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Striking a chord: left to right, Sasha Hattar, 15, and Erika Hayashi, 15, practise playing guitar with Dubai-based musician Noush Like Sploosh, ahead of the week-long Rock Camp for Girls project in Dubai. Photos by Jaime Puebla / The National
Striking a chord: left to right, Sasha Hattar, 15, and Erika Hayashi, 15, practise playing guitar with Dubai-based musician Noush Like Sploosh, ahead of the week-long Rock Camp for Girls project in Dubai. Photos by Jaime Puebla / The National

Rock of (young) ages: Music Camp for Girls in Dubai

A new project in Dubai is offering a platform for aspiring female rock stars, writes Erin McCafferty.

It conjures up images of young women expressing themselves through music and, in the process, suggests rebellion and overwhelming girl power. Think strong beats, exaggerated movements and attitude.

It's an impressive image. And even more so in the context of the Middle East, where it appears to be at odds with the traditional female stereotype.

Unlike the West, which has for decades promoted the idea of women in rock bands, women playing rock music is clearly a very modern concept in this part of the world. Indeed, here there are few female rock stars and even fewer all-girl rock bands.

It was this fact that prompted Zahra Soar, 30, to set up the Rock Camp for Girls along with her friend and fellow music devotee Rasha Omer, 27.

Soar, who grew up in Sharjah to British parents, is a presenter of the Lunchtime Live radio show on Dubai Eye. Omer, who has lived in the UAE for seven years but comes from Sudan, works for the website www.triplew.me, which highlights talent from the region in music, film and photography.

As a radio presenter for the past three years, Soar is used to receiving demo CDs from aspiring musicians. However, she notes that they are mainly from young men.

"The music scene in the UAE is particularly male-dominated," she says. "My dream is to see more young women in rock bands here. It was for this reason that I decided to set up Rock Camp for Girls along with Rasha. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time and she agreed it was a good idea."

"It's a phenomenal initiative," says Omer of the rock camp. "Through my work on www.triplew.me, I've found myself regularly asking why there aren't more girls in bands, performing, composing and promoting their music here."

Omer agrees that the gender imbalance in rock music is not exclusive just to the Middle East. She says that it's more apparent here because the music scene in general is quite new. "The music scene here, and I'm talking about grassroots or independent artists and bands, is quite small to begin with," she says. "What's more, it's still very young and still developing."

While they're both doing what they can to address the problem of gender imbalance in rock music, both women agree that females need to be encouraged to be in bands here.

"There needs to be a lot of work done in terms of support, education, empowerment and changing of attitudes to change the situation," says Omer. "Music and the creative arts in general here should be embraced across society."

It was a TV documentary about the all-girls Willie Mae Rock Camp in New York, as well as a book she came across in a Mall of the Emirates bookstore called Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls: How to Start a Band, Write Songs, Record an Album, and Rock Out!! that this summer prompted Soar to take action to address the imbalance.

"The documentary was based on a similar rock camp for young women in America," she says. "I found it inspiring.

"The book I picked up by accident, and it was full of practical information. It had chapters explaining things like how to pick up a guitar and play it; how to make your voice sound like a vacuum; how to write a press release about your band "

The first Rock Camp for Girls, which costs Dhs999 per student, will take place from August 25-29 at the In the Mix studio in Al Quoz, Dubai. It will be run from 9am-1pm daily and will be limited to 16 students, aged between 7 and 17.

The girls will be split into four bands and each group will be mentored by a different woman, each of whom is involved in the music scene here, with each bringing different skills to the initiative.

So while the young women taking part will be taught the basics of playing an instrument and singing, and given tips about performance on stage, they will also receive practical instructions about how to market themselves as a band.

Fatiniza Gamarra Ponzon, known as "Fatiniza", is a Dubai-based, Colombian rock singer. She will teach the students how to play the guitar, how to jam as a band and how to write music.

Carla Saad is a Syrian/Palestinian who also lives in Dubai. She plays in a local R'n'B band called As Per Casper and will focus on singing.

Francy Tabourda is a Dubai-based, Colombian drummer who plays in a number of different bands here. She will teach drumming.

The fourth mentor, who calls herself Noush Like Sploosh, is Indian but has lived in Dubai for many years. She's not only a well-known local musician but also a graphic artist. She'll instruct the girls on how to put a press kit together, how to promote themselves and how to create a flyer for their gigs.

There will also be a number of one-off workshops with other women in the local music industry.

Soar has also approached the British singer-songwriter Kate Nash, who is currently on a global tour, in the hope that she'll record a video message to be shown at the rock camp. Nash recently ran her own rock camp for young women in the UK who had suffered from bullying.

On the last day of the course, the girls will perform an end-of-camp gig, showcasing what they've learnt throughout the week. It takes place at 5pm on August 29 at thejamjar in Al Quoz. Sponsored by White Cube Productions, which runs music workshops in Abu Dhabi, it's open to the public and admission is free.

In fact, the whole rock camp initiative is a non-profit making exercise for both Soar and Omer, who are doing it simply because they're passionate about the subject.

"We just want to encourage young women here to be in bands," says Soar. "The money we charge is to cover the cost of the studio and the equipment rental, and we're paying the mentors because we believe that too many people expect musicians to work for free and we don't agree with that."

But it's not all about music. Both Soar and Omer are hoping that the rock camp experience will encourage the girls taking part not only to play music and to form successful bands, but to be more confident in their everyday lives.

"This isn't just a music camp, it's an experience which we hope will further strengthen the students' confidence to pursue a passion - whatever that passion might be," says Omer. "It's a stepping stone to help them find a voice in a fun and productive environment."

"Ultimately, our aim is to improve the confidence of the girls and make them believe that they can succeed," adds Soar. "When you really believe in yourself, anything is possible."

It's for this reason that Cathleen Nicol has enrolled her daughter, 7-year-old Lily Nicol, in the Rock Camp for Girls. "I would love if it improved her confidence with regard to performing," explains Nicol, who comes from Inverness, Scotland, but has lived in Dubai for the past four years.

"Lily has always been theatrical. She sings and dances and makes up shows at home all the time. She's wanted to play the guitar for a long time, too, but up until now her hands were too small. She loves music - Justin Bieber, One Direction, Hannah Montana, etc. She's typical of kids who grew up watching the Disney Channel. So much of children's media these days is based around music and dancing."

Nicol adds that, although her daughter is clearly musical, the thought of going on stage to perform in front of people makes her nervous

"She attends Kings' school in Dubai and they hold two shows per year. Lily loves to take part but I've seen her filled with dread before a show. When I saw the Rock Camp for Girls advertised on Facebook I thought it was the perfect opportunity to help her in this respect," she says. " Hopefully it will give her the confidence she needs to continue her hobbies of singing and dancing. And if nothing else, it will be a fun experience for her.

"She's very excited about it," she adds. "She's already planning her rock-star outfits for the week."

Jane Carol, from Durham, UK, but in Dubai for three-and-a-half years, is another mother hoping the Rock Camp for Girls will improve her child's confidence. The mother of 9-year-old Toni says: "Hopefully it will give her the confidence she needs to continue her interest with music."

She points out that Toni has always been musical and, although her music taste varies considerably, she has inherited her father Keith's love of rock music. "She likes AC/DC and Marilyn Manson as much as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift," explains Carroll. "She definitely got that from her father."

Toni is another child who's been singing and performing for as long as her parents can remember. "She's very creative," explains Carroll. "She even writes her own songs and she has a good voice.

"When I saw the Rock Camp for Girls advertised I knew immediately she would love it. It's so unusual to find something like that here in the UAE. It will be really good for her to see the whole process of how a song is put together and eventually performed on stage. Hopefully she will have fun too."

Toni agrees. "I can't wait to take part," grins the budding rock star. "I am so excited. I want to learn how to play the guitar because I love music. I especially like Katy Perry. I'd like to be like her one day."

For more information, visit the camp's Facebook page at Rock Camp for Girls UAE

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