The Chinese jazz choir of Dubai

Set up two years ago by Dubai-based artist Lantian Xie, an unusual children’s jazz choir shows just how much the city, and its residents, have evolved and how Dubai reflects the aspirations of a new generation

A Chinese children’s choir singing 1950s jazz is not something you stumble upon every day in Dubai. But this choir – part social experiment, part art project – are just one embodiment of the uniqueness found in the city.  

On the face of it, Shindaga Chinese Jazz Choir is another fun recreation activity for some of Dubai’s young residents. Founded by artist Lantian Xie two years ago, some 12 children aged between eight and 12 get together sporadically to rehearse and perform songs from the golden age of jazz. “The rehearsals are performance driven, around every couple of months,” says Xie. “[When we gave a talk to accompany a performance] the parents were really excited to see their kids on stage, you could see they feel a certain sense of pride.”

The children, most of whom were born in Dubai, have performed such iconic songs as Ella Fitzgerald’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and music from Sun Ra’s Spaceship Lullaby album, including A Foggy Day and Blue Skies.

Just the very existence of the choir is something remarkable, says Xie who grew up in Dubai. “The choir largely came out of an absence of this kind of thing when I was growing up here,” says Xie. “There wasn’t much of a [Chinese] diaspora at that point.” The choir is as much about getting children together, to eat and to get to know each other as it is about the music, he adds.

“A lot of the Chinese families that moved to Dubai have thought of this place as almost like a waiting room, a place to springboard on to North America or Europe,” observes Xie, whose family comes from around Nanjing, eastern China. “But that view is changing now. The very rapid increase in size of the Chinese diaspora [in Dubai] is testament to that.”

The choice of songs, and the very genre itself, also taps into an older idea of migration to the west, says Xie. “The jazz music is also about keying in on a certain point in time when America was an aspirational destination for people.”

Many of the twice-yearly performances are destined to be video installations, shown usually in galleries or exhibitions, including at Dubai’s contemporary art fair, Art Dubai. Xie pays each choir member a stipend, to treat them as he would any professional performer. The Dubai-based artist studied in the US and his work has been displayed in galleries from London to Delhi, Kathmandu and New York.

With some 250,000 Chinese now living and working in the UAE, Xie says that the choir is part of marking the community’s presence in the emirate. Quite different from traditional cultural shows put on by the Chinese community, such as to celebrate Chinese New Year, Xie hopes the kids can also be seen in a new light, too: “Part of the project is to talk about what it means to be Asian in the emirates,” he says. “We shouldn’t have a rigid, monolithic idea of what being Chinese is, especially in a diaspora.”

Still, despite the project’s social aims, it is also about having fun. “[The choir] is also about getting a bunch of Chinese kids together to have a meal,” says Xie. “And for however many hours we also pretend we’re a jazz choir.”