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

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.

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.

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.

Have you heard the one about the Muslims making a splash on the UK comedy scene?

Updated 19 November 2019

Have you heard the one about the Muslims making a splash on the UK comedy scene?

  • New breed of comedians use their Arab origins to fuel culture-clash comedy routines and smash stereotypes
  • Super Muslim Comedy Tour visited 11 British cities to raise money to help impoverished children in crisis-hit countries

LONDON: Thanks to stars such as Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Britain has long been a hotbed of comedy talent.
Lately, a new crop of Arab Muslim stand-up comedians have taken to the stage across the country, representing the UK’s ethnic diversity and offering a fresh alternative on the comedy scene.
Fatiha El-Ghorri, Omar Hamdi and Esther Manito were among seven Muslim comedians that toured 11 British cities as part of the Super Muslim Comedy Tour. This charity event is organized by Penny Appeal, an international humanitarian organization that works to provide poverty relief in crisis-hit countries worldwide.
In their acts, the three performers challenge the stigmas and stereotypes associated with how the British public views Muslims and Arabs, and vice versa, using their own experiences and backgrounds as inspiration for their humor.
British-Moroccan comedian El-Ghorri, for example, uses comedy to break down the barriers that she has come up against as a Muslim and as a woman.
“I think in the West in general we have a perception of Muslim women as being weak and oppressed, especially with Muslim women that wear the hijab,” she said after a performance at Porchester Hall in Bayswater, London. “It’s difficult for women in general but it’s more difficult for a woman that looks so different, as I do, because people don’t want to take a chance on you.”

British-Moroccan comedian Fatiha El-Ghorri is challenging the stigmas that not only come with being a Muslim, but also a Muslim woman. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

The comedy industry has long had a problem with female comics because promoters worry that audiences will not connect with their material, she said. At most of the events she has performed at she was the only woman on the bill, she added, and wearing a hijab makes it even harder to find a platform.
“So I like to challenge that and the perceptions people have of us as Muslims,” she said. “And also, within the Muslim community you have tribes: you have the Pakistani Muslims, the Arab Muslims, and we have traditions and cultures different to each other.”
Stepping onto the stage to the sound of a song by rapper Jay-Z, 38-year-old El-Ghorri kept the audience in stitches from the beginning to the end of her routine, as she merged eastern and western words and trends to come up with hybrid terms such as “Minder” (Muslim Tinder) and Mipster (Muslim hipster).
Despite the challenges and obstacles she has faced, she has no intention to give up her dream career.
“I’m not going to stop,” she said. “This is what I want to do and I’m gonna be here and I’m gonna do it. If one club won’t take me, another club will.”
The Super Muslim Comedy Tour, which is in its fifth year, kicked off in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Nov. 6 before heading south, stopping off in major cities before concluding in London on Nov. 17. Arab News caught up with the performers in the capital on the penultimate night of the tour.
Welsh-Egyptian comedian Omar Hamdi said one of the interesting things about stand up is that it takes him to places he would normally never go.
“This tour started in Aberdeen, which is like the northeast corner of Scotland — it’s practically Norway,” he said, adding that the “vibe there was different” to what he experienced in Bayswater, for example, a posh area in central London. “Even a distance of a few miles makes such a difference in the energy of the audience and what they’re into,” he explained.
This is the third time the 29-year-old has been part of the Super Muslim tour.

This is the third year Welsh-Egyptian comedian Omar Hamdi has joined Penny Appeal’s Super Muslim Comedy Tour. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

“Every year it’s different but it’s always fun,” he said. “I think because it’s been going a few years it’s become a bit of a brand. People come along more excited about the show, they have more expectations and it just gets bigger and better.
“The interesting thing is that wherever you go, people are there to laugh but they’re also there to support an amazing charity.”
Hamdi has also performed at Dubai Opera and the Royal Albert Hall in London. He is a presenter on the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) Award-winning BBC Wales consumer-affairs show “X-Ray,” and has a comedy special, “Omar Hamdi: British Dream,” on Amazon Prime in the UK.
During his routine on the Super Muslim tour, Hamdi, who was born in Cardiff, jokes about how his parents ended up living in Wales, which is not the most obvious destination for Egyptian immigrants.
Esther Manito, meanwhile, was born and raised in Essex, east of London.
“There were absolutely no ethnic minority groups around, let alone Arab ethnic minority groups,” she said. With a Lebanese father and a mother from Newcastle, in the northeast of England, her parents’ cultural differences, in particular their very different ways of speaking, provide a rich source of inspiration for her comedy.
“My style of comedy is very much observational,” said Manito. “It’s about family life, family dynamics and identity, and growing up with dual heritage, so all of that comes into play when I’m doing stand-up. My surroundings have given me so much comedy material.”

The Super Muslim Comedy Tour was held at Porchester Hall in Bayswater, London, after touring 10 other cities across the UK. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

Kae Kurd, from south London, is the host of the show. The 29 year-old, who hosts a YouTube show called “Kurd Your Enthusiasm,” was six months old when his parents moved to the UK in 1990. They were part of the resistance that fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
He said the response from audiences has been very positive throughout the tour, even if it occasionally takes a little time for them to warm up.
“Sometimes, I think people are nervous to laugh because they’ve probably never been to a comedy show before, so they don’t understand that they can laugh out loud,” he said. “But it’s been fun and everybody’s really enjoyed it.”
The proceeds from this year’s tour will help the Forgotten Children campaign, which aims to get young people in places such as Lebanon, Senegal, Pakistan and Bangladesh off the streets and into safer environments.
Sisters Ripa and Nazifa Hannan, from Hackney said it was the first time they attended a Muslim comedy show.
Ripa, 34, particularly liked El-Ghorri set and was able to relate to all her jokes, especially as they are from the same are in London.

British-Moroccan comedian Fatiha El-Ghorri (C) with fans Ripa Hannan (L) and her sister Nazifa (R). (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

“You know when women can kind of relate to another woman especially when, we come from Hackney too, so we got every single joke of hers and so it resonates for us,” she said.
Nazifa, 27, said they often attend comedy shows but tend to see acts like Trevor Noah or Russell Howard.
“This is the first Muslim comedy show and it was fantastic, hilarious and the fact they spoke (for a) very good cause,” she added.