‘The funk came first,’ explains Assaad Lakkis ponderously. ‘I grew up with the funk, it was always there. But it was also strong, hard and powerful; like a bull. Put together bull-funk sounded right. The zoo came later. I was thinking what is a “collection”? It doesn’t sound right. You think zoo, you think animals. Which is a little bit like us. So it became Bull Funk Zoo.’
The guitarist is explaining to me how his latest band, an ambitious concept playing a blend of funk, rock, reggae and electronica, got its name. A sprawling septet drawn from a haphazard collective of Dubai’s itinerant musicians, some of Bull Funk Zoo’s members will be more recognisable than others – such as lead singer Hamdan Al-Abri, who you may remember as the frontman of eponymous funk-soul-pop group Abri. Winners of last year’s Time Out Dubai award for Best Local Band, Abri got as big as any band can in the UAE, supporting the likes of Kanye West and Erykah Badu, before suddenly folding last year.
But Bull Funk is clearly the brainwork of Lakkis, a 35-year-old Lebanese musician who is no slouch on the local scene either, releasing three albums at the helm of electro-jazz experimentalists Abstrakt Collision, before later joining his brother, bassist Rami, in Abri during the band’s dying days.
‘Me and Hamdan go back a long way,’ says Lakkis. ‘I started thinking it would be nice to get a vocalist for this project – and where would I find one better than Hamdan?’
The third key cog of this collective is Yasser Anderson, a 26-year-old British electro kid who has never played in a band before. He was still a student when he met Al-Abri in London last year. Mourning the loss of his band, the singer fell in love with Anderson’s laptop electronica, and the pair worked together on three of the tunes which made up Al-Abri’s self-titled, debut five-track EP, which he released for free online last autumn.
And now Bull Funk Zoo have a residency at Jambase. The brave combination of these three jarring elements – Al Abri’s unmistakable soulful vocals, Lakkis’ searing guitar and Anderson’s electro-soundscapes – are a far cry from the kind of bands normally found onstage at the Souk Madinat supper club. And the many-headed beast is joined by far more flavours; other full and part-time members of Bull Funk Zoo are Lebanese jazz bassist Elie Afif, Tunisian drummer Ayman Boujlida, US-Korean saxophonist Jino Kim and half-Syrian, half-Lebanese, British-based MC Eslam Jawad.
Playing at Jambase three nights a week for the next six months, Bull Funk Zoo replace former house band Jabu and Vibrancy, a tight but safe pop-soul covers quartet.
‘They were tight, their vocals were amazing, but we’re going to be doing something different,’ says Al-Abri of the band’s predecessors. ‘They were a cover band entertaining tourists – we want to play music that we enjoy.’
With so many different personalities in the group, many of them more used to leading their own original projects, there’s a high likelihood of locked horns in the zoo. Despite having to wait while Bull Funk’s management carried out 15 minutes careful prepping before Time Out Dubai’s interview, talking to the band one already senses compromises being made. Lakkis is very keen to boast about the line-up’s first gig supporting Sade in Abu Dhabi last December, but when Al-Abri walks in he sets the record straight. ‘That was Hamdan Al-Abri with Bull Funk Zoo,’ he stresses, ‘all my music.’
The tensions are only likely to be heightened when it’s time to record. Lakkis plans to take Bull Funk into the studio to create an album of his originals, while Al-Abri and Anderson are continuing to work together with the plan of expanding their EP to an LP. But what great band wasn’t built on rivalry? Mick and Keith are still warring 50 years after The Rolling Stones first gigged. The biggest enemy to Bull Funk is not each other, but the gig itself. The conventions of playing a safe set of predominantly covers to a seated dinner crowd sounds like a recipe for creative stagnation. Yet the band are convinced they will keep it fresh, messing with time signatures, adding breakdowns, and layering electronics to tunes they love by everybody from Radiohead to Bob Marley, and Prince to Jimi Hendrix.
‘We want to be playing from the heart, (with) the edge, a certain energy, people will feel that,’ says Lakkis. ‘I don’t see a challenge in keeping it interesting, the music can speak for itself. Back in the day Jambase was a great venue but it has slipped – now it’s going to be our playground.’