From a growing indie scene to jazz revival: The many parallels between Dubai and India's live music scenes
Dubai Jazz Festival is one of the city’s longest-running live music events and a highlight of its cultural calendar.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in Dubai, which I travel to about two to three times a year to visit family. Each time, I try and attend at least one gig. Last week, I attended the seventeenth edition of the Dubai Jazz Festival, one of the city’s longest-running live music events and a highlight of its cultural calendar. It has rather loose associations with the titular genre as the line-up typically features big-ticket pop and rock stars. The 2019 headliners, for instance, were Snow Patrol, Jamiroquai and Alicia Keys, three acts worth a watch that have never performed in India. They’ve each played Dubai at least once before.
Dubai, the entertainment capital of the UAE, has one of if not the most vibrant music scenes in the Gulf. Not a month goes by without a concert by a popular international artist or band. Just a week before the jazz festival, its promoters Done Events hosted the electronic and pop music-focused RedFest DXB at which producers DJ Snake, Jax Jones and Jonas Blue, rappers G-Eazy and Macklemore and singer Camila Cabello took the stage.
Stand-alone shows, of course, are even more frequent. On previous visits, I caught Guns N’ Roses at an arena, Newton Faulkner at a restaurant and our very own Tejas Menon at a bar. Thanks to the large desi population and the geographical proximity, Dubai is a lucrative tour stop for Indian acts, and not just Bollywood musicians. Both Nucleya and Divine played the city this past December.
Over the next two months, a trio of current British chart-toppers, Liam Payne, Little Mix and Rita Ora, and a trio of long-standing Irish groups, Busted, Boyzone and The Proclaimers, will perform. It wasn’t always like this. Like everything in Dubai, the live music industry too has super-sized in the last two decades. When I was in school there in the early 1990s, concerts by global superstars were rare. The first gig I ever went to was by Bryan Adams back in 1993, which he jokingly claimed was attended by “25 people and the guy who rode the camel”.
These days, while it’s easy to go gigging in Dubai it’s harder to check out a local artist or band. A couple of years ago, I stumbled upon the winsome As Per Casper, fronted by Syrian-Palestinian singer-songwriter Carla Saad, at a food truck festival. They’re among the dozen or so perennial nominees up for Best Local Band/Act at the Nightlife Awards organised by events magazines What’s On and Time Out for which the same set of names seems to be cited year after year.
Past winners of both include house music duo Hollaphonic, made up of British DJ-producers Greg Stainer and Olly Wood, pop-rock group The Boxtones, which comprises Scottish and Canadian musicians, and three acts that have played our shores: Indian hard rock outfit Point of View, who toured here with American guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal in 2013; Zanzibarian soul vocalist Abri, who performed at Blue Frog in Mumbai in 2009; and “funk jam” ensemble Carl and the Reda Mafia, which has an Indian singer, Egyptian guitarist and Greek bassist, played the Pune leg of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender festival in 2018.
While this seems like a limited pool, I do find parallels in the Indian and Emirati independent music industries. Like here, the indie scene in Dubai has evolved from being dominated by a handful of short-lived rock and metal bands to a range of acts dabbling in different genres. There’s also a scarcity of venues supporting bands playing original music – popular venue The Music Room was replaced by a Bollywood-themed bar last year – and the few regular gig organisers include booking agency The Fridge and Wasla, which puts together an annual festival showcasing Arab musicians.
The lack of local acts, says Point Of View frontman and singer Nikhil Uzgare, can be attributed to the transient nature of life in the region and its work-oriented culture that leaves little time for rehearsals. Most expats are on residence visas sponsored by their employers and might have to leave the country and consequently the group if and when they change jobs. It’s kind of like what happens with college bands in India when members from across the country graduate and return to their hometown or get posted in a new city.
On the other hand, as is the case here, electronic music is thriving. What’s On even gives out an award for Best House/Techno Night. Among the nominees this year are Analog Room, which only programmes regional acts, and the Vibe Series. My friend and former Bombay Bassment manager Jayesh Veralkar, who recently shifted to Dubai, recommends monthly drum and bass night Bassworx.
Again, like Mumbai, Dubai seems to be going through some sort of a mini jazz revival with venues such as Blue Bar, The Green Room, Jazz@Pizza Express and Quincy Jones’ Q’s Bar and Lounge hosting nights every week. But I wonder how many from their residency rosters throw in original compositions among the standards because if there’s one thing Dubai has plenty of, maybe even more so than us, it’s retro cover bands.
The only way to find out is to see them for myself. I’m going to continue trying to watch as many local acts on subsequent trips. Who knows? Maybe the next Divine or Nucleya will be a Dubai-born artist spitting rhymes in Arabic or bridging beats with folk sounds from the region.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
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