Middle East’s alternative music scene prospering at last

The announcement of the second edition of Arabic alternative music festival Wasla underlines the healthy growth of independent music in the region. (Photo courtesy: Wasla)
Updated 02 August 2017
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Middle East’s alternative music scene prospering at last

DUBAI: It looks as though 2017 is set to be a landmark year for alternative music in — and from — the Middle East. Several new initiatives introduced this year suggest that, after a long battle for acceptance, independent alternative musicians in the Arab world are finally starting to attract the attention and audiences that their talent deserves.
This past weekend, the organizers of Dubai-based alternative Arabic music festival Wasla announced the lineup for its second edition, which will take place in November.
Wasla ran its first festival in January. It was headlined by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila who performed to a crowd of thousands in Dubai Media City. The indie five-piece are the world’s best-known Arabic-language band, well-established in the region and abroad, so it was understandable they should headline Wasla’s first edition.

Bringing it back with a little behind the scenes shot of @jadalband at #waslamusic

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Indeed, at the start of April, Mashrou’ Leila were back in Dubai to headline the first iteration of another new alternative music event, STEP Music — an offshoot of the tech and digital-focused STEP Conference — which also saw a four-figure attendance for its one-day mix of music conference and festival, focused on independent artists from, or based in, the Middle East.
STEP Music featured both English and Arabic-language artists, while Wasla places emphasis on Arabic alternative music. However, both filled what Moustafa Abdelhamid, co-founder and marketing director of Wasla, described as “a massive gap when it comes to pushing this kind of music and these kinds of artists here.
“Essentially, we’re a group of massive fans of Arabic music and of all these bands from the region,” Abdelhamid told Arab News. “What we noticed was they’re getting so much more support and exposure outside the region. And we thought that was such a shame. There are so many Arabs here in Dubai, in particular — it’s one of the few places where you get this massive mix of nationalities from around the region — and they’re not really exposed to these artists.

Mashrou Leila are on fire today!#mashrouleila #waslamusic #wasla

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“Some of the artists are already quite established and they’ve been touring, but there’s a lot of other emerging, young talents that don’t necessarily have the right platform and space to express themselves,” he continued. “So we thought the best thing to do would be to create this platform for alternative Arabic music in a way that’s non-commercial and non-mainstream, to show that there’s so much young talent in the region that deserves this showcase.”
Bridging the gap
“Wasla,” Abdelhamid explained, means “bridge” or “connection,” which neatly sums up its main goal: To bring people together. “We want to be that connection point between all of these wonderful things that we have [in the region],” Abdelhamid said. “Connecting artists to audiences, connecting different musical genres, connecting people from different backgrounds.”
As the lineup for Wasla’s second edition shows, the organizers are committed to showcasing a diverse range of nationalities as well as musical genres: From Egyptian rock outfit Cairokee (second only to Mashrou’ Leila in terms of commercial appeal for Arabic alternative bands) to acclaimed Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh; Jordanian indie trio El Morabba3; Lekhfa Project, which brings together three of Egypt’s biggest underground stars — Maryam Saleh, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Maurice Louca; and more. There will also be a much-anticipated return for Hayajan, a band led by Saudi-born Iranian artist Alaa Wardi — whose a capella renditions of songs have made him a huge hit on YouTube — who will take the stage for their first public performance in around three years. It is a stellar roster and an important reminder of the talent that exists in the region, albeit rarely championed in mainstream media.
“It’s great to have a festival that gathers Arabic alternative musicians in one place,” El Morabba3 front man Mohammed Abdullah told Arab News. “A lot of bands have emerged in the past few years which have cemented an independent, alternative music scene in the region. And it’s only getting bigger.”
Indeed, Abdullah’s band were the beneficiaries of another significant development for that scene this year, when their track “Abaad Shwaii” landed them the inaugural “Best Indie Song” prize at the Arab Nation Music Awards — the first time a mainstream regional music award has recognized alternative artists.
For Abdullah, the newfound acceptance of alternative music is “a natural development for music here in a region with conflict and struggles.” Rather than the repetitive, habibi-obsessed mainstream Arab pop music, the independent scene often offers music and lyrics that fit better with the hearts and minds of Arab youth. “It’s important this scene keeps getting nurtured, because we strongly believe independent music that reflects the issues of new generations, and those to come, is the future,” he explained.
Abdelhamid shares this view. “It’s important to have an alternative to modern mainstream popular culture, not just for the Middle East, but for the world at large,” he said. “You’ll always have your Amr Diabs and your Nancy Ajrams, but there are also people who are speaking more passionately about the region and more passionately about being young and the choices we have to make and the lives we have to live. And these youthful voices deserve an audience and deserve to be heard.”
Dubai-based Saudi radio host Hass Dennaoui — better known as Big Hass — who co-curated STEP Music this year, said that feedback from artists and attendees of the event was “mind-blowing,” adding that a number of them “went the extra mile to show gratitude for shedding light on, and giving a platform to, these rising regional stars.”
Usually, the biggest exposure regional independent acts receive in the UAE is a support slot for a visiting international artist. But, Dennaoui said, “STEP Music and Wasla proved that there is enough talent in the region to headline a festival without the need to bring in international commercial acts.”
Like Abdelhamid, Dennaoui recognizes there is still a way to go for the region’s alternative scene, but both are heartened by the steps taken so far this year.
“Society isn’t really accustomed, yet, to the concept of having a large lineup of artists performing on different stages. It’s important to nurture this festival culture and normalize it,” Dennaoui said. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the next big artist emerged from one of these festivals? I bet it can happen. Let’s just continue to create some waves.”


Sharqiah Season features interactive Van Gogh show at Ithra

A Vincent Van Gogh interactive exhibition opened at the King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) as part of the 17-day Sharqiah Season in the Eastern Province. (Supplied)
Updated 26 March 2019
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Sharqiah Season features interactive Van Gogh show at Ithra

  • The initiative is lin line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program

DAHRAN: The story of Vincent Van Gogh has been brought to life in an interactive exhibition at the King Abdul Aziz Center for World Culture (Ithra), through mesmerizing images projected on the walls and the voice of Lebanese actor of Jihad Al-Atrash.
Al-Atrash, who is famous for his role in “Grendizer” in the Arabic cartoon channel Spacetoon, narrates the story in Arabic, while Van Gogh’s famous paintings, such as “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers,” fill the walls.
“It’s not only entertainment, it’s also cultural and educational,” said Khalil Itani, project manager of the exhibition, which is part of Sharqiah Season, a 17-day festival that’s taking place in the Eastern Province.
“There will be an English voiceover soon. The 30 minutes and 40 seconds describes the important timelines of Van Gogh, his struggles and achievements, his thoughts. He was an awakened and spiritual person, but he was very sad; no one understood him. Also, the voiceover explains each phase of his life and the most important paintings of his, and explains these paintings and their story, and the techniques and colors.”
Itani told Arab News that many artists have visited the exhibition. “It’s very inspiring too for artists to know how he lived — this is the added value of the Van Gogh exhibition in Ithra.”
Raghad Al-Blowi, a 20-year-old Saudi visitor, said that Van Gogh was one of her most cherished artists, and her favorite painting is “The Starry Night.” Commenting on the Arabic narration, she said: “It makes visitors really get into it in Arabic more. Locals can understand and learn about Van Gogh.”
Colombian visitor Audrey Rincon said that she also enjoyed the exhibit. “It is different from the usual exhibitions, because the paintings are displayed in an interactive and creative way. And he is my favorite painter. I love the colors he used in his paintings, and ‘Sunflowers’ is my favorite painting.”
Sharqiah Season is organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in collaboration with the General Entertainment Authority, General Sports Authority and General Culture Authority. The initiative is in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 program, which aims to improve the quality of life for Saudis by providing enriching cultural pursuits and shows.
The festival, which began on March 14 and runs until March 30, has seen more than 80 entertainment and sporting events take place across nine different cities.