A New International Sensation in World Music: An Interview with Qatari Orchestral Composer Dana Al Fardan
By Sami Asmar and Amal David/Contributing Writers
The Western orchestra is considered the most complex form of music and the top of the pyramid in artistic sophistication. It took centuries to develop in a format based on a large number of performers, each with rigorous training in their particular instrument and carefully selected based on their skills. In such orchestras, all sound effects are acoustic and natural, with no synthesizers allowed. Work is carefully and intentionally composed, arranged, rehearsed, and performed to transform the listener in real-time to the feelings intended by the composer.
Key to orchestral music is the concept of harmony, where two or more musical themes are performed at the same time without conflict unless intended temporarily by the composer for a dramatic resolution. The compositions typically highlight four-part harmony: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, for vocalists and instruments.
These orchestral elements are in contrast with the more common music in the popular scene where music is recorded on tracks with computer-aided special effects and minimum amount of harmony or application of advanced musical theories. Furthermore, this is also in bigger contrast with classical Arab music which is modal in structure, or maqam-based, and does not utilize harmony.
Arab composers rarely venture into orchestral music. For a long time, opportunities were scarce, but a number of Arab nations have recently invested in establishing national orchestras and even built beautiful theaters and opera-houses to showcase them. Qatar is one of the countries that has developed this art form utilizing nationals as well as other Arab and Western artists. As one of the fruits of this worthy investment, a talented young woman without formal training in orchestral compositions has, in a short period of time, become a sensational star.
Dana Al Fardan is a Qatari composer and songwriter who also founded the country’s first record label. She describes the method of how she developed her early music as via experimenting with vocal interpretations. In 2013, Dana produced her first album, titled Paint and the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra presented tracks from her at album the Katara Opera House in 2015. Al-Fardan describes the album as being about looking inside oneself and uncovering the different layers of paint that make up the whole.
Sandstorm is the latest album by the Arab songwriter, composer and symphonic artist, and blends rich strings, choral vocals, and soloists with traditional Middle Eastern rhythms. This Sunday, Al Fardan will perform Sandstorm with the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the Royal Haymarket Theatre in London. This rare program of the Qatari composer’s interpretation of contemporary classical music will be conducted by Musical Director, Andy Brown, enriched by a brief narrative setting the scene of the score, and featuring Syrian superstar musician and singer, Assala Nasri.
Arab America’s Amal David interviewed Dana al-Fardan to learn more about her upbringing and the creative process, as well as her upcoming performances and activities.
1. As an Arab woman, you have blazed new trails no Arab woman has done before, are we right?
Actually, although I am the only female composer I know of in Qatar, there are many other Arab women composing music and writing songs such as Jordanian-born, half Syrian, half Bosnian-Palestinian Suad Bushnaq, and British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk, both doing brilliant work. So, I consider myself privileged to stand amongst these international Arab women of immense talent, representing our culture across the world.
2. At a young age, how did you get inspired to write music in a non-traditional way?
When I was young, I used to love tinkering on my keyboard, which naturally drove my parents mad, but luckily, they never stopped me. I then started writing nursery rhymes for my younger sister when I noticed how appalling a lot of the traditional nursery rhymes were: Humpty Dumpty dies, the baby in the cradle falls and we all fall down due to the great plague in a Ring a Ring a Roses! A lot of my passion came from my family; my sisters and I were obsessed with musicals and we constantly performed them around the house. I began to realize how the joy of music was running through my veins, but it wasn’t until my first pregnancy that I recognized how much I yearned to express myself through music. I had no choice – this was not something I wanted, but something I needed. Throughout my life in music, I have experimented with sounds and melodies, inspired by the compositions and songs I have always been exposed to, the books I have read and the art I admire. My cultural heritage has had a huge impact on inspiring me and my music has become an extension of my self-expression so intrinsic to my identity; it is part of my cellular makeup.
3. What are the factors needed to produce an Arab woman artist such as yourself? Is this common in Qatar?
Qatar is full of talented individuals, men, and women, as is the wider Arab world. In Qatar, the state has been very proactive in encouraging the nation’s talented young people to embrace their creativity and express themselves. I don’t think that art prescribes to a gender classification though, so I wouldn’t say there are specific factors at play in producing male vs female artists. I believe music is a way of self-expression and that cannot pertain solely to one gender or another. It’s just unique to each individual. I think specifically in Qatar, women are becoming more and more empowered with a great deal of support throughout the community. Our schools have great drama and music programs. I hope to be able to help and guide our next generation of talent and to nurture the creative community.
4. Did you face any restrictions from Qatari society or your own family in pursuing your passion?
I have truly been astounded by the reactions of my peers, family, and friends. The support I have received has given me such encouragement. I hope that I can use my own experience and the lessons I have learned to inspire young talents to express themselves and embrace our Qatari culture and values as well as contribute to the future of our nation. As I mentioned earlier, as I was growing up, we were always listening to and enjoying music as a family, and this contributed a huge immensely to my musical education. I believe passionately in the development of Qatar’s music and arts communities and industries whilst also recognizing the vital importance of preserving the rich cultural heritage that has made us who we are today. We are working together as a society to drive forward with incredible progress in these areas and it is my true belief that future generations will not face restrictions but, as I have been blessed with support and encouragement, so must they.
5. In which way your music is unique or different? How does your Arab heritage influence the music you compose? Do you integrate fusion of Arab themes within your music?
My music has often been described as a blend of world music with Arab infusion. It is unique because it is entirely drawn from my own experiences and interpretations of my culture and the life I have lived – that is unique to me and allows me to create music that is instantly recognizable as being my own work. I have been very much influenced by traveling to other countries and continents and the music of diverse regions from the Far East to the West. You can definitely recognize my Middle Eastern roots in all of my work, which is important to me. I incorporate the fusion of Fjiri into my pieces and other songs that feature the Rababa and another traditional percussion. This fused with the classical instruments of the orchestra create the rich blended sound that audiences can relate to and seem to find accessible, wherever they are in the world.
6. Did the Qatari desert inspire you? Is this the reason you named your concert, The Sandstorm?
Sandstorm is the title track from my recent and fourth album. The desert definitely inspired me to write that piece, but so did my passion for literature. The reality of a sandstorm is in no way romantic, enjoyable or beautiful. But when I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, in which he describes the beauty in the movement of each grain of sand in a storm when the winds of the Levant dance, carrying with them the scent of exotic women and the sense of adventure, I wanted to consider how such a dance among the sands might play out musically. The result is Sandstorm – a seductive expression of the forces of nature and the allure they bring.
7. Other than writing the music, what role do you play in the final production of your compositions?
I’m actually involved throughout the entire process, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I am inspired to start the writing and composing of a new piece, I need to see the creative journey through from beginning to end. Aside from the writing, I am involved with everything from the arranging to the mixing at the recording stage. It’s vital for me to determine which instruments and elements are emphasized in the mix as it is these details that make the song. It is an incredible feeling to see my work through from the spark of an original idea to the completed work.
8. What are the major challenges you have faced in pursuing your dream?
Like any working mother and wife, I juggle my time between my complete commitment to my family and the pursuit of my career. I dedicate pure, uninterrupted time to my four-year-old daughter, Layla, who also loves music, and I will not compromise on that. But I face the same demands as any entrepreneurial woman in 2017 anywhere in the world – we are the ones who put the most pressure on ourselves and, while I have been so very lucky with the support and encouragement I have always received, I constantly challenge myself to aim higher and improve my art.
9. What are you trying to accomplish through your music?
I live in a country invested in its own cultural scene, so I am not single-handedly constructing a music industry. We have ample resources at our disposal provided by the state and an extensive pool of talent. We have an incredible orchestra and a state of the art recording studio. All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but it’s the responsibility of the individual artists to put these pieces together and commit to creating original content and exporting that content worldwide. There is nothing stopping us becoming global players in music. So that is my goal – to contribute to the deserved recognition of Qatar on the global music industry map and to create original work that stands up to the international market and is credited in its own right as world-class.
10. In which way have you balanced your role as a music artist and your role as an Arab mother?
I am really blessed that I found a partner with whom I can share my music as well as my success. My family is and will always be my priority. My husband has been very supportive and encouraging during the whole process and Layla, my baby is my most precious jewel. My first album was recorded during my pregnancy 4 years ago and to me fulfilling my dream would definitely be reflected in all aspects of my life. I will always balance my career with my role as a mother, but that role is my first focus at all times. To be a mother is a privilege I would never take for granted.
11. What advice would you give to Arab and Arab American women who pursue their passion for the arts?
There comes a time in our lives when we cannot ignore or deny the path we are destined to take. In my case, that moment was when I discovered I was going to be a mother and I knew that I had to pursue music in order to present a true version of myself to my daughter – I owe her that honesty and, later in her life, that legacy. My advice to Arab and Arab American women seeking to pursue a passion for the arts would be the same as if I were advising any artist from any background and of either gender – that they remain true to themselves, acknowledge their surroundings, environments, experiences and cultural heritage in their work and follow the artist path with dedication, passion, and authenticity. Once you are able to immerse yourself in your art with those qualities, the rest will follow – you will encounter incredible individuals and teams of people with whom you collaborate and who will inspire you to be better than you were before. Surround yourself with those people, the honest creatives who share your passion, not the sharks who will circle you when they recognize your talent and promise you the earth.
12 What is your next project?
I am very excited to be presenting my full Sandstorm album, performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra at the stunning Theatre Royal Haymarket in London on 17th September. That is my main focus at the moment. A selection of my work was performed at London’s Cadogan Hall last year, but this will be the album’s first live premiere outside of Qatar, so it is a real landmark for me. The musicians performing the work are so talented and it will be a real honor to present my material to an international audience at such a prestigious London venue. Just a few days after the London concert, on 22nd September, I’m very much looking forward to participating in the Symphony of Films in partnership with the British Council and Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom I work very closely. The series of events, all based around composing for film, which is something I am getting more involved in now, has been curated by the Doha Film Institute and will premiere the work of some of Qatar’s most promising new composers.
13. Would you like to see your music performed in concerts and tours in the U.S.?
Yes, absolutely! I am currently in talks about various international opportunities and I would definitely love the chance to bring my music to an American audience.
14. Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope to be lucky enough to continue doing more of the work I love. I very much enjoy collaborating with other artists and I would like to work with a wide range of international musicians; I think that would bring a new dimension to my musical outlook. Working with the international talent in the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra allows me to do that regularly now, so I hope that I can do a lot more of this kind of collaboration around the world.
I am also enjoying the work I’ve started on film score composition, which seems to be a natural fit for my style of writing, so I definitely see greater involvement in that aspect of the industry as a big part of my future. We are working on an international program of concerts, so that will be well under way in five years’ time, which will be fantastic. Other than that, I will, of course, continue to write, compose, and perform in my home country and contribute passionately to the continued development of our burgeoning music industry and the nurturing of our next brilliant generation of talent.