Saudi Arabia’s electronic music scene revels in Soundstorm festival spotlight

The mega dance music festival in Riyadh inspired a new generation of DJs and producers

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On any given day, Vinyl Mode would rather be caught dead than performing on the main stage of a mega dance music festival.

But such is the frenetic evolution of Saudi Arabia's electronic music scene over the past three years, that he agreed to be the first local artist to headline Soundstorm festival’s Big Beast stage on Friday in Riyadh.

The Jeddah resident, real name Muhanned Nassar, took to the stage at 2am, only hours after hit-laden sets by Tiesto and Swedish duo Axwell & Ingrosso.

Still to perform are big names such as David Guetta, Steve Aoki and recent Abu Dhabi Formula One headliner Martin Garrix before Sunday.

To be mentioned in the same context as these superstars makes the fiercely independent Nassar queasy.

“No disrespect to them and they are great in their own way but we are absolutely different in how we do things,” he says.

“I mean, I am a quite experienced performer and played in festivals across Europe, but they have always been in the smaller underground stages and not these massive ones.

“To be honest, I don’t know really know what to do up there as the focus is so much more on the showmanship than playing.”

Saudi DJ and producer Vinyl Mode, real name Muhanned Nassar, performs at 2021 Soundstorm festival in Riyadh. Photo: MDLBeast.

That said, Nassar did a solid job with a heady mix of evocative deep-house tunes channelling the buzz and growing weariness at the end of a momentous day.

‘We know what we are doing’

Nassar is ultimately glad he did the set because of the wider goal it served.

"The symbolism of it is important," he says.

"It's not really about myself and more about sending the message that we artists in Saudi also know what we are doing. We know how to perform, how to mix and do anything that other DJs from other countries can do."

It is a message widely amplified throughout the festival, as the 150-strong line-up features more than 20 Saudi artists.

While the scene has been bubbling away in Saudi Arabia for more than 15 years, Nassar explains it was the inaugural Soundstorm in 2019 (formerly known as MDLBeast) that brought the community to light.

“I began DJing really since 2005 and it has been mostly underground gigs or private events in the middle of the desert and over the years you do see familiar names and faces and that was essentially the scene,” he says.

“What the 2019 festival did was really bring us all together for the first time from different parts of the country. It really had this powerful effect in that we exchanged experiences and contacts and we really began working together more closely after that.”

The next generation of Saudi artists

It was a sentiment echoed by fellow Jeddah artist Cosmicat, one of the first female DJs to emerge from the kingdom, in a previous interview with The National.

She recalled how her set in the first Soundstorm festival inspired more Saudis to get involved in electronic music.

“I got so many emails from people who wanted to speak about my career. They asked me how I got into the industry and what kind of equipment I use. That’s really cool.”

Saudi artist Nouf Sufyani performs under the DJ name Cosmicat. Photo: MDLBeast

Nassar also had a similar experience in that his 2019 performance resulted in him mentoring a new generation of artists – providing they adhered to his philosophy.

“Many people see us perform on the big stage and they think we just came from nowhere because we are Saudis and that is why we are playing,” he says.

“They don’t know how hard many of us worked to perfect our skills, mostly alone, with little help. So when I met people for workshops, I asked them about their motivations first. If it’s about being on the main stage and the profile, then it’s not going to work.”

One artist Nassar helped develop is Lujain Albishi, who performed on Friday at Soundstorm’s Underground 1 stage.

"I am so proud of her because she has been going up the ladder three steps at a time," he says.

"She has this amazing essence, the right sound and style and she is humble enough to keep learning and take criticism positively.

“I wouldn't say I was teaching her because she knows what she is doing. I remember she came to me two years ago and said 'show me how to do it' and then she just ran with it."

Nassar hopes that sense of camaraderie and shared purpose continues, as dance music continues to gain more prominence within the kingdom.

“We have to keep working at it and maintain the integrity and that means helping each other whether you are in Riyadh, Jeddah or wherever,” he says.

“I will tell you something that many people don’t know: a lot of the people in the community are in one big WhatsApp group where we tell each other what we are doing, if we need help or we're going to certain places. I use it every day and it reminds me of how far we have come in such a short time.”

Soundstorm runs until December 19 in a purpose-built location in Banban, Riyadh. Tickets are from Saudi riyals 399 ($106). Doors open from 3pm. More information is available at mdlbeast.com

Updated: December 19, 2021, 4:22 AM
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