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Shelley Frost: Hitting the right notes

Shelley Frost wants to make Dubai a hub for performing arts. She launched The Fridge as a platform for artists to develop and gain exposure, she tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

  • Shelley Frost
    Shelley Frost, founder-director of The Fridge, a leading artist-booking agency and venue in Dubai. Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
  • Shelley Frost
    Shelley with Michael Jackson, who she describes as having been “a lovely person, gentle, kind and very interesImage Credit: Supplied picture

Shelley Frost was playing the harp at the Palace of the Lost City hotel in Sun City, South Africa, when a surprise admirer – one who many musicians could only dream of meeting – came up and congratulated her on the performance. It was Michael Jackson. “I was playing at a high-profile wedding in 1995 when I felt a tap on my shoulder,’’ says Shelley, founder-director of The Fridge, a leading artist-booking agency and venue in Dubai. She turned around to face the pop superstar clad in his military regalia, complete with epaulettes.

“His manager had told me that he was very keen on meeting me because he had a passion for the harp,” says Shelley. After finishing the piece, she had a chance to chat to the star. She met him three times over the next two years and says, “he turned out to be a lovely person, gentle, kind and very interested in the harp.”  That was Shelley’s first encounter with an A-list star. Since then she has opened for Spanish tenor Jose Carreras at the Dubai leg of his 2009 world tour. She has also played with Kanye West in Europe and in the US.
She was a finalist for Entertainer of the Year twice in the States, in recognition of her innovative approach to music. But she has always had a soft spot for artists who are seeking outlets for their talents – the reason she started The Fridge in 2007. “Along with setting up an agency we intended to include an avenue to showcase not only the talents who signed up with us, but also any original and local talent that was looking for a place to perform,” she says.

The Fridge’s first home, a warehouse without air conditioning in Al Quoz industrial area, was hardly the ideal venue for music or the arts and initially only the really committed enthusiasts turned up. But Shelley’s faith in the venture was strong, and slowly her efforts paid off – she was able to attract sizeable audiences for concerts by both home-grown and international performing artists. Shows such as Aerial Silk, cellist Carol Thorns, the band Kalle 8, among many internationally renowned performers have graced the stage at The Fridge.

The crowning glory was the show Kalubela, which Shelley masterminded. “I’d like to cultivate a performing arts culture in Dubai,” she says. “Money is secondary.” In just a few years, The Fridge has become a respected stage for performers to showcase their talents. This has been helped by its move to the more accessible Al Serkal Avenue.  Shelley, who is preparing to release her first solo album, Waiting, talks to Friday about her ambitions and Dubai’s divergent music scene.

I’ve always been involved in organising concerts and shows. Even as a child I’d put on a dance, music or performing arts show for friends and family. I played classical music on the violin and the piano while growing up, and studied classical ballet for 12 years. But it was the harp that fascinated me. I first heard it on records and it captured my imagination – I wanted to play it immediately. But there were no facilities to learn it in my hometown.

I started playing the harp only when I was 20, in Cape Town. Playing it is hard work, and requires a lot of dedication. On graduating from the University of Cape Town with a Bachelor of Music degree, I held the position of principal harpist with the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra in Durban, South Africa for three years.

The decision to come to Dubai arose from the need to replace my harp, which had developed  a big ugly crack. Having heard about the place, I thought I’d pop over here for a few months and work to earn enough to buy a harp – Dh80,000! I did eventually buy a new harp, but I never left.

When I started out in Dubai the only way to live here as a musician was to be on contract to a hotel, which had its limitations. Performing elsewhere was at the discretion of the hotel management. The Fridge came about as a result of spending ten years working in the UAE as a musician and realising that there was a need for a platform; for a body that could support freelance musicians in the city.

I also felt there was a need for representation for professional artistes here, so I started The Fridge five years ago. It was a very conscious decision to keep our ticket prices very low – Dh50 per head.The ticket price is simply to cover expenses. We keep the rules really simple, too – original material, locally based musicians, or those who collaborate with someone who’s locally based, and no evenings full of cover versions. Many of our extensive programming efforts, such as The Fridge Concert Series, are dedicated towards challenging and showcasing original and locally based talent.

Artists like Khalil Ghadri and the jazz duo Afif Jazz have had their initial exposure at The Fridge, and many have formed new projects with musicians that they were encouraged to collaborate with. My life today is dominated by The Fridge. This is a tough industry, and it turns you into a tough boss sometimes – evenings and weekends are not sacred. We have 15 people here now. At the moment, we manage 25 musicians including local band Bull Funk Zoo and saxophonist Judy Brown.

One Wednesday a month we hold an open audition, where artists take to the stage and have an opportunity to show us what they are all about. The ability to see the big picture is one of my strengths. I can see the plan for this month, this year or the next five years time in my mind’s eye. I have weaknesses too – I have been known not to say ‘no’ often enough, and taking on too many tasks myself. It may be my artistic temperament, but I am not the best time-keeper. Five years ago it was difficult to convince the local corporate market that there’s a huge amount of international quality talent right under our noses. But that has changed now.

My parents, Peter and Audrey, enjoyed and appreciated music, but there was no family legacy of musicians or artistes. I was very fortunate that I wasn’t expected to become  a doctor or lawyer. My parents allowed me to follow my passion. They believed it would bring me success. I don’t remember when I first started playing, but it seems like I’ve always been making music. I was fortunate to have had some extraordinary teachers in South Africa who taught me discipline, perseverance and standards. Perfection and humility was always the aim. I learnt, within music, the importance of a solid technique balanced with a rich and mature expression.

One of my biggest influences was a prima ballerina from South Africa, the late Phyllis Spira. She had impeccable technique, and yet a great artistic expression and loved freedom – a wonderful musical performer. Another was my violin teacher, Prof Jack DeVet, a very stern and demanding man. There was no hiding or pretending that you’d practised. He trained many of the top violinists, though I was not one of them because I always wanted to play the harp! I also had the most extraordinary piano teacher I learnt under in Cape Town, Prof Lamar Crowson, an American based there. An extraordinary musician who performed actively well into his old age. All very tough people.

Mine is a very driven lifestyle. Relaxing for me happens when I am with good friends, enjoying good food. I love travelling. I love to get away, though I don’t get a chance often enough. I love rock climbing. A year-and-a-half ago I managed to trek to the Everest base camp in Nepal. I also like to go running. My relaxation comes from feeling the sun, the wind, and being surrounded by nature – all very grounding elements.

My dream while growing up was only to play the harp. I kept nurturing that dream
until I got the chance to do it at the age of 20. My dream now is to watch The Fridge – and the musicians who are a part of it – flourish. I would also like some more time to relax! I dream that I will take greater risks. Kalubela was a massive risk for us, to boldly put together something that even we hadn’t seen, other than as snippets in our mind’s eye. I also dream of building The Fridge into a framework for something that will last for many years.