Jazz, the sound of soft power in the desert
- 20 January 2013
- From the section Middle East
Qatar has spent billions bringing the world to the tiny gulf kingdom. Major universities have set up campuses here while international think tanks have opened up offices.
Culture, arts, music. They're all here. It's called soft power and the ultimate in soft power may be jazz.
At the luxury St Regis hotel in Doha, the Alvester Garnett Quintet is performing for 12 nights.
Finding a jazz band at a luxury hotel isn't surprising but in this part of the world, the music faces criticism from religious scholars.
Conservative clerics have long warned against importing western music into Islamic societies.
A cleric in neighbouring Saudi Arabia wrote recently that music was "an obsession that contains every conceivable form of evil."
While most jazz musicians keep their clothes on and shirts buttoned up - unlike some of their pop counterparts - hardline clerics believe that all music save the sung call to prayer is haram, forbidden.
The Qatari Muslim scholar Sheikh Mohamed Hasan al-Mreiki has described music and singing as "a sin and cause for the sickening of the heart" and warned young Muslims not to be tempted by it.
But such a strict interpretation is increasingly a minority view.
The idea for the Doha club was first hatched more than a year ago.
Omar Alfardan, the Qatari president of Resort Development Company, which holds the franchise for St Regis Doha, is a jazz enthusiast, whose father brought him up listening to Louis Armstrong.
He invited jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, to Doha as "part of a long-cherished dream to bring some of the best in world culture to Qatar"
It launched in October last year as Jazz at Lincoln Centre, Doha and the opening act was Marsalis himself.
"It will be a pre-eminent centre for jazz in the Middle East," Alfardan said at the time and a place for those who are "passionate about this unique art form".
"It is my wish that we will also be able to inspire people in Qatar to understand jazz and that one day, a young person from this nation will share the stage with our guest of honour."
Mr Garnett, an American jazz drummer who has played with many of the jazz world's top performers, is the current artist in residence.
"It's been wonderful," he says. "The audiences have been so loving. There's a strong ability to pay attention which I find impressive."
Possibly, they're paying too much attention and not getting into the swing of things. Mr Garnett feels the audience has yet to fully relax during sets.
"It's still a process of educating," he observes. "These are new fans to the music. We've have had to say at points, feel free to applaud during the solos," he laughs.
It's already won over some fans. Young Qataris like Khalifa al-Haroon sees the music as an opportunity not a threat.
The 28-year-old is the driving force behind a popular website called I Love Qatar, an online celebration of all things Qatari and what he says are "the good things" that Qatar has brought from the west.
"It is content that matters. Jazz is all about the soul and our religion is focussed on intention. If you have good intention then there is not much to fear."
It's a sentiment echoed by Mr Garnett.
He says jazz "still crosses all barriers, all borders of race, culture, religion".
"If you want to come to it and you're willing to sit and listen and accept it. If the band's good, you're going to feel good!"
As to the objections of the more conservative minded, he has this to say.
"A lot of books that relate to communing with the higher power, relate to love," he says.
"Even just coming here, being still, hearing the prayers. That does something to you too. I might not understand what they're saying but you feel the spiritual nature of it. I just hope more people can be introduced to the jazz culture and they can respect that too. "