UAE: How local musicians kept their music alive during the Covid pandemic

Michael Gomes /Dubai
michael@khaleejtimes.com Filed on April 16, 2021

Ivana Nikodijevic, Serbian musician

Nik Uzgare, singer, musician, organiser

Wim Hoste: crooner, actor, producer

Asees Arshad, vocalist of The Seen. Supplied photos:

Adeel Mirza: Solo artiste

Paulina Sandan: Russian singer-pianist

July Nazarenko, crooner

Shehzad 'Shez' Mukhtar, Pakistani singer/musician

Srinath KR, singer

Richard Dela Pena, Filipino guitarist

Inriana Klarasati, Indonesian singer-songwriter

Daunted by the lack of live concerts, UAE-based artistes are trying to stay optimistic about the future

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the lives and livelihoods of people from different professions all over the world, and there’s no doubt that the performing arts industry has taken a huge hit.

Cancellations of shows, events and concerts have crippled the once-robust industry. Several musicians have adapted themselves to the ‘new normal’ of performing online but could this ever replace the electric atmosphere of a real stage? Can the compensation — both monetary and in terms of an audience — ever be as good?

While international artists can afford to sit home and not play live gigs even for years together, given their financial stability, the same doesn’t apply to independent musicians whose main source of income stems from concerts. City Times caught up with a cross-section of performers in the UAE to get a sense of what’s keeping them afloat amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nik Uzgare: Independent musician and frontman of Point of View

The Covid-19 scenario has hurt the global entertainment industry the hardest, says Nikhil 'Nik' Uzgare, frontman of local rock outfit Point of View and an independent musician.

“Lack of live concerts has put a huge dent in musicians’ pockets, as many of them lost their only means of livelihood. We earn (performance-based) wages and don’t have great savings. Many of us have run out of our savings amid high living costs and cancellation of events,” says Uzgare.

“To make matters worse, several musicians could not go back to their home countries due to travel restrictions. However, some of them are lucky to have had day jobs that have kept them afloat. It feels bad to see our community struggle, especially those who call Dubai their home away from home for decades,” he adds.

Many musicians have been turning a new leaf to keep their homes and hearth going. “Some of us took to teaching music, doing voice-over jobs, streaming performances and producing new material. We had to think out of the box. Every musician, who survived the pandemic jolt, has gone through an extreme learning curve,” he explains.

The rocker, who has dabbled in Bollywood and scored the title track for the Naseeruddin Shah-starrer Irada, says he used the downtime to the hilt. “The lock- down gave me time to work on music in my home studio. Point of View’s second album is in the works. I’m also working on some upcoming releases of my independent music,” he adds.

Survival instincts and a positive bent of mind keep musicians going when the chips are down. “A sound mental health holds the key. Dubai is a shining example of a progressive city, which thrives on positivity and good vibes. I look forward to a point in time when Dubai and the UAE will evolve into the leading hub for the music industry in the Middle East and North Africa region,” he signs off on an optimistic note.

Wim Hoste: Crooner, actor, producer

Belgium-born singer Wim Hoste is a popular figure on the Dubai stage and across the UAE. Hoste was slated to perform at Dubai Opera last December when the show got cancelled. But the lack of live shows did not dampen his spirits. He kept his art alive by taking the digital route.

“I kept myself busy writing and producing songs during this period and did many live streaming concerts. I uploaded about 100 videos last year, all done from my home,” he recalls.

Performing in front of a live audience and for a virtual show is a chalk-and-cheese experience, he says.

“Initially, when I did my first live streaming, it was very difficult for me to bring passion to my performance, but later with time and more online shows, I got used to it. I found that when you are doing a virtual live concert, people are constantly reacting to your performance and the feedback motivates you to excel and push the envelope,” he adds.

“But of course, for an artiste, nothing can be compared to a live audience. The positive vibes you get from an audience give an indescribable high,” he explains.

The pandemic also gave the singer time to reflect on his skills. “I spent a lot of time training at home and honing my skills,” he adds.

Hoste recently composed a new song titled, Life is Beautiful. He recorded it in collaboration with local artists and a choir consisting of kids from the Dubai Bilingual French International School.

“The song offers hope and strength and reflects the time we live in today,” says Hoste, adding that he wanted to reach out to those affected by the current situation. The song was streamed on Amazon and can also be heard on SoundCloud.

Hoste is also working on a music video featuring Bollywood actress Soniya Bansal, who made her acting debut with Rahul Roy the movie 100 Crore.

July Nazarenko: Singer

Nazarenko, an artiste from Belarus, has tried her hand at several vocations such as sales, marketing, events, a flight attendant, and more before giving it all up to take to music, which, she says, has been her passion all along. It was music that brought her to Dubai. Working as a live performer, her hopes to combine her passion with making a living came crashing down following the onset of the pandemic.

“It was a tough time, not just financially. It was also difficult to stay inspired, to keep doing what you love doing best in your life. There were times I used to think of the worst scenario like ‘what if live music won’t come back soon, what will I do?’,” the singer thinks aloud.

There came a time when Nazarenko seriously considered going back to a daytime job, but again, she asked herself how she would manage if live music made a resounding come- back.

“I was more than willing to take up a job that wouldn’t affect my music career, like teaching or anything to do with music. But how could I stay creative? That’s the key,” she adds.

Srinath KR: Frontman of Bollywood rock band DHRUV

Srinath ‘Sri’ KR, the frontman of Bollywood rock band DHRUV, has always got an adrenaline rush from live performances in front of an uproarious audience.

Fortunately, the singer kept his day job while pursuing his passion for music. Though he may not have had to go through the struggles of some of his peers, he, nevertheless, is missing the live arena.

“I’ve always had a day job. I started DHRUV and was still employed. Live gigs are more for soul satisfaction. It is life to us musicians. I’m surviving but I cannot say that I’m leading a happy life as a musician. I’m missing the stage dearly,” he adds.

Aaron Rodrigues: Guitarist

Rodrigues is among those musicians who were employed and could face Covid-19 challenges, but surviving in the industry was tough, he reveals.

“Many friends from the music world had to pack up and go home. Surviving without gigs was tough, it’s been hard on me and many other artistes,” he reminisces.

The young guitarist learnt some valuable life lessons during the pandemic.

“The lockdown taught us new ways to survive. We need to have enough savings to fall back on. Many of us are still struggling to make a living with our talents. I hope this, too, shall pass and we can go back to entertaining people,” he adds.

Vin Nair: singer

“We’re not in a hurry to perform live. Stay safe, stay healthy is the key,” he says.

“However, things have started to look up for us, but it’s still early days. This is a special year for us. It’s been a decade since we re- leased our first record and we’re currently working on our 10th-anniversary collective called A Decade of Sin,” he adds.

Asees Arshad: Vocalist of The Seen

The Lahore-born singer/musician has had his fair share of struggles. Music is a full-time job for him. Before the pandemic, Asees had his hands full and his band, The Seen, has struck the right chord with audiences at local events.

“I am just waiting for live gigs to start again. Earlier, I wanted to go back to Pakistan, but couldn’t because flights were not operational. Last year was a nightmare for me. Living without work in Dubai is tough,” he says.

Asees started giving music lessons, but the meagre earnings only came in handy as life lessons rather than help tide over his acute financial crunch.

“This experience taught me so many things. I learned how to be patient. Many of us forget our priorities in our lives. Our duties towards our family and our health. The pandemic has been a big eye-opener. Empathy and how to manage with meagre earning have been the biggest takeaways. Every other industry is gradually opening up. Then, why not entertainment?” he adds.

Robz Gonzalves: Filipino-Goan guitarist

“A few of us stuck it out, but it has been tough. some employers left musicians in the lurch. they even cancelled their visas. survival hasn’t been easy. Going home is not an option. We miss the stage. Music is our only passion.”

Shehzad ‘Shez’ Mukhtar: Pakistani singer/guitarist

“Musicians, who left their home countries to make a living in a foreign land, are facing the worst crisis of their lives. Having no live music and income while stuck in a foreign land is depressing. Music is food for the soul, and we are starved of it. I hope things open up soon.”

Inriana Klarasati: Indonesian singer-songwriter

“i managed to survive without live gigs by living off my savings, taking out a small bank loan and selling my musical instruments. i keep myself busy working at home on my music, releasing and promoting music on social media platforms and learning more about music and industry trends.”

Paulina Sandan:Russian singer-pianist

“surviving without live entertainment is a challenging proposition. We can mostly conduct online classes under trying circumstances. I’m keeping myself busy by expanding my repertoire and working on the craft.”

Richard Dela Pena: Filipino guitarist

“In my 30 years in the Middle East as a performing artiste, I have never been so distressed. My source of income has stopped. I have been surviving by giving online music lessons. But that’s not enough to cover my expenses. My savings are depleted. some kind-hearted friends and family members have extended financial help. the pandemic has taken a financial and mental toll on us.”

Khaled Al Temimi: Iraqi drummer

"I know plenty of musicans, dancers, artists, DJs, event agencies/promoters that have literally been unemployed due to the pandemic. For these people, this is the real job. Nobody sees what goes on behind the scene to put on these shows – hours of practice, thousands of dirhams on rehearsals, gear, transport etc. Many musicians came from abroad to make a living here. Some have families whom they need to support. Some have been stuck due to restrictions, lack of gigs and pending payments from agents."

"There needs to be some sort of support for these artistes who provide nights and memories for all of us."

Ivana Nikodijevic: Serbian musician

“Life has taken a different trajectory. Before the pandemic, I had hit the high notes. But now it seems to be from a distant past. I miss the stage. Online concerts cannot replace the feeling of empowerment that live music gives you. Music has healing power.”

Adeel Mirza: Solo artiste

"As a full-time musician and sound director, I was purely relying on the income generated through such events. The pandemic has significantly impacted the music industry. Concerts, festivals, and shows got cancelled. Initially, I did find some shows, embracing the fact that this (pandemic) had severely impacted my income. However, in the recent past, I've been fortunate to have played a few tentative private shows. Though I’ve managed to stay productive, Covid has set my career timetable back by at least a year, or even more. But I’m hoping that these restrictions will soon go away and things will return to normal."


Michael Gomes

Michael Gomes is a seasoned journalist with more than three decades in the industry, but he still retains his humour and common sense. He has written scores of articles covering music, concerts, food, gadgets and Bollywood. In his spare time, he picks up the guitar to strum a chord or two or play with fire in the home kitchen.


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