Thursday, June 2, 2011

Musicians in Kuwait

As a musician myself, I found the following article VERY interesting. Because when reading it, I realized how fortunate I am as an American to be called a "songwriter,""singer," "artist," & book a show or two- without the hassle of needing a license for EVERY SINGLE PERFORMANCE.

Kuwait has a LOT of young musicians. There have been concerts organized by youths themselves to give the local bands a chance to play at a venue- but because of politics & strict social customs, these special events have been cancelled.

If you live in Kuwait & play rock music- you're almost screwed out of playing it. But many push the limits to express themselves in "evil Western music." It just goes to show- music is POWER. Just look at how much music influenced America in the 1960's.

But if you are a Westerner, check out what it's like being a musician in Kuwait. The article features an interview with a band called CHROMATIC, by the ARAB TIMES ONLINE

I have highlighted the few questions I found interesting. Questions that in the West, you would never ask.

A cool little fact: They messaged me on FB to audition to be a part of their group on FB a few months ago but b/c I work so much AND work nights, I just was not able to audition or join.

CHROMATIC is a Kuwait-based music band, floundering in the face of bureaucratic and cultural challenges, yet determined to make a mark, and fighting on. Comprising of five members, each coming from a different background, the youngest not yet out of school, Chromatic is full of energy and life. Then again a band that emerged by a crossing of paths of five like-minded youths with a bouquet of talents can’t be any different. The interview with the band, featured below, may sound light veined, but that should not take away from the gravity of some of the issues they raised. You can follow them on FaceBook under the name Chromatic.

Question: How did Chromatic happen?
Answer: We two (Saeid and Nadeem) knew each other for a long, long time. Nadeem plays the bass and I play the guitar. We once went for a band auditioning, and there we met another guitarist, Abdulrahman. That’s where we got this idea of starting a band, with the three of us. Abdulrahman and I as guitarists, and Nadeem playing bass. But a band needs a drummer, and we found Aakash on FaceBook.
Basically that’s the beginning of our band. We started with some instrumentals and all that. We didn’t have a singer then. We got a couple of opportunities to play. We played at Bayt Lothan and Kuwait TV for the Good Morning Kuwait show.

Q: How did you get the break in Kuwait TV?
A: Abdulrahman was in the music college. Kuwait TV was looking for people to do a program on music. And Abdulrahman linked us up with the channel. It was an interview and we also played. Bayt Lothan was a charity event.

Q: How did you find singers for your band?
A: Yes, soon we felt the need for a vocalist and Akaash introduced us to Swagat, a singer. He is the best vocalist we have ever heard in Kuwait.

Q: Is Swagat still a part of your band?

A: No, he is not with us. He got busy with his school, exams and all that, and had to leave us. And that’s when Kathryn joined us. Kathryn was a singer in another band, and when we invited her, she accepted because it’s hard for a band in Kuwait to get regular gigs.

Q: Before we go on, tell me the names of all the members of your band.

A: Saeid Jahrmoi, lead  guitarist, is also the band manager. AbdulRahman Al Essa, rhythm guitar and vocal, Nadeem, bass, Kathryn, vocal and Aakash, drummer. Applebees musicians also play with us when we perform there. They are Hamoud Al Hamoud, singer, and Khaled Mehmar, drummer.

Q: Kathryn, why did you decide to leave your old band and join Chromatic?

A: Oh no, no... I have not left my old band. My original band is Switch Back. I have been with them for two and half years. I did not leave them, they are like my family. I consider myself very lucky to be part of both bands, because both are very different. So, it’s a lot more interesting and a lot more fun.

Q: So, how long have you been singing for Chromatic now?

A: I have been singing since last October.

Q: Saeid, tell me about the challenges you face as a band in Kuwait.

A: The biggest challenge we face as a band in Kuwait is the red-tapism here. We can’t play live here without a license from concerned authorities, and it’s quite a procedure. This makes getting opportunities to play far and few between. Moreover, there are mindsets in the society that we have to surmount... people have reservations about Western music, and it is looked upon as polluting the local culture.
I (Kathryn) think there is a lot of misconception about music here. Unfortunately, some influential people don’t understand music. They think there is something bad about it... that it has a bad message. Music actually is a powerful means of communication and connects people in all the parts of the world. But that is not fully appreciated here. And we are not getting enough opportunity to prove that it’s not the way they think it is.

Q: What are some of the issues that you face when you go to apply for a license to perform live?

A: Some of the issues that were raised were that our visas are not related to music, and then there has got to be an occasion, like say a wedding or something, for us to perform live. So, if it’s not for an occasion, then you are not allowed a license.

Q: Oh, so for every performance you have to get a license. It’s not something like a license that you renew every year, is it?

A: No, it’s a separate license for every performance. Every time you play, you have to get a license. We play once every two weeks at Applebees and we have to apply for a license every time we play there.

Q: Are there any other conditions, like you have to get your lyrics approved by some authority, or something of that sort?

A: No. Just that we have to tell them what kind of music we are playing. Usually, that’s mentioned in the license. Kuwait has got a lot of young talents and they have to be nurtured. We have friends in other bands who travel out of Kuwait just to perform. Even we went outside of Kuwait once just to play.
But the one good thing about these limitations is that it brings out the fight in us. A lot of these youngsters are writing their own songs, composing their own melodies... some really good music is coming out of Kuwait.

Q: How is your music received by your audience? Do you get their feedbacks?

A: At the restaurant where we play, most people enjoy our music, but on rare occasions, there are some who don’t enjoy Western music, and they get upset.

Q: Do they come and tell you they didn’t like it?

A: No, but we know from their expressions. Once, there was this man who had come with his wife. He told the restaurant manager that he doesn’t like the music and left. But to be honest, the public really like Western music and enjoy it. They don’t have many opportunities to enjoy light music, and they enjoy our performances.
Some people come to us and tell us, ‘We didn’t know something like this existed in Kuwait.’ They are happy. We cater to a variety of tastes and play a wide variety of songs.

Q: Do you know of any bands that play the traditional Arabic music, because probably they don’t face as many restrictions as you guys?

A: Yes, we know an Arabic band and they are playing everywhere. They perform at events in malls and at places like Aqua Park. And we don’t think they face many problems.

Q: Is dress code a factor for license?

A: Dress is not a problem, but I think dancing is a problem. It’s actually spelt out in the document for license. Once we were performing at a beach party. It was a live band, and there was a DJ, but you were not allowed to dance. It was difficult to stay still and sing.

Q: Okay, now let’s come to the music part of it... you play exclusively Western. Is there any particular reason why you do that?

A: It is what we like. It’s what we enjoy.

Q: Do you speak Arabic?

A: I (Nadeem) and Saeid speak Arabic. We are basically Iranians and attended Arabic schools, and so we know Arabic. I have been into Michael Jackson songs since I was 6, and it was a crossing of paths... it’s just that a group of guys with similar interests got together. We play Western because we enjoy doing it.

Q: Can each of you tell me what you do other than music? Band, of course, is not your profession. So what’s your bread and butter?

A: I (Saeid) work in Al Diyar, in the KOC outsourcing project. I am an IT professional. I (Nadeem) work in a family business, electronics... and I also work in Al Bawadi TV in the photography and graphic designing department. I (Kathryn) am a teacher. I also have my small business of writing and selling inspirational quotes. I (Aakash) go to school. I am in year 12.

Q: How do you find time for music?

A: For the band, we have fixed times... like two days in a week. We meet up at someone’s house. On other days we practice our individual pieces separately at our homes.

Q: So how many hours a day do you give for music?

A: It differs for each of us. It depends on our work, and how busy we are on a particular day and so on. But we make sure, we give it our best. We have to learn a new stuff almost every week, because we are playing at Applebees regularly. So, yes, we have to give it a lot of time.

Q: Do you have a new repertoire for every gig at the restaurant?

A: Even before we got the restaurant gig, we had about 100 songs in our repertoire. We have to play for two hours every two weeks, and we make sure that at least 50 percent of the songs we play are new. Because we have regular audiences, and we don’t want to bore them with the same songs over and over again.

Q: Are you open to requests?

A: Yes... and we play them if we are familiar with the request, or we practice it and play it the next time round. Other than this regular gig at Applebees, we also play at birthday or wedding parties. That happens from time to time. We have played in 360 Mall and once we have been to Bahrain to perform at a talent show.

Q: Was it a competition?

A: No. It was just a platform to showcase our talents. It was a mixture of all kinds of bands. There was an audition and they chose us.
Talking of competition, last Friday, there was a competition,BATTLE OF THE BANDS, and we got the first prize. There were a total of 17 bands, in two categories. In the seniors’ category, there were about seven bands... and we came first. More than the competition, it was the opportunity to play that drove us.

Q: Most of you are born and brought up in Kuwait, and you are quite used to the ways of this country. When you hear from your friends in bands playing in other countries, how do you feel? Do you feel deprived, or what’s the feeling?

A: In Bahrain, we feel it’s much easier to do regular gigs there. In UAE, it’s much more open. You can say that’s the most open in the region.

Q: What is your ambition as a band? What are you aiming for, and where do you want to be? Not your band in specific, but I am asking about an average band... when would a band feel that it has arrived?

A: Getting famous... we hold a show and thousands turn up to listen to us... I think that’s the ultimate dream.  When we started out, we didn’t expect any returns out of this. We were doing it purely for the passion for music. But now, with the amount of time and efforts we put in, we feel that we deserve to get some returns.  So that’s when we look for paid gigs. However, nothing gives you more satisfaction than seeing people really enjoying your performance. When we finish a performance and see the audience breaking into an applause... that’s a wonderful feeling.
Then again most of the money we generate by performing goes to buying equipment. The speakers, cables, mixers and so on. Nearly seventy percent of the band’s income is spent on these things.
We can’t just practice at our homes, because we would become a nuisance to our neighbours, and so we will have to buy special equipment like headphones. This way only we hear our music and are not a disturbance to others.
It might be something unheard of to practice with headphones on. And it’s good that we are all agreed on how to spend the band’s income, and there’s been really no issues on that. We are ready to spend to be able to play more.

Q: So appreciation matters a lot for you?

A: Yes. All of us are working, and we have our incomes. We are into this because we love it. It’s very important to have the passion to keep you going. Without that it’s very difficult to sustain in this field. You may have your ups and downs, and limitations, but it’s the sheer passion for music that keeps any band going. It takes a lot of practice and devotion to be able to put even a few chords together. So, without passion, it will be impossible.

Q: Okay, what are you planning to do next... do you want to keep going the way you are going now, or is there anything specific that you want to do? Probably look for greener pastures elsewhere or something of that sort?

A: Most of us are born in Kuwait, and this is where we feel at home. We are trying our best to play here, and reach people. We will stay here and do what we can within the space that we have. We approach various hotels, and they tell us that if we can get the license we can play. They are open to our bands, but then they are unwilling to go through all the bureaucratic hassles to let us play.

Q: When you don’t get good opportunities, and you turn to these little parties and weddings to perform, do you find it demeaning?

A: No, not really. We think these functions are a good publicity for us, because the more we play, the more people will know.

Q: Tell me about these functions... are these your friends and people within your circle who call you when they have a function at their house?

A: Sometimes, it is people who know us, and sometimes it is through connections. They call us and we go play. The event doesn’t matter to us, it is the audience. When you play and you find that people are really enjoying it, you feel very satisfied.

Q: What is the average strength of your audience in such functions?

A: It depends on the occasion. At some functions, we have about 400 audiences. So, it really depends on what function it is, who is organizing it and all that.

Q: Okay, now if each of you could tell me about your tryst with music... how you ended up becoming musicians?

A: I (Saeid) was always fascinated with the guitar. I liked the sound of it. When I was 20, I decided to get a guitar and began practicing. I don’t have a teacher, I just source contents from the Internet and learn.  I used to practice 8 hours a day.
I (Nadeem) told you that I was inspired by Michael Jackson... and in Beat It, I just loved the sound of electric guitar.

Q: Do you do moon walk and all that break dance movements of Jackson?

A: Yes... it’s in fact one of my dreams to do a Michael Jackson tribute dance in Kuwait. And Michael Jackson gave me different types of music. I liked to listen to music very loudly, and as I couldn’t do that  because of the neighbours, I used to wear headphones... and I could clearly listen to the bass sound.

Q: You had the knowledge to make out the bass and other finer details in music?

A: To be honest, I didn’t know what that is, but I liked it. I picked that up. That’s how I got interested in guitar. And Saeid gave me the idea of trying the bass, and I agreed with him.

Q: Okay, now you Kathryn, how did you discover the singer in you?

A: I have always liked music... I have not technically learnt music, but I just love music. I am not a professional. I used to sing in a choir in school. I came to live in Kuwait 7 years ago. In my other band, there is male vocalist, who is a very good friend, and I have known him since I came to Kuwait. I used to go to his house for special occasions. He is older with 30 years experience in music. And he was in a band called Grove Tones. They were looking for singer and he suggested my name. But I said, no way. A year later, he was in this band called Switch Back and they were having an audition for singers, and there my friend made me sing, taking me by surprise.  I was terrified, but at the end, I was taken in and I learnt a lot from the band later. They moulded me.

My (Aakash) dad is a big fan of music. He has loads of CDs. He wanted my brother to play the piano, but my brother said, ‘I want to play the drums,’ and he influenced me. I never really wanted to play any musical instrument, but one day I thought I will try playing the drums, and one of my friends in school used to play the drums. I went to his house and learnt to play from him. I asked my parents for a drum kit, and they got me one. I was 11 back then, and ever since I have been playing.
I (Abdulrahman) went to a music college and learnt guitar. I had always wanted a guitar, and one day I woke up to find a guitar beside my bed, which my uncle had bought for me. I also sing.
By Valiya S. Sajjad
Arab Times Staff

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