What would a talented, or not so talented, singer do to gain fame and exposure? Go on a talent quest, of course. And, this is exactly what many Arab fame seekers did earlier this autumn in Dubai.
Hundreds of hopeful candidates waited patiently for their turn to perform in front of the jury of Arab Idol as it filmed its first season at the Atlantis Hotel, the Palm. The series — the first Middle Eastern version of the top-rated talent show created by Simon Fuller — begins airing tomorrow on MBC1 at 8.30pm.
True to its cosmopolitan reputation, Dubai presented voices from all over the Arab world, including Arabic-speaking residents of other nationalities such as Iranians and Pakistanis.
While the candidates waited in a hall outside and had no access to the studio where others were performing, occasionally they would cheer when a happy face came out, or rush to comfort another who didn't make it.
In addition to the Dubai auditions, the first stage of the show includes castings in Cairo, Casablanca, Kuwait, Amman, London, Tunis and Beirut, through which 100 candidates was selected.
A second stage entailed stricter filtering of the candidates to cut their number down to 20.
Not only will the contestants be trained to sing and perform, they will be given a complete makeover, according to producer Hussain Jaber.
"The show gives talent in the Arab world a chance to shine and through MBC they get the highest exposure," Jaber says.
Like its American equivalent, the jury choice was difficult — judges had to be stars in their own right and have varying backgrounds, ages and fan bases, and be able to communicate with the candidates.
The first member of the jury, Lebanese singer Ragheb Alameh, was an obvious choice. Not only is he a successful singer with nearly 30 years of experience in showbiz, Alameh's first step towards stardom was through a talent show in Lebanon.
Emirati singer Ahlam Ali Al Shamsi, known as Ahlam, one of the best known Khaleeji singers with popularity all over the Arab world, was selected second. The last member chosen was young Egyptian musician Hassan Al Shafie, who has composed hit songs for Egyptian artists Amr Diab, Shirin and Angham, Abdul Majeed Abdullah from Saudi Arabia and Nancy Ajram from Lebanon.
"I believe the show will play an important part in the careers of the selected candidates," said Alameh. "They will be introduced to the audience in the best possible way, and by the end of the show people will recognise them and start following them."
The role of the jury will not be limited to selecting candidates— they will also guide the aspiring singers in every way.
"My first advice for any person who wishes to appear on the show is to be himself. We've heard many people performing Fairuz's songs in her voice, or Umm Kulthum's songs in her voice, but those who succeed depend on their own voices and characters," Alameh says.
"To succeed, you need to prove that you're distinguished, so don't be afraid stand out and show the real you," he added.
On candidate selection, Alameh said the three jury members often disagree about who deserves to make it to the show. "[In Dubai] Ahlam and I almost agreed on everyone, but that wasn't the case in Cairo and Casablanca. However, a candidate needs two votes out of three to qualify.
"Our selection is based on the quality of a candidate's voice and how well they can sing, and many of them have good musical knowledge as well," he said.
Selecting the presenter of the show was another tough task, with dozens of qualified and well-loved Arab presenters being considered, but only one made it to the show — Kuwaiti presenter Abdullah Al Tulaihi, 29, who acted in a drama series aired on Dubai TV and hosted Lilzaman Thaman (Time is Money) on MBC1.
"I have to be close to the candidates, and I managed to do that already with the applicants. Those who make it hug me while jumping in excitement, and those who don't cry on my shoulder," said Al Tulaihi.
The crowned Arab Idol will receive a record deal, but the picture is not clear about what the not-so-lucky candidates will get other than the opportunity to enter every Arab home, according to Ehab Hammoud, General Manager of Inmedia, co-producer of the show with MBC.
According to him, there are many fine details which have not been finalised, such as the names of musicians, fashion designers and other professionals taking part in the show, but will be announced later as the show moves from one stage to the next.
"What we promise is a unique and entertaining show with music, dancing and entertainment for all viewers," Hammoud says, adding that no expense has been spared to make this production the most successful talent show.
The third stage, when the public can begin to vote for their favourite talent, will start by the beginning of 2012, and the first Arab Idol will be announced in March.