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