Every once in a while you stumble across something in your city so rare, so good that you can't wait to share your discovery. I know a few people who felt that way in 2007 when Dubai-based ABRI released their first album Sunchild. A refreshingly original sound with influences steeped in jazz, reggae and soul and featuring the rich and soulful voice of frontman Hamdan Al Abri, the band soon cut a distinct presence on the local music scene.
"ABRI is a breath of fresh air at a time when the music industry is so focused on disposable music," says Schooly, head of Radio 1.
"It's very rare to see a 'band' and not five manufactured guys/girls, singing rubbish, all with air-brushed bios and choreographed routines. ABRI has a stage presence that hasn't been set by any band or group in the UAE this far."
On May 20, the band released their second album Blank Notes and even as you read this, the band is playing the first of their two gigs at Bombay's famed Blue Frog, an event that marks the beginning of the band's attempt at taking their music to a global audience.
Julian Symes (keys), Rami Lakkis (bass), Andre Atherley (drums) and Hamdan are fiercely proud of their indie-band status.
They have juggled day jobs and invested everything they've earned back into producing their second album, which was incidentally recorded in London's Fortress Studio, previously used by bands like Coldplay and Razorlight.
All four have distinct personalities, but it is Hamdan, the 28-year-old UAE national, who remains the face of the band. Here are excerpts from an interview.
You have six songs from Sunchild that appear on this new album. Why is that?
Hamdan: We were only testing the waters with Sunchild. That was our first album and it was mostly stuff that Julian and I had worked on. Andre played on only a few tracks, Rami wasn't with the band then. We felt that there were songs on Sunchild that we hadn't done justice to. So we decided to re-record them as completely new tracks. I think it is important for people to realise that we've reworked these six songs A Piece of Yourself, Little Girl, Smoker's Paradise, Brandyman, Philosophies and Back to the Sun on the new album.
Julian: I think it was important for us to give these songs another chance; use live instruments instead of us recording them individually as we did on Sunchild.
So what's Blank Notes about?
Hamdan: Blank Notes is a song that was born when Julian had this random thought about a world in which all the printing ink from currency notes disappeared. I wrote the lyrics to fit that idea. There would be complete chaos in the beginning if all the ink disappeared, but eventually there would be peace.
You obviously don't think something like that would ever happen?
Hamdan: Of course it won't happen in reality. But the idea is that if it ever should happen, then this is how I think things will go down. But I think the idea resonates at a time when the world economy is in recession.
What about the other songs on the album?
Hamdan: Three Quarters is a song about appreciating everything that you have. I think we just came up with the name when we were planning to save the track. Powertripping is a song about being stuck in a nine to five job; this is a song about being an office drone. Last Waltz is about old age and growing old.
You went to London to record this album?
Hamdan: We wanted this record to have the analogue warmth that you associate with vinyl records. There are no places that record analogue here, so we went to the Fortress Studio in London. We wanted to do this one the old-school way.
What is the songwriting dynamic like in the band? Who does most of the writing?
Hamdan: Julian is the man with the tune he usually starts by laying a basic track. Once he does that, I listen to the track and try jamming I figure out what I want the lyrics to be, how I want to sing. At this stage, Andre and Rami come in with their inputs. This band is democratic, so everybody has a say on how a track finally sounds.
The band is a distinct presence on the local music scene. How difficult is it to maintain your originality in an environment that's dominated by cover bands?
Hamdan: We will never be a cover band. We realised early on that there were not too many people making good, original music in Dubai. But that by no means meant there was never going to be a demand for it. We set out to create a demand, if people weren't coming to us, we had to go to them. It was hard in the beginning, but people eventually noticed us.
I have nothing against bands that play covers, I started off playing covers at Peanut Butter Jam at Wafi, but I couldn't keep it going after a while. As a musician, it can sometimes eat into you. Julian and I talked about this we were convinced that when it came to playing our own music we would rather try and fail than not try at all.
When did you first think that "this is going to go somewhere"?
Hamdan: We were playing this gig at the now-defunct Dubai Country Club. We were still a relatively new band on the circuit and there was deathly silence before the applause began.
Andre: For me, it was when we were nominated for the MTV award (the band was nominated for the MTV Arabia Best New Act at MTV Europe Awards in 2008, the award eventually went to Karl Wolf).
How conscious are you of the fact that there are censorship laws here and subjects that are considered taboo? You did deal with issues like human trafficking briefly in your first album.
Hamdan: I was watching this documentary on TV about human trafficking and I was quite disturbed by what I saw. The result was Little Child on our first album. I felt quite strongly about the issue, so I wrote this song, but then again, we didn't want to be too preachy, so the song has this really upbeat tempo. I don't let anything hold me back when I'm writing. I know certain subjects are taboo here but then again, we are a music band, the idea is to entertain.
ABRI's sound is a mix of jazz, soul, R&B and reggae. How would you classify your music?
We don't want to be slotted into any particular genre. Like you said, we play a bit of reggae, soul, R&B, jazz& We've been labelled one or all of the aforementioned in the past. We don't want ABRI to be slotted into any particular genre, although I realise that's going to happen anyway. It doesn't bother me any more.
You have a distribution deal with Music Master, not a recording deal.
Hamdan: As a band we are independent and have strong views on the kind of music we want to make. I don't think that is entirely possible if a record company is producing our album, they'll obviously look at how commercially viable the music is. Right now, we produce the music right down to the CDs; we have a distribution deal with Music Master. Besides, in today's world where artists are making music at home on their computers, I don't think bands need to sign record deals any more.
So you are content with the fact that you may always make good music, but it may not always be mainstream?
Julian: We believe that good music can be commercially viable. To give you an example, consider Shakespeare's plays they are difficult, complex plots, written in Middle English, yet to this day, he remains one of the most popular playwrights in the world. We are not snobbish, we do want our music to be popular but I don't see us ever cutting an over-produced, bubblegum pop album. That's not our style. But having said that, I have nothing against pop, The Beatles is pop.
Hamdan, do you still get people asking you, "So you are a UAE national?"
Hamdan: I know what you mean. There are people who are surprised to see a UAE national fronting a band like ours.
I don't think I'm trying too hard to be different. A lot of UAE nationals love our music and have come up to us and said they love what we do.
How easy is it dealing with fame? You are arguably the best-known band in the UAE, an MTV award nominee.
Hamdan: It is gratifying when people come up to us and tell us how much they like our music. We weren't expecting an MTV nomination, so when that came along, it was great it meant acceptance of our music. But I must admit, I don't enjoy appearing in music videos. I'm a shy, reserved guy when I'm off the stage. If it was up to me, I would just lock myself away in a room and make music all day. But I realise that we need to market ourselves media interviews, music videos, they all come with the territory.
How are you planning to promote the new album? Are you taking it outside the UAE?
Hamdan: We are trying to take Blank Notes outside; we are trying to crack distribution deals in places like Japan, Canada and the UK. If we can cut it in the UK, we've done well for ourselves. We are also hoping to tour to promote Blank Notes. End of May, we play at the popular Blue Frog in Mumbai.
They've already earned their, spurs as a live band and now with the release of their second album Blank Notes, ABRI want to take their music out of Dubai and to the world. Nitin Nair meets the band ahead of their journey. Images: Kishore Kumar.