Established and amateur local musicians are increasingly finding themselves heard in no small way due to the underground artist initiative, Freshly Ground Sounds. Caroline Fernandez meets one of its founding members.
In a city that’s usually focused on big names and giant buildings, and where international acts quickly sell out to massive crowds, it’s fairly rare to see local artists get their own spotlight and develop a following. Lately though, an influx of undercover musicians have been sprouting from the cracks with the support of community groups and unlikely venues. They’re dusting off guitars from their university days and jumping on board a non-profit, UAE music initiative called Freshly Ground Sounds (FGS), formed by Ismat Abidi late last year as a platform for experienced and amateur artists.
Abidi, a lawyer who grew up in the UAE, was inspired by her time in London where she was involved in the live music scene. ‘There’s already a commercial sphere for music here.
But there’s not really a lo-fi sphere that’s about the music community and that encourages non-commercial sounds.’
Abidi spoke to a few venues and musician friends about doing free acoustic sets, and soon artists were strumming away at DIFC’s Magazine Shop café and an open-air Valentine’s Day affair at the Dubai Garden Centre. ‘We had our first event at the end of November, expecting 20 people, and about 40 to 50 turned up.’ Two-hundred people sat down to the second FGS event in December, held outside The Archive at Safa Park, turning a quiet Tuesday evening on the grass into a casual mini-acoustic music festival.
‘It’s just turned into a real community that’s encouraged and inspired each other. It’s been powerful, that word of mouth, which has been great because it’s organic growth.’
By no means is this the first time independent musicians have had a chance to get out in public. Alserkal warehouse venue The Fridge has been bustling with music events since 2007, hosting a broader range of local music acts from jazz to classical, funk and hip-hop. Shelley Frost, founder and director of The Fridge, has developed its concert series to include a singer-songwriters’ showcase for musicians to perform original material. ‘You have to be locally based and you have to be performing original material. So it’s 100 percent indie acts basically,’ says Frost. The Fridge, with its raised stage and professional lighting, tends towards more polished events with a cover charge, and often features various artists who have played internationally.
At the moment FGS has an open-door policy, much like an open-mic event and with similarly raw and occasionally novice results. ‘I think the impression we give is we’re welcoming. We’re very open to variety of not only quality but type of music – as long as it’s acoustic and lo-fi,’ Abidi says.
FGS started with a group of eight musicians and now has a list of over 75 signed up for upcoming events, many of whom sing covers of well-known songs as well as originals. ‘Normally what happens is musicians will come up to me who are attending this event and say, “oh, I play this, too, and I play that,” and again, it’s word of mouth. The feedback we’ve had is that the quality of artists is actually really good, which is great to hear especially since I’m performing too!’
There have been a few success stories following shows at The Fridge and through Freshly Ground Sounds. Dubai rock band Empty Yard Experiment, who gained exposure from their 2011 show at The Fridge, just launched their second album Kallisti a few weeks back. Physical Graffiti, a band that came together only a year ago, is another group developing a name after events such as QUOZhappens at The Fridge and since becoming a regular at FGS shows, having just recorded in the GAP Recording Room. Abidi is certainly proud to see how many opportunities have been popping up for the group ever since. ‘One of the things I’m really keen on is the community part, but also helping those musicians that want to move into the commercial sphere.’
While Freshly Ground Sounds is unearthing hidden talent in the city and providing a creative outlet without fear of being judged, Dubai’s music community ultimately shares the same values in nurturing a space where just about anyone can feel comfortable putting on a show.
For information on Freshly Ground Sounds’ upcoming gigs and events, visit www.facebook.com/freshlygroundsounds
Indie grooves in town
For more live music featuring independent artists, check out:
Visit on Tuesdays for pizza with a side of jazz and soul and at other times for the occasional high-quality open mic night
Cluster A, JLT (04 441 6342).
The Music Room
Often hosts concerts from underground artists, community events and album launches.
Bur Dubai (04 359 8888).
Get your jazz and blues fix in a relaxed, unpretentious setting.
Sheikh Zayed Road (04 332 0000).