Kuwaiti Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Mr. Fari is perhaps one of the most popular proponents of contemporary Kuwaiti music, embraced for the easy charm that unravels affecting stories in song. On the heels of his third project release and an international trip to Chile showcasing the diversity of Kuwaiti music, he has begun his transition from musician to content creator. In this interview, Mr. Fari, discusses his evolving involvement in the Kuwaiti music scene and its many peculiarities, the challenges that persist and his hopes for the future of the industry.
When did you become interested in music?
I became interested in music at a young age, in High School. I had a teacher who encouraged me to channel my frustrations into poetry. Singing and playing was a very natural progression and it came easily to me. I never went through the phase of becoming a cover artist, I just picked up the guitar to sing poetry. I realised later that this was kind of a big deal. Another reason I was drawn to music is that my family has talented visual artists and I figured that if I explored my creativity in another medium I wouldn’t face as much critique or comparison.
Did you pursue professional training in music?
I studied Business first and then enrolled on the Independent Artist Programme in Los Angeles which is a music production course for four years that teaches you how to build an artist from the ground up. The school was very modern and delved into the business of production and making content.
How did your performing career take off in Kuwait? Have you put your production degree to use as well?
When I moved back to Kuwait it was to help build my father’s company “Jewelry by Fareed Abdal”. But when I came here in 2012, I started performing everywhere I could. It was a lot of fun and after a year, I started making real money. For every hour I sang, I got very well compensated.
When I was started travelling out of Kuwait, organisers would still need artists to sing at their events so I got into booking talent. It all happened very organically, I went from performing to being compensated for my work to booking artists and now producing artists.
Today, I am also involved in producing and developing talent, I teach and mentor kids on how to work on computers to produce their songs. I also work with other producers. So it has become an entrepreneurship of music production because there is not a lot of this around in Kuwait. I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody, though. It takes a type of character to be in this field. If you don’t love and live it, this is not the business to be in. But if you do, then it is very interesting. You have to wear many hats and deal with a lot of people; you become a seller of talent. A lot of times I liaise with organisations, identify what they want, and connect them with musicians and try to make it as professional because there are a lot of inexperienced musicians here. A lot of divas and musicians that need to be humbled a bit.
Let’s talk a little bit about the music, now. You have released three albums so far, how has your music evolved?
The first album was a project I did based on a thesis for school, I put into practice everything I had been taught. It was well received, it got over got 2000 downloads in the first week. A lot of people me helped out and the whole production was executed with a very low budget of about USD 300.
For my next album, Neon Darkness, I tried to contrast it with my first album which was light with island vibes and made it a bit dark and brooding. It got a lot more reviews than my previous album but not as many downloads. It was a very important album because it one got me to Axe in Dubai and I went into the competition with it and it did very well.
My new album is produced by Fabrice Mareau and it is the first time I have let go of the reins and just concentrated on the song-writing. He has done a fantastic job on it and it was nice to not be the one in the driving seat this time but to trust someone else with it. The album has a more traditional reggae approach with a song about peace, another about police and so forth. You can find it on iTunes the album title is Plastic Desert Roots or just search under Mr. Fari.
What do you think the audience in Kuwait is looking for?
The audience in Kuwait is going through an interesting situation because they don’t want to feel like they are enjoying what may appear as ‘expat’ work. So, every time people want to collaborate, I am asked to Arabize my work. As a consequence of this, we have a lot of featuring and fusing in the music scene today, incorporating Arabic instruments in western genres. It is forced, but it is the only way we can get credibility. I personally don’t like how it is being done. It is appealing and nice but it is close to a gimmick sometimes. I understand that it is a process and that English song-writing is a niche market here, so collaborating with others is needed to expand which is fair.
In other cases, we have extremes in audience taste they either love Ed Sheeran type of music or prefer khaleeji music and there is no middle ground. So an artist has to endeavour to be as good as Ed Sheeran because you can’t really compete with traditional Arab music that has 50 years of tradition behind it. So, in turn we have a number of cover artists here as well in which that is all they do – covers.
Does it feel schizophrenic at all, incorporating this notion of Arabization into your work?
On this album on iTunes I have not but a lot of my future projects have this element in which I am experimenting with. But Yes, it does feel schizophrenic because you are serving many music ideas. We have to question it further, whether it is a collage or a fusion. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. The people that I think are making it work with the whole east meets west in some way and form are Daffy (Samboosa song), Balquis Duvall and Sandwaves studio.
What is your song writing process?
It took me years to develop a formula to song-writing. I try to work with a thread i.e. a consistency in my words. When I mentor students, I advise them to have a coherent train of thought. The song should be like a movie in that it has an introduction, a conflict and then a resolution. I am not a fan of the random stream of consciousness that is very popular right now. People also mistakenly think that the song is a journal to pour your feelings into. But feelings don’t matter as much to the audience if your story cannot enlighten their life in any way.
When I am in the song-writing mood, I will listen to contemporary hits that I may not like and also listen to older music like Motown because their thread is amazing. The modern will give me the movement and the other will give me the storyline. This is one of my big song writing secrets.
You recently travelled to Chile on a trip organised by the National Council of Culture Art and Letters (NCCAL). How did that come about?
They were looking for a Latino, Spanish speaking Kuwaiti citizen and when I relayed my interest I was told I’d have to be on a airplane heading to Chile in a week and that I’d have to perform in three places and also give a talk to University students in Spanish about censorship in art. I was up for it and joined other Kuwaiti musicians who I had never met before. They put us on a tour to different parts of Chile; of the two other bands, one played jazz and Latin music in Arabic, while the other did more classical Arab music.
What was your interaction with the other Kuwaiti musicians? What was their reaction to you and your music?
At first they didn’t like me because I sing alone on stage with a guitar so I was perceived as a threat. But I was there to showcase Kuwait’s diversity. They saw me really engage the crowd on the first night because I studied it and spoke in Spanish, people were clapping and I sang in Arabic and Spanish. I wrote it on the airplane, it was a song about me travelling through Kuwait, going to the music shops in Hawally, to visit my friend in Salmiya. They couldn’t deny that I knew what I was doing and they respected it. At the end of the trip, they were hugging me and wanted to connect with me on social media. They are really cool people and amazing old school musicians. I created a really interesting video about my whole experience that was featured on the blog, 248am.com, and now you can find it on YouTube.
In the video of the trip, you mentioned that there is a power in folkloric music that transcends culture. Can you elaborate on that thought?
Folkloric music is very organic in nature. In the music that we are listening to now, is being created for a specific context like radio or MTV. Folkloric music is not constrained by the standard format of your 3 min 15 sec song, it has been built on ceremony and ritual and is developed with a whole different intention. Their whole idea is to get united in that ritual. So when you see it in other places, it is able to transcend its original geography that a pop song may not be able to do in the same way. A good example is when you listen to pop music from another country you notice it messes with you. Like it smells like pop music and feels like pop music but it’s not my pop music. To me though when you listen to folkloric music of another country in a live setting you feel like you are part of it. it speaks of a different purpose.
I found this immensely interesting, folkloric rhythms really work universally. I don’t know if I’d feel the same way if I heard that music on a track because you would lose the soul of it. But any culture that brings their traditional folkloric music and plays it anywhere else live, you see it in a different light.
How well is Kuwaiti music represented abroad?
The NCCAL promotes Kuwaiti music through the avenues of cultural diplomacy. Embassies are involved and it is well known in those circles but the Kuwaiti masses are not very well aware of the programs.
While many say that we should be marketing ourselves better, it would be false advertising to present this music and have people come to Kuwait on a visit and not experience it here. So I think the NCCAL has struck the right balance.
You are also part of a band, the WaterTowers, how did you get involved with that? Do you prefer being a solo performer or being part of a band?
The WaterTowers is a bread and butter rock and roll band, we are trying to be the “Kings of Leon” of the Middle East. I didn’t create this project, I was approached to be the frontman. I decided to do it and told them this is the name I want and gave it a little makeover.
With my other project my persona as Mr. Fari, the stories are of fake love, there is a lot of conflict and victimhood whereas with the WaterTowers, every story is about persona of the rock motorcycle man. There is a more central element, you take everything more personally. I bring no comedy to the WaterTowers, unlike my Mr. Fari work.
There are pros and cons to being a solo performer and being part of a band. Going solo is challenging because I am responsible for everything, the successes and failures. The positive aspect is that I can work anywhere and anytime, at 4 am in the morning or on an airplane. With a band, things are divided but they also have a different perspective and you have to manage it.
What has motivated your move to becoming a content creator?
My albums have given me credibility to make videos and the videos give me credibility to be a musician and talk about these topics. The both of them together show people that I live what I say. It all works together and I am starting to realize that maybe it should have started working together a long time ago. Maybe I could’ve showed people the production process, given them more to see. I’ve noticed that when you release an album, it is hard to sustain interest because there is so much new music coming out. But if I have content and I’m showing those following me the process behind it all, my audience becomes much more invested in my story. Of late, I have tried to show a lot of what goes on behind the scenes through my snapchat and instagram accounts.
What is the scope of this?
I met Paul McCartney’s producer named “Youth” and he listened to all my work. It was facilitated by Axe Dubai because I won a competition. He advised me to turn Mr. Fari into a brand entity and portray a lifestyle. He said that I cannot just be dependent on the number of downloads I get from my iTunes. Artists today have to create content, do your tracks, collaborate with clothing, etc. They need to portray a lifestyle because things don’t stand on their own feet in the music industry, it has to become about the presence of that person as a brand.
I have started to do this because I do believe that culture and music can help make us a happier society and I think that Kuwait is missing a lot of that. I would like to be part of that in the long run. I am expanding slowly, looking to worth with clothing companies and I am also experimenting on making a jewellery line in the steps of my father.
For the next video I plan to take Ta’ar drums from Kuwait to Latin America. They have similarities in drums. I will have musicians there use Kuwaiti drums and vice versa. I am interested in how both musicians use the same kind of drum to tell their stories and talk about how we are more similar than we think. I think this is positive cultural content that is needed more of in Kuwait today.
What are the perceived challenges to creating this content?
I think getting people to trust it will be a challenge. I know I may bump into people that are not going to be onboard for more controversial content. I’d like to pose bigger questions because the Middle East has so many issues with music and culture. In a way I want to break stereotypes from both sides of the mirror. I want outside world to see Kuwaitis better and Kuwaitis see the outside world better.
How has the music scene in Kuwait changed since you first started?
There have been some really positive developments in the past few years. The most important one has been the support extended by the local radio. Local artists are regularly featured on the Kuwait radio and they are interviewing us a lot more which didn’t happen previously. I think this has occurred because we performed that much and the hosts and DJs on the radio have been probing and looking for content. It is good to see so much local talent on the radio today. There is growing interest and support from event producers, bloggers like Nour Al Kawass, the founder of Get out Blog, as well as cultural organisations like the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah.
On a separate note, I think one of the problems that persists is that everyone assumes that likes on instagram posts are enough to pay musicians with which didn’t happen five years ago. Artists in Kuwait are often asked to play at venues for exposure. When people propose this to me, I take them up on it and ask them if they can guarantee me 200 new followers on my instagram, by contract. If they can’t, it’s not really exposure and they should just pay me. I recommend artists not to play for instagram likes until they can pay their phone bill by simply taking a picture of their phone every once in a while.
If you had to pick your own group to represent Kuwait outside, who would you pick?
Ghazi Mulaifi, is a professor at the music school in Kuwait, I would definitely pick him. There are a lot of talented musicians in the music school here with doctorates. Ghazi is one of them and he studied Kuwaiti music, plays electric guitar; he has both worlds.
There are very talented musicians in Kuwait who people don’t know about because they don’t perform publicly. We have a lot of office musicians, involved in academia or working on their thesis or books. They play really well but because they have no stage, they just practice more in private. They don’t have an incentive to play outside and they are not driven by vanity or fame. I would pick a dream team of such people and showcase them. I also love the bin Hussain folkloric group too, they are great!
We also need to acknowledge that Kuwaiti music is not just old music. Is the modern music that is being made here not Kuwaiti? There is also the idea that if it is expat, then it is not Kuwaiti. That is not true at all. Kuwait is a melting pot and what really represents Kuwait is the friendship between expats and locals to create content. It is unfair to say that what is Kuwaiti today is defined by Kuwaiti citizenship. We are a melting pot and there are people that have lived here all their lives and are culturally Kuwaiti.
What does the composite of Kuwaiti music look like?
You have the traditional musicians who are funded by the government, they are bands of around 30 members who do cultural programmes. You also have the wedding singers who rake in big bucks in Kuwait, they are like a DJ in the sense that the music never stops. There are people who create little solo album projects, funded by themselves that sometimes mix poetry with Arab music and have a small release of 100-200. There is also the ultra pop genre inspired by Iraqi music with heavy autotune. These are generally Iraqi-Egyptian productions with Kuwaiti-Syrian singers and this is all driven by CD sales.
Now you have newer artists who grew up in Kuwait and identify with various musical genres and are pursuing that as well as rock mostly for YouTube with a lot of people singing covers. In Kuwait we have a lot of closet rappers, they put out tracks and release them on soundcloud, but don’t get out much. There are other artists who are not on the grassroots level but are building and expanding on a wider scale.
What is interesting is that you can also see this somewhat paralleled with the visual artists in Kuwait as well , you have really traditional artists and others who are pushing the envelope and collaborating.
The artists who are expanding are aligning themselves with businesses correctly and this demonstrates an interesting evolution. In the 1990s, if you’re a band that was cozying up to a business, you were a sell out, but today it means you’re legit.
In your opinion, what does an aspiring musician or singer need to be successful in Kuwait?
In my experience, content is king and you need to take time to develop it.. The reason many artists don’t do well is because they don’t have the right content. It is very important to develop your content before you pivot yourself to expand. Many make the error of trying to do everything at the same time instead of first focussing on their content. It doesn’t make sense to market yourself when you don’t have a solid reputation.
There are some artists In Kuwait who are more of social entrepreneurs dabbling into music. When you do promote yourself, your content should work in your favour. Even when you are not pushing a product, it should be able to stand on its own feet if people stumble upon it on YouTube. So it is very important to be smart about your content and sniff out opportunities. Your product is your business card, you should be able to clearly demonstrate to interested parties how you sing and what you can do.
I would advise aspiring singers and musicians to seek out mentorship opportunities. Find an artist you like, carry his or her equipment around and ask a lot of questions. I do believe in this process because there are a lot of things that can’t be taught on paper. I have mentors who criticize a lot of my work and I take it because they know what they are doing. For those less experienced, I help them and teach them according to what they need and what I can provide. So mentorship is very important in this industry.
It is important to have a thick skin in Kuwait and not take yourself too seriously. You need to be humble because you may find yourself in situations where people will heckle you or interrupt your performance. There are artists in Kuwait who believe that they deserve Grammys now so they aren’t willing to do the mileage and when somebody comes up to them and is disrespectful, they get flustered. So, humility coupled with a clown energy and wit will enable you to respond well in such situations.
What is your hope for the future, both as an artist and for the industry as a whole?
As an artist, I hope that I am able to expand more and represent Kuwait better.
For the industry, I hope that the laws start to benefit artists. Kuwait used to be a centre of Arab music but we have lagged behind in recent times on account of our conservative laws and outlook. I hope Kuwaiti musicians are incentivized by the government and we regain our position as a cultural city. Our economy is ignoring other potential resources. We have a lot of musical, theatre and visual talent in the country that is underutilized and that could contribute significantly to the economy.
At a more micro level, a lot of kids turn to music to cope with their emotions and to have their voice heard in a world where it can often seem that nobody is listening to them. They should be encouraged to pursue this, even publicly. If a lot of people start doing it, it will have a beautiful, uplifting effect.
Lastly, I really hope that music in Kuwait would become more accessible and fun, and not treated so seriously and with condemnation, and also that it becomes a profitable pursuit for the country’s growing talent. Also Insha Allah, we legalize dancing.
Mr. Fari is a Kuwaiti Puerto Rican that grew up listening to reggae. His early projects are better described as experiments into Pop, Electronic, Folk and Roots music. In the last year, Mr. Mr. Fari was selected as one of the winners of the Axe’s “Bring in the Quiet” competition in Dubai, and came in second place in Gap’s Recording Room competition of the Middle East. Mr. Fari was also selected by the Kuwait Government as a representative of Modern Music and Cultural Exchange, on a government-sponsored tour of Chile, where he performed his songs, and give talks to University students about the cultural heritage of music in Kuwait and the shaping of its society.
He currently runs an Events Booking company where he also works on Content Development for YouTube, producing shows on the music scene of Kuwait, as well as music in foreign countries.
The Plastic Desert Roots EP is Mr. Fari’s third project release as an Independent, Unsigned Artist. In this project, Mr. Fari steps away from self-producing and enlists French Reggae Folk artist and producer, Fabrice Mareau, to push forward a new style of reggae.
The first single, “Stay for the Night” is a song that touches on aspects of modern relationships — desire, equality and nationality — and was first released on the Kuwait radio, 99.7rkfm, on April 20 2016. The second single, “Peace in the Middle East”, is a clean anthem for peace. At the young age of 6, Mr.Fari experienced, first-hand, the atrocities of the 1990 Gulf War before his family evacuated through Iraq. A profound experience, shaping the very fabric of Mr. Fari, “Peace in the Middle East” has been a long time coming.
As part of the media campaign for this EP, Mr. Fari performed his songs, stripped down, unplugged, and published them on YouTube, giving fans the experience of the process of taking songs in their plain form. These songs are recorded in an old, traditional Kuwaiti house, and are shot in one take in an effort to highlight the rawness of both the song, and the artist.
For a behind-the-scenes look into Kuwait’s music world, follow Mr.Fari on https://www.instagram.com/xxmrfarixx/
Snap Chat: MR.FARI
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By Cinatra Fernandes
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