x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A fresh Arab music scene indie making

The Lebanese underground producer and Gulf Music Festival headliner Zeid Hamdan says the region has a thriving indie music scene.

The Moroccan singer Oum. Courtesy Lamia Lahbabi
The Moroccan singer Oum. Courtesy Lamia Lahbabi

The region’s independent music industry will take centre-stage on Saturday as part of the inaugural Gulf Music Festival.

Held at The Archive in Dubai’s Safa Park, the free event should finally confirm what local music aficionados have known all along: that the region is home to numerous artists pushing the boundaries of popular and experimental music.

Heading the bill is the Lebanese producer and trip-hop artist Zeid Hamdan. He will perform alongside Egypt’s electro chanteuse Maii Waleed and the Moroccan soul singer Oum.

Representing the local scene is the oud virtuoso Kamal Musallam and the collective Freshly Ground Sounds.

“This is a really cool event because it focuses on artists with their own original songs,” says Hamdan.

“A lot of the time in this part of the world we focus on how artists sing other people’s songs. Now we can show that there are many people here who have their own talent that they want to explore.”

As well as being one half of the former Lebanese trip-hop duo and cult favourites the Soap Kills, the 37-year-old is an established producer in his own right, having twiddled the knobs for independent artists ranging from the Arab electro-pop acts Maryam Saleh and Dany Baladi to the Guinean singer-songwriter Kanjha Kora.

While his production output is prolific – more than 20 albums so far – Hamdan says he is no studio gun-for-hire.

“People often ask me why I have so many styles and I often reply: ‘Well, I have so many friends,’” he says. “I work for the pleasure and not the result. I am always drawn to artists that have a vision. A lot of the time the artist and I will become friends and the album is the result of that friendship.”

Sometimes, the admiration extends beyond the music.

Hamdan’s most celebrated works are those with the Soap Kills, which spawned a relationship between Hamdan and the singer Yasmine Hamdan (not related).

After releasing three cutting-edge Arab trip-hop albums the group were put on ice in 2005 when the relationship ended.

“That was definitely more of a love story than a project,” Hamdan recalls. “I was so in love with Yasmine and that relationship translated to songs that were authentic. We never expected any success and it was interesting how the albums have grown in reputation after we finished.”

Despite going separate ways – Yasmine forged her own career in Paris as a singer and actress – the Beirut-based Hamdan denies experiencing any bittersweet sentiments when reminded of the Soap Kills.

“It’s the opposite,” he says. “For me those albums are beautiful pictures that time has not made dusty. The albums are like giving birth to children that have grown up over the years and now have their own independent lives.”

While Hamdan explored going solo with the soul-fuelled 2012 album Aasfeh (under the title Zeid and the Wings), he describes being more comfortable in the producer’s chair.

“It is easier to judge other people’s projects than your own. Producing myself was quite difficult and this is why I don’t do solo things very much because I am not that confident with it.”

Saturday’s festival will also find Hamdan’s guiding touch over two of the headliners.

He will be performing onstage with Maii Waleed and has already produced the backing instrumental tracks for Oum’s set.

Hamdan hopes the Gulf Music Festival, coupled with the accessibility of the internet, encourages more people to seek out Arab underground music.

“There is so much out there to discover,” he says. “And it’s not just limited to a place like Lebanon. There is a young alternative scene across the Arab world that is very active.” 

• Gulf Music Festival is on Saturday at The Archive, Safa Park, Dubai. Free entry. Doors open at 11am

sasaeed@thenational.ae