Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 June 2019

UAE Portrait of a Nation: Dubai Christian band put their faith in rock n'roll

Rock and Soul is made up of members of St Francis of Assisi Jebel Ali Catholic Church

Left to Right – Rajesh Pereira and Neil Thomson from Rock and Soul. Pawan Singh / The National 
Left to Right – Rajesh Pereira and Neil Thomson from Rock and Soul. Pawan Singh / The National 

The Middle East is understandably not a region renowned as a hotbed of evangelical gospel music.

But that has not stopped two dedicated rock enthusiasts from forming their own band together with fellow members of their local church.

Neil Thomson, 42, and Rajesh Pereira, 50, of Dubai’s St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, got together to create Rock and Soul, a new gospel troupe.

The Indian nationals claim there is a huge untapped potential for gospel rock in the UAE and that their band can fill the void.

“Gospel rock is hugely underserved in this region,” said Mr Thomson, who works for Etihad Airways and plays bass guitar.

“A lot of young people are moving away from the church and this is a good way to get them back and get them involved.

“Gospel rock is a game changer because it’s cool.”

Rock and Soul started out last year and have since performed three big gigs in the emirate.

The largest involved playing at their church following a live screening of Pope Francis’ historic Mass during his visit to Abu Dhabi earlier this month.

The band said they believed the Pope’s visit - coupled with 2019 being the Year of Tolerance in the UAE - provided the perfect opportunity to showcase their talents.

Recruiting fellow musicians to the band proved easy, they said, with singers from South African, Indian, Sri Lankan and French communities all keen to sign up.

“It’s a good opportunity to give the local talent a voice but it can be hard too,” said Mr Thomson.

“The people involved are very talented but we’ve had to turn many great musicians away because of the strict rehearsal schedules.”

Mr Thomson said he was keen for the group to perform their songs in Arabic as well as other languages, but that finding a translator had been difficult.

Members of Rock and Soul after they performed live for the congregation at St Francis of Assisi following a screening of Pope Francis's Mass in Abu Dhabi.
Members of Rock and Soul after they performed live for the congregation at St Francis of Assisi following a screening of Pope Francis's Mass in Abu Dhabi.

The band played two gigs last year, called Holy Rock Night and Holy Rock Night Winter edition. Their youngest member is 15 while the oldest is 55.

“We rehearsed for three months before each concert which required a massive commitment,” said Mr Thomson.

“It’s a lot to ask from young people who often have to study. We had one singer who told us that she couldn’t come to as many rehearsals anymore because she had started a part-time job.

“It wasn’t fair on the other people who were making every rehearsal. The next thing we knew we were being confronted by an angry parent wanting to know why we asked her daughter to leave.”

Rock and Soul are certainly not short on numbers, with up to 25 members taking part in band practice.

Mr Pereira, an IT consultant who plays lead guitarist, said the group’s combined talent meant standards and aspirations were high.

“Between dancers, cheerleaders and volunteers who help us out there are about 60-70 people involved altogether,” he said.

“A few weeks out from the Holy Rock Winter gig we noticed that some of the singers just weren’t keeping up or couldn’t be heard.

Left to Right – Rajesh Pereira and Neil Thomson from Rock and Soul. Pawan Singh / The National
Left to Right – Rajesh Pereira and Neil Thomson from Rock and Soul. Pawan Singh / The National

“We thought there was no way we could perform live to the standard we wanted to [for our next gig].

“That led to some hard conversations but we got there. It was definitely touch and go.

“We would love to perform an opening slot for Christian acts like Hillsong United or Don Moen who play frequently in the region.

“We couldn’t open for a normal pop act because our music is deeply spiritual and it’s important for us to keep it that way.”

Updated: February 28, 2019 03:06 PM

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