For more than a year, three of the UAE’s most distinctive musical voices have been meeting in the studio, working on a top-secret project which is only now being revealed to the public.
The debut album from Abri & the Dreamfleet, We Fly, enjoyed a surprise iTunes-only pre-release on Friday. Few knew it was coming. While most new acts spend months carefully building audience excitement, tantalising track-by-track, there was close to zero hype before the release date, teased by a cryptic image on social media. Instead, the album appeared as if from nowhere, 10 fully-formed tunes, dropped from the ether and onto the internet.
A full release on physical formats and other digital platforms will follow this Friday. The band name alone carries a certain weight – the eponymous Abri is none other than Hamdan Al Abri, the searing, soulful singer who has been a favourite fixture on stages across the UAE, fronting various projects over the past decade.
Yet working alongside the Dreamfleet marks a distinct left-turn, with the Emirati virtuoso cast adrift from his familiar comfort zone of live soul and funk, instead backed by the chilled, lounge-soul productions of two primarily electronic producers – Adriano Konialidis and Mostyn Rischmueller, both long-term UAE-based talents, better known as Adriano K and Megadon Betamax, or more lately Mostyn Mega.
The trio's globally flavoured, radio-friendly tunes mark a certain departure from Al Abri's other, equally groovy outlet, Abri & Funk Radius. After three years of regular party-starting covers gigs, that improvisation-heavy, live soul-funk sextet revealed their first original material in April – a single, Sunny Daze, recorded at London's storied Abbey Road Studios.
The Dreamfleet, by contrast, are an entirely studio-based concept, with tracks built methodically from scratch, rather than jammed out.
While this sonic milieu might surprise fans, the project is not without precedent – seeds were sown when Rischmueller teamed up with Al Abri on a one-off track for a trainer brand, Chase the Sun, in 2014, while the Australian DJ also collaborated with Konialidis a year later, on a joint remix for a release on the latter's Desmo Records – which is also releasing We Fly.
Both producers had harboured private hopes of working with Al Abri for years. The pair agreed to pool their talents, and began working up a set of beat-based backing tracks behind closed doors, crafted to suit his distinctive vocal chords, months before even approaching the singer.
“Adriano and I took it upon ourselves to start writing a record with Hamdan in mind,” Rischmueller, 42, says. “[Just] a few tracks only initially, which turned into somewhat of a beast-sized EP once we got into the groove. Hamdan came to the party, really liked what he heard, and the rest is history – Abri & the Dreamfleet was born.”
That meeting took place in April last year. The timing was fortuitous. Despite Al Abri’s consistent high profile in the Emirates – recent career highs include sharing a stage with Herbie Hancock and performing for Quincy Jones – at the time, the singer was mired in a patch of artistic inertia as he had not released any original music in close to half a decade.
“We always said: ‘Hamdan needs an album – what can we do?’” Konialidis adds. “My personal hope was to provide Hamdan with a project which can open up horizons for him around the world – and it’s already opened up lots of doors for all of us.”
Al Abri was arguably the UAE’s first local pop star. Born in Dubai to Zanzibarian heritage, the natural talent caused a sensation on the Emirates’ embryonic music scene as frontman of his eponymous soul-pop band Abri. During its 2006 to 2009 heyday, the keys-led quartet released two solid albums, supported visiting A-list acts including Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Ziggy Marley and Joss Stone, and staged tours of Britain and India.
Following that group's collapse, Al Abri released a self-titled electronica-tinged EP in 2011, which was picked up as a soundtrack for American TV shows CSI and Ringer, but would turn out to be the singer's last original music released in his own name until this year.
In the interim, Al Abri joined Bull Funk Zoo, a funk-rock project led by guitarist Assaad Lakkis, singing on their 2013 self-titled debut album, but departing before last year’s follow-up.
“After the solo EP, I did the stuff with Bull Funk Zoo. I was kind of lost in terms of what I wanted to do, what direction I was going,” he says. “I just kind of fell off track in terms of continuing doing music. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. There were other factors in my personal life which stopped me from doing music.
“I’m thankful I had these guys approach me and say: ‘Listen, we’re doing some tracks, why don’t you come over?’”
A chronic case of writer’s block nearly kept Al Abri from committing to the would-be collaborators.
“At first, I was apprehensive, because I was like: ‘There’s nothing I want to write about – can I contribute anything to the project?’” Al Abri says. “But one day I eventually agreed to meet up with them and listen, and it just kept on going from there.
“It just got my creative juices flowing, I got inspired to write music again, and work on music in general.”
He went on to pen all We Fly's lyrics. Despite the band members being self-confessed perfectionists, the word that comes up time and time again when the band describe their creative process is "organic".
“It was very natural, it didn’t feel forced at any time,” says Konialidis, a 36-year-old Greek-Uruguayan. “From a musical point of view, me and Mostyn both knew Hamdan’s soft spot, where his comfort zone lies around, and we wanted to make sure that we maximised it.”
Konialidis's previous production credits include ALAS, a self-released double album offering fresh recordings of Argentinian and Uruguayan folk songs, performed by traditional Latin band Trio De Cajón, paired with a second disc of guest remixes from big name producers such as Stimming, The Orb and Mark Farina.
With a bassier background in house, hip-hop and disco, meanwhile, Rischmueller is co-founder of the respected Voyeurhythm Records, and is frequently spotted lighting up dance floors as a club DJ in the UAE and beyond. We Fly plays to both producers' strengths: a blend of deep, fuzzy basslines, sun-kissed beats and global textures, with hints of house, soul and reggae. Notably, nearly all the instruments were recorded live, lending a warm glow and relaxed feel.
Rischmueller programmed beats from drum samples and tracked synth patches, while Konialidis layered live keys and guitars, and both laid down basslines.
Special guests included Madagascar's Kilema, a world music name known for playing his own homemade stringed instruments, as well as a symbolic appearance from
Elie Afif, the UAE-based jazz bassist who also plays with Funk Radius.
"There's a great synergy between Funk Radius and what we've done," Konialidis says. "It's beautiful to have that complimentary situation where we're able to get the
buy-in, get the blessing rights by having Elie as a part of this."
The next challenge will be how to realise We Fly's diverse flavours and meticulous textures in front of an audience. No promotional appearances are currently booked, but there is talk of an informal launch gig in the coming months.
“We’re really scratching our heads together to figure out the best way of doing it,”
Konialidis says. “We don’t want to just go up there, press play, and have Hamdan sing.
“When you produce something, you pay so much attention to detail, making sure everything is perfect – how do you make sure those elements come across? It’s our next challenge for sure.”
We Fly is out now on iTunes, and will be released physically and on other digital platforms on Friday