhabi

We’ll have a few special guests: Ari Shapiro, who’s the host of the most popular public radio show in America, ‘All Things Considered’. When he’s not reporting the news he’s travelling with us and recording.

Ikram Goldman is also going to be joining us. She’s more known in the world of fashion and design; she has an atelier in Chicago and was largely credited with Michelle Obama’s fashion.

Music as a unifier

In Florida we did a song in Arabic, one in Farsi, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, Armenian and Turkish. I think that by performing the same set of songs all around the world, we have very diverse audiences so hopefully in a small way we begin to open the minds or play to people whose minds are open and start to undo some of the damage that’s been done by American pop culture and by racism in the community.

There’s no overt political statement ever; it’s a subtle statement that we’re all in the same boat, all in this together and it’s better to find ways to work together than to destroy ourselves.

Being optimistic

I do think that music and concerts are comforting as well as thrilling; they’re these tiny moments of happiness that shine through the darkness and in that way I think it’s an amazing opportunity to feel slightly better about everything, even just for a moment.

Pink Martini performs on 21st March. Tickets from AED 175. Emirates Palace. 8pm.

Need to know

What: Abu Dhabi Festival 2018
When: 19th Feb-30th Mar
Where: Live performances take place at Emirates Palace, other venues vary
Tickets: Prices vary, 50 percent discount for students. Tickets available at

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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