Dubai is full of odd sights, unexpected events and cultural surprises, but for many the discovery of a sizeable Dubai metal fan base is perhaps the biggest of all. Metal is, after all, a genre of music that was born in the hairy, lairy, fuzzed-up minds of ’60s rockers in the UK and US, and subsequently stretched, shredded and brutalised by mainland Europe. So why is it so popular here that last year’s Desert Rock sold 28,000 tickets?
Barney Ribeiro, founder of Dubai-based death and thrash metal band Nervecell, has his own theories. ‘People in the Middle East love metal because it sings about the things they’re going through: the depressions, the problems, the wars and the loss of lives. It shows there’s a whole world that feels the way they feel. And they’re coming from a part of the world that currently has no way to express this.’
Ramzi Essayed, co-founder of Jordanian band Bilocate, agrees with that last point: ‘Where can I find an angry Arabic song in this region? If I’m angry now and I want to listen to something to calm me down I don’t want to hear someone talking about his son or his daughter – I want to hear something about problems and how to solve them. So I put on metal music.’
It’s not just about filling a musical niche – it’s also about community. ‘You can just walk out with your favourite band’s shirt and you make friends at every step,’ says Barney. ‘There is no need for introductions because they know that you’re going through the same stuff as them.’
But it’s hard not to wonder whether some newcomers are more interested in the subculture than the music and whether metal has become a safe way to rebel in a culturally conservative climate. ‘I don’t think that’s completely off the mark,’ says Trey Grigg, a Texas-born casting director and heavy metal fan who has spent most of his life in Dubai. ‘I don’t think it’s as prevalent as you think, but there are a huge number who go into it to go against their parents or rebel. You see kids at school who try hip hop and metal and then go back to mainstream pop again.’
But the rebellious sound of metal is, he says, still the key to the genre’s success over here. ‘Bands like Iron Maiden were big during periods of [cultural] revolution and change, and the UAE is going through a lot of change right now. There’s no revolution, but it’s dialling into the rebellious feel and outlook of some people here.’
And it is, Trey says, a market with more potential to tap: ‘People will come from all over the Middle East and even Europe to see certain bands. If any event organiser were to figure out a way to bring Slipknot out they would have a concert that would sell as big as Kylie Minogue.’