Sound of Ruby’s modest Bandcamp webpage describes the group as “probably the first Saudi rock band”. And about them being the first punk band from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founder and frontman M Al-Hajjaj is certain.
Not such an outrageous claim when you consider live concerts are banned in KSA. If, as the musician claims, his was the first band to stem from the country, he now estimates there are not more than a total of 25 rock and metal groups in the Kingdom.
The band began in 1996 when Al-Hajjaj bought a guitar, and his friend Nasser Frog, an Arab tabla player, acquired a set of drums (he was later replaced by current drummer Esam Al-Ghamdi). With Nirvana and Mudhoney as early reference points – there's still a distinct strain of the former's debut LP Bleach in their sound today – the duo recruited a bassist and second guitarist, and set about bringing the western rock sounds they loved to the GCC.
“It was very weird,” says the Saudi national. “I still remember everything and everyone back then – we were something new. Most people in the Gulf were just into rap and reggae, and Arabic music. No one understood what we were doing. When people came to our shows they just thought it was something loud – ‘What are these sounds?’”
Through self-recording albums and hosting private concerts (modest home affairs for “30 people to come and chill”), the band claim to have formed the centre of a grassroots rock scene which began to emerge from Damman.
“We met a few people into rock music and built a small base, a community for rock musicians,” says Al-Hajjaj.
And, of course, there were certain logistical problems presented by the band’s location. The singer prefers not to directly discuss the societal issues facing the band, but their online profile states: “The band’s entire career was a challenging and dangerous journey because of the non-accepting culture of Arabia. Despite that the band was able to gain many followers. It has been a big sacrifice and a true punk journey.”
Part of that struggle was getting their music heard. With pop music banned in Saudi, mainstream radio success was not an option. “I still believe we are an underground band – in the 90s we were under the sand,” adds the 34-year-old.
Having attracted more notoriety than they anticipated, Sound of Ruby retired from live performance on home soil more than five years ago. “We stopped playing shows in Saudi a long time ago. If you want to make a gig, you go outside.”
Instead, the band perform sporadically across the Gulf. Tomorrow's show at The Music Room marks the group's first performance since the online release of their excellent last album Serotonin, recorded at Bahrain's Studio 77 in August.
It’s the latest in a back catalogue of “around” 10 albums, all of which have been made available to listeners without charge. “Music should be free,” says Al-Hajjaj flatly. “We’re against commercial [elements] and labels – we don’t want to be like a product.”
But that rule has partly been broken. While most of the group's music is currently available to stream free on Bandcamp, CDs are now sold at international gigs. As is the four-track vinyl EP From Under the Sands of the Desert, released in 2011 by French indie imprint Tian An Men 89, a label which specialises in releasing punk bands from marginalised markets.
Such international recognition isn’t lost on Al-Hajjaj, who is brutal in his assessment of the challenges facing the region’s rock scene. “The most famous bands in the Gulf – if you sent them to Los Angeles, they would be on the streets,” he says unflinchingly.
It’s clear that the band’s two-decade “challenging and dangerous journey” of music- making hasn’t been an easy one, with few of the liberties and opportunities facing similar bands elsewhere in the world. On top of the societal presses, all the band members are married with children and day jobs (Al-Hajjaj is a customs manager). But it may be the band’s opposition to these very frustrations that has kept them alive for so long.
“I play punk because it’s easy to express yourself with few chords,” adds Al-Hajjaj. “And when you scream you can show your feelings, and your anger, and release some of your stress and anxiety through the songs.”
• Sound of Ruby perform at The Music Room, Majestic Hotel Tower, Bur Dubai from 9pm. Tickets cost Dh60