Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

UAE Portrait of a Nation: the nighttime voice of the UAE

Broadcaster Surianah Mahmud reflects on Singapore, why jazz is the original punk and the new radio pastures ahead

Surianah Mahmud in the hot seat at Radio 2 studios in Abu Dhabi. Her new show starts on Saturday. Victor Besa / The National
Surianah Mahmud in the hot seat at Radio 2 studios in Abu Dhabi. Her new show starts on Saturday. Victor Besa / The National

When Surianah Mahmud was just five, she remembers her mother tuning into the wireless in Singapore.

“I used to say: ‘Mom – are there little people inside the box?” she recalls with a smile. “I distinctly remember that very moment.”

Decades on from those early years in her native Singapore, she has become one of the most recognisable voices on UAE radio.

In a world of bland playlists, predictable shock jocks and music frequently out of touch with the country it is played in, her jazz show has tuned into the ambient mood of the capital.

In the Abu Dhabi studios where she broadcasts from, Mahmud reflects on her early days in Singapore, why jazz is the original punk and the new radio pastures ahead.

She came to the UAE twelve years ago following more than two decades of work across Asia, including a five-year stint at MTV Asia. It was a world of parties, travel and juggling roles from presenting news to award shows.

“They were crazy, crazy times. MTV award shows were just like the film Bohemian Rhapsody," she says.

“They were crazy, crazy times. MTV award shows were just like the film Bohemian Rhapsody

Surianah Mahmud

But new horizons beckoned. The outbreak of Sars in China prevented a move there and chance to work for Radio 2 in Abu Dhabi, then under the Gulf News banner, proved too inviting to turn down.

Mahmud then switched to Abu Dhabi Classic FM in 2010 as host of the Dinner Jazz show. Since then, as the sun set over the capital, her silky-voiced tones introduced some of the most acclaimed jazz artists of all time to listeners across the country. It could be a track from legends John Coltrane or Miles Davis, while a newer generation represented by the likes of trumpeter Terence Blanchard were also introduced to the airwaves from 7pm to 10pm every Sunday to Thursday.

“It has always been jazz before everything else,” says Mahmud, 54, of her love for the genre.

“Take Billie Holiday, there is just something about her. It is the burn in her voice - everybody has some sort of burn inside. She is so tortured.”

Another one of her favourites is Louis Armstrong, who she describes as being the original punk for what he did for his people.

Much of radio across the globe is increasingly dominated by personality and vacuous loudness. But the music of dinner jazz and Mahmud’s understated style marked a refreshing change. The show even featured sponsorship by the Arts Centre at NYUAD, more firmly embedding the show in its local surroundings.

“This is the thing about music,” she says. “Broadcasters can just step back and let the music play and not say ‘we are, I am’.”

Over its nine-year run, the show built up a dedicated following. While there are no public listenership figures here, Mahmud regularly received letters and texts from people who still tuned in when travelling abroad. One woman even sent a long letter to say she had lost her job, had other major issues going on in her life but still listened in.

“Perhaps it is something really constant in her lives. And it was not the first time I heard this," she says.

This dedication speaks to the frequent transient nature of life here. So many people are alone, away from their families and missing their homeland.

“People come here from all over the world,” she says.

“But we all come with our own baggage. Take Eastern Europeans – many are coming from a tough place. So I try to put myself in their shoes. They don’t want people shouting at them.

“Even if they have a family unit, they could be disconnected or separated or going through a divorce. So at some point they are alone or need someone.”

But Mahmud’s devoted following must change the dial from Saturday. A shake-up in the radio world means she moves to a new evening show on Radio 2, which is now run by Abu Dhabi Media.

There was no formal announcement to mark the end but Mahmud did manage to say a quiet goodbye and thank you on the final show a few weeks ago. Jazz music is still being played on Classic FM but the future direction of the show has yet to be announced. Mahmud's new show will be more mainstream, and while she admits she’ll miss dinner jazz, there is not too much time to dwell on the change.

“I am looking forward to it. But I’m still trying to feel the vibe, change is good," she says.

Surianah Mahmud’s new show starts on Saturday from 7 to 10pm on 106FM in Abu Dhabi and 99.3FM in Dubai and also online.

Updated: April 4, 2019 02:38 PM

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