The past few months have seen alternative Arabic music enjoy an unprecedented mainstream embrace – nowhere more so than in the UAE, with the first third of 2018 welcoming second editions of scene-stealing indie festivals Wasla and Step Music, and this weekend hosting inaugural all-dayer Dxbeats at Dubai Opera (on April 28). The fact it’s taking place at an opera house speaks volumes.
It’s been an incredible journey. When I started covering Middle Eastern music for Time Out Dubai in 2011, the chances to see regional indie acts in the UAE were virtually non-existent. The revolutionary fervour of the underground scenes in Beirut and Cairo that we read about in the international press, and pioneering publications such as the (sadly now defunct) Rolling Stone Middle East, were tantalisingly close geographically, but a world away from the like-clockwork stops of mainstream Arab stars Amr Diab and Nancy Ajram. Short of a few notable, often branded, one-off exceptions (hats off to The Music Room, also now sadly defunct), it stayed this way for some years.
After regional indie interest was piqued in Dubai by the awesome (cough, and sadly defunct) gig series The Other Side, over one heady 2015-16 season, the wave crested with the inaugural Wasla festival in January 2017 – and since then we’ve just kept surfing. While me and others have often prophesied an almighty bubble-burst any minute – notably in a long read earlier this year – on the basis of 2018 so far, there’s a real possibility the Arab world’s indie scene has finally found the appreciation it deserves on home turf, for good.
All this nostalgia sent me down a Google hole, digging up some of my previous writings on the alt-Arabia scene and its biggest/best acts, mainly penned for The National. Taken chronologically, they tell quite a story – one I never could have predicted, but am overjoyed to witness.
(I’m largely avoiding UAE/GCC acts altogether, because that’s a whole other scene…)
Wasla 2017 (The National)
*No, Flamingods aren’t a GCC band – tbh, they’re not even a Middle Eastern band anymore – but they played an important part in putting the scene on the map, so there.