Hiya Live: How this all-female music festival is turning the volume up on regional talent

The two-day online event brings together 21 artists from across the Middle East and North Africa

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Over the course of 12 hours, the all-women Hiya Live festival aims to change perceptions of the region's music scene.

Curated in celebration of Women’s History Month, the online event will run from Saturday to Sunday, March 13 to 14, streaming on radio and video platforms across a range of partnering music collectives, including Radio Alhara, Disco Tehran, Future Female Sounds and Ballroom Blitz.

It is the brainchild of Lebanese journalist and DJ Shirine Saad and Natalie Shooter, co-founder of the Beirut Groove Collective, and is an off-shoot of Saad’s podcast of the same name, which celebrates the new generation of South-West Asian and North African female musicians. It’s a venture born from years of research on both the region’s contemporary music scene and the historic influences from which it draws.

"We wanted to take it from a research project to something that was more celebrated," Shooter tells The National. They also want to ensure the festival celebrates as many of the region's cultures and identities as it can.

“We’ve got artists from Iran, Armenia, Tunisia, everywhere. It was really important for us to do something that was connecting across the region,” Shooter says.

The line-up, which brings together 21 musicians and spans multiple genres and styles, includes Alsarah, the Khartoum-born singer-songwriter and "self-proclaimed practitioner of East African retro-pop" and Armenian DJ Lucia Kagramanyan, who is based in Vienna.

For Egyptian singer and visual artist Zeyada, Hiya Live can help highlight artistic output from this past year. She says the pandemic gave her the artistic space to finish an album, collaborate with other artists and even develop new music projects.

“This was something really beautiful, I think, to come out of [lockdown],” she says. “[Hiya Live] is showing a community now, and I don’t think there’s been something like that here before.”

Showcasing that community of regional women, she says, is the festival’s most important feature.

“The stronger any of us women get, the stronger everyone gets,” says Zeyada. “There’s this idea that women have to compete with each other. Even if we don’t do it, men say we do, and it’s not true, and it doesn’t work that way … So I feel like this airing and being out there is, if anything, solidifying this idea that we grow together.”

Award-winning Tunisian producer and DJ Deena Abdelwahed is also involved. Her distinct experimental dance tunes carried her music career from Tunis to Berlin, and she often harnesses her production skills to blend rhythms from more traditional Arabian genres into a glitchy, contemporary electronic sound.

Abdelwahed says her biggest hurdles in the industry came from Europeans over-romanticising her experience as an outspoken Arab woman, and that she’s excited Hiya Live can offer an answer to that.

“More French media journalists, they really wanted me as clickbait for their articles. Like, they’d ask me, ‘Oh, was it so bad in Tunisia?', [as if to say] thank you to France. My challenge [there] is how to express myself as Deena, not as a little girl coming from a ‘third world country’.”

With Hiya Live, she says, they can start to break that stigma, "that stupid idea of ‘oh poor Arab women’ and actually listen to them”.

Saad and Shooter agree. For them, centring the region means there’s no need for the term ‘Middle East’ at Hiya Live. After all, East of who and where?

“We’re trying to change the narrative around the region and around gender,” says Saad.

“In the music industry it’s no secret that there’s a problem with sexism, but also a problem of white supremacy. The DJs that [often] end up succeeding are straight white men, even though they’re often playing the music of the so-called Middle East or global south,” adds Saad.

“What we’re trying to do is say let us play our own music, and maybe what we play will change your perception of what our music is about.”

The performances will be virtually sprinkled around the world, promising backdrops from the mountains of Egypt's Dahab to Beirut nightclub Ballroom Blitz, and French rooftops overlooking the Pyrenees Mountains.

Saad and Shooter hope the digital blending of geographies will help to create a more meaningful connection.

“There are so many ways in which we are separated ... I mean we have Iran, Armenia’s under siege, Lebanon has been going through hell, Egypt, Palestine ... We’re saying OK, we can come together, we can overcome these boundaries. For me that’s the beauty of it,” says Saad.

It’s an ambitious, almost heavy undertaking, but Hiya Live’s architects also understand there’s power in constructing an event that brings joy and celebration to the fore.

But what are the organisers most excited about? “Having a party!" says Saad. "Spending 12 hours with all of these incredible women and allies from around the world.

“We’ve worked super hard to make all of this happen and we have beautiful presentations. We’ve been so isolated this year and this digital festival is going to allow people to come together in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have with visa, budget or geographic problems. This is going to be such a magical moment.”

Shooter adds: “Music is the resistance, in itself.”

Hiya Live runs on Saturday and Sunday, March 13 and 14. More information is available on its Facebook page