Music revolution in Dubai

Top Stories

Music revolution in Dubai

Bored with the same five songs every radio station seems intent on playing? Check out Z the People.

By David Light

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Tue 19 May 2015, 8:42 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 9:33 PM

It was billed as an ‘alternative night.’ A recent hipster get-together at Mina Seyahi Yacht Club, Dubai, saw the vintaged clothed, bearded and trendily coiffed arrive in their hundreds.

Sponsored by a fashion brand traditionally favoured by Mods (how else do these things get off the ground in this city), the set-up was actually very good. The mostly chilled out, like-minded crowd had the rule over a huge dance floor upon which the booked entertainment – the supposed icing on the proverbial cake – was to be enjoyed. Although, rather than the headline act, it was the appearance of lesser-known Palestinian American Z the People that made the night. Without his set, accompanied by fellow musician El Jehaz, most would have hung their trilby hat-ted bonces in disappointment.

While the ‘Indy rock star turned DJ’ Faris Badwan of The Horrors fame was content to spin a Dubai brunch compilation CD, Z the People, real name Ramzy Suleiman, brought elements in keeping with the desired atmosphere – true originality, edginess and a somewhat disdain for the establishment (his tongue-in-cheek comments to those in the VIP section cannot be repeated).

Here we speak to Amman-based Z the People about his brand of music and future tours including Glastonbury.

Can you sum up your musical style to those who haven’t heard it?
Right now I’m focused on mixing soulful electronic music with Arabic Dabke. At the end of the day, it’s meant to be dance music, with lots of surprises.

How often do you perform with El Jehaz? Are you now a permanent duo, or are you solo acts who come together occasionally?
In 2011 I went to Amman to meet up with MC/songwriter Tareq Abu Kwaik, a.k.a El Far3i. He introduced me to many of the musicians in the alternative and underground scene there, like El Jehaz. El Jehaz was the guitarist for the band Autostrad at the time, and I realised quickly that this guy could pick up just about any instrument and get something nice out of it, plus he had an engineer’s ear for sound and production.
We didn’t think about it too much, we just started getting together at his studio, I showed him some of my tunes, and he started booking shows in Amman for us to test the stuff live. El Jehaz and I play duo shows a lot, but are also part of a bigger band called 47SOUL, which includes El Far3i and Palestinian singer Walaa Sbait.

When did music move from a hobby to a job? Is performing everything you thought it would be?
I was raised in the States, outside Washington D.C., by a Palestinian father and American mother. My reality and music is very much a reflection of these two cultures. I actually worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor most of my life, while taking any chance I got to play music. In 2012 I got the opportunity to teach piano at the Gaza Music School in Palestine, and that solidified my full shift to the music world. After that I realised that performing music was really the best way for me to use my skills to bring an uplifting message to the people. Being able to travel and perform music is a tremendous blessing I don’t take lightly; I’m very grateful for each show.

Do you think music needs to have a message?
All music has a message, a feeling that the artist is trying to get out of the listener. Some melodies make you cry without saying anything. With my music, I throw encouragement and celebration to the people fighting to live a basic free life, and daggers at those that try to oppress that.

How often do you gig and where is your favourite place to play? Where is the worst?
At the moment, I gig a few times a week give or take. The audience really makes the experience for me, so wherever people really get into it is where I enjoy the most. One of the best live shows I had was with 47SOUL at Canvas in Amman, the audience really lifted us, it was one of those shows that keeps giving you jitters for weeks after. Radio Beirut is another spot that I always love playing. The worst…I spent six or seven years playing tough venues in the US: broken sound systems, bad treatment by staff, empty seats, little or no pay…there were of course bright spots, but overall let’s say it taught me to really appreciate a good gig.

Have you performed in Palestine?
Yes, I’ve done a few shows in Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Gaza. They were very inspiring for me, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.

What is your ultimate ambition? Who would you like to collaborate with? Do you think your music would be well received anywhere?
The music I’m trying to make is universal, something dynamic and moving that makes people dance, cry, celebrate, and think all in one show.
With 47SOUL, I’ve found the crew I know can make music with that speaks to people from Japan to Brazil and everywhere in between. Other artists I’d like to collaborate with…that list is too long, but to name a few, MC Boikutt and producer Hello Psychallepo.

What’s your view on the music industry? What is your view on music from the Arab region?
The music industry, like many other industries in the Arab World, is facing grave challenges. The fact that Arab artists can’t move freely around their home region makes earning a living through music very tough. Scenes are very isolated; a Ramallah musician that used to be able to get on a bus and play in Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo, now is forced to look more for chances to perform in Europe and abroad, and will have to spend as much time sorting visa issues as writing songs.

Despite all that, there are too many Arab artists cutting through and making music that moves me. At the moment, I bump a lot of Dabke, especially mijwiz players like Usama Abu 3li and Ashraf Abu Leil. On the alternative tip, the work of Egyptian keyboardists Maurice Louca and Fady Badr sends me spinning.

Outside the Arab World, two artists I’ve always been a huge fan of are D’Angelo and Jay Electronica. At the end of the day, give me a deep soulful beat and a fresh melody, and I’ll be bumping my head.

How can people access your music?
I released my first solo record, Z the EP, last summer. You can buy it on bandcamp at zthepeople.bandcamp.com or stream it on soundcloud.com/zthepeople. It is mixed by El Jehaz, and also features El Far3i on two tracks.

I’m currently about to go into the studio with 47SOUL to make our debut record, Shamstep. To check more about it, visit 47soul.com

For the next year, we’re gearing up to release the 47SOUL record and do a summer UK festival tour, including festivals like Glastonbury and WOMAD.

And I expect the next year to be peppered with lots of releases for Z the People and Jehaz, as well as collaborations with some of my favourite artists, so stay tuned!

david@khaleejtimes.com



More news from