“WHAT is important to me in my music is to have that locality or link to where I come from; not a polished, clean sound that if you close your eyes, it could be from anywhere.” In this week’s Insight, multimedia artist, music producer and social entrepreneur, Zahed Sultan talks about the first of its kind and highly anticipated alternative Arab music festival, Kuwait Rising, that will bring together regional artists whose sound is in seam with their setting.
Question: What have you been up to in the last few months? When did the idea for Kuwait Rising germinate?
Answer: I spent the summer in Europe. I did a show in Berlin, London, and came back to the region and did a show in Beirut and Dubai; I then went to India and performed two shows there, one in Rajasthan and the other in Chennai. At the beginning of this year, I performed again in Dubai at an event called Market OTB. In the meantime, there have been a lot of projects and programmes I’ve been working on for en.v in the field of development.
The idea for all of this came about early last year. I started 2014 feeling that I had gained some understanding of the basic parameters and inputs related to music that all creators / musicians can use. So initially, I started meeting with venues, individuals in Kuwait, musicians, just to converse and get an understanding of where the gaps were in this country. Obviously there is a huge lack of support for music that is considered of the alternative realm, music that is not commercial, or typically khaleeji. Through these discussions and talks and trying to map who is doing what here, it all just happened organically.
I realised that the intent is there. There are many people that are interested in music. Nowadays when you are out and about in Kuwait it is interesting to see that just in the past year alone, every event be it a car launch to an outdoor organic market, they are all asking for live musicians now where once upon a time they used to want DJs. I think that is a very interesting indicator. With social media too, I think there is a thirst at least in the university segment for live events. If you go to events like Bayt Lothan’s A Night In, you can see that there is a lot of excitement over musicians and live music.
So what I realised from all of this burgeoning interest is that there is an educational component that is missing because most people who are involved in music here are not exactly touring or trying to develop a career in music on a regional or international level. So I thought to myself how can you put together a platform that is completely neutral and targeted toward aspiring musicians, and has components of substance, depth, technicality, and education to it? That is where I started working with Red Bull Kuwait this past year to bring this about. The Red Bull Music Academy is a travelling series of inspiring talks, workshops, collaborations and live shows that takes place all around the world. Outside of their major annual academy, they do events on a regional level which are called ‘Bass Camps’ and on a country level called ‘Country Sessions.’
I decided to host their first country session in Kuwait. Usually, the country sessions are much smaller and consist of just a workshop and a talk but I am turning them into (best I can) what an a ‘Bass Camp’ or the actual academy looks and feels like, over the span of two days / a weekend.
Q: So what does the entire programme look like?
A: The Academy launches on Friday and will continue on Saturday at the Sadu house and is mix of inspiring talks, workshops, and setting the stage for live collaborations. The second aspect of it is the live show. You have all these amazing artists coming to Kuwait to engage local musicians, so it would be a shame not to have them perform live.
The academy is by invitation only. On Friday, for a half-day we have the academy at Sadu House and will then proceed to the DAI (Yarmouk) venue for a 4-hour live show which is open to the public. The second day is about 6 to 7 hours again at Sadu House ending in a live drum circle that is going to be improvised as well with about 50+ participants, so that should be interesting.
The concert is a public event, anyone can attend, however we do have limited space.
The idea in general is to invite people who are interested in learning and listening to alternative music that is from the Arab world. We want to attract that type of crowd and share with them the different sounds that are emerging from the Arab world or from artists of the Arab world. The music of the artists flying in extends from as far as Armenia to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Bahrain for example. It will be a very diverse mix of sound. Sonically, they stay in the field of alternative and electronic music, there is a rap artist in there but what they all have in common is that you will see a very close linkage between what they are doing to where they are from. They celebrate their heritage and their background but they package it in a very modern way.
Q: What was your approach and process with regards to inviting people to participate in the academy?
A: We have two types of invitees to the academy. We have attendees and we have participants, we had to choose and limit ourselves to 30 participants that we thought were really good at what they are doing, and that we would hope to work and collaborate with more closely. Then we have attendees, those who have an interest in music, who are putting their first steps forward, they can come, be inspired, learn and engage as well.
Q: How do you suppose the artists will relate to the audience here?
A: The live show is four hours long and we are opening our doors an hour in advance. I personally haven’t been to anything here that has been that long. So our first hurdle is to keep people engaged for four hours. This goes back to the musicians themselves, playing more upbeat music that has a groove to it for example.
The environment you create has to be conducive to the audience wanting to stay, hang out, socialise and be with people etc. But the way it works in live shows at festivals is that there is a 45 minute set and 15 min break, and so on. That is a big question mark for me. We chose artists who we thought could engage people and time would pass by quickly because they are really good at what they do. All in all, this is one big experiment.
Q: While undertaking this project, did you feel like you were working from scratch?
A: Yes, 100%. When we approached artists in Kuwait to apply with 4-5 basic requirements, some didn’t know what a bio was, or had one developed. This was quite interesting because it was an indicator that we were starting at the ground level. I don’t blame the artists though; I think the problem is that there are no true platforms here to develop talent. So I don’t know if they are jaded or just used to that. But I can definitely say I that realised that there is so much to be done and that is why it is important to me that it is done to the highest standards from the get-go and that this is not a one-off event. This was very important to me as well which is why we had to find the right partners, funding, and location(s) because the idea is to have continuity. Under the moniker of Kuwait Rising, in collaboration with Red Bull Kuwait, I am thinking of a collective where there is always something happening. I’m looking to spearhead this platform for others to experiment with their art and develop themselves as artists first and entertainers thereafter, which is the predominant way that people are booking them here - as entertainment.
Q: What were the biggest challenges?
A: Finding the right platform, to differentiate yourself from what already exists, not in the sense of competition because we are all very supportive of each other, but rather it is more about looking at what each of us is bringing to the table and understanding the value behind it.
Secondly, building the attendees and participant list for the academy and ensuring that we have the right mix of people was quite difficult. Again, I don’t know what the outcome will be until the first day of the academy. There is a certain depth involved in how you schedule the academy and what you are offering musicians. Now that we have been able to generate excitement and buzz around it, if we go live at the festival and the audience feel it is flat, we have failed. So the biggest challenge is to inspire everyone involved over the span of two days.
Q: How many people are you expecting at the festival?
A: 300 would be an ideal number. We are keeping it organic, not looking to do something over the top. We want to keep it intimate as well because all the acts are duos on stage so you want to have a direct connection with your audience.
Q: What do you think the expectations are?
A: I honestly have no idea. I am really curious to see the interest that is garnered out of it because when it comes down to it, I would assume that the majority don’t know who the artists are, they may know some names. Maybe they’ll go online and research them. But it comes down to the willingness to go discover talent. There is that willingness to go to Bayt Lothan and discover local talent, so what if it is artists who are more active as musicians professionally and you have the opportunity to experience them live.
We aspire as a platform to push people to have that kind of openness. I think we are in a time and space in Kuwait where people are open to many forms like art, fashion, design, food - it all goes back to timingreally.
Q: Did you feel that there were any advantages when you were putting this all together?
A: Well, there aren’t any platforms for alternative music specifically in the country and I think that is the space that we are settling into that appeals to youth. The advantage is to be part of building something completely organic from the ground up, experimenting with regional culture to see how it is adopted.
Q: From the time I was in high school, up until now, there was a large demographic of youth that I met who refuse to listen to Arabic music because it is a highly commercialised streamlined sound. So they are switched off to it. But we have a beautiful language that outside of our region is celebrated. Why can’t it be the same for us as well? Why can’t there be a more accessible approach to the many genres and sub-genres that are coming up in Arabic music right now?
A: There is an amazing network of musicians in the alternative genre forming across the region and it hasn’t reached the surface yet but it is bubbling. I feel confident that it is going to explode in a few years. People are then going to wonder where it all came from. For instance, for me what is important in my own path in music is to have that locality or link to where I’m from, not this polished, clean sound that if you close your eyes, it could be from anywhere.
Q: Can you share with us why you chose not to perform at the festival?
A: Predominantly, it is because there is a lot to do. To spearhead something from the ground up when there is no infrastructure, between hosting an academy and a music festival, and dealing with all the ins and outs, it is already quite a feat in itself. Two days after it is done I am travelling for six weeks to the US and Jamaica for music projects so the timing is tight.
But most importantly, I wanted to stand back and let it be perceived as a platform that is focusing on the artists. From a creative perspective, it is hard for me to do what I do, with a line up where the change over time is very fast. In aspiring to create these immersive experiences for my own performances, especially after my last show in Kuwait, I want to take things to the next level.
Q: So when do you intend to perform again in Kuwait?
A: I intend on doing another show in 2015. It’ll be wishful thinking to do it before the summer, but most probably it’ll be after September, I am not sure yet. We’ll have to see. I personally want to push myself creatively and musically for the next show I do in this country and it takes a lot of time and preparation.
Q: Do you foresee Kuwait Rising becoming an annual fixture?
A: Yes, why not? If we can grow it organically, it would be great. I really don’t know what to expect with this, it may go horribly right or horribly wrong, or it may fall flat in the centre. I think we’ll discover and learn a lot in the process.
As soon as we went live with the announcement of the festival and academy I can see there is a lot of excitement from the music community. I think that was the core purpose here, to get them engaged and have them be inspired by these acts. Initially we intended to have the local participants be part of the first stage but then felt it was better for them to be inspired, give them time to prepare themselves and then have a solely focussed stage for them.
Q: How far along are multi-staged music festivals from happening in Kuwait?
A: I think it is doable in Kuwait at this point in time. There are a lot of music performances that happen on a weekly basis; all it really comes down to is the style of music. I think the biggest hurdle is for authorities to understand that just because a certain genre is not from the region, doesn’t mean that it has an undesirable influence on people.
So could you host three different stages? Yes, you could. It is just a matter of who your line up is, who your audience is, will they be respectful? But again, it is kind of a grey area in this country.
Q: What are some of your favourite festivals? What would your dream line-up look like?
A: Magnetic Fields Festival that I performed at in Rajasthan, India was my favourite of 2014. It is an up and coming but very well organised festival that drew in about 1000 people, it was held at a beautiful old palace in Rajasthan that took 5 hours to get to from Delhi and is situated in this rural village. The main stage was located in the garden and there were these little nooks and events that happened in the palace at different times of the night, as well as secret events. They had Bedouin tents outside for people to hang out in, campfire hangouts in the desert, you could walk alongside donkeys, peacocks and cows and go to the chaiwalla and get chai. That itself is an extremely unique experience. Some of the other ones I’ve liked are Primavera in Barcelona, and Burning Man in Nevada. My dream line-up at present would be Nicolas Jaar, James Blake, Alt-J, Radiohead and Bjork amongst others.
Q: Looking forward, what is your plan for Kuwait rising?
A: Well, for this instalment, apart from the guests, lecturers and artists, I have invited people from Lebanon, UAE and India to attend who are promoting sub-culture in their countries through their own platforms, stages, etc. The idea looking forward is to create a cultural exchange of sorts, if possible. What if I start to curate a stage in Lebanon that is purely for Kuwaiti artists and vice versa? It’s an exciting prospect.
The short term objective is to be able to have artists experience sharing their sound with audiences because you get better the more you play out in front of people, the more they understand who you are, what you are doing, and build that real connection with audiences.
Zahed Sultan is an alternative / electronic multimedia artist from Kuwait. He released his debut album ‘Hi Fear, Lo Love’ in the Spring of 2011 and attained success with his 2nd single ‘I Want Her But I Don’t Want Her.’ Parisian DJ, Stephane Pompougnac, featured the single on the internationally acclaimed Hotel Costes 15 compilation. Zahed’s music has been licensed for television (‘CSI’ / US) and film (‘11.6’ / France) and he has been featured on renowned global platforms such as MTV Iggy (US), and O2 Academy TV (UK) as an emerging Arab artist. Zahed is currently set to release his sophomore album and is touring various regions around the world with his live ‘eyeamsound’ audio-visual experience.
‘Kuwait Rising’, an alternative Arab music festival being held on Jan 30 at Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah (Yarmouk) has been put together by Zahed Sultan & the Red Bull Music Academy. In conjunction with the music festival, Sultan will be hosting the Red Bull Music Academy - Kuwait Session, a series of inspiring talks, workshops, and collaborations for aspiring musicians from Kuwait. The academy is being held at Sadu House on Jan. 30 / 31 and is by invitation only.
For tickets to Kuwait Rising, visit https://www.eventatkw.com/en/e/kuwaitrising
Artist Line Up
Bei Ru is a Los Angeles-based multi-genre music producer/composer/DJ known for his unconventional use of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms combined with heavy drums, electronics, and live instrumentation.
In the fall of 2010, Bei Ru released his debut album, ‘Little Armenia (L.A.)’ which received much critical acclaim and support from artists and listeners alike.
His new album, ‘Saturday Night At The Magic Lamp’, blends electronica, Middle Eastern sounds, funk and hip-hop. He recently scored three songs for the film, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’, an Iranian vampire western produced by Elijah Wood and distributed by Vice Films. For more information, visit http://beirumusic.com/
Hasan Hujairi (1982) is a composer, sound artist, and independent researcher from Bahrain based in Seoul, South Korea. His performances and installations build on his interest in Historiography and Ethnomusicology, which he presented in different venues in Seoul, Tokyo, London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, New York, Beirut, and Bahrain. Hasan participated in art residencies in the Korean National University of Arts (Seoul), STEIM (Amsterdam), and the Red Bull Music Academy (London). Hasan’s academic background includes a BSBA in Finance from Drake Univeristy (Iowa, USA), a Masters degree in Historiography from Hitotsubashi University (Tokyo, Japan), and Ethnomusicology research at the University of Exeter (Exeter, UK). He acted as curator at Al-Riwaq Art Space (Bahrain) and has been involved in other independent art initiatives in Bahrain. He is presently pursuing his doctorate studies in Korean Traditional Music Composition at Seoul National University’s College of Music. Hasan is also an accomplished oud player. For more information, visit http://hasanhujairi.com/
Omar Offendum is a Syrian-American Hip-Hop artist - born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Washington DC and living in Los Angeles. He has been featured on several major news outlets (Aljazeera / PBS / LA Times / Rolling Stone / VICE / NY Times / The European), toured the world to promote his ground-breaking music, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for various humanitarian relief organizations, lectured at a number of prestigious academic institutions, and most recently been involved in creating several critically-acclaimed songs about the popular democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East & North Africa. He is currently hard at work on several new projects while touring to promote his solo release ‘SyrianamericanA’. For more information, visit www.offendum.com
Z The People and El Jehaz
Z the People is an electronic human musician, a sound all of its own. Building a deep synth line of Arab melodies with soulful vocals, tapping into a universal sound, the electronic street folk music of East and West.
El Jehaz is a multi-talented electric guitarist, percussionist, songwriter, and music producer that made a name for himself with his band Autostrad, and his collaborations with El Far3i, 47Soul, while producing some of Jordan’s freshest hip-hop.
Together they take you on a cosmic nomadic audio journey of stardust and sand dunes.
Zaid Hamdan and Maii Waleed
Zeid Hamdan is a Lebanese music composer.?He was born in Beirut in 1976?He plays guitar, bass, some keys and also sings. He is the music producer behind some of the most successful bands on the Lebanese and regional alternative scene.?Amongst them, artists and bands like Soapkills (Arabic trip hop), The New Government (pop rock ), Katibe5 ( Arabic hip hop), Shiftz (Arabic electro) ,Hiba Mansouri (Arabic trip hop), Kanjha Kora (Guinean Pop), Kazamada (Arabic electro pop), Maryam Saleh (Arabic electro pop), Dany Baladi (Arabic electro pop), Zeid and the Wings (New Arabic pop) Miles Jay (Oriental) and recently Maii Waleed, a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Alexandria. They met in 2010 and together produced a 10-track album. They called the project Maii and Zeid.
By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff
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