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.

Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

Twitch’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 13 July 2020

Saudi streamers seek gaming glory during COVID-19 crisis

  • Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch

RIYADH: As the Arab world emerges from lockdown, the data obtained from the period of forced confinement shows what the region’s gaming community has been up to, most notably on one streaming website that has gamers in the region “doing the Twitch.”
The coronavirus lockdown in the Middle East sparked a significant increase in the platform’s Arabic-language content, with Arabic streams more than doubling during March and April.
Twitch allows users to broadcast their gameplay live to fans around the world, and the website announced a total of 62,582 active streams as countries across the region followed strict social distancing rules.
Saudi streamers in particular have also enjoyed great success on Twitch. The platform’s top channels during April included Saudi Arabia’s ixxYjYxxi, which recorded 210,257 views in 44 hours of streaming during the month, and RakanooLive, with more than 561,000 hours of watch time.
Whether it is for attention, to show off their skills or even as a way to make money, Saudi streamers spoke to Arab News about why they choose to broadcast their gameplay, and why viewers find it appealing.
Fahad Alshiha, a member of Saudi gaming news website TrueGaming, also streams on an independent Twitch channel where he has garnered over 16,000 views.
He has been streaming for over 5 years as a way to share his gaming skills while being able to interact with his viewers.
“Streaming is popular because viewers find it entertaining,” he told Arab News. “It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode. It’s popular with the streamers themselves because they get attention, and sometimes even money. But I think the majority are doing it to just have fun.”
Erum Alnafjan, a financial collector, said that she enjoyed watching streamers for a variety of reasons, playing games she was familiar with and games she was not.
“Some games I wouldn’t play myself, but I’m interested enough to see what they’re about,” she told Arab News. “Some streamers make it entertaining. And sometimes I watch games I’ve already played just to see how they would go about it.”
Ahmad   Suliman, a  senior   manager and a “father of three gamers,” enjoyed watching streams, but had specific criteria regarding what sort of streams he would or would not watch.

It’s like watching a famous TV show, where people tune in to see the new episode.

Fahd Alshiha

“The only two values I watch streams for are the funny reactions, such as rage or trash talking, or information about the gaming world and industry. If they don’t engage me in the first 10 to 15 minutes, it’ll be a hard pass,” he told Arab News.
However, the surge in streamer popularity is unlikely to remain sustainable, as people begin to move forward post-lockdown and many beginner streamers realize that streaming is not quite for them.
Fajr Bantan, a former gaming streamer, said that he stopped streaming partly due to real-life reasons and also because it was not what he thought it would be.
“To be honest, I thought it was just about gaming and showing my skills, but it appears it is more than that,” he told Arab News. “You have to engage with your audience and entertain them, whether it’s by chatting, doing their challenges, responding to their requests, and so on.”
It is undeniable that Arabic-language streams have made a mark on the Twitch ecosystem, and official statistics from Twitch back that up. According to Twitch, the number of streams in Arabic increased by 95.3 percent in March — compared to numbers from the previous year using a year-over-year analysis — and 109.9 percent in April.
The figures also pinpoint the surge’s hotspots as the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The MENA region has the world’s most active gaming community and, at 25 percent year-on-year growth, the fastest growing online gaming population in the world.
A recent white paper from internet company Tencent, creators of one of the region’s most popular mobile games PUBG Mobile, the MENA gaming market will be worth some $6 billion by 2021, up from $4.8 billion in 2019.
But, as the demand for Arabic content on Twitch grows, Arab streamers hope that the platform will be just as willing to accommodate their feedback as they did their language.
Alshiha said there was a huge Arabic Twitch community, but Twitch needed to work on meeting their needs in order to keep them engaged, such as easing some of the restrictions on their Twitch Partner program, which allows streamers to monetize their content, among other benefits.
“They need to relax some of their criteria in order to make their ‘partner’ program more accessible. We would also love if Twitch opened dedicated servers in the region to accommodate the influx of streamers,” he said.