Midway through a hushed evening of acoustic troubadours and sensitive singer-songwriters, the stage darkens and a familiar, electronic bassline starts to grind. After a few bars, a high-pitched, amphibian “yowwww” echoes across the room. A sole figure strikes a pose. If the shiny jacket and pointed fedora, arched artfully over the eyes, don’t give it away, then the white-socked feet shuffling backwards across the floor do.
Meet “Mudassar Jackson”, the UAE impersonator who has spent the past two decades skidding across stages in tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. From stadium showcases to impromptu bar and club appearances – such as this 30-minute set at Tribeca Kitchen and Bar, JBR, Dubai, last Saturday.
As this flexible figure twirls, points and pouts – a minute study of MJ’s mannerisms – the otherwise ambivalent audience can’t hide their visceral reaction to this animated anomaly. They turn, wail and whoop – rapt with a mix of admiration, adoration and disbelief. And, perhaps, a healthy slab of irony.
It is a performance you could only give with wholehearted commitment to the cause, and Mudassar Hussain Muhammad has it by the bucketload.
“I just do it for the love of Michael,” says the 35-year-old Pakistani, sitting backstage before the show, part of local performance platform GoPlayTheWorld.
I’ve long held an odd fascination with tribute acts. What is it, after all, that inspires a person to commit so many hours, weeks and years, so much study and sweat, into the craft of assuming another’s identity? And what effect does it all have on the person under the wig?
Mudassar appears to be under few illusions. Alongside his moonwalk moonlighting, he holds down a day-job in air traffic control at Al Maktoum International Airport, only emerging in the King of Pop’s shoes after dark. His friends and colleagues however, are not as enthusiastic about Mudassar’s obsession.
“Not everyone is supportive, especially people from Pakistan,” he says gravely.
“I face big challenges because of where I’m from – Pakistani people just don’t understand Michael.
“But I challenge life – I look life in the eye and say ‘try me’.”
But at Mudassar’s side is a sympathetic supporter – wife Caroline Todler, a 27-year-old Norwegian, whose allegiance to Jackson has been pledged with a sizeable back tattoo. The couple married last month, after meeting via sharing Jackson-related images on social media.
“I wouldn’t say that Michael was the reason we met,” she laughs, “but I do think I came to the UAE for a reason.”
Todler, who works as a dressage rider at Abu Dhabi’s W’rsan Stables, still finds her husband’s lengthy rehearsal and make-up routines a novelty. “I love it, I’m always asking, ‘Can I help you?’,” she says. “I’m actually a little bit annoying.”
Make-up typically takes an hour, and at Saturday’s show, Mudassar arrived with a suitcase and several suit bags, changing his customised outfit for every song.
He dons a glittery black jacket for the set climax Billie Jean, strolling outlandishly into the crowd while a live saxophonist improvises a gutsy solo.
These stadium theatrics are quaintly overblown in this intimate setting. “It’s hard to moonwalk on carpet,” he says. But to Mudassar, every crowd is worth winning over, from a few dozen curious diners to the 15,000 punters he performed to at a Sharjah Cricket Stadium family show in 2004.
As a corporate entertainer, a booking for “Mudassar Jackson” costs from Dh2,000 for a one-song solo dance, without vocals, up to Dh300,000 for a 60-minute set, complete with a fleet of six dancers, four vocalists and a six-piece band.
Such a sum must have been unimaginable to the nine-year-old who first fell in love with Jackson in the late 1980s, shortly after his family moved from Lahore to Sharjah, where he still lives today.
By his teens, Mudassar had mastered the moonwalk, performing as Jackson for the first time at a school concert at the emirate’s Pakistan Islamia Higher Secondary School. In 1999, he was set on his path after being featured on MTV India, hailed as “the World’s Best Michael Jackson Tribute Artist”.
Now, 17 years later, his passion remains undiminished and he is regularly spotted performing unbilled at Jazz@PizzaExpress’s weekly open mic night in JLT on Sundays.
“It was always Michael,” he says seriously. “Since I started, I just have not deviated from what I was doing – I believe in it and my faith carries me through.”
If Mudassar’s faith needed a signal or sign, it came in 2003 when he came face-to-face with his idol while working in the control tower of Dubai International Airport. When word came in that Jackson was flying to the UAE, Mudassar rushed home, put on his best MJ outfit and mined the courage to make an introduction.
“I almost fainted, I still get goosebumps thinking about it,” he says. “I started blushing and said, ‘I would die for you – I love you and your music so much’. And he thanked me, he was the humblest person. It was the most grateful and blessed day of my life.”
The encounter took place in the days before camera and smartphones were omnipresent, but Mudassar has his memory.
“I don’t need to show pictures to people,” he says. “I have the memory here in my heart, and I will die with that.”
Rob Garratt is a features writer at The National.