Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 September 2020

Step Music Festival: Another big step forward in Middle East’s underground music scene

Has the Middle East's underground music scene gone overground? There's strong evidence to be found in the first-third of 2017 in Dubai.
The Wanton Bishops enthralled fans with their bluesy-rock sound during the Step Music Festival in Dubai. Navin Khianey for The National
The Wanton Bishops enthralled fans with their bluesy-rock sound during the Step Music Festival in Dubai. Navin Khianey for The National

Has the Middle East’s underground music scene gone overground? There is strong evidence the answer is yes, given Dubai has hosted two huge regional alternative festivals in the past 11 weeks.

The first was the inaugural Wasla in January, which attracted thousands to Dubai Media City Amphitheatre.

On Friday, a smaller crowd turned out for the first edition of Step Music Festival, an offshoot of the three-day industry-focused Step Conference, at the Dubai International Marine Club – surrounded, as The Wanton Bishops’ frontman Nader Mansour wryly pointed out, by luxury yachts.

The link between the two events was a fitting, shared headline act in Mashrou’ Leila, certainly the region’s biggest indie breakthrough – and arguably its most compelling and accomplished flag-bearers.

Drawing liberally from 2015’s, electronically flavoured fourth release, Ibn El Leil, the set list was more than a little familiar to repeat listeners. Yet the Lebanese quintet’s swinging grooves, catchy riffs, dense instrumental textures, stylised iconography – and in Hamed Sinno, an eye-catching frontman – remain a thrilling live draw.

Also appearing on Step’s main “rock” stage were two rather less original Lebanese bands: the beige indie-pop quintet Adonis, who opened the evening, and The Wanton Bishops, who have built a significant European following by channelling American blues-rock aesthetics into a swampy, retro chic.

While the latter’s tunes from last year’s Nowhere Everywhere EP revealed new electronic and, even, traditionally Arabic elements, it was the title track of their 2012 debut, Sleep With the Lights On, that served as the inevitable climatic high.

Breaking the Beirut-hegemony on the main stage were Jordan’s surprisingly earnest Autostrad, whose groove-centric blur of funk and reggae-influenced indie is liberally peppered with spiralling keyboard squeals hinting at their Arabian heritage.

Edgier sounds were heard on the smaller, indoor hip-hop stage, where rappers including Palestine’s Muqata’a and Lebanon’s Malikah performed biting Arabic-language mic attacks over smart beats, basslines and glitches.

To hear such a wealth of talent in one place – and for the second time in less than three months in Dubai – was a real treat for regional music fans.

Whether this sudden burst of exposure for alt-Arabian sounds will continue to balloon, or spectacularly burst, depends on the fickle ears of listeners – and the fickler-still investments of the brands and promoters bank-rolling such events.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s ever-outspoken Sinno put it earlier in the day, during a conference discussion tellingly titled The Alternative Arabic Music Revolution: “If there’s no money in the scene, there’s no scene.”


Updated: April 8, 2017 04:00 AM

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