Basil Azizoghly’s open-spaced Marina apartment is rather bare, but for the numerous guitars, ukuleles and mandolins made from cigar boxes, oil cans and scrap wood that are hanging on the walls and scattered around the sunlit living room. The guitar-maker is jamming on a little ukulele with his band Howlin’ Rooster. In the corner is a mini workstation with a wood burner; this is the instrument his wife, Marie-Claude, uses to draw intricate patterns on their customised guitars.
“She works with customers’ ideas to come up with a design and spends hours meticulously burning into the wood with her tool,” says Basil.
This is the partnership of Howlin’ Rooster Guitars and Such. Basil, a 29-year-old Syrian, who grew up in the UAE, builds the guitars from odds and ends he finds in scrap heaps, while his wife draws detailed images on the finished products with a wood burner. The results are beautiful, one-of-a-kind instruments that give off a variation of rich sounds, from tinny twangs to warm waves of folk and blues. Basil describes his instruments as original, raw and unpredictable.
The humble luthier (guitar-maker) has been making instruments for just two years, and yet his guitars and other instruments have been gaining a lot of local attention, and rightly so. His creations are the result of a rich mix of dedicated professionalism and raw passion for music, and despite the fact that he makes a point to mention that he is an amateur guitar-maker, his products tell a different story; all created with care and affection, they are whole and hearty, each with their own personal and original sound.
Basil’s passion for making hand-made guitars from cigar boxes, which he is turning into a popular local business, sprouted as many good ideas do, from travelling. In 2012, the young Syrian, who was studying in Canada at the time, took a road trip with some friends to the music and arts festival Bonaroo in Tennessee, US. It was there Basil stumbled upon a cigar-box guitar, something he’d never seen before.
“There was a guy who makes them and was selling them at a stall just as I am doing now in Dubai. We had a chat and I asked him all about the intricate details, and tried one out. I loved it,” remembers Basil. “I made a mental note that I would make one when I got home, but I never thought it would become a serious thing.”
But today, after just two years of self-taught guitar-making, Basil has turned a curiosity and admiration for hand-made guitars into a honed skill and a lucrative business, with a growing demand for Howlin’ Rooster’s customised instruments ensuring he’s kept extremely busy.
What’s so refreshing about this young entrepreneur is his humility, and his acknowledgment that he still has much to learn, both as a musician and a guitar-maker. The innovative artist, who was born in Sharjah, plans to take part in a five-week apprenticeship with a professional luthier this summer to improve his knowledge and skills.
“I mean, I am learning form my mistakes all the time. Being self-taught, that’s the best way to learn, and I always implement what I’ve learnt on the next guitar. From the 100-plus guitars I’ve made so far, there are no two which are identical in features and construction,” says Basil.
“We have about 15 models right now, but we always oblige when people have an idea that we haven’t thought about. Some of the stuff we do includes hand-painted artwork and wood burning artwork.
“You can also choose your box, headstock shape, guitar finish, number of strings – I can make a guitar with as many strings as you like. So, yeah we are open to ideas to make your guitar as unique as you want,” he says. Basil puts the popularity of his instruments down to the fact that people appreciate knowing where the guitars have come from, and that each guitar has its own personality and distinctive tone.
“They want something with that different sound that you can’t get from a factory-made guitar. If you own one of my guitars, you definitely have a signature sound.”
But not only do these guitars sound cool, they also look pretty funky, too; hanging up around Basil’s apartment, they are so colourful and intricately designed that they replace traditional wall paintings or canvases with something quirky, alternative and eye-catching.
The art form of building guitars from cigar boxes has actually been around since the 19th century in the US, but in Dubai, Howlin’ Rooster is paving the way. And after experiencing the joys of constructing his own guitars, Basil is keen to share what he has learnt with others, and to create a guitar-making community in the UAE. Now, as well as selling hand-made guitars, cajons (box-shaped percussion instruments), and amplifiers, he is producing ‘build-your-own guitar box kits’.
“That was how I first built a cigar-box guitar. I bought one and it brought me here, so I wanted to share that and decided to make one for people here,” explains Basil. “It’s basically a package that contains everything you need to make a guitar/ukulele/mandolin/violin/banjo, from a cigar box. It comes with a step-by-step instruction manual I wrote, and I’m always reachable if you need some help with it. Anybody can do it, it’s easy. I can’t wait to have a community of guitar builders here.”
Basil and his friends have also recently put together a band under the name Howlin’ Rooster, and the group play with the hand-made instruments to practise and perform. The young Syrian sings and plays lead guitar, Marie-Claude is on keyboard, while his friends Jalal and Fathi play cajon and bass, respectively.
They have already played a few live gigs around Dubai, and sometimes work with Freshly Ground Sounds, a local, independent music community that sets up acoustic nights around the city, showcasing Dubai’s indie talent.
“My friends and I had been wanting to start a band for a long time since I got back to Dubai, and I was getting a lot of people asking me to play the instruments at a gig, which makes sense I guess,” says Basil. “So we started this band and decided to use it as a platform to showcase the instruments.”
And Howlin’ Rooster isn’t settling just yet, Basil and Marie-Claude are hoping to provide their hand-made instruments for other local musicians in the indie scene, too.
As well as having around 15 different models on offer, Howlin’ Rooster offers completely customised guitars for those who want to personalise their instruments. Just check out the website and tell them what you want.
In addition, Howlin’ Rooster Guitars and Such has pop-up stalls that spring up across the city. At Freshly Ground Sounds, for example, which also promotes local businesses and artists at its events, Howlin’ Rooster often has small stands where Basil’s instruments are displayed and sold.
For beginners who want to try their hand at guitar playing but don’t want to break the bank, or seasoned musicians who want to add a unique piece to their collection, Howlin’ Rooster is an original choice.
For more information visit www.howlinrooster.com