How singer Fahed Al Arif is reinventing Khaleeji pop for the modern day: ‘There is a lot of Emirati talent out there'
The 'Khasirny' star will perform as part of The Fridge series of concerts in Dubai this weekend
Whenever Fahad Al Arif drives past the Abu Dhabi Corniche, he is overwhelmed with nostalgia.
After all, it was there, on a large, beachside stage, that he announced his arrival as an exciting new Emirati music talent.
The crowd at the 2019 Mother of the Nation Festival were all too receptive, as they clapped and sang along to his hit, Khasirny, which has amassed more than 70 million YouTube streams.
With the onset of the pandemic, that momentous gig remains his most recent performance. Therefore, you can understand Al Arif’s enthusiasm to get back on stage on Saturday, August 29, to close The Fridge concert series at Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.
“You can’t imagine how long I have been waiting for this moment, he tells The National. "A lot of the plans we had for shows and other opportunities this year changed because of the situation, but everything happens for a reason.”
“Sometimes I would drive to Abu Dhabi for a break and seeing the Corniche again brings back those great memories.”
Taking it back to basics
The period he spent off stage wasn’t all in vain, however.
Al Arif used the time to co-write and release a number of new tracks such as Heel Feeny and Walle.
Hearing his growing body of work, you begin to realise why Al Arif is garnering a large and youthful fan base in the Gulf. From his direct lyrics to razor-sharp hooks, his appeal lies in stripping songs down to their essentials.
This is a far cry from today’s standard Khaleeji pop songs, which are often burdened with long-winded instrumental passages and syrupy strings sections.
“I wanted to move away from that, not only to be different but also because there is simply no need for all that extra production,” he says. “I mean, I love the strings and if done properly it can really elevate a song, but I just like the idea of keeping it simple and allowing the hooks and melody to carry the song. This is why Khasirny did so well for me.”
As well as the streamlined songwriting approach, what propelled Khasirny's impressive streaming numbers is its understated blues and funk flavours. The tempo changes are graceful, while the zippy keyboard riffs coast over bluesy guitar grooves.
Best of all is Al Arif’s husky voice, which is powerful yet elegantly restrained to allow the song’s hooks to shine.
That minimalism, he says, comes down to his eclectic taste. Born in Dubai to music-loving parents, Al Arif recalls a household full of the yearning notes of classic singers Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez.
Since beginning his career in 2014, Al Arif gradually incorporated more western elements into his craft, thanks to his expanding musical tastes, which include instrumental jazz and the blues wunderkind, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram.
“It really made me approach my singing and songwriting from a new way,” he says. “Of course, I am singing Khaleeji songs but you can also do different kinds of things with them.”
What the UAE music industry needs
It is a lack of experimentation, Al Arif says, that has caused the Khaleeji music genre to lose some of its vitality over the years.
“The challenge is in the production and the songwriting,” he says. “I just feel that it is not as strong or as fresh as it used to be.”
That problem is even more pronounced in the Emirati music industry.
With the scene as small and tight-knit as it is competitive, Al Arif says it is no wonder that the “same big names” have been dominating the genre.
“First of all, I need to be clear that we younger local musicians have nothing but love and respect for these elder artists who have paved the way for us and taught us so much,” he says. “But at the same time, we also have to develop the next generation.”
For that to happen, Al Arif says everyone in the local industry needs to be on song.
“We need the bigger artists, producers and event organisers to also look at young Emirati singers and give them a chance because there is lot of talent out there,” he says.
“I am not saying give us a whole concert, but even a small appearance. This is how all the major stars began, with someone extending the opportunity. Hopefully, we can continue this with the next generation and beyond.”
In the meantime, Al Arif’s advice to fellow local talents is to keep learning and grafting.
“I haven’t performed for a year but I can tell you that I have been busy,” he says. “I have been reading, learning and playing new instruments. Making it in the industry requires some luck, but that doesn’t come without the hard work. The key is to not give up.”
Fahad Al Arif performs on Saturday, August 29 at The Fridge, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. 7.30pm. Tickets are Dh80 at dubai.platinumlist.net
Updated: August 31, 2020 07:57 PM