We go behind the music for 10th international jazz event
‘I don’t consider there to be any competition,’ says Anthony Younes, founder of the Skywards Dubai International Jazz Festival. ‘Festivals come and go: they last a couple of years, they don’t survive, they leave – but we’re still standing’, he adds, looking up from his desk with a grin. To his right stands a wall of CDs, while two double basses (worth more than Dhs50,000 between them) sit behind his workstation. To his left stands a sketchy whiteboard detailing last-minute plans for this year’s festival, while in the corner rests a small black table bearing just a Time Out Nightlife Award 2011 for ‘Best Music Festival’.
It’s hard to argue with Younes. In terms of the festival’s size (27 gigs over nine days), audience (50,000 people were clocked through the turnstiles last year) and history (now celebrating its 10th birthday, it’s a veritable dinosaur in Dubai terms), there’s nothing that can touch the event, which has grown steadily from the three-day festival founded by Younes in 2003. ‘It’s my baby,’ says the 50-year-old, originally from Lebanon. ‘I dreamed about this festival for five years before it started. I was working in different companies promoting events and I decided to drop everything and start working on my festival.
‘Every year I say I’m not going to do it any more, and then I come up with crazy ideas and make it even bigger. What I do in these nine or 10 days is more than half the work that any other promoter does all year round.’
To mark the 10th anniversary, Younes is flying in some of the biggest acts to have appeared over the past decade, so we get repeat appearances by a slew of Js – soppy pop singers James Blunt and Morrison, and big-band blues musician (and British broadcasting institution) Jools Holland. But it’s the sole new headliner (and another J), Jason Mraz, who excites Younes most.
While the performers may be familiar, everything else has changed. The biggest shift is the location; after nine years in Dubai Media City, for the first time the entire festival will take place on a grassed area near Al Badia Golf Club in Festival City. Elsewhere, the duration of the event has been boosted with four nights of headline gigs across two weekends, broken up by five nights of smaller performances in the Jazz Garden. Each of these weekday nights will feature one Italian act opening, courtesy of the UAE’s Italian Embassy, then a second performer as part of the ‘Smooth Jazz Segment’, before closing with a female R&B singer, including Brit soul queen Ruby Turner and award-winning American Sharrie Williams.
As exciting as some of these performers are, there’s no avoiding the fact that there appears to be barely any pure jazz on the programme: only a handful of performers are instrumentalists. Instead the event follows a long tradition of festivals across the world that use the term ‘jazz’ to signify the smoother side of rock and pop.
In Time Out’s estimation, roughly a third of the programme could loosely be labelled jazz (although there’s another good third of blues). But there’s a lack of the challenging smaller British acts we had last year, such as Soweto Kinch, Neil Cowley and Get The Blessing, or the international legends who have visited Dubai over the past nine years. Previous festivals have hosted the likes of Miles Davis alumni Billy Cobham and Mike Stern, American improvisational legends Archie Shepp and Randy Brecker, and British stalwarts Courtney Pine and James Taylor.
‘I’m not a jazz fanatic,’ says Younes simply. ‘I’m a music fanatic. Don’t say we don’t have enough jazz. We have enough jazz – there’s just not enough jazz fans in Dubai. We couldn’t survive with only jazz. Somehow we have more jazz than last year, but if we don’t do these big (pop) acts, we’ll never survive.’