Korean boy band BIG (short for Boys in Groove) made their Middle East debut at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to close out this year's Korea Festival. However, unlike other acts of the popular K-pop genre, they brought something a little unusual: the ability to sing in Arabic.
Heading to the UAE, where K-pop has a loyal fan base, the band were thrilled to at last have a chance to meet their fans in person. "We were curious about what the culture would be like here and what kind of reactions there would be. During the concert, we really felt the love and support – they really screamed our names and gave us so much energy that we were blown away by the reception here," says band member Benji, who also serves as a translator for the group.
The band also recall one of the moments before the sold-out concert when they realised how deeply rooted their fans' interest was. Taking to the stage prior to performing, the five members greeted the crowd by waving and saying a simple "hello", and rather than the expected tone down "oh, hi Big" response, they were surprised to see and hear fans hysterically screaming their names.
"That was one of the opening signs for us," says Benji. "I was like 'Oh, K-pop has really made it this far' and regardless of a language barrier when it comes to communication, the fact that music is still there, and that it needs no translation, is something that really struck us as powerful."
The group debuted in 2014 with the song Hello under GH Entertainment and featured five members – J-Hoon, Benji, Gunmin, Minpyo, and Heedo. J-Hoon enlisted in the mandatory military service in November last year, and so another member, Jinseok, joined the group in January.
Staging a comeback, rather than returning with another Korean single, the band surprised fans with covers of popular Arabic songs as part of their Global Cover Project. They've taken on hits such as La Bezzaf by former Arab boy band The5, Lm3allem by Saad Lamjarred and Hussain Al Jassmi's Boshret Kheir.
So how did the group come up with the idea to sing these cover songs? "We first got interested in covering Arabic songs when we went to one of the radio channels as guests," says Gunmin. "It was an Arabic programme, so we thought of covering Arabic songs for the Arab fans who have been supporting us since our debut."
But the group don't only sing in Arabic. They have also taken the time to learn the language properly through lessons. They've been taking them for the past six months and can read, albeit slowly, and can say basic greetings such as "hello" and, maybe not so surprisingly, "you're cute".
"It is great fun but a new challenge at the same time," Benji admits. "When we first started, pronunciation was a lot more difficult than I thought. Trying pronunciations that do not exist in Korean made my tongue twist, but it's getting faster and faster to learn new things in Arabic."
By learning to sing songs in the language, the group have picked up some new fans. They grabbed the attention of The5, who took to social media to say: "BIG's cover video is great. It's an honour how a K-pop boy band covered our song." It seems the admiration is mutual, because The5's top hit also happens to be one of BIG's favourite songs.
"I love singing La Bezzaf because it's the first Arabic song that we covered and the music itself is my kind of music," Jinseok says. "I also like 3daqat – the more you listen to it, the more it gets addictive, and the melody is quite easy for everyone to sing along."
"I listen to the latest Arab songs a lot. As BIG is a boy band, I like The5, who I relate to in a way. I especially like listening to one of their songs, Hannini, these days," Heedo adds. And while The5 have disbanded, BIG, who have been together for five years, have no intention of following. They've recently released their new single, Illusion, which has two versions – a Korean and an Arabic one.
So what do the group envision for the next five years? "We would like to expand our stage throughout the world further than we did in the past five years," says Gunmin. "Of course, we will continue to be active in Korea, and hopefully also in Arab countries. BIG's goal is to come and show our performance to our supportive fans anywhere in the world, no matter how far away."
The band say their Global Cover Project isn't over yet, so there's a chance for more Arabic music on the way. Despite spending only a few days in the UAE, they were impressed with the overall experience.
"Please wait for us," is Gunmin's parting message to fans. "We'll come back as soon as possible with some great things so hopefully we will be able to see you guys soon again."