Omar Khairat Image Credit: Gulf News archives

It is a very rare and precious thing to see an artist celebrated and active in his twilight years. Egyptian pianist and composer Omar Khairat, at 70 years of age, is set to perform for the third time at the Dubai Opera on March 16. Despite a career spanning multiple decades and genres, he is largely unknown outside the Middle East. Here are five things you should know about Khairat before his upcoming show:

1. World class education

Khairat was born in Alexandria to a musically inclined, aristocratic family. He is the nephew of famous Egyptian composer and architect Abu Bakir Khairat, who founded the first music academy in Egypt, the Cairo conservatory, and served as dean for several years. Khairat was very close to Abu Bakir, attending his practice sessions regularly from an early age. After piano lessons from the age of four, Khairat studied at the conservatory under Italian Maestro Vincenzo Carro. He would go on to study piano and music theory with the Trinity College of Music.

2. He was in that old band

Khairat drummed for the seminal Egyptian rock group ‘Le Petit Chats’ for several years between the 60s and 70s. The band played jazz and charting English, French, and Italian music. They held popular status in their home country comparable to The Beatles, whose song ‘With A Little Help from My Friends’ they covered and released on their 1971 single. They were active until the 80s, though Khairat had left the group by then to pursue his career in composition for film and television.

Omar Khairat performing at the Sounds of Arabia Musical Festival at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

3. A pioneer of Egyptian cinema

Khairat is widely known as Egypt’s premier composer for big and small screens. His score for ‘The Night of Fatima’s Arrest’ (1984) was the first movie soundtrack to be released on cassette, an important development for the Arabic music industry at the time. He has composed for over 50 films, including ‘Uncle Ahmed’s Case’ (1985), ‘Black Honey’ (2010) and many others. Khairat performs his film work regularly in concerts within and outside the Middle East, bringing Egyptian cinema to an international audience.

4. A bridge between East and West

Khairat is one of the most prominent Arabic composers to utilise western instrumentation within an Arabic musical context. He strikes a balance between western tonality and the Arabic maqam (or melodic mode) system. His orchestra features the Middle Eastern oud and qanun prominently, in addition to other western mainstays and himself always on the piano.

5. A great interpreter

Khairat has a long-standing personal and professional regard for the late legendary Egyptian singer and composer Mohammad Abdul Wahab. This foreshadowed a subsequent reinterpretation of many of his most popular works in two albums. These works were not only a labour of love for Khairat, but stand as testament to the power of orchestral rearrangement on already acclaimed pieces.

6. Award winner

Khairat has won more than a dozen awards for his work, including the Middle East Music Award (MEMA), the Oman Award, the Emirate Ministry of Media Award, the Royal Jordan River Institution Award, and multiple honours from the Cairo International Film Festival. These were given to him for his film work and contributions to Arabic music across a career approaching 50 years.

Don’t miss it

Tickets to Omar Khairat’s show at the Dubai Opera on March 16 start at Dh375 and are available online.