Tala Badri is the Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Musical Arts (CMA). Born and educated in Dubai, Tala studied music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is the only female Emirati music graduate to date. Arabian Gazette’s Moign Khawaja and Amalia Costin sat down with Tala Badri and had an interesting chat about her passion for music, career and future ambitions. Following is the script of the interview:
Moign: Please tell us a bit about your musical background.
Tala: I started playing the piano at 4. My music teachers inspired me. When I was in secondary school, my parents encouraged me to pick up a different instrument. I was also inspired by a music teacher around the same time.
When I was around 15, a very famous flutist came to Dubai to perform. Her name was Susan Milan and I had a master class with her. After the master class with her, I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I had to become a musician and that was that!
Moign: Why do you think it all started with the piano?
Tala: Because my grandmother used to play the piano and I think it was natural for my parents to use that as the first instrument to introduce to us as children. I think my parents bought a secondhand piano from somewhere, so I think it was also the ease of getting one. Everyone played the piano because everyone wanted to play the piano.
Moign: Did you find it hard to play?
Tala: No, I enjoyed it. The piano teacher who first taught me is still in Dubai and still teaching, so every time he sees me he’s like, “Oh my gosh! You make me feel old!”
Moign: How did you feel when you became the first female Emirati music graduate? What was the response from your family, community and the country as a whole?
Tala: To be really frank with you, it was great to be the first person to get the scholarship to study music and to become the first female music graduate from the UAE. However, I did not anticipate that 17 years later (today) I would still be the only female music graduate. So I think, yes, it’s special and it’s nice but it’s quite sad in a way, as well.
Amalia: Why do you think that is? Why aren’t other Emiratis interested in a musical career as well?
Tala: I’m still trying to figure that out! Part of me thinks that maybe music is still considered a hobby as opposed to a vocation. Also, it is not regarded as something serious. You know, if you’re a musician, you’re just a musician…
I mean, we had someone here who was learning to play the piano, a lovely person who asked me, “So what is your job?” and I said, “Well, I’m a piano teacher.”
“Yes, yes, but what is your job?” he asked, as in, “What is your real job?”
So this is something that prompted me to think that maybe they don’t think of it as a real job or a real vocation or as a serious career. I think that might be part of it.
Moign: Has this got to do with the taboos of the society as well?
Tala: I do think that plays a big part. Some people don’t understand that classical music is not a bad thing. It is not a taboo. I see that things are moving forward in Abu Dhabi. They have introduced music education programmes and they are bringing in artists who run them. They are very forward-thinking, so I think things are changing, but yes, I agree that it has got to do with taboos as well.
Moign: What was your reaction when you couldn’t get the musician job that you really wanted? What do you think were the reasons behind the refusal?
Tala: I think I was a bit surprised and demotivated. At that time, around 1993, when I came back from the UK to look for a job, I couldn’t find one. Obviously, I wanted to be a music teacher, but there was no music curriculum and there still isn’t one in the local schools. The only schools that taught music were British curriculum schools. So I applied to them and I was basically told that:
(a) because I was a fresh graduate, I needed some experience, but where was I going to get some experience from?
(b) they couldn’t understand that an Emirati could have a music degree and teach in a British school. The thought of it was that it didn’t sit easy with them. They must have thought, “Well, what about the language?” I speak English better than half of you lot…
I came up against a lot of prejudices, so I went back and did another degree!
Moign: What is CMA and when was it founded? How different is it from other musical art centres, say in the UAE or in the Middle East?
Tala: CMA is Centre for Musical Arts and our tagline, which we live by, is “bringing music to everyone!”. It was founded in Dubai in 2005. So no matter what age, creed, background, colour, culture, or anything else you are, we’ll have something for you. We offer something that you could do, find something interesting for you. It doesn’t have to be from a learning point of view. It could be from a performance point of view. So if you want to watch something, there will be a performance that we’ll do and you’ll enjoy. It kind of cuts across boundaries and that’s what our motto is about.
We’re the only centre that provides orchestral percussion lessons. We’re the only centre that provides brass teaching – trumpet, trombone, tuba – no other music centre offers that. And then we offer every other instrument, except harp because there is no demand for it.
In terms of Western orchestral music instruments, we offer all of them, as well as guitar, piano and voice.
Moign: How about Arabian instruments?
Tala: We don’t offer any Arabian instrument instruction because, again, there isn’t enough demand!
Amalia: You mean there isn’t enough demand for Arabian music instruments in the Middle East, including in Dubai? So does that mean the youth is more interested in Western or classical music? What are the reasons?
Tala: The indigenous youth, that is the Emirati youth, don’t seem to be interested in music at all, other than Bedouin music. You know, the drums and the yola dance, and probably learning the oudh. There is an oudh centre which is dedicated to teaching the instrument, so there is no point in me bringing that when there is a learning centre for it.
We have tried to encourage a lot of Emiratis and a handful of them learn with us. We have a lot of Arabs who learn with us, but they’re young. They’re children of people from my generation who believe that music is part of life and that it helps you grow and develop your brain as much as sports do. But yes, we don’t have very much demand for Arabian instruments, so that’s why we have not included them.
We do teach a lot of Arabic-influenced music and we’ve got two composers on our staff who compose music with an Arabian flavour. The violin, for example, is very much used in Arab orchestras, so all our violinists can play Arab music. It is not that we don’t teach it, but it’s that we don’t have enough demand for Arab instruments such as the oudh, nai, qanoon, or anything like that. The demand, like I said, is very, very low.
Moign: Women in other countries of the Middle East are not lucky enough to get a qualification in music. What is your message to them? Are you taking any personal initiatives to help them out?
Tala: To be honest with you, women in the Middle East are encouraged (to pursue a degree in music) and a lot of them do have music degrees, so I have to disagree with you on this one. If you go to Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, you’ll find a lot of women who are studying music and have got degrees in music. It just doesn’t happen in the Gulf. So this is the difference…
Oman is separate because the country supports the development of music very much. In fact, it is mandatory that Omanis study music.
Amalia: What kind of music do they learn? Arab or Western?
Tala: Western orchestral music and they have their own orchestra, but none of the other Gulf countries have that.
Moign: So the lack of interest in classical music is just a Gulf thing?
Tala: I believe it is, yes. In the Middle East, though, there is Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria – I mean University of Aleppo has got one of the largest music departments in the Middle East – Palestine, Egypt etc. They all have academies and conservatories for music where women do study, play in orchestras, and have music degrees. But they don’t exist in any of the GCC countries, except Oman.
Amalia: How come Oman has developed such a strong interest in music, despite the fact that it is one of the most conservative GCC nations?
Tala: Because Sultan bin Qaboos believes in music. Because he believes it is important. It is the Omani leader’s initiative.
Moign: Tell us about your childhood dreams. In one TedX video that I’ve seen, you mentioned about performing at the Royal Albert Hall. Did that dream ever come true?
Tala: My dream of performing at the Royal Albert Hall has not come true yet! I’ve passed it on to my children. I’d like to see them performing there instead.
Moign: What other dreams have you still got that you’d like to come true?
Tala: I’d love to see an academy or conservatory of music opening up in Dubai with me running it. But I don’t think that will happen… not in my lifetime…
Amalia: Are you doing something to try to make it happen?
Tala: I’ve been trying for the last 6 years, but until there is somebody with a lot of money and a belief that music is important for the social development within this country, nothing will happen… I’d need a committed investor and a patron for that.
Moign: Your TedX keynote was very moving and inspirational. Your daughter, Sara, is definitely a very cute girl and a promising musician. How do you think music is helping her cope with the difficulties she faces in life being an Asperger’s Syndrome patient?
Tala: It has been fantastic for her development. The TED video is three years old. A lot has changed since then. She’s an accomplished musician now. She plays 3 instruments. When you see and meet her, you won’t know that she was on the autistic spectrum. It’s been fantastic for her.
I’ve met a lot of children with learning difficulties who use music as part of their therapy and I think it is very important to realize that whether you’ve a learning difficulty or not, people underestimate the power of music to help with learning, calming down, focusing, and a lot of other things.
Music is very healing, as is art.
Moign: Do you intend to take this message across the Middle Eastern region?
Tala: Actually we’re working with three NGOs including the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. We’ve volunteered to run one of their summer camps for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, so we’re going there on the 2nd of July. We recently had a fund-raising event for that.
The main objective of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund is to support children who have been hurt in conflict areas and require medical care. They’re building a cancer hospital in Palestine, but until it is finished, Palestinian children are shipped around the world if they need medical treatment for anything that has happened to them during the conflict. So, a few months ago, there were four of them who came here for operations and we did some music for them as part of their rehabilitation.
We also raised funds for an NGO called the ‘Green Gecko Project’ in Cambobia. What it does is that it takes children off the streets and gives them an education, support and things to do so that they’re not on the street begging and so on. So we support them and we’re going to do a music programme for them early next year.
And then the other one we support is the Maria Cristina Foundation which was originally known as the Dhaka Project. It helps children and some adults from Bangladesh who have come to Dubai to continue their education and we have supported them by giving them music lessons here.
Moign: What is your take on popular Arab music? How do you see the cultural scene evolving in the next 10 years?
Tala: I’ll be very honest with you: I don’t listen to popular Arab music! I don’t listen to Arab pop. I don’t know the reason. Maybe it is a matter of taste. I prefer the old Arab music with artists like Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and I still listen to them, but Arab pop? No. Not really interested…
Moign: Do you think that today’s musicians are paying attention to Arab music? Do you believe that the indigenous Arab culture is getting eaten up by Western music? Do you think it could be extinct in the next few decades?
Tala: Possibly… It could be extinct in the next few years, but a few artists are still playing classical music, like the Rahbani brothers, the Karakala, and a few others who go around to perform and use the basis of Arab music. Here (in the UAE), obviously the Bedouins still keep their culture. Very much so with their drums, singing and their yolas, which is great.
We try to incorporate a lot of Arab music themes and rhythms within the music that we compose and teach the children, and they absolutely love it. If you ask any of our children who play in the orchestra which pieces they enjoy the most, it is always the pieces with an Arab theme to them and with the Arab drums and rhythms and that sort of thing.
Amalia: Why do you think they like them more than the Western ones?
Tala: Because they can feel the music, there is a lot of feeling in it. There’s a lot to it.
Amalia: And it is very colourful.
Tala: Yes, that’s right! That’s why they enjoy playing it. The other day, they performed a piece composed by Asad Hamzi. He’s Syrian and the piece he composed had a lot of Arabic rhythms and beats along with some Western flair and they absolutely loved it! And it was the one which the audience loved the most as well!
Amalia: It sounds like the best way for Arab music to survive is if music professionals like you integrate it into their work.
Tala: Yes, that’s important because we are educationalists who need to make sure that things are not biased and if you’re going to learn you must learn everything, and that’s what we aim to teach here.
Moign: Are there any other fusions that you’d like to work on?
Tala: I think a lot of it depends on whom I’ve got on staff because, obviously, it comes from people who understand and know this sort of things. We’ve done a lot of fusion with jazz music. Also, Carribean-African music because we’ve got a Kenyan on our staff who’s taught a lot of African songs, which is fantastic, and African beats which are percussionist.
We do music appreciation with kids. We talk about music from China and India. We talk about how scales are made. We talk about talas and ragas and Indian instruments, but we haven’t performed them yet.
Moign: So is this something in the pipeline?
Tala: It IS in the pipeline, actually! We’re running a summer school in July and its theme is the London Olympic Games 2012. So we’re taking music from all over the world, studying it and getting the kids to play it as well.
Moign & Amalia: Is there a message you’d like to give to our readers?
Tala: The message from me is that I’d like to see more support for music from the community, particularly the business community, because I’ve noticed that they tend to support youth in sports a lot. They also tend to support the environment a lot, but I find that businesses don’t tend to support the arts very much. My question to them would be: Why not?
I’d like to encourage businesses to support the arts because they are so much a part of the social structure. When you go to big cities like New York, London, Paris, wherever, the attraction of being there is in the arts and the culture and in the music of the place. Here, a lot of people support fine arts. There are so many art galleries and things that happen for that. But nothing happens for music. I would love to see the business community or philanthropists or somebody who really believes in it supporting stuff like a ‘music festival’, the building of an academy, the sponsorship of children who would like to travel, perform and compete… things like that… but that doesn’t happen! I’d like to see them (businesses) become patrons of an orchestra.
When I got my scholarship to go study music, I made a promise to the leader of Dubai, the late Sheikh Maktoom, that I’d come back and do something with it. And I did. I think the potential is huge. It just needs people to believe in it and also want to be part of it and contribute to it.
I feel that corporates are always looking at the bottom line, exposure, PR, etc. If you’re going to sponsor a sports team, you’re going to get your name on the T-shirt. If you sponsor an orchestra, you’re going to get the same!
My last message would be: I’d really like to see more support for music from the community, especially from the business community.