AR Rahman’s all-women ensemble Firdaus Orchestra is set for a grand debut at the Expo 2020 Dubai’s opening ceremony tonight.

The Oscar-winning music maestro, who is currently in Dubai, looked relaxed and cheerful as he spoke about his experience in mentoring the 50 female musicians of the orchestra, which he said will make a statement and break boundaries.

Speaking to City Times from the Expo 2020 media office last week, the Indian composer, singer-song-writer known as the ‘Mozart of Madras’ said he was excited when Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Cooperation and Managing Director of Expo offered him the project.

“When Her Excellency asked me, ‘AR, would you start an orchestra?’, I said, why not! Let us do it,” said Rahman clad in all black jeans, t-shirt and a jacket.

But why an all-women orchestra?

The inspiration came from his own daughters who are feminists, said the maestro. He added that he hopes to make a statement about equality through Firdaus.

“It is not just an orchestra for music. It is for people and for inspiring the whole world,” he said.

“It is to equalise things. When men dominate the world and it is time to (do it)... and Dubai is such a safe place (for women) and we felt like it is a great statement.. an equaliser.”

Firdaus Orchestra is created especially for Expo 2020 Dubai and it brings together 50 female musicians from across the Arab world to showcase their talent to the global world. The Orchestra that will debut on September 30 will draw from global music genres and mix western, Indian and Arabic traditions.

Rahman said the orchestra will have “original” pieces that are inspired by musicians themselves who are coming from countries like Iraq, Syria, Croatia and Armenia to mention a few.

“For instance, I was supposed to write music. And then I said, why not take pieces from the members of the orchestra... So, we are jamming with Arabic ensemble and there is Hanan who plays Bazuk…she started playing something beautiful... we can arrange that piece as an orchestra. Then there is Sahar who plays qanun..and she played the Turkish march…So, it all comes from them. It has the originality.”

“The main conductor is female. They have their own voice and creativity in the compositions. People can go to Europe, to America and listen to an orchestra. But what is special about this? It is the personality of this orchestra. That is what we are pushing, whether it is their compositions or solo from them.”

Speaking about his experience of mentoring the team, Rahman said it was inspiring to see how they kept in their music despite the struggles.

“Some of them are coming from places like Syria, Iraq… when I see them not losing hope and faith…and believing…and the sense of happiness they bring while playing the orchestra, it is so reassuring to me that it is all worth it.”

Over the years, Rahman said he has been focusing a lot more on education and training new talents through his AR Rahman Foundation.

And teaching and sharing, he says has helped him break from his shell and open up to people. “The motto of my Foundation is to create bridges, empowering underprivileged people. It is a whole new thing.”

Mentoring next generation of Emirati talent

Over the past two years, AR Rahman has set up a studio in Dubai and he said he is thankful to the city for all the help.

“They facilitated everything which we wanted… from studios, equipment, screening place... we have been setting this up for two years and it is fascinating to see it all coming to reality,” said the maestro.

About the legacy of the orchestra, Rahman said that Firdaus will inspire the next generation of musicians.

He said he will help build the careers of local artists, who are aspiring musicians, so “they can also learn, get empowered, and learn the techniques of playing music, producing or recording music. That is the whole idea.”

Through the studio, he said, they will be developing the second generation of musicians who will give back to the society.

“My whole life’s learning is to give back to Firdaus. It is so cathartic for me to come to a place like Dubai.. I am born in India. But I get to share my knowledge with the people here. I am also learning a lot because when you teach, you are learning… and it is not just one way... we are learning because the world is evolving,” said Rahman.

In a world that is grappling with the pandemic, Rahman said he understands the need to evolve. “The world needs new things to come in.. the old world is outdated.. the knowledge, the philosophy is evolving… people are changing. It is a new world. And to this new world, what is music? What is art? What is empowerment? How much to give? How much to take? These are the questions which are getting answered (through Firdaus)," he concluded.

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