Why you should care
The Gulf’s big power is showcasing its softer side too.
“Should we or shouldn’t we?” asks Hasan Hatrash. The frontman of Saudi Arabian band Most of Us is recalling the discussions he and his bandmates had about a song they recorded last year — a comic version of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” celebrating the new edict permitting Saudi women to drive.
Hatrash and his bandmates, bassist Khalid Sharani, drummer Amro Hawari and keyboardist Amer Abbas, were worried that the Saudi authorities — not noted for their appreciation of rock parodies — would fail to see the funny side. “But we have reached a state of mind that we are so fucking bored and are getting too old, man,” he tells me. “You know, who dares, wins! We saw it as a wave that we can ride. There could be risks but so what?”
The song’s video was a hit in Saudi Arabia. To Hatrash’s surprise, there was no hint of official disapproval. Duly encouraged, Most of Us have now released a song welcoming a new law permitting the reopening of cinemas. “Don’t travel to Bahrain to see a couple of movies,” Hatrash sings in Arabic. “Cinema is here!”
I want to show the world that we have a lot of art here.
Hasan Hatrash, musician
Saudi society is undergoing a dizzying period of change. The repressive kingdom of religious police and strict prohibitions is being rebooted. Instigated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there are plans to spend $64 billion, turning the kingdom into an entertainment hub. If the scheme succeeds, Saudis will no longer have to travel to neighboring Gulf states for trips to the cinema or concerts.
Music is at the vanguard of the new policy. Last year American country musician Toby Keith — Stetson-wearing maker of songs such as “She’s a Hottie” and “Drunk Americans” — played a gig in Riyadh for an all-male audience. In December, Lebanese singer Hiba Tawaji played the first female-only concert in the Saudi capital. Last month it staged its inaugural jazz festival.
Yet the general Western impression of an artless wasteland being transformed by large sums of money and imported talent is not quite correct. Musicians already exist in the kingdom, not just making Arabic music but Western forms as well: rock, pop, rap, heavy metal, even black metal.
“I want to show the world that we have a lot of art here, that we have been misrepresented,” Hatrash tells me over Skype from Most of Us’ studio in Jiddah. Now 43, the former journalist — described by American author Dave Eggers as a “poet, troublemaker and friend” — founded Most of Us in 1998. His classic-rock-influenced outfit is a rare survivor of the first wave of Saudi rock bands.
Raised abroad until he was 9 in a diplomatic family, Hatrash was part of a fledgling music scene that emerged in the 1990s. It was oriented around heavier styles of rock such as thrash metal. “That harsh music gave a sense of rebellion, a sense of screaming against the society,” he says. He learned guitar by laboriously practicing Metallica riffs by ear (“That was really hellish”).
Hatrash was among hundreds of young men interrogated after a police raid on an event featuring a rock band in Jiddah in 1995, set up “supposedly legally” by a local record label. “It created a kind of phobia. We got inward, we started playing at home, in private places,” he says.
There was no overt law against playing rock music. “It was more an unspoken prohibition, driven by the culture,” Hatrash says. Private shows, in residential compounds or consulates, were semi-tolerated, although there were periodic crackdowns. “The government didn’t want to create a clash with society. They didn’t want to create a fuss,” he explains.
Sound of Ruby, a fierce noise-rock band, were founded in 1996. Their leader, Al-Hajjaj, 38, based in Dammam City, cites Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” as drawing him to guitars and drums in the 1980s. “Electric guitars were also part of 1960s Arabic music, particularly the work of [pioneering Egyptian guitarist] Omar Khorshid,” he says by email.
At the start of their career, Sound of Ruby played gigs in a tent in the desert. “We needed to be far away so as to not disturb anybody with our loud sound,” Al-Hajjaj says. The arrival of the internet was transformative, “to connect with other local bands and musicians and to organize small gigs.”
“Suddenly rock, metal, hip-hop, everything started coming up,” Hatrash says of the spread of the web in the 2000s. Appetite for music was fueled by petrol-dollar affluence and demographics: More than 60 percent of Saudis are under 30. Official attitudes to the popularity of Western music have fluctuated between pragmatism and suppression. The coastal city of Jiddah has traditionally been more liberal than Riyadh, the desert-locked capital.
Last year hip-hop was recognized as an official art form by the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts. It came after a campaign by the country’s most celebrated rapper, Qusai Kheder, aka Don Legend the Kamelion, who raps in Arabic and English. He released his first album in 2002, while his 2012 song “Yalla” notched up 11 million YouTube views. (He was not available for comment.)
The pseudonymous members of Al-Namrood play black metal from an unknown location. Founded in 2008, the band, named after the Babylonian king Nimrod, make an uncompromising racket with lyrics attacking all religions. “Throughout the years, we have achieved a lot,” they say in a Facebook post about their 10th anniversary. “Most importantly we managed to keep our heads attached to our bodies!”
Loulwa Alsharif, 30 and from Jiddah, sings soul, blues and jazz. “There are many beautiful female musicians, from pianists to guitarists to oud and singers too,” she tells me by email. “When I started singing live, I told myself, Loulwa, you should have courage and be strong and start the first step!”
She began performing in a band led by blues guitarist and singer Moiz Rahman four years ago. Her first show was in a private compound “because it’s the safest place to do events in for a mixed [sex] audience.” A “very few people” warned her to be careful.
“But I wasn’t afraid at all. As long as I’m doing what I love in a respectable way, then no one has the right to stop me,” she says. “Fear either will stop us, or push us to be better, all we need is courage and belief in our self so we can move on, that is how Saudi women are becoming more successful.”
The human rights organization Amnesty International cautions that female drivers and reopened cinemas “barely scratch the surface of the reform needed within the country.” Since becoming crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman has intensified a crackdown on activists and journalists and escalated a vicious war in Yemen. Only last year Saudi singer Abdallah Al Shahani was arrested for doing a “dabbing” dance move during a concert in the city of Taif.
However, the musicians I speak to are optimistic. “Each week, we’re seeing local bands and artists playing in public,” says Sound of Ruby’s Al-Hajjaj. “Saudi Arabia has become so liberal in a blink of an eye,” says Loulwa Alsharif, who plans a record with Hatrash’s band, Most of Us. As Hatrash himself says: “After 20 years now, I can say we are starting to establish ourselves, like a new beginning. It’s a unique situation. A very closed society suddenly becomes open. You can’t predict what will happen. Fingers crossed, man.”
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