MANAMA: Mo Zowayed’s email signature bills him as “Singer. Songwriter. Sleeper.” But the sleeping part of his repertoire is clearly not top of the 31-year-old Bahraini’s agenda.
Even in lockdown he’s busy, having recently taken part in an online concert to raise funds for Bahrain Animal Rescue Centre. (“I don’t know what life would be like without dogs and I’d rather not find out,” he says.) There’s another scheduled for the end of May.
He’s also just gone live with his “Viola Sessions” — a series of five original tunes from his latest album, “That Good Love,” released in November, captured at a local club — and he’s performing Instagram Live sessions every Saturday afternoon, besides writing a bunch of new material.
It’s no surprise Zowayed ended up as a musician. His dad, Yusuf, is an oud player and his grandfather Mohamed is a respected folk singer. His own musical journey, though, began with a spot of bribery.
“I started when I was 13. I struggled a bit in seventh grade with my math grades. My parents agreed to buy me a guitar if I managed to turn my grades around,” he says. “It was tough, but I did it. I got the guitar.” He’s now an accomplished player of several instruments, including mandolin, banjo, trumpet, ukulele and harmonica.
He didn’t start singing until he was about 25, though. He cites acoustic artists including Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz and Ben Harper as major influences. “I just loved the way that they could express themselves with just a guitar and (vocals). So, I started practicing like crazy,” he says.
Unlike many regional musicians, he was always set on writing and performing his own material, rather than covers. “I’m still surprised when I meet a good musician who doesn’t write their own stuff,” he says. “For me, it’s the most enjoyable part — there’s no feeling like performing a song you’ve written and having some of the audience singing along.”
Zowayed quickly established himself on the Bahrain music scene. “I started by accepting every single gig. I played everywhere — every little dingy venue. There were some well-known bands in Bahrain, but they played a couple shows a year, tops. I just wanted to put myself out there, and I was one of very few people doing that. What makes me happy is that almost every band in Bahrain is doing that now. We’ve got a community of working musicians who are on stage all the time. I love seeing that.”
His work ethic and determination eventually landed him an American tour — something few independent musicians from the Middle East manage to achieve. “I spent months emailing, calling and messaging venues in the US. I must have contacted over 100 venues and festivals. I didn’t give up, even after 50 rejections — no exaggeration. I just kept trying.
“Eventually I was offered a spot at Farmfest in Michigan. That gave me the motivation to keep trying to book shows. We played in Colorado, Michigan, Iowa, Nashville, Alabama and Ohio. It was the most surreal time.”
From there, Zowayed and his “incredible band” The Moonshiners, got offered a support slot for UK star Jools Holland at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall in 2017. “I just can’t overstate how magical that night was,” he says. In December last year, he and The Moonshiners were back on tour with Holland and played several shows of their own in the UK to support the release of “The Good Love.”
That album has evolved from the folky roots of Zowayed’s debut EP “New York Times,” partly because he’s playing an electric guitar, but he describes it as a natural progression.
“I really wanted to make an upbeat record, because that’s the kind of music I’m into these days. I’m a pretty upbeat guy,” he says. “I’m not the sad and tortured type, and I’ve realized that’s okay, I don’t need to be. As soon as I embraced that, the songs started pouring out. The result is an album that gets me excited every time I hear it.”
Zowayed’s goal is to be a touring musician, and he recognizes that that could mean leaving the GCC. “It’s simply not possible in the Middle East when it comes to non-Arabic music,” he says.
But his local fans don’t need to worry just yet. “I’m on a mission to put out as much music and as many videos as I can and play as many shows as possible,” he says. “And I hope to see everyone at a live show once we kick this virus in the behind.”