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Song in Saudi

Regina Shamvili, a Georgian born American pianist, became the first Western musician in recent times to perform live in Saudi Arabia when she gave three concerts in Riyadh and Dhahran this January. All musical performances were previously banned in the country. The groundbreaking move was a collaboration between the US State Department and the Saudi government, which is keen to forge friendly links between two countries. Under auspices of UNESCO, Shamvili has already toured extensively through countries in the developing world. Shamvili has been invited to return to Saudi Arabia this October, when there are plans to open an opera house, built ten years ago, which has never yet housed a public performance.

BBC Music Magazine

Margaret Scobey
DCM, US Embassy Riyadh

Elizabeth O. Colton
Vice Consul US Embassy, Riyadh US Embassy, Riyadh

Lora Berg
Cultural Attaché US Embassy, Riyadh

Marc L. Dejardins
US Consul General Dhahran
Thursday, January 17, 2002     
 ‘Music is a common language of humanity’
      By Molouk Y. Ba-Isa, Arab News Staff

  SAUDI Arabia does not have a reputation as a stop on the touring programs of pianists of international renown. However, this past week, thanks to the US State Department, music lovers in the Kingdom got a rare treat when Regina Shamvili, Steinway Artist, played in Riyadh and Dhahran.

  Born in Georgia, during the days of the Soviet Republic, Shamvili began to play piano at the age of six. She gave her first orchestral performance when she was 10 years old and went on to graduate from both the Tbilisi Conservatory and the Tchaikovski Conservatory in Moscow.

  Shamvili became a household name in the Soviet Union and her recordings were bestsellers. She appeared with all the major orchestras and was a star in the most prestigious concert halls and festivals. A celebrated portraiture subject, artists lined up to capture her likeness. Soon, dozens of paintings of Shamvili were hung in museums and art galleries across the former USSR. Tapes of her concerts and her recordings seeped through the Iron Curtain but it was not until 1983 that she was able to leave her native land and perform abroad for the first time.

  Ibrahim M. Nur
Public Affairs & Media Specialist

  Naeimeh Hadidi
Public Affairs Specialist

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  From the start, she was a hit outside the former USSR. She delighted audiences with the passion she put into her performances. She became an American citizen and made New York City her home. From that base, Shamvili played the world. While she appeared frequently on television in the United States and Europe, she wanted to take her music to people on all continents, especially nations in the developing world. Soon, under the auspices of UNESCO, she began giving concerts in Asia, Africa and South America.

“I am pleased to say that today I have traveled to my 100th nation,” said Shamvili. “Saudi Arabia was 99th and this afternoon I have gone on a tour of Bahrain so that makes it an even 100.”

  I met up with Shamvili at her hotel, after watching her perform Schubert and Chopin the previous evening. Spread on the table before her were photographs of the many celebrities and world leaders she had met during her tours.

  “In this one here, we’re in Mexico. And here I am with Sammy Davis, Jr. This is at Frank Sinatra’s birthday party. Oh, and this photograph was taken in Japan,” she had a look of sheer delight on her face as she reminisced about her wondrous career and all the friends she had made over the years.

  Asked why she had decided to come to the Kingdom now, for a moment she seemed at a loss for words and then replied, “Well, why shouldn’t I? I’ve played in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan — really all over the Middle East. I love the Middle East. The music here reminds me so much of the music from Georgia, my homeland. It has the same rhythms. I love the people in the Middle East, too. They are so friendly and so warm. I get excited every time I even think about coming to this region.”

Shamvili spoke about the concert she’d played for the women of Riyadh. She explained that the room where she was performing was packed and that she was not used to having an audience quite so close. She also was terribly worried that she wouldn’t be able to reach the women with her performance. After all, it was not every day that they had such an experience.

  “I needn’t have been concerned,” she said with a laugh. “They loved me and they were so happy that someone had come to perform for them. They were all enthusiastic. It seemed that everyone wanted to shake my hand and kiss me after the concert. Music is a universal force that joins people together. Music has no boundaries, no limits, no crises. It touches people’s emotions regardless of race, nation, religion or political beliefs. It is a common language of humanity.”

  As a woman coming to Saudi Arabia, Shamvili felt that she was very well received, exactly as she had expected. Perhaps because she has an open mind and has experienced so many different cultures, the sight of women in abayas and men in thobes did not startle her.

  “Every culture is different and must be respected,” she said. “When a woman would come up to be introduced to me I was not aware of her abaya or her veil. I was much more interested in her beautiful face. The women of Arabia have such stunning eyes, so lively and filled with intelligence. It is a pity this culture is not better understood in the United States and Europe.”

  The night before in Dhahran as Shamvili sat down before a small piano in a very crowed room with terrible acoustics, she had a moment of apprehension.

  “I wondered if I’d be able to get enough sound out of the instrument,” she said. “No, I wasn’t playing Carnegie Hall but it is always important to me to give my best no matter what. But everyone was surprised. I just forgot about everything and let the inspiration flow from my fingers. Somehow it was beautiful and I was satisfied.”

  Shamvili would enjoy returning to the Kingdom and sharing her music with more Saudis. She sees no reason why this should not be possible.

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