The team behind the Dubai-based website TripleW talks about how they champion music and bands from the Middle East.
One website's dedication to music from the Middle East
It's possible that not many people have heard of The Dapper Cards.
The Dubai indie rock group lasted only a year before breaking up with a small but rowdy farewell gig at the Aussie Legends restaurant in Dubai's Rydges Plaza in 2008.
While their struggle to get noticed and connect with other musicians didn't result in the kind of success they were hoping for, it did plant the seeds for the founding of TripleW, an influential, made-in-the-UAE, music website (www.triplew.me) that currently boasts 15,000 unique visitors monthly and links local and regional bands. The site promotes them as well as offers an online radio station devoted to playing unsigned talent.
The site's full-time managing editor and co-founder, Australian Paul Kelly, 30, was the band's bassist. The all-expatriate quartet formed in 2007 out of a shared desire to play live original music. At the time, however, the Dubai music scene was heavy with cover bands performing a range of music, from Mariah Carey to Guns N' Roses.
The reason for the dearth of original live music was mostly financial. Since licensing fees in venues were so expensive, it was better to invest in a cover band playing crowd favourites than a bunch of upstarts with original, unproven tunes.
However, The Dapper Cards managed to persuade the managers of the now-closed Jimmy Dix to give their cover band a night off each month to allow for the creation of a new event called Volume 11, which would see The Dapper Cards headline alongside another local live band and rock DJ.
"It went really well and we had a lot of people coming," Kelly recalls. "And we done it all just for a chance for us and other musicians to play, really."
After a bright start, six months later Volume 11 petered out due to lack of promotion and the band found themselves back at square one. This time, they decided to skip the UAE and set their sights on getting some gigs for a short tour of Beirut, which has a more established live music scene.
However, the search for venues proved difficult, and it was out of a sense of collective desperation that the concept of TripleW was born.
"That's when we said: 'Let's create something that first of all enables people to find out what's going on in the region because every one seems to be in these little bubbles in each of their cities," says Kelly. "Then we thought it would be really cool to listen to these bands as well and the idea just sort of ballooned."
After the band parted ways, Kelly - who was also working across the UAE at the time as an urban planner - with the help of an Australia-based web developer, began designing what would become TripleW: a site where bands from the UAE and the Arabic-speaking world could introduce themselves by posting their music.
The region already had the small but influential Dubai website Phride.com, which served as an online music forum, but Kelly thought much more was needed.
"A lot of bands were created out of Phride," he says. "But while that was more of a forum, we wanted to create something where bands can actually meet and collaborate and take it further."
Quitting his other job, Kelly dedicated himself entirely to the fledgling site, setting up its first headquarters in Dubai's Media City - the site's office eventually moved to Al Quoz - and recruiting a team of volunteer English and Arabic music writers and web DJs from across the region. TripleW went live just over a year ago with the online talent-search competition Makshoof (In the Open).
For three months, artists were invited to upload a track, then the number of viewer hits established a top 12, and eventually the winner was chosen by a panel of judges drawn from the local music industry.
The site flew the winner, Egyptian musician Shady Ahmed, into Dubai for a series of gigs, including television and radio appearances, as well as recording time at Dubai's In The Mix Studios.
Kelly says he wasn't surprised that from the 40 entries to the contest, more than 10 were from the UAE. He says the country's music scene has always been healthy when it comes to bands.
"I remember even back in 2007 where there was a lot of young bands who would rent out their own places and play all kinds of cool stuff from rock, indie and electro," he says.
"There were there a lot of these bands that were just DIY and would basically set up their own shows in hotels and villas because they had nowhere else to go."
Indeed, upon searching the site, one can encounter an eclectic array of local sounds from Dubai's quirky songstress Noush Like Sploosh to the folk singer Tim Hassal (currently recording his debut album in the US) to the hard-rocking We Left As Skeletons.
Mike Priest, who hosts one of TripleW's radio shows, is also the bassist for the Dubai punk band Grand Hotel Paradox. Fittingly then, his show, Beard of Defiance, focuses on playing punk music from bands in the region.
Priest concedes that while there is only a handful of punk bands in the Gulf, their credentials are as authentic as their American or British brethren.
"In Saudi Arabia, there a few guys who play in four different bands," he says. "But they are so super-DIY. In fact, one of these bands, Sound of Ruby, they are based near Riyadh - and they are putting out a seven-inch vinyl record, which is pretty much unheard of for bands in the Middle East."
The success of TripleW's music portal prompted expansion into film and photography, with competitions in both fields to uncover fresh, regional talent.
Earlier this year, TripleW's ultra short film competition, One Minute, produced a film that went on to screen at the Cannes International Film Festival.
The 60-second entry called Perfect Living by Sharjah filmmaker Faisal Hashimi, was shown during a screening hosted by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission.
The 21-year-old Hashimi, who couldn't make it to the screening, said he was "still buzzing" from the achievement and grateful for the opportunity.
"There are a lot of great stories by young filmmakers here in the UAE, but we sometimes lack the motivation," he says. "Young filmmakers need something to aspire to as opposed to just making movies for their own sake. So when competitions by TripleW come, they make us stand up and do something because there is a target."
Now TripleW is in its second year and Kelly helms an 11-member team of full-time staff and volunteers and has plans to develop the site even further. He expresses his relief that TripleW successfully cracked the critical one-year mark with funding coming from companies such as Nokia, AMD and Cisco, which sponsor competitions and some of the site's initiatives.
The Makshoof competition has returned for another season as well and has been redesigned as a developmental programme for aspiring musicians.
A series of instructional videos on how to enter the music industry, being shot with the assistance of students from Dubai's SAE Institute, will show online next month.
The major record label EMI Music has joined efforts, too, offering support and mentoring to some of the bands.
With all the momentum, Kelly jokes that it might be perhaps the right time to reunite The Dapper Cards for a comeback tour - the group that started it all.
"The other guys are still overseas and they saw what we done here," he says. "There is a sense of being proud of what we started."
A few of the local bands who have been featured on TripleW:
Noush Like Sploosh - A Dubai-based, female singer-songwriter, known for her quirkiness and Indian heritage
Osprey - An all-male metal band founded by an Emirati
Malika - A Dubai-based pianist and multi-instrumentalist
Tim Hassall - A Dubai-based singer-songwriter
We Left As Skeletons - An all-male Dubai-based hard rock/metal band
Absolace - An all-male rock band from the UAE
TripleW’s radio shows
As well as developing young musical talent through a mixture of training programmes and competitions, TripleW hosts an eclectic array of radio shows streaming online. Here are a few highlights:
• Beard of Defiance with Mike Priest – Punk rock can include many subgenres. Beard takes you on a journey to expand your horizons with the best punk from the region. Tuesdays 8pm (UAE time) and repeated Fridays at 5pm.
• A Piece of Strange with Moe Al Amin – Real hip-hop, from old school to new school. Listen for Moe’s amazing stories of how some of the genre’s most seminal tracks were created. Wednesdays 7pm and repeated Mondays 11am and Saturdays at 5pm.
• Filthcast with Digital Puppy –Can your speakers handle the bass? Turn it up and see as Digital plays some of the dub-step sounds making the rounds. Saturdays at 7pm with repeats on Tuesdays at 11am.