Zahed Sultan’s show Resonance comes to Abu Dhabi’s NYUAD
As a teenager, Zahed Sultan was stopped by customs officers on the way back into his home country, Kuwait. The suspicious contraband he was carrying? Vinyl records.
“I remember having to try to explain what I was doing,” he says. “They were like, ‘What are you bringing in – who uses this?’”
At the time, Sultan was a schoolboy, spinning chart records at parties for friends and classmates – but he was already ahead of the cultural curve. Now, he is a celebrated musician and multimedia artist, whose immersive spectacles have reached audiences across three continents. His latest show, Resonance – which he will perform at New York University Abu Dhabi today and tomorrow as part of a double bill with Brazilian manguebeat mover DJ Dolores – mixes sound, film and light.
It is a world premiere, of sorts – the Resonance project is still under development and is yet to be shared with a public audience. The concept’s roots sprouted last summer, when Sultan hosted a week-long residency at London’s Barbican Centre as part of filmmaker Doug Aitken’s Station to Station “living exhibition”. It grew further in February while working on Hiwar, a two-week residency for The Heart of Sharjah, exploring the “nostalgic propaganda” of the region’s traditional pearl-diving music.
“To be completely honest, I get booked for things that don’t exist,” says Sultan. “So I work backwards from the performance date. I’ll give out proposals that tell enough, but leave a lot of room to explore and experiment.”
In this case, the proposals promise a show “requiring sensory participation from an audience”, and which blurs “the boundaries of what is real and what is perceived”.
One certainty is that the Abu Dhabi performance will sound – and look – little like the grand band-led alt-rock spectacle he led at Dubai’s Meet d3 festival in March, one of his final events touring his second album/project EyeAmSound. In contrast to that huge festival stage, the NYUAD gigs will take place in the controlled intimacy of the Black Box, converted for the first time into a 300-plus-capacity “Dance Club” venue.
A visual artist, a dancer/contortionist and a live band will augment Sultan’s electronics and vocals.
“One of the key words that come up when I perform is immersion – blurring the lines between performer and audience – democratising that process as shared experience,” says Sultan.
“Another word is ‘vulnerability’. For artists to be onstage, to project emotion, you’re putting yourself out there – but why should that be a singular process or a singular act? What if you can work with various mediums – light, sound, video – and put an audience in a place that challenges their comfort zones? I’m very curious about the notion of shared vulnerability within a space as an energy.” If Sultan’s sentiments sound abstract, his methodology is more pragmatic than pretentious. Talking about his art, he references business models and “commercial sustainability”. Crucially, Sultan only launched his music career after establishing a firm financial footing from other ventures. Born into a merchant family, he is the son of prominent architect Ghazi Sultan – founder of Kuwait’s The Sultan Gallery, which has been described as “the first professional Arab art gallery in the Gulf”. Early on, Sultan learnt the oft-crippling crisis of art and commerce. So five years before launching his debut album, 2011’s Hi Fear, Lo Love, he established branding company El Boutique Creative Group.
“I realised early on that a lot of people have to compromise on creativity because they have to pay rent,” says Sultan. “One differentiating factor is, I told myself I never want to think about commerce or money, because it would corrupt the creative process – so I did all these other things, over many years, to develop a sustainable lifestyle for myself.”
Sultan’s first live performance was less than four years ago, during which he presented a solo electronic set at Dubai’s Tiger Translate in early 2013. It was the first of many shows in the emirate, which were followed by gigs for Sub-Sonic, Market OTB and RBMA Bass Camp, as well as Meet d3. Again, it was practicality not pretension that sparked his then-primitive experimentation with visuals, looping clips of his music videos.
“The truth is, at the beginning the visuals were a way of hedging risk,” he says. “I thought if I go onstage and people dislike the music, then I’ve reduced the chance of losing their interest by 50 per cent if I can present something visually. “I got onstage, got into it, and realised within five minutes that absolutely no one was dancing – it was the kind of performance where I was looking at my watch trying to get off.
“But no one left the dance floor, they all stood and stared – they were watching and listening – that’s what I was delivering, sound and visuals. It took me 12 performances to get people to start dancing – to get it right.”
• Zahed Sultan and DJ Dolores perform at NYUAD’s Arts Center tonight and tomorrow from 8pm.
To register for free tickets, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org
Updated: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM