Hamza Hawsawi, a leading figure in the region’s music industry, made his first public appearance in a live concert at The Music Space in Jeddah last weekend.
“It has all changed during Covid-19 but we are back and it’s looking better than ever,” the 2015 The X-Factor Arabia winner tells The National. “I’m just happy to be performing live again. Once you hit the stage, all the nerves and anxiety just disappear.”
The Music Space opened two months ago with the aim of boosting Saudi Arabia's fledgling music scene, which at the moment is simply simmering beneath the surface.
There has been a paradigm shift in the kingdom since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman opened doors for artists and the entertainment sector through Vision 2030, and as the General Entertainment Authority issued licences to the private sector to host cultural and entertainment events.
“Thanks to the Crown Prince, Saudi musicians are able to make their dreams become a reality today,” says Hawsawi, who sold out all three shows this month.
He has experienced these changes personally, as more opportunities have opened up for him and his fellow artists in the kingdom. “Stages like The Music Space have come into existence and we are able to perform on them regularly.”
What is The Music Space?
The venue was founded by a group of friends who travelled the world together to attend live music events because there was such a dearth of them previously in Saudi Arabia. “We wanted to create a similar space here,” co-founder Serene Feteih says. “Vision 2030 made that possible.”
The venue now aims to be a hub for renowned artists and emerging alternative musicians in Saudi Arabia who are committed to turning their hobby into a profession.
"Up until now you would have musicians and artists who would get together in basements and at family gatherings or parties, and they would sing and show off their skills. They did not get the exposure they deserved," Feteih explains.
"However, with Vision 2030, this has just unleashed and opened up opportunities."
The idea is to put the focus wholly on these musicians. There are no cameras or shisha allowed at the venue.
“We do serve food but that’s in the interval so people can really respect and focus on the musicians performing for them on stage,” Feteih explains. There are burgers, hot dogs and brownies on the menu, as well as signature mocktails and coffee.
The space is designed to create a welcoming atmosphere through warm lighting and cosy seating. The open-platform stage is surrounded by seats on three sides. Audience members can sit in rows against cushions facing the stage, while others are seated on low wooden tables and armchairs. There are also high tables with stools opposite the kitchen, and a balcony upstairs with views of the entire stage and downstairs area.
From Saudi Arabia to the world
As well as giving people access to performers, The Music Space team wants to significantly grow the indie and alternative music scenes in the region by offering studio spaces.
“With support from Monshaat [the General Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises], the General Entertainment Authority, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism, and others, we will together help such musicians succeed not only locally but also globally,” says Feteih.
Often, Feteih says, they find these musicians on social media or through word of mouth. "We take them in and introduce them to other musicians so they can form music groups. They create original songs. We mentor them and teach them skills. We give them feedback. We treat them like professionals and pay them for their efforts and creativity. We even engage their parents to gain their support. And we help emerging musicians transform themselves into stars by opening doors to global gigs."
It doesn't hurt, either, that the space is located at the Monshaat's Startup Hub, which aims to create thousands of jobs for youths in the entertainment sector. It is focused on developing digital music and incubating emerging talents to create original content and video clips, while also helping people with legal issues and intellectual property rights.
Soon, The Music Space will also conduct an accelerator programme at the Startup Hub to help evolve the “skills and confidence” of emerging musicians in the kingdom in response to demand.
Hawsawi performed 12 songs on stage last weekend, including six originals, as the audience basked in the glory of his inimitable crescendos. He and his five-member band serenaded the audience with Frame of Mind and Believer, as well as an ethereal cover of Daniel Caesar’s Get You. He received a roar of applause and standing ovation, and ended the show with a performance of Bill Withers's Ain’t No Sunshine, upon the crowd’s request.
Hawsawi had rehearsed with Sudanese musician Ahmed Amin, Saudi guitarists Yasir Hawari and Mohamed Abdu, pianist Faris Baraja and bassist Ahmed Yasin, who all came together exclusively for the show. “It was an amazing experience rehearsing with such fine artists and Ahmed Amin helped us with the curation,” Hawsawi says.
Amin rose to fame when he won Nujoum El Ghad, a popular show on Blue Nile TV. He’s lived in Saudi Arabia since 2013, and his music exploded on social media in 2016, when he released his original track We Lost You. Ever since, Amin has worked on solo projects, also collaborating with Saudi artists such as Qusai.
Though Amin and Hawsawi have known each other for nine years, Amin says he's been introduced to so many new people through The Music Space. "Doors have opened to me out of nowhere," he says.
"There's a 180º change, honestly, music-wise. There was a time when music was a bit censored. Now, as the kingdom starts opening up and its vision has started coming to life, a countless number of artists are beginning to surface. There's also unbelievable talent."
On top of the Hawsawi gig, The Music Space has hosted a blues night featuring Cactus Live and Asmaa Naga, a reggae night with local band DaZoals, and pop and folk performances by Yasmine Bitar and Micah Nicole, among others.
"There are many artists [in Saudi Arabia], and their art is great," Hawsawi says. "Good music taste is there, talent is there, but we never had the chance to present that talent. Thank God, we're now encouraged to perform."
Feteih says she's optimistic for the future of the space. "We have all these artists popping up. We want to incubate these talented artists. We're very optimistic for the future to expand to other cities."