In the world of quick-fixes and instant gratification, Faisal Al Saari is quite a misfit. For the Emirati musician, oud player and composer, attaining mastery over every aspect of his craft has been a life-long pursuit. Following a three-decade long journey perfecting the oud under several masters that led him to compose award-winning operettas, Faisal, 47, is yet again reliving student life training to be a vocal soloist.
Enrolled at Abu Dhabi-based Bait Al Oud (from where he graduated in 2011 in oud music), Faisal these days is busy honing his vocal chords to sing in a variety of musical genres. "I have always wanted to be a true fannan (maestro in Arabic) to master a range of musical styles, to go as deep as I can into my art, be it composing, singing or playing instruments," he shares.
His own journey with the oud began when he was a teenager in 1986. At first, he learnt to play the instrument on his own and later joined a course in oriental and western music at Professor Ahmad Fathi Institute in Sharjah. He followed it up with a degree in sound engineering from Higher Colleges of Technology, Abu Dhabi, and finally graduating with an oud soloist teaching degree under the renowned oud maestro Naseer Shamma, founder and director of Bait Al Oud.
Every day the virtuoso practises for 10 hours – four spent singing and the rest dedicated to composing and playing the piano, oud and guitar. Part of his study schedule involves songs in Spanish, Italian, Hindi and German. "I have been a fan of several artists and now I am prepping to tune my voice to sing some of my favourite melodies – from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, Estrella Morente to Bollywood music," the artist shares.
Not surprisingly, cultural exchange, is at the heart of Faisal’s practice. Having lived in UAE’s multicultural milieu amidst many nationalities, he says, has inspired him to delve into music from across the globe. On the oud, he is perhaps one of the earliest musicians to play Bach, flamenco and jazz. In 2018, he composed and performed seven international musical styles on the oud, under the title, ‘Spirit of Tolerance’ in Abu Dhabi. "Through my music, I feel I can speak many languages and bind cultures, bringing the world together," he points out.
To make this cultural exchange possible, Faisal has been researching about musical instruments from various countries. "It is not easy. There is a lot of work involved. I study different styles, techniques and scales; incorporate some of their nuances in my music in my own way," he says.
Among his musical repertoire, he is best known for the special orchestral commission – "Zayed’s Dream" dedicated to the founding father of the UAE, performed at the pre-opening ceremony of Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Faisal’s oud performance was in dialogue with the 130-member Gustav Mahlar Jugendorchester (youth orchestra) led by the celebrated German conductor Christoph Eschenbach. The composition integrated traditional Emirati music with western classical music. Faisal also has to his credit several acclaimed albums produced with the support of the UAE government such as Synthesis, Oud in the UAE, and The Story of Nation operetta, which won him the Abu Dhabi Classical Music Festival Award. "You can only create something new or merge two styles, if you know your own ethnic music well," he says. "Every musician must educate himself."
A keen researcher, he has conducted several studies, on the oud and on Emirati musical heritage. During live performances, and on his YouTube channel, Faisal’s oud renditions of The Godfather tracks and Bach’s Prelude in D minor have been generously applauded by viewers.
Despite the accolades, Faisal’s musical universe, has not always been harmonious. In 2018, just when he decided to train to be a vocal soloist, he started losing his voice. There was persistent discomfort and muscle tightness in his throat, whenever he tried singing high notes. "At that time, I went through one of my life’s worst experiences. While on a music tour in Europe, a professional fallout put me under great duress, affecting my voice," he tells. Over the next few months, he was barely audible, making him reconsider his dream to be a singer. Fortunately for Faisal, help came in the form of a crucial surgery at Cleveland Clinic, Abu Dhabi. The highly specialised minimally invasive procedure conducted in April 2019, followed by speech rehab therapy for months, helped him improve his voice. "The surgery not only restored my voice, it is now better than before," he affirms.
Rewinding back to Faisal’s early life, even his initiation into oud music was turbulent. His conservative parents were completely opposed to him learning the oud. They believed, it was a violation of their religious beliefs and destroyed his first three ouds. "One day, when they were not at home, I threw the television, reasoning with my mom that if she could see programmes with songs in them, then I should be allowed to play the oud," he shares. They finally relented.
Even though he was determined to be a musician, initially he chose a conventional career path and worked in the UAE Ministry of Interior. "I had a stable and promising career, but my soul was in music. I left the job after 15 years, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant. But I am happy I chose music," he says.
At home, the doting father of three confesses he is more than a musician. Apart from a well-equipped in-house music studio, Faisal has a workshop with an assortment of tools and electrical wires. "If anything is broken at home, I have to fix it," he quips. "I am a technician at heart. I enjoy carpentry, pipe fitting jobs and whatever I do not know I learn on YouTube." He is also pursuing an online masters in sound engineering.
So what is he most looking forward to now? "I am working on several musical projects and, of course, awaiting my graduation. But I want it to be a live in-person graduation performance, even if it means I might have to wait for it for a few years in these times, rather than do it virtually."