While scarcely a month passes without household-name bands playing in the UAE, a new initiative is aiming to foster a genuine grass-roots music scene in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, writes Hareth Al Bustani.
Freshly Ground Sounds is setting the tune for grass-roots music in the UAE
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are often described as hugely cosmopolitan cities; hot spots of social diversity, coexistence and integration. While this is immediately apparent in international schools and the private-sector workforce, it has traditionally been less prevalent in the realm of music. But the times, they are a-changing – thanks to a new initiative aimed at bringing together acoustic musicians at free gigs across the country’s two largest emirates.
Ismat “Izzy” Abidi is the chief organiser and driving force behind Freshly Ground Sounds, alongside the sound engineer Tareq Korsheed. Abidi grew up in Abu Dhabi before working in east London as a lawyer. She says that the project was inspired by her experience as an active member of the east London music scene. “When I was a kid in Abu Dhabi, there was nowhere really for kids to perform. It was very much in the commercial sphere.”
In contrast to this, she says, east London had a wide range of venues for lo-fi, non-commercial musicians to meet up and play music in a relaxed, non-competitive setting. This, she says, is what she hopes to bring to the local music scene. “It’s not just about the musicians, it’s about the vibe we’re trying to create. It’s a creation of a kind of culture, but there are people out there – there’s just nothing bringing them together. So, it’s more about creating events to bring like-minded people together.”
In terms of commercial music, Dubai has regularly hosted international superstars since the 1990s. Abu Dhabi has also made great strides of late, demonstrated repeatedly in the world-famous acts that it hosts at Yas Island. However, neither city has seen much in the way of a more contemplative, acoustic, counter-culture scene. Non-commercial, acoustic artists have long yearned for an outlet to share their work with like-minded individuals, à la 1960s Greenwich Village in New York. Freshly Ground Sounds strives to provide that outlet. With its two pre-launch events already proving overwhelmingly successful, it seems that the UAE already has a grass-roots, non-commercial movement lying in wait to sing its way out of the shadows.
It’s not surprising that such a scene has not emerged yet – both cities, after all, are known as financial hubs, not art powerhouses. It’s equally unsurprising that two modern cities would have swathes of bedroom musicians leaping at the opportunity to showcase their work. Art is encouraged and is perhaps considered even more important in societies where buzzwords and consumerism appear to play a significant role.
Freshly Ground Sounds held its second Dubai pre-launch event last Tuesday – a strong indication that the initiative is proving extremely popular. While the first event, held at the Magazine Shop in DIFC, had about 40 to 50 people in attendance, the second, held at The Archive cafe in Safa Park, had more than 200 attendees.
The Archive event was, as advertised, a celebration of lo-fi, non-commercial music. The stage consisted of a small rug, two lamps, a chair, a bedside cabinet, a portable blackboard and a ring of fairy lights. Performers brought their own microphones and amplifiers, eager to add them to the bare-bones roster of equipment. Aside from the lighting from inside the cafeteria, The Archive grounds were illuminated by little more than the city skyline and a full moon.
Manjeet Varerkar, the senior project manager at McCollins Media, sang and played guitar in an unplugged form of his band Red House, the first act of the night. Manjeet grew up in Dubai, playing in a few battle-of-the-bands and interschool events. “I definitely thought it would turn out to be way smaller, with not more than 20 to 30 people turning up. Surprisingly, there were more than 200 people who attended the event and stuck around right till the end. The crowd was extremely supportive of the performances and very social. I only wish that it could have gone on longer.
“I know there is definitely a community here that supports the type of music we play, but it’s difficult to mobilise people and get them all in one place,” Varerkar continues. “Such events help catalyse that process and create a furnace of creativity. Initiatives such as Freshly Ground Sounds add a new facet to the music scene in Dubai – giving amateurs who prefer playing acoustic a chance to shine.”
Josh Monteath, arguably one of the event’s show-stoppers, is also pleased with the progress Freshly Ground Sounds has made. Having been involved since the first pre-launch event, he says that the initiative is exactly what the UAE music scene needs. Monteath, 21, has played guitar since he was 10, but says that he only started writing acoustic music seriously about four years ago. “I only got into the scene about a year ago. I’ve been looking for open-mics, but haven’t found many and the approval process here makes it hard to get some gigs.”
Having also grown up in Dubai, he says: “The scene is there, the musicians are there – they just don’t have the opportunity to come out and play. The first gig I played in Dubai was a metal one. We started playing Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues and everyone was wondering what these guys were doing there. But we needed a gig and had to take a metal one.
“I think it’s getting there, though. I’m playing a lot more now with Freshly Ground Sounds, but they’re the only people right now that are doing it. It’s going great – there was a great response and they found a really nice venue.”
Laurent Frangie, who works in communications, branding and marketing at Wamli, a UAE-based online store and social hub, was part of the casual audience on Tuesday at Safa Park. He was surprised at the strong turnout and says that it showed there were a lot of people who just want to watch or play at a relaxed event, rather than a competitive one.
“I think there’s a big demand of people who are wanting to go to low-key concerts. They’re creating a kind of music culture where you can just show up at a coffee shop, and there’s just a musician sat there playing. That’s very romantic in a way – it reminds me of Europe or America.”
As a “second-generation” expatriate raised in Dubai, Frangie says that Freshly Ground Sounds has an important role to play in the local music scene. According to Frangie, the Dubai music scene is divided among people who play in amateur bands, semi-professionals at live venues and then the international pop stars that are brought over to perform in the country. “But there is not actually a platform for young, budding musicians to just play in public whenever they please. Freshly Ground Sounds are trying to create that platform.
“Dubai’s demographic is changing a lot and, whereas in the past you had first-generation expats coming here to work and not expecting to stay, many of them ended up staying and their kids are second-generation expats, like me, who grow up here. We live in a multicultural society and we respect and have much admiration for the local culture, but we’re also trying to take part whenever we can. And we’re showing a bit of our culture too. It’s really beautiful how this new culture is emerging and we’re living harmoniously.”
Beth Hopper, the programme coordinator at The Archive, says that the venue has been interested in hosting music events since it opened in December 2012. “We’ve been waiting for the right kind of thing; we want it to have a community feel. We do position ourselves as a community space – we’re not for profit and we try to keep as many of our events free as possible. The only money we get is from food and drink sales.
“What Ismat is doing is great, bringing a platform for people from all ages. It is a non-judgemental, casual environment – which we are happy to support. Because we’re in a park, it’s a perfect, relaxing environment to chill and watch the music. It almost feels a bit like a festival, sitting on the grass.”
The Archive has hosted a few acoustic musicians in the past, such as when Abidi played at October’s Fall Fair. However, this week’s event was the first time that it had ever hosted a full, dedicated acoustic gig. “We couldn’t have hoped for a better turnout,” says Hopper. “And from the feedback we have been getting, there’s not enough of these community events in Dubai. Everyone’s always really excited when we put one on.”
Abidi says that the initiative is extremely unique for the UAE. “A lot of groups are emerging that we didn’t know about before. So we’re giving talent like that exposure and a space where they can meet. Because I grew up in Abu Dhabi, it’s important for me to try out there, too, before the official launch, just to test the waters.”
She adds: “One concern is that women are under-represented in the scene here – it’s often four guys doing hard rock. It’s not that we don’t exist, but because we don’t have that platform.
But Freshly Ground Sounds won’t remain just a live-venue attraction. “We’re eventually going to be recording seasonal LPs from five or six artists that play with us,” says Abidi. “That would be so great to get the message out there to the region and the west that we also have emerging raw talent here.”
Freshly Ground Sounds is holding another pre-launch event today on the rooftop of Abu Dhabi’s Cafe Arabia, 15th Street, from 3.30pm until 6pm. For more information, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/freshlygroundsounds.
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