Dive into Dubai’s Experimental Music Scene

English label Must Die Records is gearing up to release Easy Listening vol. 1a compilation featuring experimental music and art sound from Dubai. We met with one of the compilation’s creators, Simon Coates, founder of the avant-garde UAE-based collective Tse Tse Fly, to learn more about the release. Check out our interview below.

The title Easy Listening vol. 1 is a bit misleading, as Must Die Records’ new release dedicated to the experimental music of Dubai is anything but “easy”. The fruit of a collaboration between English label Must Die Records and Dubai collective Tse Tse Fly, the compilation blends experimental sounds, electronica, and field recording to create a truly multifaceted album.

As proof of Tse Tse Fly’s momentum in Dubai and the surrounding area, Easy Listening vol. 1 is set for release in September on multiple platforms including digital, CD, and vinyl (you have until Thursday to donate to the album’s Kickstarter campaign!). The album highlights the underground music scene of a region accustomed to smoother and more mainstream productions. Simon Coates, founder of the Tse Tse Fly collective, speaks with us about the origins of the project and takes us to the heart of Dubai’s music scene below.

How was the Tse Tse Fly collective formed?

Tse Tse Fly was founded almost exactly a year ago in the summer of 2015. I’d had the idea of creating a club night that only played sound art – rather than the usual dance music – for a while, so I finally put it into practice. I’d decided that there would be a monthly Tse Tse Fly club night here in Dubai but thought just playing sound art from behind the DJ booth wasn’t enough, so I started recruiting friends who could perform live. Actually, to be honest, some of them had never performed live before, which added another edge of frisson to the whole project. Some of these friends went on to form the core of the existing Tse Tse Fly collective and are featured on our album.

Also, as the nights progressed, other people who had come along as audience members asked to get involved, which was lovely. One other key motivation for putting on the Tse Tse Fly events was as a reaction to the existing nightlife here in Dubai. Quite simply, I had run out of places to go. So I thought, rather than complaining, I’d do something about it. As well as the live performances at the club nights, we also showcase videos from regional sound artists and experimental musicians.

Having worked with formal gallery spaces and art institutions over the years, I wanted to create an informal environment that proves challenging artwork doesn’t just have to exist in a white cube. So people can come along, have a drink, meet friends and so on. It shows that experiencing art can work as a social interaction, and presenting it in this informal way breaks down cliques and barriers. In my head there’s a spirit of the Dada club Cabaret Voltaire in what Tse Tse Fly do and what has been achieved. Not sure that’s in anyone’s else’s head, though.

How did this collaboration with Must Die Records get started?

Rick and Carlito from Must Die hold an experimental music festival in the UK called Other Worlds. I got in contact with them last year, offering to put on a Tse Tse Fly night at their festival and it kind of grew from there. To be honest it was all an incredible leap of faith by them. They agreed to host us at Other Worlds without asking us to do an audition or anything. So we took part in the festival in April 2015 and, just beforehand, Rick asked me what I thought about their label releasing a Tse Tse Fly album. I jumped at the chance. I still feel very flattered.

Why did you decide to call the compilation “Easy Listening?”

Tse Tse Fly has never been about compromise. I was always very clear about that. Because of the United Arab Emirates’ customs and values there are certain things you can’t do as an artist here. However, I was determined that we would never hold back when it comes to the noise we make. Even now, when people in Dubai tell me that they’ll come along to one of our events I tend to ask them to come with an open mind. So, by calling the album ‘Easy Listening Vol.1′, I’m turning that whole premise on its head: this album is many things but one thing it’s not is easy. The title is also a nod to Throbbing Gristle’s ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’ album, which is eleven tracks long and contains no jazz funk whatsoever. I like that.

Tell us about the different artists on the album…

Everyone involved with the Tse Tse Fly family is either an experimental musician or an artist that uses sound as part of their practise. So there’s a rich mix of styles and approaches that in some way underlines that fact that we don’t have any rules to what we do. Most are solo tracks with a couple of collaborations. Jonny Farrow’s track was actually created on a wall-sized EMU synth in Chicago earlier this year, and uses self-writing technology. João Menezes contributes a solo track but also collaborates with Jonny as Remote Viewers.  I have a track on there under my own name but also as one half of Visqueen, which is a collaboration between me and an experimental vocalist called X.  Nightmares from Fabric is actually an artist called Isaac Sullivan under his own name and in collaboration with Tse Tse Fly founder member Nour Sokhon.  Nour has her own solo track on there as do Kumah, Karim Sultan, Hasan Hujairi and Sanathana. Black Line is a guy called Ed who makes face-meltingly warped breakbeats. There are tracks that hint at broken free jazz, glitchy electronica or motorik. Some are more pastoral. Isaac’s work always reminds me of soundtracks for non-existent 1980s dystopia-themed films.  Nour processes field recordings to make work relating to her own fascination with psychology. The Visqueen track is actually a whoozy cover version of the theme song to a 1960s children’s TV show. Actually Andrew Weatherall played White Horses on his last radio programme and said some very nice things about what we’re doing. The album was made with no theme in mind, and the only specification was that all the contributors’ tracks had to be exceptional. I think we succeeded.

What is Dubai’s music scene like?

The Dubai music scene is either pretty bad or excellent, depending on your taste. If you’re a fan of commercial house music there are plenty of clubs here for that. Techno too. There are open mic nights showcasing earnest singers/songwriters who, by day, work as bankers or in law but, at night, are transformed into Tracy Chapman or James Bay. Nostalgia is big here, so we have the pleasure of hosting a lot of legacy music acts who may struggle to get bookings elsewhere.

On the flip side there’s an excellent Filipino punk and hardcore scene that exists very much below the radar. There are also a couple of producers who have a strong DIY ethic, and who are really trying to make a difference. Dubai is transient by nature with people only settling here for a limited time, so one theory is that people just don’t stay here long enough for an alternative scene to properly develop.

Are there many underground concert venues there?

Because of local rules, licensed premises can only exist as apart of hotels here. There are a couple of independent venues but they don’t exist in same way music venues exist in, say, London or Berlin. We use a club called Casa Latina. It’s the first club I ever visited when I came to Dubai, plus it’s pretty run down. I wanted to find somewhere that reminded me of the now-defunct Dive Bar in London. Somewhere a little rough around the edges. And Casa Latina is certainly that. As it’s part of a hotel, it’s adjacent to a restaurant where polite, elderly patrons eat their dinner while we’re making an enormous noise in the bar next door. It’s a bit like a Fellini film.

Is it difficult to make a living as an artist in the United Arab Emirates?

Yes. Speaking as someone who’s lived in Dubai for over five years there seem to be more arts professionals here than there are genuine, committed artists. This means that there are a lot of discussions about the art scene without much being achieved. It’s important to note that, worldwide, the professional arts scene is conservative by nature. Often the key stakeholders are well-educated but have never tried to earn a living as an artist. Or they have money, and buy art or own galleries without ever attempting to sell a piece of work they’ve made from scratch. With that in mind, a high concentration of arts professionals will naturally form a blockage of sorts. You know that Elvis lyric, ‘…a little less conversation, a little more action’? That said, the recent establishment of an Abu Dhabi branch of New York University is making waves as they’re programming some very cool stuff, plus their students are getting out into the community and starting conversations.

Is the experimental scene very big in Dubai?

We’re the only people working proactively to promote sound art and sound experiments here. If anyone knows otherwise I would really love for them to get in touch. I think, just by doing what we’re doing, people have started to show interest. This whole project is democratic in nature – if people want to come and do something with us, they’re very welcome. Also, we’ve had solid support from a couple of local art organisations. In both cases, the curators and directors made the effort to check out our Casa Latina events, rather than just try and jump on a bandwagon. I really like that. In terms of media we’ve had some good support. There are writers here who really get what we do and have been very encouraging.

Do you feel like the music scene in Dubai is changing right now?

There are lots of valid reasons as to why the Dubai music scene develops relatively slowly. Some of them are insurmountable, like the climate. Dubai summers are incredibly hot and a lot of people leave to escape the heat, which makes it hard to gather and maintain momentum. However, there’s also legislation here that can make it less easy to put on and promote events. I really feel the best approach to making music here is to manage your own expectations. It’s actually quite easy to become famous in Dubai, if that’s what you want as a musician. However, to make a living from music here requires a special set of skills. From Tse Tse Fly’s point of view, we’ll continue doing what we’re doing. If people like it, then great. If not, then that’s fine too. We’re still not going to compromise.

Photo: Manon Bajart

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