In the early hours of Saturday morning, the lights will go down on Wasla Music Festival, an unprecedented one-day showcase of alternative acts from across the region.
Over 12 hours the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre stage will welcome a veritable pick ‘n’ mix of Middle Eastern luminaries, from leading Lebanese indie lights Mashrou’ Leila to acclaimed Algerian songwriter Souad Massi, Egyptian electronic trendsetter Neobyrd and Tunisian protest singer Emel Mathlouthi.
Notably, there is just one UAE act on the bill – a token opening slot for Abri & Funk Radius, local stalwarts whose online following (1,155 Facebook fans) is roughly 300-times smaller than the event’s two biggest headliners.
A statistic which begs a question only too familiar among local music fans – why has the UAE so far failed to spawn an alternative act with the kind of international appeal as those from its regional neighbours?
Most musicians in the Emirates today agree on two things; that the standard of local acts is equal to similar-sized cities elsewhere in the Middle East – a statement unlikely to be uttered just a few years ago – but that there is a crippling lack of opportunities to be heard.
The finger can be pointed in various directions – at the lack of venues programming original bands, at the unwillingness of promoters to invest in UAE talent without a heavily-branded sponsor and at the sprawl of red tape necessary to obtain government performance licences.
A pointed comparison can be made with Beirut, the unofficial centre of the region’s underground scene, responsible for breeding the bulk of Middle Eastern indie acts breaking into Europe today, such as The Wanton Bishops, Who Killed Bruce Lee and Wasla headliners Mashrou ‘Leila.
Musician Bojan Preradovic grew up in Beirut, and is today frontman of one of the UAE’s rare success stories, Empty Yard Experiment – Eye for short – a progressive metal quintet who have mounted two successful UK tours and picked up rave reviews in international publications.
“In the UAE in particular, we have our work cut out for us, and not least because there’s virtually no industry infrastructure to support the healthy development of an independent music scene,” says the 34-year-old Serbian singer.
The crucial breeding ground of any scene is onstage, and the most familiar complaint heard in the UAE is the lack of venues prioritising original music, aside from a handful of exceptions such as Dubai’s perennial The Music Room.
The problem has been only partly alleviated with the recent emergence of a burgeoning acoustic scene, sprouted from live events and booking platforms Freshly Ground Sounds, The Sound Gaarden and Go Play The World’s open mic series.
“Things still need quite some time around here to get to the stage where Lebanon is,” says Preradovic. “In the UAE, there has only been a recent, I wouldn’t exactly call it, proliferation of performance venues and efforts to expand an artist’s options for gigs beyond one or two main locales.”
While regulations appear to have been relaxed in recent years – fuelling the birth of these new performance platforms – a government performance licence is a standard requirement for concerts to go ahead. This can be a complicated and lengthy process which “cuts spontaneity in half, and makes playing a gig very difficult – and expensive,” says Dubai-based singer-songwriter Gaya.
The UAE’s greatest international export is arguably thrash metal trio Nervecell, scene veterans who have been touring internationally for the past decade and who are currently prepping a third album for release later this year.
The benchmark for local success was set by Abri, an earlier, eponymous soul-pop act fronted by Hamdan Al-Abri, which achieved unparalleled media exposure before fragmenting in 2009. Today, as leader of Funk Radius, the virtuoso Emirati singer ranks among the most-recognised and appreciated faces on the UAE scene. Moving into the mainstream, a significant head nod also needs to go to Hollaphonic, whose electronic pop has picked up significant global audiences and international airplay.
What all these acts have in common is that, unlike Wasla’s headliners, they perform in English – a reality that says much about the UAE’s cosmopolitan population. Among underground gig-goers and artists alike, English is the predominant language, and expats outnumber Emiratis by more than five times.
Hip-hop trio The Recipe claim to have identified what they dub “the four-year cycle”, based on the churn of temporary residents moving in and out of the UAE.
Initially evolved from a loose collective of more than a dozen rappers, by 2010-11 The Recipe had accrued relative local notoriety. When in 2016 the group released new music following a three-year hiatus, they found themselves all but forgotten.
“Dubai must be the ultimate underground scene – Kurt Cobain would have loved it,” says co-founder Lucky Schild, aka Swiss-Indonesian MC Swerte. “It’s a different kind of scene; you can’t compare the success of creative people in Dubai with anywhere else in the world.
“It’s the nature of the UAE – most consider this country as a transient base. Every four years you need to start from the bottom and reintroduce your brand all over again – to industry heads, gig organisers, media people – and your audience.”
Even with constant audience-watering, the engagement of these industry channels is a consistent source of disappointment for local musicians.
Of the nine FM stations hosted by Arabian Radio Network – including Virgin Radio and Dubai 92 – a spokesperson said the airwaves are only likely to spotlight homegrown talent during two weekly slots on Dubai Eye, as part of shows The Ticket and The Jukebox.
“With local radio it’s hopeless – unless you pay for an advert, you’re not getting heard,” says Gaya. The solution, she says, would be to follow countries such as Australia by introducing formal quotas dictating that local stations must play a certain ratio of homegrown acts.
Traditionally, the powerful corporate push of a record company is integral to any artist establishing regular airplay. In the UAE, the bulk of CD and online sales come from regional branches of the world’s two biggest record labels – Universal and Sony. While both principally distribute international releases, recent years have seen growing support for a lucky few, select UAE acts.
Commercial names including Clarita de Quiroz, Two Tone and Kris Fade have received recent distribution deals via Sony Music Middle East, following an earlier precedent set by rock veterans Juliana Down. Universal Music Mena’s roster of UAE talent includes The Boxtones, Esther Eden, Emirati singer Omar Al Marzooqi and UAE-based producers Shaun Warner, DJ Bliss and Hollaphonic – a role-call which represents substantial progress from just a few years ago.
Today the internet has created fresh opportunities for musicians to share their work directly with fans, thanks to self-publishing platforms such as Soundcloud. Meanwhile the rise of social media offers the chance to reach out and build an audience directly. Among the most successful acts to steadily nourish their fanbase on Facebook have been Juliana Down and Jay Wud, with 28,800 and 21,500 fans apiece, while members-only community groups such as Musicians of the UAE, which has close to 4,000 members, helps professionals find gigs and bandmates.
Like many of her peers, UAE-raised Indian singer-songwriter Gaya has responded to the logjam with a DIY aesthetic, finding novel ways to promote and support her music such as crowdfunding releases, distributing recordings via USB and performing in makeshift live venues, such as a cinema.
“Having so many drawbacks makes you more inventive, makes you think outside the box,” says the 31-year-old, who has been releasing music since 2009. “As an artist you’re constantly challenged, so you become more creative – because you need to be.”
Yet despite all the trials they face, it is important for musicians to remember that the UAE also offers distinct opportunities. There might be fewer gigs but those there include chances to warm-up for global superstars passing through town, prized slots which would never be offered to unsigned acts in most cities in the world.
The UAE’s biggest success story of the past year is undoubtedly Vandalye, the young, folk-influenced indie trio who won thousands of fresh fans supporting Lionel Richie at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.
That once-in-a-lifetime gig at the 40,000-capacity du Arena came little more than a year after the band’s first open mic appearance and, since winning over private investors, the band are now in Hamburg recording a debut album. Despite the fact they were able to make a living playing original material – a dream anywhere in the world – it’s unclear if they will ever return permanently to the UAE. Lead singer Scott Attew is only 19.
“The UAE has given us opportunities that we wouldn’t have had in other places – we’ve been able to make pretty good money,” says 23-year-old guitarist Lucas McCone, who was raised in Dubai by parents from New Zealand and Belgium. “In that sense, the UAE has helped us a lot; we’ve been able to chase our dreams. There’s definitely something here for musicians. But bands need to focus on their jobs – to write more music and create a better scene. The more you give yourself full respect, the more respect you get.”
Rob Garratt is a features writer at The National.