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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

UAE trio Noon open up about pushing their own sonic boundaries

The band will play the Border Crossing Concert in Amsterdam

Anthony Mina (left) on bass and Usef Nader on the oud for the experimental fusion band, Noon. Courtesy Noon
Anthony Mina (left) on bass and Usef Nader on the oud for the experimental fusion band, Noon. Courtesy Noon

Noon are the kind of band you might expect, or rather hope, to encounter in the UAE – an audio approximation of the emirates’ cluttered cosmopolitanism and contemporary, borderless ethos. Made up of three players, drawn from different cultural and musical backgrounds, the instrumental trio bravely embody, and certainly enliven, the hackneyed idea of East/West musical fusions.

Up front is the sound of the oud, the most typical international marker of all things Middle Eastern. But sonically framed by electric bass and drums – and freed by the improvisatory impulses of jazz – Noon’s collective sound is distinctly global. Shades of funk groove, African and Indian percussive rhythms and electronic effects pepper this sonic stew. The effect is a little like a proggy, post-rock power trio, only with an oud where the electric guitar is supposed to be. They call it “experimental Oriental” – a knowingly exotic abstraction, for sure, but of the very best kind.

All long-term UAE residents conscious of musically manifesting the cultural crossroads they call home, the Lebanese-Indian-Cypriot Greek trio are now taking their third culture ethos out of the country for the first time. Noon are holed up in Amsterdam until February 5, playing their first international gigs and finalising the compositional make-up of their debut album. Before leaving The Netherlands, the band will also tape an hour-long demo of their LP-in-progress – tentatively titled “Amsterdam Studio Sessions” – and forge an experimental live collaboration with an Afro-Cuban percussionist Shakoor Hakim, also set to be recorded.

“What we’ve created, in terms of musical concept, is very rooted in the Middle East,” says drummer and percussionist Ratish Chadha. “We wanted to take ourselves out of that typical Dubai life, to push ourselves further than we thought was possible – and then push even further.”

Influential admirers have already been found in members of leading jazz-crossover populists Snarky Puppy. Also on the band’s calendar are debut North American shows at April’s historic New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and some Anghami-only teaser releases, drawn from a live set recorded at Dubai’s Flipside DXB in October.

Not bad for a group which only established its current membership less than six-months ago – a line-up already road-tested with well-received gigs at Dubai Marina Music Festival and NYU Abu Dhabi’s Hekayah, both in December.

“Our music dynamics, and the friendship we have, are a typical image of Dubai,” says Lebanese oud player Usef Nader. “Each one of us is stretching his musical comfort zone and getting exposed to different musical heritages. I would call it a merge and consolidation hub – rather than a melting pot. We are putting in the mix our social and cultural upbringings, without compromising our identities.”

First among the band’s Amsterdam engagements was the Border Crossing Concert on January 28, organised by the social initiative BlendIn which tries to help recently arrived refugees to integrate into Dutch society, most having fled Middle Eastern nations such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“This gig is so appropriate for us, it’s almost like it fell from the sky into our hands, like it was meant to be,” says Chadha. “Our sound offers something very familiar to them, while giving a reminder, through music, that there should be no barriers. Hopefully we’ll be able to help break down some barriers between different communities, too.”

Straight from Amsterdam, Chadha will be flying to Miami for Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP festival. After reaching out to the breakout fusion band for a chance to perform – an enthusiastic reply direct from the musicians themselves announced that the bill was already full, but praised Noon’s music and urged the band to stay in touch – he mysteriously “won” VIP tickets in a social media contest he had not entered. Chadha would rather not chalk this up as coincidence, and intends on making the most of his time at the notorious musos’ hangout. “I’m going to take the recording we make in Amsterdam out there, and play it to anyone who will listen,” he says.

All this international progress comes at a price. Noon were also invited to perform on the main stage at this month’s Wasla festival – taking place at Dubai Design District on February 2 – a high-profile opportunity the group were forced to decline. Notably, there are no other UAE acts currently on the headline bill. “We realised we have to make some kind of sacrifices to get where we want to be,” says Chadha, “and everyone in that [UAE] scene already knows us.”

As we speak, he is in Dakar, Senegal, working as an audio engineer on a forthcoming documentary film researching traditional sabar drumming techniques. Directed by friend Jesse Rosenfield, Netflix are among the distributers who have expressed an interest. For the 25-year-old drummer, the project, which combines his technical training with his percussive passion, was a dream opportunity.

“We’re trying to expose the world to the rhythms of the region,” he says.

Clearly prepared to travel where the music takes him, Chadha claims he would not even be living in the UAE had it not been for his formation of Noon. Typically, the group is the product of chance encounter – and fittingly the project’s roots were laid on the Indian percussionist’s birthday.

Born and raised in the UAE, Chadha spent almost five years in the United States, first studying recording arts in Orlando and later testing his craft by working in live sound in the musical hotbed of New Orleans.

Back in the UAE for his 24th birthday, in February 2016, Chadha invited all the musicians he knew to a jam. The motley cast assembled ranged from folkies to heavy metal guitarists, but things got really interesting when Chadha started improvising with Nader, a classically trained oud player who was less familiar with the typical blues licks littering the air. “We jammed for hours, the synergy and the harmony between us was effortless,” recalls Nader. “It was as if we knew each other and had played music together for years.”

When, some months later, Chadha made the decision to settle in the UAE for good, the two musicians rekindled the fire. After initially trying as a duo, Chadha and Nader then recruited guitarist Charbel Naim, and the trio began experimenting with live electronic backing tracks. But something wasn’t right. “After two or three shows we realised that, as musicians, we really require that thing they call a swing,” says Chadha.

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After he kept running into former schoolfriend and fellow full-time musician Anthony Mina on the bandstand – backing UAE artists such as Hasan Malik and Jamil Jabbour – Chadha invited the 25-year-old bass guitarist into the fold, another third-culture kid raised in the UAE but of Cypriot Greek and Lebanese parentage. Later, after almost a year playing as a quartet, guitarist Naim stepped down. “He said, ‘I don’t think I can keep up with you guys anymore, but I think you should keep going’,” says Chadha.

This move solidified the current configuration: the gig-worn, rock-influenced rhythm section of Chadha and Mina offer the music a streamlined, but versatile backbone, freeing up Nader to untangle spiralling oud phrases, and supply the soundscapes with fleeting electronic shades.

This may be Noon’s secret weapon – Nader, a graduate of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music and a former club DJ, is deeply aware of the rules and how best to break them.

“I always had a rebellious approach towards music,” says the 30-year-old. “I sensed that this old soul instrument – the oud – was left behind, from a technology and evolutionary standpoint. Contained by the right acoustics, every instrument has something to say in any musical environment – and should be given the chance to do so.”

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