Catching up on the UAE’s underground music scene

Shébani brings a slice of Soho to Dubai, with powerful production to match her potent vocals.
Updated 26 November 2017
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Catching up on the UAE’s underground music scene

DUBAI: From London to New York and every city in between, music hubs ebb and flow with changing genres, rising stars and falls from grace, but the UAE has never been so alive with melody and rhythm.
Right now is arguably the best time to be a musician in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, with a range of open mic nights and concert promoters shifting the sands of opportunity and creating platforms for artists to draw a crowd.
Over the past five years, a series of musical visionaries have chiseled out a proverbial platform for melody makers to perform across Dubai and Abu Dhabi — in and out of hotels, in parks restaurants, coffee shops, private homes and really anywhere a crowd can gather.
Comprising the recent audio wave of locally-based talent, Freshly Ground Sounds arrived on the scene in 2013 with a seasonal flurry of home-grown gigs in quirky locations: Dubai Garden Center, Safa Park and Al Serkal Avenue to name a few. Now in its fifth season, the community-focused initiative is a fully-licensed enterprise, continuing with pop-up gigs and special al fresco productions throughout the winter season.
Dubai-based performer Abbo has simultaneously set up regular open mic nights in various venues across town under his GoPlayTheWorld outfit. Then, more recently, The Sound Gaarden has established itself as a “discovery and hiring platform” for artists in the UAE, helping musicians get hooked up to venues and help make connections happen.
And, as the saying goes, if you build it they will come. With more opportunities to perform, a glut of talent has emerged from the maple woodwork to regularly showcase their original tracks, sometimes honing their skills on the stage from complete debutant status, in warm and welcoming open mic events across the country.
We speak in colors
Somewhere among the haggard fishing dhows, tourist trinkets and the gold flakes on your foamy latte, Abu Dhabi is harboring a post-rock poet who cuts through the capital’s multi-layered identity like a sonic scalpel. His self-professed neurosis fuels a litany of fragile verses that smack of the strongest elements of “Bright Eyes,” “Death Cab for Cutie” and American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ back catalogue. If Bob Dylan was tuned to a frequency that led him to recite social commentary, we speak in colors’ Andrew Armstrong is somehow primed to paint a collage of words and musical arrangements that are more focused on his introspective melancholia, riddled with familiar yet provoking sentiments that complement his bright, uplifting cadence.
AMAN
Soulful acoustic hooks meet hypnotic electronic loops, Aman Sheriff is a solo artist who creates a soundscape that feels like it belongs to a whole ensemble of artisans. You could close your eyes and picture the full band but you would miss the physical presence he brings to each performance. Understated, but undeniable, he has been singing and songwriting since the formative age of 14 and performing with bands on summer travels in Goa and Thailand before dispatching his own project. He did all of this alongside recent ventures to Los Angeles and regular shows in his home town of Dubai. With misty vocal prowess backed by anthemic production, his “Piece of my Mind” EP is an instant classic.
Shébani
The evolution of Shébani’s sound has been swift, but utterly comprehensive. Transitioning from university shows in Dubai and an acoustic cover gig debut with her sister, Iman, Sarah Al-Sheybani jetted to London to hone a distinctive sound of earnest, thoughtful vocals over pulsing beats and layers of wavy synth. The solo female artist currently performs with producer and musician Rayan Bailouni for an immersive music experience. It has been a year since “Alter Ego” (EP) standout “Ocean on Fire” premiered but the timeless production will resonate indefinitely. More recently, the down-to-earth video montage of “Right by You” dropped on Shébani’s YouTube channel. It is not to be missed.

August 16, 2017.

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Physical Graffiti
Sometimes the greatest bonds are made at university and, in this case, it was a profoundly-fruitful musical connection. Zubin, Ankhurr, Darren and Sandeep also perfected their live performance chops in the early years of Dubai’s Freshly Ground Sounds events. Despite taking a break from live performances, the melodic, progressive quartet released another long-awaited EP earlier this year, notching two records on iTunes, brimming with syncopated riffs, hypnotic grooves and crispy, understated vocals straight out of a dream sequence. Fans have compared them to indie bands Foals and Neon Indian, but Physical Graffiti have taken a conventional four-piece band and reformatted it to refine their own palette of textured tones.
Norman Bataille
With the simple synergy of voice, hands and guitar, there is a purity attached to Norman Bataille’s songwriting. The Cuban artist is often likened to the vocal prowess of Michael Bublé with the intricate guitar style of John Mayer, but retains complete authenticity, refining his perky riffs at his home studio in Dubai. That is, when he is not jetting in and out of the city with his day job. A staple of homegrown open mic nights, Bataille most often blends modern bossa nova-esque folk with his own Hispanic flair.
Henry Boye
A singer, songwriter and six-string strummer, Boye’s musical journey did not start so early. “I knew I had music in me,” he told Arab News, but the multi-instrumentalist took some time to find his groove. Shifting from poetry, the Dubai resident ventured into a little-known genre called “Hip-Up” after penning R&B tracks throughout college, with clear influences from the likes of R. Kelly, Joe, Keith Sweat and Tevin Campbell. Without a huge personal footprint on the Internet, Boye’s main digital presence is for his ensemble project, The Stoik Band. The artist is a frequent gigger on the local scene, affiliated with the aforementioned Freshly Ground Sounds and GoPlayTheWorld.


Stolen Picasso unearthed by ‘Indiana Jones of art’

Updated 26 March 2019
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Stolen Picasso unearthed by ‘Indiana Jones of art’

  • The 1938 masterpiece entitled ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’, also known as ‘Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)’, was handed to an insurance company earlier this month
  • Arthur Brand won world fame in 2015 after finding ‘Hitler’s Horses’

THE HAGUE: A Dutch art detective dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Art World” has struck again, finding a Picasso painting worth €25 million stolen from a Saudi sheikh’s yacht on the French Riviera in 1999.
Arthur Brand said he had handed back the 1938 masterpiece entitled “Portrait of Dora Maar,” also known as “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” to an insurance company earlier this month.
The discovery of the rare portrait of Maar, one of Pablo Picasso’s most influential mistresses, is the culmination of a four-year investigation into the burglary on the luxury yacht Coral Island, as she lay anchored in Antibes.
Two decades after its theft and with no clues to its whereabouts, the French police were stumped — and the portrait, which once hung in the Spanish master’s home until his death in 1973, was feared lost forever.
But after a four-year trail which led through the Dutch criminal underworld, two intermediaries turned up on Brand’s Amsterdam doorstep 10 days ago with the missing picture.
“They had the Picasso, now valued at €25 million wrapped in a sheet and black rubbish bags with them,” Brand said.
It was yet another success for Brand, who hit the headlines last year for returning a stolen 1,600-year-old mosaic to Cyprus.
He won world fame in 2015 after finding “Hitler’s Horses,” two bronze statues made by Nazi sculptor Joseph Thorak — a discovery about which he had a book out earlier this month.
The theft of the Picasso, valued at around seven million dollars at the time, baffled French police, sent the super-rich scurrying to update boat security and prompted the offer of a big reward.
In 2015, Brand first got wind that a “Picasso stolen from a ship” was doing the rounds in the Netherlands, although “at that stage I didn’t know which one exactly.”
It turned out that the painting had entered the criminal circuit, where it circled for many years “often being used as collateral, popping up in a drug deal here, four years later in an arms deal there,” said.
It took several years and a few dead ends before pinning down that it was actually the Picasso stolen from a Saudi billionaire’s yacht as the mega-cruiser was being refurbished, Brand said.
Brand put out word on the street that he was looking for “Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)” and in early March he struck gold.
“Two representatives of a Dutch businessman contacted me, saying their client had the painting. He was at his wits’ end,” said Brand.
“He thought the Picasso was part of a legitimate deal. It turns out the deal was legitimate — the method of payment was not,” Brand laughed.
Brand called the Dutch and French police — who had since closed the case — and who said they would not prosecute the current owner.
“Since the original theft, the painting must have changed hands at least 10 times,” said Brand.
Brand said he had to act quickly, otherwise the painting may have disappeared back into the underworld.
“I told the intermediaries, it’s now or never, because the painting is probably in a very bad state... We have to act as soon as we can.”
Then, just over a week ago, Brand’s doorbell rang at his modest apartment in Amsterdam, and the intermediaries were there with the painting.
After unwrapping it, “I hung the Picasso on my wall for a night, thereby making my apartment one of the most expensive in Amsterdam for a day,” Brand laughed.
The following day, a Picasso expert from New York’s Pace Gallery flew in to verify its authenticity at a high-security warehouse in Amsterdam.
Also present was retired British detective Dick Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard’s art and antiquities squad, representing an unnamed insurance company.
“There is no doubt that this is the stolen Picasso,” Ellis, who now runs a London-based art risk consultancy business, said.
Ellis is famous for recovering many stolen artworks including Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” lifted from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994.
“It’s not only the public interest to recover stolen works of art,” he said. “You are also reducing the amount of collateral that is circling the black market and funds criminality.”
“Buste de Femme” is back in possession of the insurance company, which now had to decide the next steps, Brand and Ellis said.