x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

From Latin rhythms to groovecore

International music and theatre dominate the UAE cultural calendar.

Michael Fillon and the band Sandwash will play at the Alpha Club in Dubai on Friday.
Michael Fillon and the band Sandwash will play at the Alpha Club in Dubai on Friday.

Ben Elton is one of those public figures whom it's hard to see clearly through the hail of political crossfire. He started out as the reigning genius in Britain's lefty-ish alternative comedy scene, writing classics of post-punk television such as The Young Ones and Blackadder, foaming with politically correct indignation on Saturday Live and generally sticking it to Thatch. The right detested him.

His response, prophetic as it soon seemed, was a conciliatory drift towards the middle of the road. He churned out doorstop satirical novels that somehow managed to do double-duty as mass-market airport fiction. Any British sitcom about bumbling dads was likely to bear his fingerprints. And then there were the endless, unfathomably cynical musicals - jukebox money-spinners that brought the hits of Queen and Rod Stewart to the West End, in the process spoiling all three.

By now, one can hardly mention Elton's name in Britain without triggering an avalanche of rancour from one quarter or another: for what he was or what be became. And so, short of seeing his stuff for yourself, it's hard to get a clear read on whether or not he's actually any good. This week, the Dubai Drama Group offers us the chance to do just that. It's staging Gasping, his 1990 play that imagines what would happen if air were to become a yuppified designer product. It's not the best of his theatre works (that honour goes to Popcorn, a meditation on media violence inspired by Natural Born Killers), but it's a sight less abject than his musicals. At the very least, it really runs with the premise of a luxury market in oxygen. Moreover, the one-dimensional characters are somehow easier to bear in the flesh than disembodied across the 400 pages of one of his novels. Perhaps that's to be expected: whatever else he is, Elton is a great plot technician. On stage, this manifests in a blend of intricacy and nastiness that seems almost Jacobean in character. There's a flair for villainy, here - but then, this is the man who wrote We Will Rock You.

No such caveats are necessary with the Habana Son Music Club, the veteran Cuban band that is coming to Abu Dhabi this week as part of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's persistently interesting Music of the World programme. These are serious scholars of Latin Caribbean music: two of them actually studied under Ruben Gonzalez of the Buena Vista Social Club fame, which gives a fair idea of where they're coming from. But they also make a point of exploring the deeper sources of Cuban music - the cha cha, bolero, rumba and salsa. They also have the most flamboyant maraca player since the Happy Mondays, which is recommendation enough.

Finally, the Alpha Club in Dubai is celebrating its first birthday with a crowd-pleasing line-up of local bands. The opener is Sandwash, purveyors of a sludgy brand of party metal known as groovecore. They're very much the backbone of Dubai's live scene, and if you have yet to see them, your initiation into UAE nightlife is incomplete. Next up are Swerte, Jabbar and Hirabeat, two MCs and human beatbox from the much-praised Recipe hip-hop collective. They've picked up some admiring coverage recently, not least from the global music e-zine Spin Earth, and a visit to YouTube is all it takes to see why. Juliana Down are heading the bill, however, as is only fitting for a band more or less officially recognised as the UAE's act-most-likely-to. The melodic rockers are perennial sidemen for visiting megastars, making their way on to the Dubai Bike Week bill along with Deep Purple, supporting Justin Timberlake, and so on. This anniversary show is a welcome opportunity to see them take a starring role. They've done their time, after all.

Gasping Friday and Saturday, Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Habana Son Music Club Thursday, Al Dhafra Auditorium, Cultural Foundation, Abu Dhabi See You Next Friday Alpha's Birthday, Friday, Le Meridian Hotel, Dubai