UAE bands are finding their voices

The varied music scene in the UAE is growing strong, and the real winners are music lovers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

photo of the Alison Andrews band performing

Photo Credit: ALice Johnson
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Three years ago, the live music scene in the UAE was almost nonexistent. But slowly, local musicians have been finding their voices, aided by an increase in venues willing to host their talent, as well as a growing audience.

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The musician Alison Andrews released her debut album in October in Dubai and has performed with her self-titled band in several local venues.

Andrews has noticed the increase in platforms. "Things are on the upswing for sure, thanks in large part to some highly passionate people on the scene, such as the folks from Metality," she says, referring to the rock music promoter.

"But there could be more. Live music should not just be the domain of smoky late-night bars. More daytime music festivals, radio play and TV exposure for local acts would be strongly appreciated."

For Salha, a professional singer currently with Salha and the Million Dollar Band, who has been based in the UAE for the past nine years, local acts are sometimes discriminated against, for the very fact that they're based in the country.

"You lose credibility if you're local, and no one wants to hear originals, so people are discouraged to do their own thing," she says. "Bands have to play covers to keep the dance floor full."

An increase in the number of part-time local bands willing to play for nothing also undercuts professional bands, she says: "Places don't pay musicians enough."

Still, international musicians such as Sade, Britney Spears and Paul McCartney, as well as large community-based events like Yasalaam and Gulf Bike Week, have provided additional opportunities for musicians to perform both for stand-alone gigs and as supporting acts.

"There is a huge amount of talent here right under our noses, with local artists releasing world-class albums," Andrews says. "A lot more fuss should be made."

Nik Uzi, an advertising professional by day and musician-promoter by night, has also seen the scene grow since he started organising his Rock Nation events three years ago.

"People know more about local bands. The scene at a grassroots level is very active and very, very vibrant," he says.

Many musicians play at venues free of charge to promote themselves. Most have full-time jobs and play in their spare time, although Uzi thinks audiences should pay to watch.

"Integrity in the audience to support a local band is non-existent - everyone wants to come in free and why should they? You support the band, let them make some money," he says.

Performing in Dubai since 2008, musician Tim Hassall also recognises the surge of support, citing events such as Womad, the Dubai Jazz Festival and the annual F1 in Abu Dhabi.

He believes, however, that bands here still need to pay a good manager to be successful. "Nobody gets anywhere without good management," he says.

Having lived in the UAE since 2000, Hassall has noticed the demographic of the Emirates change.

"It was just families in 2000 … now you've got a lot of single people," he says, claiming that these young, single residents have been more open to new types of music.

Hassall also notes that his generation of musicians returned to the UAE after studying abroad.

So what does he want to see happen? "It would be great if it was easier to put on gigs," he says, "and if music was more encouraged. People should keep a pulse on what's happening."

For upright bass player Elie Afif, who recently launched his debut album in coordination with local arts space The Fridge, securing venues when he moved from Lebanon to Dubai was easier than expected.

"I met the right people without a problem," he says. "If you search well, you get what you look for."

Afif believes audiences still lack the proper appreciation "for talent and good music". Despite this, he says, he's noticed an increased recognition for local acts.

"I think it's got a lot better than before," he says, particularly of the jazz following in the Emirates. "At the same time, I insist on not blaming the listeners because I think it's the responsibility of the performer [to entertain]. If you care and you do your job well, you'll get the appreciation."

The commercial nature of the industry, however, is something that both musicians and promoters have highlighted as an issue.

"People have lost the angle of why they are playing music," Uzi says.

For Afif, the scene's "eyes are more powerful than its ears".

Uzi believes there is a need to "create a benchmark" to enhance the local music industry: "I think the whole scene has to mature, for the community to say we need to build and support it."

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