x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

UAE businessman gets his favorite band back together

For Malik Melhem listening to his favourite band meant not only filling his ears with music but giving the Palestinians a voice. When the group disbanded 22 years ago, he thought that voice had been silenced. But now, with his help, Al Ashekeen are on the road again.

Al Ashekeen perform during a previous tour of Abu Dhabi.
Al Ashekeen perform during a previous tour of Abu Dhabi.

DUBAI // Like many teenagers, Malik Melhem dreamt of joining his favourite band. And like many teenage dreams, it faded along with the music that inspired it.

The young Malik grew up to be a successful businessman while his heroes - the Palestinian folkloric group Al Ashekeen - broke up in 1990.

The dream, however, never quite died, and a few years ago, as his businesses began to bear fruit, Mr Melhem saw another way to realise that dream.

Now, thanks to his financial support, Al Ashekeen are back together, touring the Middle East and raising money for Palestinian charities.

"When the band disappeared, it felt that the Palestinian revolution and struggle lost it voice, and I came to dream of reviving it, but I did not have the means then," Mr Melhem said. Later, "when I told people my intentions, they told me that I am getting crazy. Many told me it is impossible for this group to come back. But I was determined".

Al Ashekeen, which is Arabic for "lovers", were founded in 1978 in Syria, by five men who wanted to sing for Palestine. Their music, which talks about the different aspects of the Palestinian struggle, has been described by many as the voice of the Palestinian revolution.

Mr Melhem, was born in Kuwait in 1969 to a Palestinian family from the West Bank, and was first introduced to the band at age 13 during one of their concerts in Kuwait.

"Since that day I became very attached to their music and my dream of being a member in the group was born," Mr Melhem said.

The band stopped work in 1990 for political, economic and administrative reasons. But the dream never died for Mr Melhem.

He studied computer engineering at a Jordanian university and moved to the UAE in 1995. Today he owns a group of eight companies and employs 1,300 people.

Initially, despite his business connections, he had no way of contacting the disbanded musicians once he decided to move forward with his plan.

He started looking for the founders of the band and tracked down the lead singer, Hussein Monther, better known as Abu Ali.

"I told him I am one of the 'Al Ashekeen'. He did not seem to have a lot of trust in me, as several others had called him over the past years and said the same thing, but it was only empty talk," Mr Melhem said.

Mr Melhem travelled to Syria to meet him and they began to work.

"Knowing that we would be back was an amazing feeling. We had the chance to bring back Al Ashekeen to its glories," said Mr Monther, who helped to found the group when he was 17.

Eventually, they gathered five of the original members. After adding other musicians - for a total of 35 members - the group began rehearsing.

Their first public performance was in Abu Dhabi in 2009. It was standing-room only.

"Many people came to the concert in disbelief. They thought that we were only bringing the name back and not the group. But they were surprised to see many of the same faces they have grown with to see and listen to," said Mr Melhem. During the show, he was too nervous even to show his face.

After that initial success, the band have toured many countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and, most important, they made their first visit to the West Bank in November 2010.

Mr Melhem said he had spent about US$1 million (Dh3.67m) so far on bringing the band back. Most of the concerts are free, and money raised through sponsorship goes towards paying expenses and to President Mahmoud Abbas's fund for Palestinian students in Lebanon.

At the end of last year, the band played all over the UAE. This year, concerts in the US, Canada, Romania and Saudi Arabia are on the agenda. An album, The Story of a Nation, featuring landmarks in Palestinian history, will be released next month.

And Mr Melhem's dream has become a popular reality. Their concerts have so far been attended by more than a million people in the Middle East.

"We were sure that we would get the same interest we had in the past. We knew that our songs were engraved in the Palestinian memory and we were unforgettable. So we are now continuing to do what we did, which is to sing for Palestine," Mr Monther said.