Muscat’s heartbeat: On the music flowing through this Gulf city’s arteries

The sun is lowering over the Seeb shopping mall. A row of men in white robes and pastel turbans stand on the roof overlooking the airport. Necks craning, one has a pair of binoculars. Has the niche pastime of plane-spotting finally reached Oman?

Below their feet, in the dim light of the car park, four-by-fours are pasted with the image of an elderly statesman. The same face taped to other vehicles’ windows, but a young soldier, this time, in military fatigues.

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A look at facebook reveals the runway-watchers’ intention. It can hardly be contained between exclamation mark and expressions of praise. For the first time since I moved here last autumn, the country’s monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said is flying home to Muscat after eight months of medical treatment in Europe.

It can be tricky as a Brit to fathom such love for an unelected leader, and as hard to ignore the legacy he is building. Sultan Qaboos’ careful diplomacy in the region may well ensure his place in history as a protector of peace in a country which has the religious – and ethnic – plurality of Singapore and its own tenuous geography.

But Oman’s ‘behind the scenes’ persona is not coyness. The Sultan – who deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1970 – draws on a passionate commitment to culture, in particular music, to address – and dress – his country.

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I moved here in September having married an Omani, spending the first few weeks learning the lay-out, looking for the place to where all roads lead, the ‘city-centre’ as we call it in the UK. But its social nucleus remained elusive.

In Giles Tremlett’s travel book, ‘Ghosts of Spain,’ he describes the Costa del Sol, ‘this car-dependent ribbon of growth as it defies you, like a small Los Angeles, to discover its centre.’ Muscat’s string of A-roads is similar, stretched out like veins without an obvious heart.

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Its natural geography places the city in the middle of a range of rock which at sundown becomes a sharp, charcoal outline, as though the roads and buildings have been carved from the jagged face of the world. Heading East, the ocean, laps right up to the edges of the city.

Last month, caught in a tangled rope of vehicles, I found myself adopting the local habit of lane-weaving. I didn’t want to be late for the concert of the year. I swerved to avoid a man ambling across the highway, this brush with death quite normal at certain times of day.

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When I arrived at the concert the rain had already started, the mainly British audience huddled underneath a huge tunnel in the Shangri La luxury resort, t-shirts slapped to skin, grinning at the irony. In these normally baking parts, a musician was over from the British Isles to play an uncovered amphitheatre, and it was pouring.

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The crowd had fought for tickets talked up by the local radio stations, the place filled with sopping wet bewildered forty-somethings and their teenaged children.

Up on stage, standing solo with guitar, was Ed Sheeran sliding fluently from grunge to R&B. The singer, in true British fashion, was apologising for the weather. By design or spontaneous decision he had decided not to sing his bluesy invocation, ‘Make it Rain.’

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Rock music is not the only circuit staple here. The Sultan’s public treasure, an opera house, rears up in marble-like grandeur just metres from the sea. Its line-up this year has ranged from Classical to World (Angelique Kidjo) to a Flamenco season which saw standing ovations every night. East of Egypt it is the only building of its kind.

‘So long as the audience is happy, we are doing our job,’ enthuses one of its directors walking us into the lobby after an astonishing set by flamenco guitarist, Tomatito.

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The opera house’s enthusiasts are a mix of Omanis and expats: British and Indians, the latter an established minority who make a significant contribution to Oman’s business and cultural life.

Most of Oman’s population live in the Northern capital, Muscat. Numerous venues house music, but the opera house has a unique hush about its carved interior, like a theatre seconds before the curtains rise.

Two months after Tomatito I found myself back within its marbled walls. A friend and I had agreed to meet in the lobby. Ten minutes before curtain call, the building was buzzing with pre-concert greeting.

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Omanis had appeared in large numbers this time, the men in national dress and the women in every swathe and colour of cloth. Sweet oud perfumed the stairwells, recognition of friends, peppering the air. Despite the spaced out roads, Muscat has a village closeness.

We were there to see pianist and composer Omar Khairat. I admit I hadn’t heard of him before we settled into our last minute seats. The audience knew him well. As people cheered the elderly musician, I remembered something I was told on my first opera house visit.

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The culture of classical music did not exist here, in Oman, when the Sultan first envisioned this spot. It needed to be nurtured. A certain etiquette was established, the wearing of national dress by locals, an example. Another was the audience’s expected response which needed to be broken in.

Even now, people are more vocal than in other venues I have been to. In this state of few elections, Omanis seem to hold music as a democratic right. Omar Khairat’s concert was no exception.

The drummer at the back of the vast orchestra stopped beating the percussion to hold his hands in the air. He started to clap, waving at us to do the same. The crowd – already warm – ignited. When Omar Khairat asked us to sing, it was all the audience could do to not bring the roof down, the shared tunes embedded in the heart of the peninsula.

Energy flows through Muscat’s opera house in the form of talent from the Gulf and far beyond. The veins of the city urging and re-circulating audiences delighted by their leader’s vision in building such a celebration of a genre he clearly adores.

This weekend sees opera singer Joyce di Donato set to hold its stage. The publicity on the Royal Opera House website shows the American diva beaming in a scarlet dress, a fitting colour for her awaited contribution to the lifeblood of Muscat’s musical heart.

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