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How Saudi Arabian musicians are striking a chord with their fans
As the country overhauls its entertainment sector, the resurgence of the music scene proves its more than just a phase.
When Zamzam Al-Koheji of Zamzam, an indie folk band from Al-Khobar in Saudi Arabia, had to perform in front of an audience, she was worried about how people would perceive a live performance by a Saudi woman. But her brother and the other half of Zamzam, Mustafa Al-Koheji, encouraged her to perform–the duo had been practicing their craft for a long time.
“Some of them were excited to see a woman singing, and some appreciated that the music we were playing is not something you would usually see here,” Zamzam says.
She describes their music as experimental –-ranging from likes of Cecilia by Simon & Garfunkel, the Indigo Girls to perhaps, even the Taylor Swift cover band of the Eastern Province.
Her musical journey started at a young age when she listened to punk and midwestern rock. Thanks to a large expatriate population and its proximity to Bahrain, the Eastern Province is home to radio stations and television broadcasts that cater to a western audience. Growing up in the early 2000s, she recalls radio 91.4FM, which played easy rock from the 1960s and 1970s, including broadcasting live shows of Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, David Bowie, and AC/DC.
“They were an insanely informative space for Western music [and culture], which in turn, affected the entire generation and the demographic I come from,” she says.
Her uncles playing music during the 1980s and 1990s at private events or in Bahrain influenced her journey as an artist.
It was only after going abroad for higher education and being surrounded by other artists, and receiving recognition as a musician did she start taking performances seriously.
After returning to Saudi Arabia, Zamzam approached a local café with her CD and was asked to come in and play on a live music night. “When I was a teenager, something like a Bohemia Art Café wasn’t there,” she says. “Now, it’s a pillar to the music community.”
EVOLUTION OF THE SAUDI MUSICAL SCENE
Kay Hardy Campbell’s book Music in Arabia: Perspectives on Heritage, Mobility, and Nation states that the 20th century brought many changes to Saudi society, including the discovery of oil and the introduction of broadcast radio and television.
During the reign of King Faisal bin Abd al-Aziz (1964-1975), Arabic music was funded by the government, and Saudi-produced music was broadcast over state radio and television. King Faisal’s assassination in 1975 and the siege of Mecca in 1979 marked the beginning of a long period of religious conservatism.
“Even during the most conservative periods in the 20th century, a vibrant, and if at times low-key, music culture existed in the cities and towns,” Campbell writes.
Live folk performances in the 1990s, satellite television in the 1990s, and the internet in the 2000s were some platforms where music was available. In 2019, under a royal decree, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced that music was now permissible in licensed establishments.
The decree is part of the Kingdom Vision 2030’s objective to “develop and diversify entertainment opportunities to meet the needs of the population.”
Now, the country is spending billions on building new venues and flying in Western acts in a total overhaul of its entertainment sector. The second edition of MDL Beast’s Soundstorm, a dance and musical event in Riyadh, featured performances by David Guetta, Tiesto, and Armin Van Buuren, and was attended by more than 730,000 people.
When asked how the Saudi audience perceived their unconventional genre of modern acoustic, folk, and indie rock, Zamzam says that Saudis are hungry for entertainment, adding there is much more acceptance of Arabic folk music because it’s familiar and comfortable.
“With time, our genre will become palatable to the public,” she says. “Our genre needs to develop a following of its own.”
NEW ERA OF SAUDI MUSIC
Like the Zamzam band, Ibrahem Al-Orfi and his band SHFQ (Arabic for twilight) are carving out a space for alternative rock in Saudi Arabia. The band performed at the Dubai Expo 2020 to showcase their alternative genre of Arabic music.
“We always sing in Arabic because we want to be a part of the evolution happening in the Saudi music scene,” Al-Orfi says. “We want to make material that Saudis can listen to and enjoy. At the same time, it’s not traditional. It’s the new era of Saudi music.”
A thing that differentiates SHFQ from other Khaleeji bands–-or even those from Lebanon or Egypt–-is the Saudi accent, juxtaposed with western music. Some elements of Saudi culture, like words and situations, make it uniquely Saudi.
Al-Orfi cites the example of Too Hyped, a song he wrote about the days he wouldn’t have been able to step outside the house with his guitar. But now, he performs on stage. “It talks about how the music scene has changed and how I’m hyped to be here now.”
While he expected his Saudi audience to be skeptical of SHFQ’s style, he found that their genre has found acceptance.
Meanwhile, Nader Al Fassam, the lead guitarist of Sound of Ruby, a Saudi psychedelic punk band, has been playing in the region since the 1990s.
While finding a sustainable income for the metal in local cafés and restaurants can be challenging, like SHFQ, Sound of Ruby has also found an eager audience. “They love it because they’re tired of hearing the same thing–either Arabic traditional or Western jazz.”
Al Fassam is widely credited for developing the “midnight samri” (Arabic folkloric style), in which he makes the guitar sound like a bagpipe.
On the one hand, these musicians have the challenge of making their music palatable to a Saudi audience, but as Zamzam says, in a rush to cater to popular genres favored by audiences, artists might dilute the individuality of the Saudi music scene.
She also notes that artists in the kingdom don’t have a viable career path yet. “The infrastructure laid out today will benefit musicians 20 years from now,” she says.
The Ministry of Culture recently launched a National Music strategy that includes education, building music institutes, and licensing and intellectual property laws.
“We live in a time where the government is very supportive of our music. We have access to resources in a way that was never there before.”