What’s a city without culture? It’s a question that has been asked with increasing frequency in the West in the current era of austerity, where public-funding cuts often hit the arts first. It’s also a criticism that some have levelled at the UAE, in terms of contemporary culture, as the growth of Dubai and Abu Dhabi continues.
When it comes to music, there has long been a healthy influx of world-famous artists and DJs jetting in for one-off shows. But what about something more permanent? And for those people craving something a bit, well, different? These queries are slowly but surely being answered by a crop of alternative nightlife champions in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These promoters and music aficionados are injecting more imaginative poisons, from indie to punk to niche DJs, into the (under)belly of the beast; a grimy edge to the glittering five-star-hotel landscape.
“Dubai has always had a vibrant, if smallish, underground scene but it has really started to take off,” says Mike Priest, one quarter of the collective behind Bad House Party (BHP), a monthly indie-rock/punk club-night held at Casa Latina in the Ibis Al Barsha. “There are now completely viable alternatives to the endless commercial house nights that the city has been swimming in for years.”
BHP has dipped its toes into the waters of putting on live indie-rock bands, something that’s also the signature of one newer night, aptly named The Other Side, that has colonised the And Lounge at The Address Dubai Marina. Dania Ismail, also the brains behind club night Electric Days, and her business partner, Audrey Soler, took the plunge last summer.
“I’m a big fan of live music,” Ismail tells me. “And that kind of experience is so lacking in Dubai. There’s nothing that’s as curative – we’re very picky about the bands we go after.”
Abu Dhabi’s less-populous nature was always going to comparatively limit the development of its alternative nightlife. But the kernel of a scene is beginning to coalesce. One of the main catalysts has been White Cube, a collective based around their eponymous studio, who are behind the popular monthly mini-marathons Metronome. The event has an all-inclusive vibe, welcoming a variety of up-and-coming musicians. It’s current venue is the Westin hotel. The next Metronome, on April 23, is a special end-of-season blowout in collaboration with the communal-art duo Blank Canvas.
“Alternative nights are very hard to come by in Abu Dhabi,” says Waleed Shah, one of White Cube’s three co-founders. “It’s quite far behind Dubai ... Venues [need to take] some risks and book local artists. The issue is not having enough spaces but the spaces agreeing to host such events.”
Back in Dubai, the view on the difficulties procuring suitable venues is shared by the 264 Cru, the collective who have planted a culture bomb beneath the city with ventures such as Karak Beats nights at Velocity in the J W Marriott Marquis Hotel.
Taking brave risks in pushing DJ bookings beyond the safe and staid, they have flown in cult club names from around the world to sate a taste for dubstep, bass music, hip-hop and beyond – for example, their next night, on April 28, welcomes the UK garage innovator Zed Bias. “The availability of quality, accommodating venues is one of the biggest challenges all Dubai promoters face today, especially when trying to run a smaller, more niche scene in opulent five-star hotels,” they tell me. “Trying to push a grimier nightlife scene is definitely a challenge. We wanted to push ... sounds some might say are ‘weird’.”
The people behind club night Tse Tse Fly are also passionate exponents of experimental beats, keeping things similarly weird in Dubai, having previously mixed art into the equation at their regular venue, Casa Latina.
“Tse Tse Fly is all about sound art and experimental music so our nights act as an antidote to the mainstream,” says Tse Tse Fly’s Simon Coates. “We’re subverting the club format.
“In Dubai, there was rarely anything that I wanted to go to. So, instead of complaining, I thought, why not put something on myself?” Tse Tse Fly also recently curated a night of “sound art” and experimental music in Sharjah.
Crowd numbers at these events are usually in the low hundreds, but prices range from free to Dh100 in most cases. More broadly, the trend towards alternative and experimental events is not just about new openings. One long-established Dubai venue, The Music Room, has noticeably moved towards a more alternative booking policy over the past year or so, making the transition from smoky Bur Dubai bar into a legitimate go-to venue. It has put on the likes of the French lounge band Nouvelle Vague, a host of non-mainstream hip-hop and countless showcases of local bands.
“I dare to say that we are the only venue who assisted the local bands to showcase their work and sell the tickets instead of playing for free and just being a support act for an international band,” says Carlo Javakhia, The Music Room’s director of operations.
At the opposite end of the scale, one of Dubai’s newest spots, Stereo Arcade, is offering an entirely different experience from traditional venues – part video-game arcade, part club, part bar, with a focus on live music. A shout out also needs to go to Dubai’s Freshly Ground Sounds, a grassroots, non-profit, community music platform which hosts intimate, acoustic performances from upcoming and amateur acts at venues and pop-ups across the city.
In the reflected glare of storied international hives of creativity such as New York and London, the UAE, a country less than 50 years old, was always going to be playing catch-up. The transient nature of life here has also hindered the development of alternative, underground events with some unwilling to commit resources when they could be leaving in a year or so. But a new and authentic scene, away from cover bands and hall-of-fame outfits is emerging, albeit slowly.
“It’s changing,” says Ismail. “Places such as Karak Beats really show you that people want something different. The big question is how large is this group of people and how many events could there be? We’re not talking about [a city like] London with millions of people.”
Priest believes everyone involved is working towards the greater good.
“The UAE has always been a transient place. This makes it more difficult to set down any concrete roots in a music scene. Perhaps over time this will no longer be the case as it becomes a place where people think about remaining more long-term, which could help encourage growth not just locally but throughout the GCC.”
Adam Workman is a music contributor at The National