x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tomorrow's stars are here today

Finding UAE performers to top charts around the world is not easy. But an EMI executive says there is a vein of talent waiting to be tapped.

Hassan al Bagali, who records under the name Blue Bedouin, at his studio in Dubai.
Hassan al Bagali, who records under the name Blue Bedouin, at his studio in Dubai.

DUBAI // Lebanon and Egypt may be the leaders of the Middle Eastern music scene but the UAE contains a hotbed of talent waiting to be tapped, according to an executive for one of the world's leading record labels.

Richard Hussein, director of the Arabic division of EMI Middle East, says that while artists from the Gulf may not be as well known as those elsewhere, the region is rich with sounds that could sell better around the world than some of the company's biggest Arabic stars. "There is talent in the Gulf, a lot of young, aspiring talent," he said. "The UAE and Saudi Arabia are the most prolific countries and then Kuwait. They focus mainly on the traditional Khaleeji sounds but each country has its own unique sound. Their music differentiates them."

Mr Hussein said that, in the UAE, the most common sound is Shaabi, which he describes as "traditional music for the people. It's like what Crowded House is to Australia or Oasis is to the UK". His label has represented some of the region's biggest artists, including Amr Mostafa, Fairouz, Nancy Ajram and Ragheb Alama. It claims to be the only record label developing talent in the region. The trick is in finding the musical nuggets. Mr Hussein, who arrived in Dubai three and a half years ago from EMI Australia, said the landscape in the UAE is very different from that in many other countries, and it is more challenging to find talent. Rather than going to see live bands, he said, talent scouting here mainly comes from television and radio, for example on Melody TV.

"We get a lot of demos sent into us from artists. Many of them will produce their own video and send it to a TV station. Very often it is with the help of people's contacts that they actually make it on to the screen." EMI has been key in the rise of artists including the Lebanese-born and Dubai-raised singer Karl Wolf, who has topped charts around the world, and Ramzi, whose recent single Love Is Blind was an instant hit and was played on MTV Arabia and local radio stations and in nightclubs.

"In today's troubled times of business, we have to look for real, traditional artists," Mr Hussein said. "We don't want disposable pop and artists who are one-hit wonders. We need artists whose music or songs will sell for a year. "People are less inclined to spend their money on music nowadays so we have to be sure about the artists we sign, sure they'll sell. We can't take risks any more." EMI stopped producing music in 2005. The practice was not financially viable since the limited sales of new artists were rarely able to cover the costs. The company now focuses on licensing, distribution and manufacture. The artists usually produce an album, which EMI then markets. Mr Hussein said marketing is key to an album's success. "It has to look right," he said. The look of the artists and the artwork on the cover of a CD are crucial in determining how well it will sell.

Sony has said it intends to develop this side of the business next year but EMI has been in the region for several years, establishing itself in the local market. EMI's most successful material at present is "cross over", blending styles from the East and the West, using, for example, regional instruments such as the oud, set to Latin beats. Dubai-born Hassan al Bagali, known as the Blue Bedouin, is the label's most popular artist from the Gulf. "He's sold in Europe, the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore and so many more," Mr Hussein said.

Al Bagali's brand of chill-out music has cornered a niche. "The chill-out sound was so new when I began," the artist said. "I was so sick of making commercial music that I saw this as an opportunity for me to make a new sound." When he was a teenager, he was fascinated by the disc jockeys he saw on television. He learnt how to be a DJ from magazines and, over time, bought equipment from London. In 1999, following five years at Dubai Radio and after taking a DJ course in London, he began to develop his relationship with EMI.

It is thanks to EMI, he said, that his musical career took off and his talent was nurtured. "They told me how to make music for an audience, music that would sell," he said. His first album in 2001, Blue Bedouin, took two years to make, the material going backwards and forwards between his studio and EMI until they were happy with the final product. "I had to understand what the audience wanted. There was no other international company, and there still isn't, like EMI here. The smaller companies just aren't as professional. Their producers aren't as good quality and they want music which can be mass produced and sounds just like all the other music on the market. That's not what I wanted to be a part of.

So far, al Bagali's three albums have sold better in Europe and Asia than they have to his native audience. This, he said, is his challenge - bringing a new style of music to the UAE's very commercial market. But he remains upbeat. Mr Hussein said: "He's an Emirati producing music for international audiences. It's like a hobby for him but he's passionate about it." Another EMI star is DJ REG Project, real name Ralph El Khoury. His fusion music has sold more than 100,000 records worldwide, and he was the first Arabic artist to reach the top 40 album charts. He even topped the UK chart with his debut album, REG Project 1.

The Lebanese native, who is resident DJ at Dubai's Karma Kafé, said the key to making his music marketable around the world is an ability to mix western sounds with an eastern flavour. He came to Dubai four months ago and said he has found a more diverse and sophisticated musical audience here than in Lebanon. "Here, you have people from so many countries, which you can't find in my country," he said.

But he adds that while there is plenty of musical talent in the Emirates, breaking through into the mainstream will take time. "One day, a change will come, though, and people will appreciate the local music," he said. mswan@thenational.ae