Inside Breakout DXB, the UAE’s first socially-distanced music festival: 'It is a statement of intent'

Music, food, fashion and stringent safety measures are all in the mix

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The UAE’s first socially distanced music festival is underway.

Taking place on Friday and Saturday, November 6 and 7, Dubai's Rove Downtown hotel is hosting Breakout DXB.

Held across the hotel grounds, the festival is home to two live music stages, market and food stalls, film screenings and an in-house conference space.

All events are held with a raft of health and safety measures in place as a precaution against Covid-19.

These included paperless entry tickets, numerous and separate entry and exit points and clear floor and wall signage ensuring one-way flow of people.

Health and safety officials, bolstered by security guards, were also on hand to ensure compliance.

With tighter restrictions and high stakes at play, did Breakout DXB manage to conjure up the communal vibes we normally associate with festivals?

"Well, it depends on how we define that," co-organiser Dan Bolton tells The National while inspecting the site. "If you are asking me is there is a vibe? I would definitely say there is and that particularly comes when live music is played. With social distancing at play, the place can look more spacious than normal, but there are quite a few people here."

An eclectic affair

Nearly 1,000 people, a mixture of music lovers and tourists, attended the first day of the festival. And while this is a relatively strong showing for a locally-produced event, social distancing ensured all were safely spread out across the site.

In the hotel's car park, where the main festival stage is set, market stalls, seats and couches were placed two metres apart.

Those listening to live music had the option of two vantage points separated by a metal barrier.

The best seats are one of 25 spread across the front of the stage. The second area is the wider festival grounds.

A socially-distanced crowd at Breakout DXB Festival. Hyku D Photography

With food trucks and beverages operating on site, all orders are done from seats with waiters nearby. Cash is accepted, but card payments are encouraged.

For such a mix, Breakout DXB is an eclectic affair: it is has the entertainment of a music festival, the service of a restaurant, the intimacy of a lounge and the curiosity of a boutique market.

“It is a statement of intent,” Bolton says. “We want to say that the live events industry is resilient and we can turn the corner. So if you are asking me what is success? Then it is the ability for us to deliver a festival that is both entertaining and safe. And that’s a huge responsibility.”

Confidence will return

Taking heed and supporting the message are the traders taking part in Breakout DXB.

For Omar Kafafi and Omar Sahri, founders of Rebelz Of Society, they are glad to be mingling with customers again. The urban clothing line was only six months-old when the pandemic hit, causing a severe downturn of online sales. Kafafi says the label's appearance at the festival is the first physical promotional initiative the duo has undertaken since February.

Omar Sahri, left, and Omar Kafafi, founders of urban fashion line Rebelz Of Society. Saeed Saeed

“Everybody has been affected, some worse than others,” Kafafi says. “Even though we are not a brick and mortar operation, it was a tough situation because people, understandably, had different priorities when it comes to spending. So we basically had to hold on and be patient.”

Sahri is confident consumer confidence will return. “I think we are now reaching that realisation that life has to continue and go on,” he says. “You just have to be aware and manage that risk and all that comes with it.”

The eyes never lie

The cautious approach is partly behind Sarah Gojer’s visiting Breakout DXB a day prior to her closing night’s performance. Known as seasoned Dubai DJ Sara G, she came to the festival to see if her vibrant hip-hop, RnB and Deep House sets can resonate with a seated and masked crowd.

“It’s going to be fine because the eyes never lie,” she says. “From the stage, I can still see people’s eyes light up. Although they can’t dance around, you can still get a gauge by their movements that they are enjoying themselves.”

Just as importantly, Gojer will be savouring the experience, too.

“This what this whole experience with the pandemic taught me,” she says. “As a DJ, Dubai is very much a city where you hustle for the next gig. Sometimes I can be playing a set and as it is about to end, I am already planning my next gig in my mind. Now that I am able to perform again after such a long time, I feel like I can enjoy what I am doing and be more in the moment.”

Soul singer Layla Kardan headlined the first night of Breakout DXB music festival. Hyku D Photography

Closing Friday’s music bill, which featured the fusion band Noon and Emirati singer Hamdan Al Abri, was the RnB singer Layla Kardan.

While admitting the new festival reality will take some time to get accustomed to, she is happy to play her part in the revival of the UAE’s live entertainment scene.

“As a performer, there is a lot of things to navigate for where you stand on stage to the way the crowd are placed. It is not the usual festival situation I am used to,” she says. “But I am glad such an event is on. Everyone is learning as they go and the whole thing now is to just keep going forward.”

Breakout DXB concludes on Saturday, November 7 at 11pm. Doors from 11am and tickets are Dh199, inclusive of a food voucher. For more information, go to Platinumlist.