The UAE's hottest new music

Rob Garratt profiles the Dubai-based musicians making waves on record

The UAE's hottest new music

In the natural world, spring is the season of birth, growth and renewal. While there’s clearly no neat biological explanation for the sudden spurt of creativity amongst Dubai’s bands and artists, we’re not sure there’s ever been a more fruitful or fertile time for the emirate’s music scene. Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented number of new UAE albums surface – from heavy metal to gypsy jazz, and plenty in between – with more hot releases to be spawned shortly. In a country where local music is too often dismissed by naysayers, it’s time you were introduced to the latest and greatest new music Dubai has born.

Rony Afif

A consummate jazz drummer who you’ve likely spotted out gigging behind the city’s best musicians, as well as leading his own group, Lebanese-born Afif has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile and in-demand players in the region. Following from LP appearances backing Rami Lakkis, Kamal Musallam and bassist brother Elie on record, Afif’s solo debut Zourouf is a mature and accomplished release which represents a huge career leap. Released digitally and with a physical launch to follow soon, the LP was recorded in the USA last year alongside New York session pros Tarek Yamani, Troy Roberts and Alexander Claffy. In composition and execution Zourouf ranks proudly among the best of modern jazz releases, mixing inventive time signatures and Arabic inflexions with a free post-bop approach.
If you like: Christian Scott, post-1965 jazz, films with subtitles
Listen to: ‘Zourouf’,

The Boxtones
In the Pocket of Clowns

The Boxtones have been rather busy boys and girls of late. While they been regional bar band stalwarts for close to a decade, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of this British-Canadian troupe before last summer, when they suddenly reinvented themselves as an originals act and began an earnest bid to conquer the UAE with shows at Gulf Bike Week and supporting, er, Europe. Following a digital-only launch debut album In the Pocket of Clowns, said to be compiled from the best of more than 200 tunes guitarist Gary Tierney has penned over the years, is set for a full launch this month. Expect a mix of punchy radio-ready pop-rock mixed with harder rock workouts, complete with epic stadium-friendly arrangements, widdly guitar solos and lead vocals split between Tierney and romantic partner Louise Peel.
Listen to: ‘After All is Said and Done’
If you like: Biffy Clyro, bands with girl singers, waving your lighter at concerts,

Clarita de Quiroz
Beautiful Losers

Pianist, singer and model Clarita de Quiroz has been melting hearts across the UAE for years, warming up for everyone from Sir Elton John to Roger Sanchez. The British starlet is no stranger to records either, forming one-half of the now (seemingly) defunct SickAsSwans, who became the first homegrown act to top the UAE album charts with These Words in 2012. Now Clarita is preparing a summer release for her debut solo LP, with a chart-tastic working title of Beautiful Losers, which promises a mix of soulful band performances with classical-style solo piano takes. In a beguiling clash of grit and glamour opening single ‘Blanket of Secrets’ is recorded alongside Mike Ross – the scraggly, talented troubadour you might recognise from the stage at McGettigan’s. Undoubtedly more hearts are to be melted soon.
If you like: Alicia Keys, Chopin, romantic comedies
Listen to: ‘Blanket of Secrets’,

Empty Yard Experiment

With a sound and approach as assuredly oblique as their name, Empty Yard Experiment (or EYE) specialise in proggy epic metal of a very high calibre. We’re talking huge riffs contrasted with doom laden dirges, solemn lyrics and sprawling song structures which bring a sense impenetrable gravity. Gigging throughout the UAE for years and warming up for the likes of Metallica, EYE have earned a huge following and a reputation for their swirling light shows and conceptual visuals. Second LP Kallisti – apparently ‘for the most beautiful’ in Greek – packs all of the power and drama of their live show onto record.
Listen to: ‘Nostalgic’
If you like: Tool, post-rock, Scandinavia,

The Gypsy Swing Project

Laying their cards firmly on the table with both the album title and band name, The Gypsy Swing Project lovingly recall and re-imagine the revolutionary ‘jazz manouche’ sound which was (more or less) begun by, defined by, and reached its peak in the 1930s with the work of two-fingered Romani gypsy Django Reinhardt. A spellbinding live act lead by guitarist Alexandre Valls’ beautiful playing (and playing Django is no easy feat), Paris-Dubai sees the quartet deftly swing through French classics by Edith Piaf, Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg in a Gypsy style, and even take on Django himself. Available in stores this month, this first release catches the band at their spontaneous best, with instrumental guitar workouts which recall all the fire and cool of the tumultuous decade that inspired them.
Listen to: ‘Swing Gitan’
If you like: Django Reinhardt (duh), baguettes, Woody Allen movies

Kamal Musallam
Homemade in Rome

Jazz-world-fusion explorer Kamal Musallam always has a new album on the horizon. Perhaps the most prolific of all the emirates’ acts, the guitar and oud whizz has already clocked up four original LPs, plus a career retrospective (a UAE first?). And there’s always another LP (or three) on the way: Sitting on Musallam’s shelf are recordings of EastMania, an ensemble he formed alongside drum legend Billy Cobham to perform at China’s Asia Games in 2010, recordings made alongside native musicians during a visit to South Korea in 2012, and who knows what else. Thankfully Musallam’s recent musical excursion to Italy got bumped to the front of the queue, with Homemade in Rome – a front room-recorded spin on Musallam classics, standards and new material featuring local musicians – set for a May release. The result is a simmering blend of Flamenco percussion and progressions with snaky oud melodies, Arabic-tinged modal riffing and able jazz improvisations. And from live previews across the UAE, we reckon this could easily be the Jordanian’s best record to date.
Listen to: ‘Just the Beginning’
If you like: Jan Garbarek, Paco De Lucia, tie-dye


A fixture of the UAE’s live rock scene for a good half-decade now, Nikotin have bizarrely enough never got around to recording an album before now. Launched digitally, Panodrama bottles all the frustration and coiled up energy of such a lengthy gesticulation process, packed with angst, riffs and ambition. The band pledge the record is a mediation on the ‘human condition, thoughts on emotions, and the search for hope in a very tangible way’. Prior to a full lyrical analysis, we can promise the Indian quartet offer up smart US-influenced alt rock, with mournful verses giving way to anthemic choruses with time-honoured grungey quiet-loud precision. With a physical release set to come any day now, this one’s been a long time coming, and well worth the wait.
Listen to: ‘Decide’
If you like: Nickelback, moshpits, cigarettes,

Craig Perry
Small Steps, Big Shoes

Brit singer-songwriter Craig Perry is attracting note for his strong set of yearning MTV-ready pop-rock originals, dealt an equally earnest delivery performed both as a mournful acoustic troubadour, and backed by his brand new eponymous band. Recent debut release Small Steps, Big Shoes is an EP-length solo rough cut of tunes to appear on Perry’s forthcoming band-backed LP, to be recorded shortly at Ireland’s Grouse Lodge Studio and released later this year. Expect to hear more.
Listen to: ‘Mrs Stevenson’
If you like: The Kooks, singer-songwriters, vintage cameraphone apps

Vin Sinners
A Mighty Black Box

It’s been a long and rocky road for Vin Nair, who cooked up the moniker Vin Sinners 20 years ago when scribing for his student newspaper. When his career as a rock journo failed to bloom, Vin worked in advertising for 14 years before ditching the corporate life and resurrecting his old byline for the name of a solo project, which was later adopted as the name of the band he now leads (Jon Bon Jovi style). Five years, 14 bandmates and one self-released album later, Vin and co have signed to Universal Music India, with the heavier-than-healthy A Mighty Black Box set to appear on shelves at the time of press. With the might of a major label behind them, we only see this wolf howling louder.
Listen to: ‘Open The Box (ft. Blaze Bayley)’
If you like: Megadeth, leather, making the ‘metal’ hand gesture,

View Also on the horizon

Also on the horizon
Two of the UAE’s biggest bands are also expected to release new albums before the year is out.

1 Mammoth home-grown rockers Juliana Down – known for hard rocking, radio-friendly choruses – have revealed they will be releasing a string of singles throughout 2014, with latest ‘Breakdown’ hitting airwaves as we went to press. We’ve been promised a full length follow-up to 2011’s Empires this year, and after a three-year hiatus, we’re expecting something special.

2 Radio-grabbing electro-pop duo Hollaphonic have been steadily collecting headlines since debut single ‘I Don’t Want it to End’ topped the local iTunes chart in February 2013. Three follow-up singles later – including ‘Found You (Stay Alive)’ (featuring Juliana Down vocalist Dia... small world) and this month’s ‘Fabric’ – and the long-promised debut LP must be on the cards soon, right lads?

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