'We're living the dream': why a well-known South African band have taken up residence in Ajman

Michelle Stent and Dale Wardell had never heard of Ajman before they were offered a residency in the northern emirate

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , Feb 25  – 2020 :- Left to Right-  Michelle Stent and Dale Wardell members of the South African band called ‘Habit To’ outside the Dubai Tennis stadium in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Arts & Culture.  Story by David
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It is rather apt that South African band Habit To's latest single is called Dreaming. While it has been garnering radio play in their home country, two members of the group have been living their musical "dream" in Ajman.

However, when husband and wife musicians Michelle Stent and Dale Wardell were brainstorming the next step of a career that has had them play to thousands, a nightly residency in an emirate they'd never heard of wasn't exactly on the agenda.

"We've gigged mostly in South Africa and have travelled abroad, but usually for festivals," says Stent, 34. "We were always throwing biographies out to agents, but one said, 'How would you like a gig in Ajman?' We were like, 'Where the heck is that?'"

There's an Emirates pilot who came for the brunch and had seen us 20 years ago when we were playing a pub in Durban

With their world map consulted, the couple – who have released two albums – had a fortnight to pack up their lives when they moved to the UAE just under a year ago.

It was a gamble, not least for Wardell, 39, whose sound engineering side-career had him working at South African star Johnny Clegg's final Durban show. "On top of gigging weekly, we also started a recording studio. We recorded Ladysmith Black Mambazo and many others and it snowballed into a great business," says Wardell, who despite regarding their UAE adventure as "serendipity shining her beautiful face", says it wasn't an easy decision.

“We had built a niche for ourselves, but decided it was the right thing to do … we could go on to perform and take Habit To further.”

With 11,000 kilometres between Durban and Ajman, the troubadours – whose drums and bass-playing third member, Yasindra Naidoo, remained in South Africa – weren't expecting many in the audience to recognise them.

But a few months into their residency, at McGettigan's in the Radisson Blu complex, a few long-lost Habit To fans appeared as word reached Ajman's South African community.

Habit To. Courtesy Habit To
'Habit To' have amassed a loyal following both back home and further afield. Courtesy Habit To

“There’s an Emirates pilot who came for the brunch and had seen us 20 years ago when we were playing a pub in Durban,” says Wardell, whose set list mixes covers of rock and pop hits as well as Habit To originals.

“And two or three couples come regularly and tell us they feel like they’re back home because we play songs they recognise. We’ve ­definitely made relationships and friendships.”

Wardell, a promising youth tennis player until music trumped sporting aspirations, says he and Stent feel they're "living the dream" because they now devote more time to their passion, playing live six nights while writing new music or learning covers during the day. "As Habit To we normally only play our originals, but during the past two years back home we played a lot of biker festivals and they'd want three or four sets over a weekend.

"We realised they wanted to hear some classic tunes, so we got a lot of our repertoire together from that. Ajman is welcoming of the original stuff, and I love our own music, but I love playing covers … I grew up learning Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Eagles."

Stent says her mission is to spread Habit To's music beyond South Africa. "Guests are going on to our website, downloading stuff and requesting an original. For us, that's super-cool, we want people to know we wrote every last thing you hear. It's nice to say 'this song's playing on a station back home'."

The couple also say not being constantly on the road – eight hours travelling daily, and waking up early for radio interviews the morning after gigs – has yielded time to work on music for their next album, Heaven Sent. "Our job now is to completely hone our craft," she says. "We're spending six hours minimum a day on our instruments, not having to organise a tour; we're 'on tour', even though we're at the same place every day. That's made it easier for us to be creative."

While Habit To have played to larger audiences at home since breaking out in 2004 – to as many as 10,000 at festivals such as Splashy Fen – they say the Ajman shows can be rewarding.

"Back home there's a live music culture and such a turnover of bands, people become numb to it," says Wardell. "Here, people tend to appreciate it more. There are fewer live musicians, so it's really valued. Over the years we've developed the ability, once on stage, whether there are two people or 2,000 … we perform the same."

Habit To. Courtesy Habit To
The band are originally from Durban. Courtesy Habit To

Some don't quite get the live band etiquette, however. The couple recall dealing with men getting on stage to "share" vocals, while another stood in the front requesting songs as they were midway through one. They also say it helps to be married.

"A lot of people ask, 'How do you live and work together?' We're best friends, we've been together for more than 20 years, married for seven. We know our strengths and weaknesses."

Having been in the UAE since last summer, Habit To's next residency looks likely to be in Dubai, possibly with their drummer. For now, there's no time limit on their overseas adventure. "Wherever it takes us. We've met so many people from all over the world who say you should come play in France or Australia," says Wardell. "We've already made connections that may lead to something. Whether it works out down the line …"

Even if there's a danger they'll get forgotten by a home following they spent so long cultivating? Wardell says South Africa is a country you've got to leave to become famous. "We've seen it happen with many bands on the edge of success; they'd go overseas and, coming back, use that as publicity to relaunch their career to the next level."

Either way, Stent sees the UAE as part of a mission common to all musicians; to make a living out of music. "We spent so much time back home pushing and gigging every nook and cranny," she says with a smile. "Distance makes the heart grow fonder, for us and the crowd. We do miss home, but there are so many more experiences out there. It's good to be missed."

Habit To play at McGettigan’s in the Radisson Blu Complex, Ajman, every Sunday to Thursday, 9am-midnight and Friday, 2pm-5pm, until Thursday, April 23. More information on the band is at www.habittoband.com