x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A music lesson from Canada

The rain came down in torrents and drizzles all day and the grass gave way to slippery mud but the music kept playing.

The rain came down in torrents and drizzles all day and the grass gave way to slippery mud. A constant stream of people ran for a nearby museum to take shelter, or huddled three to an umbrella and under blankets that got soaking wet. But the music kept playing, people kept dancing and the stalls kept serving up fast food, soul food and ethnic food.

Ottawa's Bluesfest was an event to be reckoned with this summer. The show went on despite the poor weather, which has seen regular rain throughout the month of July. The festival lasted two weeks straight, day and night, intensifying on weekends with more people attending the event. The first Bluesfest, in 1994, attracted only 5,000 people and had focused on blues music. Just four years later, 80,000 people showed up. It has skyrocketed in numbers and size since; last year 140,000 people came to enjoy the music and atmosphere.

It was that atmosphere and the possibility of discovering new bands that brought me to the event last weekend. Since I am by no means a music buff, some good friends helped me navigate my way through the event. We made our way to a huge field transformed into a campus of six stages, where a steady list of performers play for packed audiences at each one. We were met with a huge crowd of people of all ages and all walks of life. I saw young couples cuddling in the rain, teenagers rocking out to Michael Jackson remixes and older folks settling into their foldable chairs, enjoying warm cups of coffee.

The variety of performers kept everyone happy. The American singer-songwriter Neko Case's soulful and beautiful voice gave her fans a beautiful treat as they swayed with her music in the cold air. Ani Difranco's crooning brought back memories of high school and early university for many of us, while Thunderheist rocked out with strong tunes. The most interesting part was discovering an eccentric American musician who goes by the name Girl Talk.

Just over a muddy hill from Neko Case's stage, hundreds of young people made the crowd look like one massive body jumping up and down to the remixing tunes of Gregg Michael Gillis; he really knew how to throw a party. A former scientist, the 28-year-old mashes up music and remixes different parts of known music, while kids rock out. I made a mental note to download his music when I got home (available for a donation on his website).

When we got hungry we walked over to the food stalls, with vendors selling fried chicken, turkey drumsticks, poutine, fries, shawarma sandwiches, salad and more. Ice cream and lemonade were also flying off the shelves, even though the weather demanded hot chocolate and soup. It was incredible to see an organic and grassroots event bring so many genres of music together under one sky. People flocked to see their favourite bands or explore new ones. It reminded me a little of Egypt's efforts to support local bands and music. While the genres are not as varied as in North America, some concerts and events held by cultural centres try to promote local flavour.

It would have been so nice to see something similar in the Emirates. While big names like Shakira and Madonna are fun to go watch, it's really the grassroots musicians who need support from our communities to keep creating music. Bluesfest was a great place to see how a small group of people could turn their love of music into a national movement. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo