x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Enter sandmen: UAE fans eagerly await heavy metal titans Metallica

With Metallica playing their first Middle East gig at Yas Island tonight, we talk to some of the fans who have been waiting years for them to perform in the Emirates.

Metallica's lead singer James Hetfiled and drummer Lars Ulrich will perfom at Yas Island tonight.
Metallica's lead singer James Hetfiled and drummer Lars Ulrich will perfom at Yas Island tonight.

When Abu Dhabi was chosen as the city where the heavy metal titans Metallica would play their debut Middle East performance, not only was it another sign of the city's growing reputation on the live music circuit, but an acknowledgement by the promoters that the capital was home to a thriving community of fans receptive to the genre.

Only a few minutes after the September announcement, global metal forums were awash with news of the performance. While some European fans wondered where exactly Abu Dhabi was, local metalheads were already preparing for the arrival of their musical heroes.

For Dubai's Basel Anabtawi, 27, being in the front row is not enough.

"It's my lifelong dream to meet them," he says. "So when I heard they were coming here, I immediately started thinking of ways for this to happen. There was no option, I had to meet them"

Anabtawi, an assistant marketing manager for General Motors, put his skills to good use and launched a social network campaign to convince the band and sponsors to grant his wish: the "Basel Anabtawi MUST Meet Metallica" Facebook page has more than 1,000 supporters and #BASELMEETSMETALLICA has become a popular trending topic on Twitter, thanks to his friends and family flooding both websites.

Anabtawi says Metallica's arrival in the UAE is not merely a local metalhead's dream, but proof that the much-maligned genre is growing rapidly in the region, with its own bands and regular performances.

"Of course, this was really a long time coming," he says.

"Only eight years ago, there wasn't anything that you would call a metal scene here. It was just some random concerts like Iron Maiden, Machine Head or Guns N' Roses." Arriving in the UAE as a 13-year-old from Jordan, Anabtawi explains how he was attracted to the grit and aggressiveness of heavy metal. He initially viewed it as his own personal backlash to the polished pop sounds of Britney Spears and The Back Street Boys, very popular at the time.

"It wasn't mainstream, you know?" he says. "You felt different to a certain point, you felt original."

He described traversing the UAE's music shops in search of heavy metal cassettes.

"Back then, only the big names were available like Metallica, Megadeath and Anthrax," he recalls. "But if you wanted something a bit more extreme, let's say Sepultura, you would have to look harder. I remember finding a Sepultura cassette in a small shop in Sharjah, I was so excited."

Now, with the arrival of Virgin Megastores, YouTube and even MySpace, the most obscure metal act can be easily tracked down.

But according to Rodi Hennawi, 33, this accessibility didn't initially translate to the growth of a local metal community.

Hennawi currently runs one of the region's most prominent metal nights, Metal Asylum.

Since 2008, the bimonthly event, which consists of live performances by local and international acts, ran in various Dubai venues such as Jimmie Dix and Aussie Legends before settling in its present home at Cheers at the Lodge.

Hennawi, who has lived in Dubai since 2002 and holds a daytime job "in marketing", says it was the dearth of live metal tunes that drove him to start Metal Asylum.

"Back then, we would go to a place like The Music Room or CQ Bar and see cover bands playing hard rock," he says. "But some of these bands were really talented and had great singers and wanted to play their own music, so I thought, why not start this?"

Metal Asylum's debut night was at Jimmie Dix, with Hennawi forming his own covers band playing an eight-song set by the likes of Metallica and Deep Purple.

Hennawi said it was the reaction of the audience, rather than the mere 40 who attended, that persuaded him to keep going.

"They were headbanging!" he beams. "Word spread about us and all these other local metal bands I never knew about started attending."

Metal Asylum now commands a loyal audience of 150 punters who arrive regularly to see performances by local up-and-coming bands such as Midway, Coat of Arms and Echoes of Laughter, as well as visiting internationals such as Germany's Hatred.

Hennawi says it was the growing popularity of events such as The Dubai Desert Rock Festival – which brought acts such as Motörhead, Opeth, Mastadon and Killswitch Engage – that convinced promoters and international acts of the viability of the UAE as a metal stopover.

The arrival of such international acts was also a turning point for Hennawi's personal life.

It was among the sold-out crowd at Iron Maiden's debut UAE headlining performance in 2009 (they first came here as part of 2007's Dubai Desert Rock Festival) in the Dubai Media City Amphitheater that he met his future wife Georgina Enzer, 30.

Renowned as the "UAE's metal couple", the duo are regularly spotted at most local metal gigs.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Enzer arrived in the UAE in 2009 and currently works in publishing. A well travelled and lifelong metal fan, she attributed heavy metal music success in Europe and America to its strong fraternity of musicians and fans.

Struck by how disparate and divided the local scene was, she launched MetalityUAE, a website that acts as a forum where bands and aspiring musicians can interact, as well as an online magazine with interviews with local and visiting metal acts.

The website also launched an internet radio station, streaming the latest heavy sounds from local and regional bands.

Despite the site's steady growth, with 300 unique hits daily, Enzer is blunt in her assessment of the challenges facing the UAE metal scene.

"From what I've seen in Africa and in Europe, the bands over there are more proactive in getting people to come see them play," she says. "While here I think some of the bands are spoilt and don't promote themselves the way that they should and they expect it to be done for them,"

She hopes MetalityUAE can act as a platform for bands to "meet each other, greet each other as friends and learn from each other".

One group local metal fans undoubtedly look up to is UAE's Nervecell.

Formed in 2000, Nervecell are arguably the country's most successful metal group, with two internationally released albums and regular tours of Europe. Speaking from band rehearsals in Dubai, the guitarist Barney Ribeiro said the group were conscious of the fact they were representing the local metal scene when they hit the stage tonight, as the opening act for Metallica.

"We are aware of that and it is a humbling feeling," he says.

"But like the scene itself, we did work hard to get where we are. Metallica coming here is as big as it gets and I do think it's a long time coming. We just can't wait to go out, give out some pure brutality, I think some people will be shocked by us."

When the group meet Metallica backstage tonight, there is a high chance they will run into Basel Anabtawi.

His campaign has caught the attention of the Metallica concert co-sponsor du, which called him last Friday with an offer of a meet-and-greet with his musical heroes.

Anabtawi says he was not surprised by his campaign's success.

"I am very grateful but to be honest, not surprised," he says.

"But I am an optimist, and that is part of the whole metal and rock attitude. The music may be aggressive but it's fun and that's the way I approach my life. I am a real go-getter."


Metallica play at Yas Arena, Yas Island, tonight. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets start at Dh295 from www.thinkflash.ae