In a cosmopolitan metropolis like Dubai, a thriving business and cultural hub, live music is a concept often restricted to massive, multinational events. International artists prefer Dubai as a pit stop on their global tours, headlining large commercial concerts on which Asian fans spend hundreds of dirhams to hear music already being played on radio stations around the clock.
In an environment like this, creative outlets for local musicians can be rare opportunities to come by. However, Dubai’s acoustic music scene tells a different story now, thanks to a non-profit initiative called Freshly Ground Sounds, the brainchild of Ismat “Izzy” Abidi. A lawyer by day, Izzy began the initiative with the intention of creating “a community and platform for spreading independent acoustic sounds across unassuming venues in the U.A.E.”
In less than a year since its debut, it has unearthed local talents who come from all walks of life, be it university or high school students, or doctors and designers. Freshly Ground Sounds has also built and nurtured a community of music-aficionados that share a desire for a platform where they can both play and enjoy independent music.
Over croissants and coffee, Izzy talks to The Missing Slate’s Gimel Samera about the idea behind Freshly Ground Sounds, the U.A.E.’s acoustic music culture, her own Dubai-based alt-folk-pop band, and how a music-loving community plays an integral role in the journey.
So to start off, what is Freshly Ground Sounds all about? When and how did it start?
I grew up in the U.A.E (in Abu Dhabi to be precise) and moved to London for university. In my twenties, I travelled back and forth for work. It was April of last year that I finally moved back for the sixth time. When I was in London, I was an active part of the lo-fi independent music scene – the bookshop/coffee shop acoustic culture. I play the harmonica and the guitar, so jamming with other musicians was what I did part-time, because I had a full-time job which I liked.
It was early November or late October that I thought of Freshly Ground Sounds and I approached The Magazine Shop in DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre). It was open and the weather was great so I said, “On November 27th,” – which was the night Dubai won the Expo actually – “can we just get some musicians together and play?” I started a Facebook page for the event. We got a few emails in, like eight or nine, from interested musicians. Some notable names were Craig Perry, Floetics, Josh Monteath. And that’s how Freshly Ground Sounds started, on November 27th.
Six months on, it’s grown to over 90 musicians, over 12 venues, gigs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, an EP, which is a compilation of independent music from the U.A.E. It’s now available in New York and London, and you can also listen to it online. We also have radio airplay, national press coverage, international media coverage and that’s what it’s become.
I was ecstatic when I first heard of Freshly Ground Sounds, and to use a cliché, it’s like a dream come true for a lot of people here. Do you remember what it was like hosting your first event? What was going through your mind while it was happening?
I’m a musician but I’m not a sound engineer. I grew up with a guy called Tareq Khorsheed, who’s now my partner in Freshly Ground Sounds. So I said, “Tareq, we’re doing this gig. Do you want to come and help me out?” He said, “Sure.” He came to the first event and had the sound sorted out. He makes every event sound great, catering to each musician’s style. We wanted to keep it simple, like an open-mic style. Artists would bring in their own instruments and plug them into our kit so that it’d be fast and it would flow smoothly. We had a line-up. We had a blackboard. The blackboard’s become our trademark now. It goes everywhere with us.
So I was very, very nervous for the first event. Were any of the musicians going to show up? It was the [day after Dubai landed the] Expo, and there was traffic and I wasn’t sure if the acts were going to be good. It’s a gamble, you know, when you’re putting on an event like this. But around forty/fifty people turned up and the response was, “Wow, is there more of this? Wow, that was amazing!” There was so much positive response.
How many musicians do you have listed and how are they selected? Are they all based in the Emirates?
We’ve got 92 musicians so far, coming from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Bahrain and one from Saudi Arabia. It’s different the way we do it now. We’ve had seven events. When we first started, it was whoever signed up, because we didn’t have enough sign-ups. For the second event, we got triple the amount of sign-ups but we had limited slots. Two were given to people who we knew were good and had already played with us before. We also gave new bands a chance, like Physical Graffiti, who have played a lot as a result of the FGS platform, and they’ve been able to build their fan base considerably. Now, they’re a favorite local band.
One thing that we don’t have is an audition or screening process. We literally just go for it and that’s kind of the beauty of it. We always make sure that there’s a mix of people we know that are good and then introduce new bands, or solo female and male artists. Basically, we make sure there’s a variety.
Where do you usually host events?
They take place outdoors or at non-hotel venues. I speak to the venue owners and make sure that they know of our specific value and style, so if they get that, then I’m up for working with them. We’ve got a really good relationship with The Magazine Shop, The Archive, and The Roseleaf Café in Dubai.
Now that there’s a growing lo-fi acoustic music culture here in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, how far do you think the music scene can go? Because I imagine that it’s very different from places like London.
The thing is Dubai is a very transient place. Dubai’s also a very new city. But in terms of where I see the music scene heading, I think what Freshly Ground Sounds has done is gather all these scattered individuals who want what I want – I’m not the only one, you’re not the only one –into a community that wants to hear what the U.A.E. has to offer. One of the key things about FGS is that it’s not just about the musicians, it is about you guys who love to come as well; and I think that’s why it’s grown because even the fans feel that they’re a part of it. So Freshly Ground Sounds has really been an integral part of that area of amusement and it’s just going to keep growing. Maybe, more initiatives like it will join us, and that would be great. It’s what we need. We need the power in numbers. We’re the only organization at the time, so we’re just going to keep doing what we do and see where the next season goes.
As an artist and the founder of Freshly Ground Sounds, are there any creative hindrances that you and other local artists face?
The bulk of the regulations around entertainment licensing are geared towards ticketed events at licensed venues (i.e. mainly hotels) in ‘21+’ bars or clubs and it’s slightly different for each Emirate. We tried our first hotel event on a rooftop in Dubai Media City recently and we automatically had to discount some talented under-21 bands from our line-up. Restricting performances to a type of venue, a ticketed event and an age category is a hindrance to creativity. For example, our youngest FGS performer is 13 and I want to find these kids venues to play for free so they can practice and their talent can be nurtured. There are some grey areas that are tricky to navigate and rules can differ from venue to venue so this is a conversation I always have with each venue manager. Together, we’re learning more about the direction the U.A.E. is heading and the regulatory structure that is needed to cater for the budding art and cultural scene.
I also know that you’re a musician. I got to see you sing at the Gulf Music Festival. Could you tell us about your band?
So Steven, a friend of mine, saw me start Freshly Ground Sounds and one day, he said, “Oh, I used to play the bass.” And I said, “Play! Play the bass again!” He also plays the guitar, which is what he did at a Freshly Ground Sounds pop-up event at the Burj Park in January. But then he brought his bass back and we just started a band. I’ve played the guitar on and off for the past few years but never really stayed in one place to get into it a lot. I’ve written some things here and there, put in a few compilation albums but nothing big.
When I returned to the U.A.E. and I started Freshly Ground Sounds, I thought, “You know what? It’s about time I started playing again.” So I did and I started this band with Steven called Kudos by Proxy. We started in February, so we’re a very young band. In that time, we’ve played at the Gulf Music Festival, for the new MINI at The Mine Gallery, and recently, for Fête de la Musique [at Madinat Jumeirah]. We’ve already been on a compilation album, so it’s going well.
What inspired the name Kudos by Proxy? How would you describe your music?
It’s like an intellectually sarcastic name, if you want to call it that even. It was Steven’s idea. I don’t think it’s an inspiration from anywhere. It’s just a name that sounds good when you say it fast or slow, so we just went with it. I don’t get too hung up on band names because ultimately, the name’s significance is only significant to the band. For the audience the focus on the name falls away when the music comes through. There are some pretty awful band names out there that make excellent music. I won’t name them.[As for the music], well, songwriting is really important to me. The lyrics are really important to me. So I would say it’s acoustic folk-pop with an emphasis on the songwriting element.
That’s an interesting genre. Why folk-pop?
We work with the instruments we’ve got, right? So I play the harmonica and guitar, and Steven’s on bass. Naturally, you get the same sounds from those combinations. We have a ukulele player joining us over the summer and right now, we’re looking for a percussionist or drummer. I guess it’s folk-pop because it comes from the songwriting element, and the way I sing and play. Usually our songs have a catchy riff, which is where the pop element comes in; but I don’t really like to label genres, it’s really open for anyone to think what they think.
Are there plans to work on an album?
There are, actually! By March of next year, we’re hoping to have our album ready. We’ve already recorded four tracks as a basic acoustic demo, andwe got that done one afternoon on a weekend. We’ll be recording another four or five over the next few months just as another EP.
Are there any upcoming events that we should keep an eye out for?
Yes! We’re going to die down a bit during the summer [for Ramadan]. We’re working on a brand new, awesome website. It’s going to be amazing! And then we’re going to kick off our new season with a three-day regional tour. Sometime in September or October, there’ll be a big announcement for our first comeback – a welcome to the new season.
As the founder of Freshly Ground Sounds, what are your hopes for it as you think about the future?
I don’t want it to change. If it gets bigger, it gets bigger, and that’s great. But we’re going to stick to this formula because damn, it seems to be working. Obviously every organization and idea needs to adapt because as it grows, it’ll go through different pulls and pushes to get to where it needs to go and that will naturally happen with Freshly Ground Sounds. I know that. As and when things happen, we’ll adapt. For example, right now we need a website and we’re getting a website. We needed a structure to our line-up, now we have that because we have a huge over subscription. How do you fit 90 artists into six slots once a month? So we’ll see but I’m not going to change the basic principles, which is: it’s community-based, it’s open, it’s lo-fi. Those things aren’t going to change.
Ismat “Izzy” Abidi is a lawyer, musician and the founder of Dubai-based acoustic music community Freshly Ground Sounds. You can follow Freshly Ground Sounds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and listen to the first EP online. You can also follow her band Kudos By Proxy on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Gimel Samera is Junior Articles Editor for The Missing Slate.