Dubai musician to share stage with soul diva Sade
As thousands of Sade Adu devotees make their way to Yas Arena tonight to watch the British-Nigerian soul singer perform in Abu Dhabi, don't be surprised if the venue fills up a little earlier than usual, with fans rushing to catch the support act too.
Hamdan Al Abri, a musician whose talents have earned him both considerable respect and a loyal following, was handpicked by Sade's management after hearing demos of his new EP.
Days after he was unveiled as Sade's support, Al Abri remains wildly enthusiastic about the chance he's been given to share the stage with one of his musical idols.
"This is a dream come true for me," he exclaimed. "Her music and her voice are both totally unique in the world. As an artist, I love her voice and she's breathtakingly beautiful. Before I knew I was supporting her, I would have said she's been a major influence on my career. You know, I used to joke that Sade was going to be my future wife.
"For me to get this gig so early in my solo career is amazing, especially after what happened with my band last year."
By this he means the demise of Abri, his former group. Formed in late 2005 with the dreadlocked Emirati as the band's frontman, Abri served up a piano-led, jazz-tinged soul sound. After being shortlisted by MTV Europe in the best Arabian act category at the channel's 2008 music awards, the band decamped to London shortly afterwards, determined to make their big break.
A series of setbacks would dash their aspirations. After just a handful of shows, keyboardist Julian Symes called it quits, announcing that he was off to Brazil, before drummer Andre Atherley soon followed, seduced by a job offer in the sleepy English town of High Wycombe.
Chastened by the experience, but still inspired, Al Abri retraced his steps to the UAE to concentrate on his solo career. But even with two former members of Abri currently living in different time zones, Hamdan insists the band haven't sound checked for the last time.
"Most definitely, the group is still on; we're just having a bit of a hiatus," he declares. "I haven't left the band, our bassist Rami [Lakkis] is still in Dubai and we will reform Abri in some capacity in the future.
"The possibility is always there, so I'm not going to say it's never going to happen, but we have nothing planned [right now]. At the moment, I'm just concentrating on working with Yasser and my solo career."
Al Abri is referring to Yasser Anderson, the electronic music expert, whom he first met in London.
"What appealed to me about him is, like me, he is open to everything," says Al Abri. "When he moved to the UAE, we decided to hook up and create some music.
"Yasser describes himself as a 'soundscaper', and that's essentially what he does - create soundscapes for me to add vocals to. Through this, we're going into new realms and new areas."
Thus far, this collaboration has yielded his self-titled EP. A full-length album is expected next year.
Those accustomed to Abri's jazz-tinged soul may find the record's mixture of drum loops, choppy piano chords and hip-hop samples a little confounding. Yet the familiar sound of Al Abri's smooth, soulful voice is what appends it to his previous work.
Al Abri insists that it's not a radical change in direction: "If you listen to the EP a lot, after a while you realise that it's still soul music, like we were doing with Abri, just a little more experimental and electronic than before.
"When I released the EP, I wasn't really sure how people would react and I feared it might alienate a few Abri fans. But I really believe that as long as the music is good and is from the heart, they'll be open to it. It's only been out for a few weeks, but so far the response has been great and most Abri fans have said they love the new sound."
Nevertheless, Al Abri won't be cashing in on sales of the EP. In fact, it's free to download from his Facebook page. Indeed, apart from the chunk of cash he's no doubt due for tonight's performance, and the outside licensing agreements he's previously made for his music, his tracks have been used as incidental music on primetime US TV shows such as CSI: Las Vegas and Ringer - Al Abri claims a musician's lot in Dubai is not an easy one.
"It's tough, as hotel cover bands are still the ones who are most in demand," he claims. "But I have noticed that it's improved recently.
"Now there are a few local bands playing their own music - like The Recipe and Nervecell, but there needs to be more artists who come up with good quality music of their own. That's the only way to be taken seriously in the world."
Meanwhile, finding places to play remains less than ideal. "We need more places like The Fridge and The Music Room in Dubai," he says, "which aren't hesitant about having local artists on stage, performing original music. But it's still not enough.
"You know, in London, every night of the week you can go to a venue and hear a different artist playing their own compositions. Although Dubai's a good place to start, if you want to really make it big, you need to spend time in Europe."
Of course, the opportunity to support a world-famous act like Sade can't hurt his ambitions. "You have to take your hat off to Flash [the promoters] because they are helping to support local talent and give us the opportunity to share the same stage as international acts. Anywhere else in the world we wouldn't get the chance to play to an audience of this size.
"But it's not really the money that counts for these kind of gigs, it's more that they are great exposure. All you can hope for is that the people see you and enjoy the show, then maybe go on Facebook and become a fan of mine, and pass it on to their friends and family. From this, maybe you will get some interest from a major label.
"But whatever comes of it, hopefully I'll get to meet Sade. You never know, maybe she'll accept my marriage proposal."
Hamdan Al Abri is supporting Sade at Yas Arena tonight. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets from Dh295 from www.thinkflash.ae