Live music in Bahrain

Bahrain bands tell us about the music scene in Bahrain

Live music in Bahrain

It’s funny that the man who said these words, Hans Christian Andersen, was an author. Many quotes about music, said by some of the world’s brightest minds, have been similar. Heinrich Heine – another writer – said: “When words leave off, music begins.” And Victor Hugo (also a writer), mused: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

But, for us at Time Out, it’s English singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry who really gets it... “But when you get music and words together, that can be a very powerful thing.” It’s for that very reason we’ve joined forces with local musicians and music lovers, from every genre, to create this dedicated music issue and a brand-new event. Consider it our Bahraini song.

Music has always been an important part of the island’s culture, even back in the days of the pearl trade, before oil was discovered, when there was pearl diving music (fijiri in Arabic). Traditions such as these are kept alive today by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities through initiatives like the renovation of Dar Jinaa or October’s Bahrain International Music Festival.

Of course, it’s changed a lot since the 1920s. Nowadays, you’ll find almost every genre. For instance, there’s a huge metal fan base, as well as partygoers who love house and techno beats. Bahrain loves reggae, but there has also been a surge in Latin dance events and, more recently, swing/electro swing nights. You’ll find blues groups, jazz musicians, rock bands and even experimental sound artists.

Let’s face it, though, being a contemporary musician in a tiny country like Bahrain can’t be easy. Especially now. With many people and places understandably tightening purse strings, musicians can find it hard to secure well-paying gigs. Or any gigs at all.

“I think Bahrain’s music scene is in an interesting place right now,” says Tarik Omar, a DJ and co-founder of Boho Baha, an initiative that aimed to create experiences for local artists to perform at.

“With some of the changes that happened over the last year, it’s become a lot more expensive to go out. This is going to hurt a lot of musicians at first, but it’s also going to force people to get creative with what they do if they want to stick around.”

Just a few years ago major strides were being made. In 2009, community-based, independent record label Museland launched to promote and encourage local talent. In 2010, Bahraini entrepreneur Esra’a al Shafei founded the regional music streaming site Mideast Tunes and the amount of artists from Bahrain on there has grown exponentially. More recently, Malja, a Red Bull project, opened to offer artists a free space where they can create and collaborate.

But it’s not enough, says Omar.

“We need more support from sponsors,” he says. “Right now Red Bull are one of the only guys that will lend decent, reliable support to local musicians… but what the scene really needs is a few more partners that are willing to support local music projects and not just the big, shiny international things.”

On the other hand, Mo Zowayed, a successful Bahraini musician, who is heading to the US on tour this summer, disagrees. “I’m convinced that Bahrain is the best place in the world to be a musician right now,” he says. “There are so many opportunities and venues to play, and so many great bar managers who are really embracing local talent. Sure, your end goal will probably be to make it in another country, but as a place for musicians to grow and feel support, there’s nothing like it.”

Zowayed isn’t the only musician who started out in Bahrain and managed to reach audiences overseas. Bahraini electronic artist Esam Hamad, aka Cosmo, who is a Red Bull Music Academy alumni, released his second EP just a few weeks ago and recently performed at Austin, Texas’ South by South West festival. Multi-instrumental band Flamingods, which is made up of five guys who all grew up on the island, recently signed to the UK’s Soundway Records and even played Glastonbury in the UK last year. If you turn to page 53, you’ll see Bahrain’s hip-hop scene ain’t doing too badly, either.

There’s no denying that the talent is here and, in the right circumstances, the opportunities are, too. But it’s up to all of us to make sure the scene continues to flourish. Not just the musicians.

It’s up to the venue managers to seek out local talent for residencies instead of flying in bands from around the world. It’s up to the sponsors to reach out and make sure these musicians are being fairly paid for their art. And it’s up to everyone else to attend the gigs.

It’s just as Bono (a musician this time) once said: “Music can change the world, because it can change people.” All we have to do is work together to be a part of that change for Bahrain.

Meet the artists

From the underground house movement to mainstream hip-hop, folksy blues tunes to gypsy jazz, these are the genres and musicians you need to look out for in Bahrain...

Glassroom Entertainment

This artist collective was started by French expat Siegfried Masson very recently. Before setting it up, he worked in the hospitality industry, at a local hotel, where he got the chance to organise a few music events, getting in touch with local DJs and promoters while he was at it. “I couldn’t find what I was exactly looking for here,” he tells us. “I felt a need to gather some DJs very specific about their music under one group and community. I believed this would help them develop and at the same time help Bahrain become a musical destination in the GCC.”

As a lover of underground house music, Masson set about gathering together musicians on the electronic scene and managing their appearances. So far he has ten, including some of the artists on these pages – Sami Dee, Sunny Raeva, Captain Tea and Dust Frequency. “Bahrain’s music scene is very commercial… but I believe this is just a lack of exposure to something different,” he says. “I hear nostalgic people talking of that time, when you could listen and dance to more out-of-mainstream vibes in venues… I think Bahrain is in fact hungry for a range of tunes as open as the great Bahraini mentality.”
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Twenty-nine-year-old Tony Attalla is a Kuwait-born, Egyptian-Lebanese rap artist, music producer and actor, as well as the founder of cigAwet Productions. He started out back in 2000 in Kuwait and moved to Bahrain four years later to develop and continue his new-found career. Every year since, he’s been doing just that, writing songs, making music videos and working on his debut album Countless Blessings.

“The Bahrain music scene is massive and versatile considering the size of this little island,” Attalla tells Time Out. “Many venues and outlets in Bahrain provide local talents with opportunities and a platform to showcase their art or talent, but the local artists struggle to get appreciated and valued for their art.

“[People have a] tendency to under-evaluate, expect a very cheap fee and prefer to pay much more for a non-local artist,” he says.

In order to change this, Attalla believes we need more events, as well as local music charts or awards.

“It’s always nice to bring in guest celebrities and stars from all over the world, but these stars couldn’t have reached stardom without the push and support of their local scenes first.”

Captain Tea

Captain Tea, aka Tarik Omar, had his first foray into music more than 20 years ago, when he studied classical violin and piano as a child. “By the time I reached my 20s I had gotten a little too into Radiohead,” he tells us. “It totally pulled me into the world of electronica.” He learned how to play the synth and dove head-first into production, eventually trying his hands on the DJ decks, and co-founded Boho Baha, creating a platform for local music artists like himself.

As a lover of non-commercial music, it’s been quite a challenge for Omar to get where he is today. “I can be fairly stubborn when it comes to compromising on that, which taught me that finding gigs aren’t the real challenge I needed to address – it was finding or creating my audience.” This was one of the main reasons he got Boho Baha going. “I didn’t want other musicians to have to struggle as much as I did to find their audience.” Omar, however, has since moved in his own direction and is now focusing more on his DJ persona, Captain Tea.

“I play a hybrid DJ/live show now that utilises a drum machine and some synths and stuff alongside the music I play.”

His influences come from across the world, and from every genre, from funk to jazz to house to swing, and his groovy sets are real crowd-pleasers.

Dust Frequency

You know that sound of radio transmission? Well, that’s what originally inspired 38-year-old Pakistani Khuram Javed to become a musician. At first, he was a major player on the underground music scene around Pakistan and, when he moved here, helped develop one in Bahrain, playing at venues such as Bushido, Wrangler and Sky Bar.

Interestingly, though, he started off playing death metal, but soon lost interest as he felt something was missing. “That is why I went to electronic and made the sounds I wanted to hear.”

He started producing in 1993, practised graphic design and multimedia arts, and started experimenting with music through different software. Now, his influences are varied as, for him, “good music is good music” – so he’s not constrained by genres when producing or DJing.

When asked to describe his sound, this is what he says: “Music affects you through a medium. Imagine you are in a cube which is made of emotions and we can control your oxygen, gravity, temperature and pressure... This is all done by frequencies and the wavelength of sound." Essentially, he tries to create a space in which he can affect the listeners’ feelings. While that description might baffle most casual music fans, Dust Frequency’s live sets are something to behold.

Mo Zowayed

This Bahraini folk singer-songwriter is easily one of the most exciting musicians in Bahrain right now. His sound, which blends American bluegrass with upbeat harmonica and acoustic guitar-driven melodies, has been catching our attention for a good couple of years now.

Earlier this year, he and his band released their debut EP New York Times (they’ve already started working on a second one, which will be launched next summer) and are about to head off on a US tour with renowned English pianist and singer Jools Holland in October.

Other than Zowayed, who sings and plays guitar, the people behind the band are Antonio Henriques, from Portugal, on double bass, Iba Almohsen, from Saudi Arabia, on guitar, Reynold Phillips, from India, on drums and Szabi Nigo, from Hungary, on trumpet (he’s also in the Belly of Paris line-up).

Despite the international tour, right now, Zowayed thinks Bahrain is one of the best places to be a musician but, he admits, it could be better. “A lot of people are now catching onto the idea of going out to see a band to hear their original material,” he tells Time Out. “But still, the majority want to hear covers of pop songs or oldies.

“Sure, it’s tough at first, but when you start getting a following because of music you’ve written, you just can’t go back.”

Sami Dee

British-Bahraini house DJ and producer Sami Dee, who is also behind Productions, was inspired to become a musician back when he was at high school in Morcambe, England. “One of the older kids in my neighbourhood bought some turntables, so me and his younger brother used to sneak goes on them,” the 37-year-old tells us. “I caught the mixing bug instantly.” He has been on the scene ever since.

Inspired by artists as wide-ranging as Marvin Gaye to Wu-Tang Clan, and club nights such as Space (London), Dee describes his current sound as “Chicago influences jazzy, disco, acid house. Detroit techno, old school hip-hop and disco.”

Luckily, he says there seems to be more of an appetite for underground electronic music these days. “It's no secret that a lot of this music was first introduced to Bahrain by the former owner of Likwid night club, Karim Miknas,” explains Dee. “After he left the island, the remaining DJs and promoters have done what they can to keep the scene alive. I think we've had more electronic music events this year than we've had in the last four or five, so we're heading in the right direction.”

However, he says, we need more, better-equipped places. “Venues also need to stop asking musicians to play for free. They have to be considered as valuable entertainment.”

Sunny Raeva

It was in 2009 that Belarusian DJ Sunny Raeva started her career in music, but she’s been dancing to DJs’ tunes in clubs since she can remember.

She’s been a resident DJ at various venues in both Dubai and Bahrain, playing her chilled-out ambient beats, which have influences from electronica, deep tech, house, minimal, dub and broken beat. “These days, I am very much influenced by minimal techno sounds from Romania,” she tells Time Out. “It has a very special feel and depth that represent what I try to achieve.” What exactly is that, you ask? “I love to combine different instruments of different countries in one beautiful picture of the world,” she explains.

“I am aiming at a music meant to influence the heart and open chakras.”

While that statement might be a bit on the hippy side for you, there’s no denying Sunny Raeva’s a talented lady, gathering a decent following, alongside her DJ friends from the Glassroom Entertainment collective.

“There are a lot of artists out there who Bahrain still hasn’t discovered,” she says.

“The electronic music scene here is only starting to grow up, but it will continue further. With the Glassroom team, we will make sure of that.”

The Hot Club of Bahrain

This gypsy jazz band consists of aspiring musicians Abdulla Haji on clarinet and saxophone, and guitarist Mohammed Rashid, the duo behind La Pompe.

Both academic musicians, they were originally inspired by the French gypsy jazz sounds of legends like Jean “Django” Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, and swing music in general.

If it wasn't the first, this was certainly one of the first gypsy jazz bands to form in the region, alongside other collaborators, and they’ve been performing both all over the region for years now.

“We don’t think there is an actual or proper music scene on the island,” Haji tells Time Out. “We lack professionalism in how music is promoted and performed. Plus all the music genres are combined together as one music scene, which doesn’t make any sense.” One of the biggest issues holding the scene back, he says, is that venues aren’t providing proper equipment nor are they willing to pay for quality entertainment.

Despite that, “the audience in Bahrain are very supportive,” he says. As for what would make it better? “A music school would make a big difference for the next generation of musicians, for sure.”

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