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.
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.
“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.”