Converging artists

After just two weeks, Open Mic Dubai is attracting class acts and creating buzz, making unlikely stars out of some UAE residents.

The singer Haitham El Khatib and the guitarist Oliver Ephgrave perform Knocking on Heaven's Door. El Khatib has been singing for 28 years and is the lead vocalist for the band Xseed.
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These days, it seems plenty of us are harbouring secret, musical talent - the kind that lies dormant for years until we are given the chance to shine onstage in front of an audience. Reality shows seem awash with normal people living normal lives until a new programme comes along and suddenly a star is born.

Given the glut of such shows and the huge numbers of hopefuls who audition for them (200,000 people across Britain recently queued up for yet another series of The X Factor), doesn't anyone foresee a time by which all that hidden talent will have run out, exhausted by the onslaught of Simon Cowell and company? In the UAE, it's a slightly different story. Performing talent is ripe for exploration because there are fewer opportunities for hidden stars to emerge and there isn't a huge live music scene.

This stems partly from the laws governing live stage performances. In most cases, acts have to be licensed. But more recently, costs have proved tricky, too. Finding a venue, drumming up support and hiring equipment gets expensive. Dubai Lime's Open Mic nights were put on hold earlier this year because of a lack of funding. Apparently another casualty of the recession. But there is hope yet. Earlier this month, the business partners Anthony Davani, 26, and Youcif Almegaryaf, 25, launched the weekly Open Mic Dubai at Malecon at the Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa.

Davani and Almegaryaf - both obsessive about all genres of music - opened a Dubai branch of their marketing company, Unidus Western Solutions, a little more than a year ago. More recently, they set about organising the kind of musical nights both had attended back home in America. "In Dubai, there are a number of talented individuals from everywhere in the world," Davani says of the motivation behind the new night. "As artists, they need to be able to express themselves. They need to feed their hunger and get their music out there to the people. Music is not meant to be hidden.

"The response we have been getting from talent in Dubai has been overwhelming," he adds. Davani and Almegaryaf receive up to 20 calls a day from potential acts, and not just the musical sort. Interested parties have included comedians, electronic DJs and acrobats, and although Open Mic Dubai's main focus so far has been on music, the overall aim is to attract a variety of talent. Is Davani the Simon Cowell of Dubai? "I'm not British," he laughs, "but I am from New York, so I am blunt and I do say what's on my mind."

He and Almegaryaf have spread word about the night through newspapers, radio, flyers and online networking. A Facebook group they set up earlier this month, Open Mic Dubai, has more than 850 members and several posts from enthusiastic followers. "Being from the US, I crave some independent creativity," says one fan. "Looks like I found where I'm spending my Saturday night." "Am down for it," says a rap artist, evidently keen to get involved.

Davani and Almegaryaf cannily enlisted the Cuban restaurant Malecon as a venue. Its turquoise walls are scribbled with messages from past visitors and pictures of Che Guevara peer down sternly at the crowd. It's the kind of place that looks like it has witnessed countless good parties over the years. "We chose it because of the raw energy of the place," Davani says. "It's a fabulous location." Happily, the pair organised a special licence that covers all of the acts each week.

Every night has a different theme, with several acts (having auditioned beforehand) performing two or three songs. The recent launch evening was titled Battle of the Bands, and the crowd declared a rock band called Nikotin as the winner. As their prize, they took home a drum set, Puma vouchers and free studio time to record three tracks. Worthy spoils for any budding group. Given their background in marketing, it is perhaps unsurprising that Davani and Almegaryaf have been so successful in lining up big supporters and sponsors such as MTV Arabia and Puma. At the second Open Mic Night last weekend, dubbed Acoustic Night, Puma beanbags were strewn around the stage. Most tables were reserved, testament to the fact that word about the night has spread fast.

The crowd started drifting in at 8pm, as did the acts. One duo, the guitar player Harwin Buenvinid and the vocalist Rafoncel Catibi, perched on a sofa, practising. "I'm singing All the Man That I Need," Catibi said. "I love you too much, Whitney Houston!" She added that she and Buenvinid were nervous. "This is our first time to perform in public." Nearby, Nayaab Rais stood as a spectator. "I was here last week and I will definitely come again," she said, adding that the new night will fill the void that the end of the Dubai Lime nights left vacant.

The compère, DJ Moe from Dubai Eye FM, then limbered up to the stage. "Welcome to the second week of Open Mic Dubai," he announced. "We're going to try to keep this going for ages, and maybe - just maybe - one of you tonight may become a star. "Tonight is all about acoustics," he said. "If you're here as a couple then maybe you'll fall in love all over again. If you're here with a friend that you want to fall in love with, tonight might be the night."

A word of caution here to shrinking violets: you may do better to stick to the back of the room. DJ Moe later picked out a couple sitting on the beanbags and quizzed them. "Are you married? Are you engaged?" There was a mumbled reply. "Ah you're working on it. There you go!" After DJ Moe's introduction, the first act, Jason Zaman, appeared with his guitar. "Hello. I'm going to sing to you the famous and the classic In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins." Cheers of approval followed and Zaman crooned his way through the song and then another cover, It's Not Over by the acoustic group Secondhand Serenade.

There were 12 acts in all, a mixed bunch of performers from countries including South Africa, Canada and the Philippines, and DJ Moe made cheery comments in between. One of the highlights of the night, though not the winner, was a Lebanese performer, Haitham El Khatib. Despite not being a professional musician ("spiritually professional," he said after his performance), he has been singing for 28 years, and at one point performed with Ziad Rahbani, the son of the Lebanese singer Fairouz. Khatib currently works for Aramex in Dubai and is the lead vocalist for the band Xseed.

"If you don't like me, say 'boo'," El Khatib bellowed at the audience before kicking off with all the confidence of a ready-made star. "If you like me, say 'yeah'." A rock 'n' roll looking sort, El Khatib performed with a bandanna knotted around his head and growled through a version of 4 Non Blondes' What's Up. Then, barely pausing for breath, he launched into a version of Knockin' on Heaven's Door that sounded more like the Aerosmith cover than the Bob Dylan original.

El Khatib stepped down from the stage to thunderous whoops and cheers. "He is a true performer," Davani said later. "I'm definitely inviting him back." Less confident but equally endearing was the performance from Buenvinid and Catibi, who said they had only had five or 10 minutes to practise before the night. After a false start and a technical hitch with the microphone, they were off - Catibi sounding admirably close to Houston.

The winning act was a solo performer from Germany called Axyl Martin, a lawyer by day and musician by night. He has lived in Dubai for three years and has just recorded his first EP of five songs, three of which he performed at Malecon: Doubts, Facebook and The Lime Tree. "Maybe now I'll give it a shot," he joked of his ambitions to take up music full time after the crowd's applause was deemed most rapturous and he won studio time.

The festivities carried on until late, with Malecon transforming itself into a nightclub after the performers finished and the proceedings lasting until 3am. Next week is rap week, and several performers have already signed up. Might it uncover the UAE's own Kanye West or a new Eminem? It might be worth popping along to Malecon to find out. Open Mic Dubai is held every Saturday evening at the Malecon at the Dubai Marine Beach Resort & Spa. For more information or to sign up, e-mail or search for Open Mic Dubai on Facebook.