x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UAE musicians take a rare break

As Ramadan nears, musicians and entertainers are packing away their guitars and dancing shoes and heading to the airport for a well deserved break.

Kano Kasan and Bambolio Diaz of Rock Spiders play one of their last shows before Ramadan at the Majestic in Dubai.
Kano Kasan and Bambolio Diaz of Rock Spiders play one of their last shows before Ramadan at the Majestic in Dubai.

DUBAI //Under flashing red and green strobe lights in a smoky bar, Roy Kelly belts out classic rock tunes. As lead guitarist for the Rock Spiders, a band that plays at the Majestic Hotel, he has done so more than 300 times in the past 11 months.

Later this month, he has a more important gig: playing music with his daughter back home in the Philippines. Mr Kelly is among the many UAE musicians and dancers who are getting ready for a rare holiday during Ramadan when work dries up. For performers with a job to return to at the end of the holy month, it is a welcome chance to rest and see family. For others, it is a time of uncertainty that lasts weeks, possibly months.

"I am happy to go home," said Mr Kelly before heading on stage for one of his final performances ahead of Ramadan. As is the case for many performers, his employer won't pay him during his time off but will cover his return airfare. Back in Luzon, he will see friends, cook for his family and resume helping his seven-year-old daughter to learn the piano and violin, he said. He'll pull out his guitar for a few hours a day, too.

Like many a rocker, Mr Kelly sports long hair and a thick silver chain. He has been performing in the UAE since before his daughter was born. He talks to her and her mother every evening before meeting the group for a warm-up. Then it is on with the show, which lasts until 2am. The band plays every night except for two days off a month. Mr Kelly gets free room and board and sends 80 per cent of his pay home to his family.

"I like it," he said. "It's not bad, not good." Equally as excited to go home is Tatyana Belinskaya, who sings at a Russian restaurant called Troyka at the Royal Ascot Hotel. She likes the work and the open-ended contract, but says it is draining. She shimmies on stilettos while delivering a stream of Russian and American tunes requested by diners from 11pm to 3am. She takes to the stage every night of the year, except for a few public holidays and Ramadan.

"It's very difficult to work like this without a day off," she said. "So we must relax." Kamilla Mutagarova, a dancer at Troyka, has an even more demanding repertoire full of leaps and quick choreography - and only a six-month contract. When she goes home to Russia on Tuesday she will have to start looking for a new job. She has already done stints in South Korea, Turkey and Italy, but wishes she could stay here. "I love Dubai. I want to come back," she said.

However, many employers stick to short contracts so they can cycle through entertainers. At the Beach Club bar, which features African bands, the manager Rafeek Arakkal said he hires performers for six months at a time at most. He let the latest group go a week before Ramadan and will find a new set after Eid. "Seventy-five per cent of our customers are regulars," he said. "They don't like to see the same faces again and again."

Sometimes performers prefer brief contracts, too. Laura Corallini croons alongside a pianist in the swish Bar 44 at Grosvenor House and will deliver her final melody there on Thursday before flying back to Argentina. For the past two years in the UAE, she has worked for three to eight months at a venue, then returned home for one or two months to reconnect with family and look for another job. Finding new gigs has been pretty easy, she said, and each time her employer has paid for her airfare, room and board.

"We like the combination of being able to travel and go home," she said, referring to her accompanying pianist. "We are quite lucky." chuang@thenational.ae