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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Filipino musician Cromwell Ojeda on what motivates him, his latest project Muhaisnah Four, and performing at D3

Cromwell Ojeda is a mainstay of the UAE music scene who has earned his stripes several times over – but the multi-instrumentalist's greatest contribution is still to come with the release of his woozy electronic outfit Muhaisnah Four's debut album, A Memoir.
Musician Cromwell Ojeda. Satish Kumar / The National
Musician Cromwell Ojeda. Satish Kumar / The National

Cromwell Ojeda is a mainstay of the UAE music scene who has earned his stripes ­several times over, clocking gigs with as many as 30 different bands.

But the multi-­instrumentalist’s greatest contribution is probably still to come, after the release of his woozy electronic outfit ­Muhaisnah Four’s debut album, A Memoir – which will be performed live for the first time tomorrow at d3 (Dubai Design District).

The unveiling comes less than two years after Ojeda uploaded the album’s opening track, Home, to YouTube. The dreamy, electro-pop ­instrumental was accompanied by an arty, black and white, ­slo-mo skateboard video that encapsulates the track’s sense of naive, natural wonder.

At that time, Ojeda was searching for a name to release the tune under and, flustered, plumped for the Deira neighbourhood he then called home. He had zero idea Muhaisnah Four would grow into a live outfit with enough buzz to share a bill with hip-hop heavyweights Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown, as he will at tomorrow’s ­concert, part of Dubai’s first Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) Weekender.

“I was just looking for a name for the website, somewhere I could dump all my music, photos and everything under one brand,” says the Filipino ­musician, who now lives in Al Nada 2. “Maybe I should have thought about it a little more.”

Such an oblique yet specific name is oddly appropriate for Muhaisnah Four’s music – slow, big-hearted, uncluttered pop songs built on fuzzy layers of spacey, sun-kissed synthesisers, beats and guitars. When the ­sporadic vocals arrive, they are another instrument amid the blur.

Loosely tagged in the “chillwave” bracket, it is a compelling sound, but far from Ojeda’s only voice. Muhaisnah Four is one of five musical projects he is currently involved in – which include playing drums in punk and hard-rock bands, guitar in instrumental post-rock outfit We Left As Humans, which released a debut album in December, and bass in long-standing rock juggernauts Juliana Down.

Also a father-of-three, who works full-time as a designer, Muhaisnah Four grew out of his desire to create a self-sustainable solo voice. A true bedroom project, Ojeda played and produced every note on A Memoir, with just three guest vocalists brought in for the handful of vocal tracks.

“I created this project because I didn’t want all the hassle of scheduling practices, managing bandmates’ family and work,” says Ojeda. Ironically at d3, Cromwell will lead a six-piece band, while previous gigs – which have included warming up for electronic trailblazers Dâm-Funk and Daedelus – have offered a mix of quartets, trios, duos and solo shows.

“I wanted a set-up I could do on my own, with nothing but a synthesiser and a sampler that I could fit inside one bag,” he says. “Now, I don’t know what happened to this project.”

Ojeda is still able to strip the music back down for solo ­engagements at intimate spaces, such as art galleries. But at such moments he is most definitely not a DJ, and while it might be electronic music, his is of the decidedly warm, woozy, sentimental kind. Tellingly, the album’s song titles are often highly evocative, single words likely to conjure deep but diverse emotional reactions in listeners: Summer, Sunrise, Heart or Home.

After spending more than two-thirds of his life here, Ojeda empathically calls the UAE home. Born in the Philippines, his family moved to Dubai when he was 11. It was summer, and with two months before the school term started, Ojeda’s dad bought him and his brother a cheap acoustic guitar and Beatles songbook.

Within a year he was entertaining classmates. He learnt to play the drums from watching a cousin play Jimi Hendrix covers on holiday in the Philippines.

“Back then there was no tabs, no tutorial videos, no internet,” Ojeda says. “You had to really listen.”

Working through dozens of bands in his teens and 20s, Ojeda played guitar and bass in Sandwash, a spiky punk-rock band formed in 2002 among the first wave of original acts in the UAE, and experimental-dub quintet DubHigh. Now, he is also founder of The Board, a collective of electronic musicians, producers and beat makers in Dubai, who meet regularly and organise gigs.

“Personally, I find it hard to play in just one genre – if I do, within six months I’m bored,” says Ojeda. “If I’m playing punk and have a riff that doesn’t fit that band, I feel bad that it’s going to get thrown away – so I keep on creating new bands.

“I’m never in two bands of the same genre – it’s not healthy for the scene, or myself. This is a more productive way to contribute to the growth of the music scene – to keep creating music that nobody else is doing, that’s what excites me.”

rgarratt@thenational.ae