Electronic Music in Riyadh?

22 November, 2021


Elec­tron­ic music is trend­ing in the Arab world and Iran, but is Riyadh the best place to show­case it?


Melissa Chemam


Ready to host the elec­tron­ic dance music (EDM) fes­ti­val SOUNDSTORM from Decem­ber 16th to the 19th, the Sau­di cap­i­tal sounds tri­umphant. The event promis­es to fea­ture a world-lead­ing line-up with more than 150 super­star head­lin­ers and inter­na­tion­al dance acts, along­side region­al and local tal­ents. But if many DJs and pro­duc­ers are delight­ed to fly to Riyadh, oth­ers have ques­tions about impor­tant social and polit­i­cal issues.

The big names include the über-famous Armin Van Buuren, David Guet­ta, Nina Krav­iz, but also the Dutch-Moroc­can DJ R3hab. Born in 1983, he was ranked at num­ber 12 on the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs in 2018. He said of the event: “What I like about this fes­ti­val is that it’s very dif­fer­ent — it’s a com­plete fusion, some Arab artists and a lot of inter­na­tion­al DJs and it all works real­ly well. I think that’s very spe­cial and I’ve nev­er seen that before.” The inau­gur­al event took place in 2019, spon­sored by the Mid­dle East­ern lifestyle and enter­tain­ment brand MDLBEAST, and this sec­ond edi­tion marks a return after a pan­dem­ic-relat­ed hiatus.

If EDM has for long been asso­ci­at­ed only with West­ern names, the past two decades have seen won­der­ful elec­tro artists emerge from all over the Mid­dle East. The Head of Tal­ent Book­ing of the fes­ti­val, Talal Albahi­ti, said in Sep­tem­ber, “We’re hap­py with the first announce­ment of the SOUNDSTORM ‘21 line up. We will soon announce a sec­ond phase that includes a wide vari­ety of musi­cal gen­res that will take atten­dees on a jour­ney they won’t for­get. We are ready to wel­come all music enthu­si­asts to become part of this immer­sive 4‑day experience.”

For the occa­sion, one of the most favored names in Sau­di Arabia’s under­ground scene, Mohanned Nas­sar (aka Vinyl Mode) pre­sent­ed his lat­est release in Octo­ber, “Eshg Alsamar” on MDLBEAST Records. To him, it’s “an indi­ca­tor that it’s time for the rest of the world to hear what sounds are spilling out of the Ara­bi­an king­dom.” Vinyl Mode has been offer­ing deep house and tech­no to local dance floor enthu­si­asts for over a decade now.

You’d think that SOUNDSTORM would be the epit­o­me of suc­cess of the Mid­dle East when it comes to elec­tron­ic music — a scene that went air­borne from Beirut to Mar­rakesh in the past decade…

Since the rise of incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful Arab DJs, like Tunisian-Pales­tin­ian-French sound­cut­ters from Check­point 303, Beirut artists Thoom and Jes­si­ka Khazrik, Tunis-born/­Paris-based tech­no star Deena Abdel­wa­hed, Pales­tin­ian DJ Sama Abdul­ha­di, ris­ing pro­duc­er from Moroc­co Man­ar Fegrouch aka Glit­ter, Nouf Sufyani aka Cos­mi­cat — Sau­di Arabia’s first female pro­fes­sion­al elec­tron­ic music artist, and many oth­ers, Mid­dle East­ern music has become a hit, but hasn’t had its own major fes­ti­val in its region yet. SOUNDSTORM hopes to be the one.

In Decem­ber 2019, Cos­mi­cat for instance par­tic­i­pat­ed in the MDL Beast Fes­ti­val tar­get­ed at EDM lovers, per­form­ing along­side head­lin­ers like David Guet­ta and Steve Aoki — and with­out wear­ing an abaya, veil or head­scarf. She was lat­er invit­ed by Boil­er Room to DJ in Tunis.

Ramadan Alharatani, the CEO of MDLBEAST, has said about his relat­ed con­fer­ence on EDM XP: “[This] is a first for the region and will serve as the foun­da­tion for a thriv­ing music indus­try across the Mid­dle East. Pro­vid­ing a plat­form to authen­ti­cate and fur­ther build the music indus­try in the [Arab world], local and inter­na­tion­al guests will be embraced by the wealth of pos­si­bil­i­ty offered by this excit­ing new mar­ket over the three days. Through XP, we aim to join the glob­al conversation…”

How­ev­er, though the first MDL fes­ti­val in Riyadh in 2019 was a suc­cess in many ways, it was con­cern­ing in oth­ers. Dozens of influ­encers invit­ed out to pro­mote the fes­ti­val dealt with some  back­lash for sup­port­ing a gov­ern­ment that — among oth­er things — mur­dered jour­nal­ist Jamal Kashog­gi in 2018, and com­mit­ted human rights crimes against women and the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty. 24 indi­vid­u­als were also arrest­ed in rela­tion to sex­u­al harass­ment inci­dents dur­ing the festival.

From the rise of new young stars from Beirut and North Africa, it would seem like a great idea to help a fes­ti­val come about in Tunis, Mar­rakesh or the Lebanese cap­i­tal, to acknowl­edge their cre­ativ­i­ty in the nightlife econ­o­my and EDM, but also to sup­port places that went on to dif­fi­cult times. Sau­di Ara­bia may have the finan­cial means to host major fes­ti­vals, but is the place a fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the authen­tic roots of Arab EDM, and beyond, the Arab music that informed it for decade?

Lebanon has long been a pio­neer­ing city for Ara­bic music, since dis­co cre­at­ed some roots in the Lev­ant. Elec­tron­ic music and club­bing have been a part of Beiru­ti cul­ture since the 1990s. Thoom (real name: Zeynab Ghan­dour) said in Jan­u­ary 2020 to RedBull’s cul­tur­al web­site that the chang­ing polit­i­cal land­scape in Beirut was “spark­ing inter­est in new elec­tron­ic sounds, spurred on amid the back­drop of the protests which have been ongo­ing in the city since Octo­ber 2019, in frus­tra­tion with the country’s stalling econ­o­my.” Then of course, the pan­dem­ic put the cul­tur­al scene on hold, and the ter­ri­ble Beirut Port explo­sion ripped through the city last sum­mer. But the music scene is still active and only waits to grow further.

Whether Riyadh gets pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive sup­port this year, Arab elec­tron­ic music isn’t going any­where; it sounds on the con­trary stronger than ever and can only soon find its cen­ter. I intend to dis­cuss the impact of this fes­ti­val on Arab and Mid­dle East­ern musi­cians, pro­duc­ers and DJs, and to keep this con­ver­sa­tion going.

Melis­sa Chemam is the author of a book on Bristol’s music scene, Mas­sive Attack – Out of the Com­fort Zone. In the fol­low­ing iter­a­tions of this col­umn, every month, she will explore more in depth some incred­i­ble tra­jec­to­ries of the icons of Arab music, includ­ing the elec­tron­ic scene of the greater Mid­dle East, and how they influ­enced music pro­duc­tion around the world.



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