They hail from 23 nationalities from various parts of the region and are proud to be part of an all-women orchestra named Firdaus
The brainchild of Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General, Expo 2020 Dubai and Academy and Grammy-winning Indian composer A.R. Rahman, Firdaus Orchestra is one of the few all-women professional orchestras in the world and certainly the first one in the Middle East.
Another feature that distinguishes it from other orchestras is its repertoire of fusion music as well as classical pieces. Medieval Eastern instruments like the sitar, the oud, qanun, buzuq, and the darbuka perform alongside modern Western instruments.
“People have not seen anything like this combination before,” says Noura Sulaiman, the spokeswoman for the orchestra, “Or even the exciting new arrangement of pieces that already exist.”
Fatine Garti, a violinist from Morocco, who comes with prior experience of playing in traditional all-women orchestras, says, “I could not imagine that one day I would be part of an all-women ensemble that plays both classical and oriental music.”
The debut performance of the Orchestra held at the Expo on October 23, 2021, was a resounding success, and A.R. Rahman fans were also in for a treat. The theme of the concert was Space, where Rahman included popular classical and Hollywood film symphonies, including his own composition from the film Bombay. He concluded the performance with his new composition that included a classical Western symphony in conjunction with sopranos and a Hindustani choir, adding a touch of Dhrupad and Raag Darbari. The musicians were said to be amazed by the rousing reception their mentor got at the concert. Not many were aware of his work in Bollywood and Tamil cinema, and his popularity in India.
The Firdaus Orchestra currently consists of over 50 musicians. Like their instruments, the musicians too come from diverse backgrounds and have different levels of training. The oldest musician is over 50 years old, while the youngest is 16. Most of the artists have received formal training, while some have learned through practice and performance.
For example, the orchestra’s 33-year-old Lebanese-born conductor Yasmina Sabbah earned her master’s degree in Choir Conducting from the University of Cambridge, U.K. Sabbah’s training shows as she takes complete command of the stage. On the other side of the spectrum are self-taught musicians like Hanan Hassan Halwany (photographed above), also from Lebanon. She plays the traditional buzuq and she used to play in a local band in Beirut. She has also scored music for a Lebanese film.
Isn’t there a communication problem between the musicians as not all of them speak Arabic or English? “Yes, the language barrier is a problem,” says Lea Haddad (photographed above) from Lebanon, who plays the electric bass guitar. “But their common language is music,” chips in Fatine, who speaks French. “And we encourage each other to do our best,” adds Lea. She says she finds it easier to work with women than men. “You’re not worried when you go to work. The person next to you is the same as you and you’re not being judged. That’s so reassuring” she concludes.
Sabbah, Olena Ponpon, first violinist and concertmaster from Ukraine, pianist Tamara Tomnovic from Montenegro, and Indian pianist, Nerissa Lobo, have all performed with mixed (male and female) orchestras. They find no difference between the two. They are of the opinion that it’s not gender but the quality of the work and how you
contribute to the orchestra that matter. “The difference, if any, is in the power of the breath,” says
Ponpon. That is the reason why fewer women take to the brass instrument.
Firdaus is a legacy project of the Expo 2020 Dubai, which will remain even after its wrap-up on March 31st, 2022. The other Legacy Project is the creation of a state-of-the-art Firdaus Studio by A.R. Rahman. It’s not only a space for the orchestra’s rehearsals, but filmmakers can also score music for their films there, with the help of projected scenes, as in Hollywood. “Live streaming will also be possible,” Rahman says. This will be the first such high-tech studio in the region.
“That is what I love about the UAE,” says
Tomnovic, (photographed above) who has lived in Dubai for six years. “It is constantly innovating. Every day there’s something new to give me motivation and inspiration to grow. Firdaus is amongst the many firsts and I am proud of it.”
When the requirement for women musicians went out in the Middle East as newspaper advertisements, they were flooded with requests, recalls Rahman. “Some of the auditions were very moving,” he says. The applicants said that even if they were not selected, the idea of a resident, all-women orchestra in a region that has very few music schools, and where music as a profession for women was uncommon, was progressive in itself.
Some of the families the girls came from experienced daunting hardships because of the conflict in the Middle East. Halwany recalls being saved the day the port explosion went off in Beirut last August because she was indoors. When she told her parents about Firdaus, they encouraged her to audition and were thrilled when she was selected. They saw it as an opportunity for her to make a career for herself. The same was the case with Haddad.
Olena says the spirit of the venture attracted her. Her husband, who left his job of nine years in Singapore to accompany her, “was in tears” when he saw her perform her solo piece in the orchestra. “He feels I am living my dream and that he should support me,” she says.
The women are all passionate musicians and are aligned with the goals of the orchestra, which, according to Sabbah, are equality, a sense of responsibility, strong musicianship, kindness, respect, honesty, and integrity. Nerissa Lobo from Mumbai is the head of two sections of the orchestra, and she adds “self–actualization” to that. “Meditation classes help to keep the ego in check. A transformed woman can change generations to come,” she philosophizes.
What is the future of the orchestra? Rahman says he has already heard from his Hollywood agent who has proposed they play at the Hollywood Bowl. All the women are really excited and hope to perform the world over.
“It will be an inspiration to all women musicians in our part of the world, who cannot become professionals”, reiterates Halwany. Firdaus has a couple of concerts lined up all through the Expo, where Rahman will expand his repertoire to include a few of his original pieces. One hopes that this team spirit only grows stronger and the orchestra opens doors for many other women musicians.