There was a sense of relief at Rove Downtown this weekend.
As if the crowd had been underwater for months on end, we collectively came up for a breath of fresh air during two breezy, beautiful days spent in the company of live music at BreakoutDXB — a Friday and Saturday music festival focused on local and regional artists.
Held in a makeshift outdoor music venue set up in the parking lot of the hotel, the event offered powerful voices, conscious messages and delicious street food, in a rare showing of old entertainment programming returning to normal.
Of course, there were some aspects that were newly — and necessarily — introduced.
Socially distanced chairs and tables lined up in front of the stage. Signage bearing an image of Darth Vader reminded visitors to keep their masks on at all times. Hand sanitisation stations were never too far out of arm’s reach. And between every artist’s 30-minute set, there was a 15-minute break to sanitise the stage before the next act could get on to entertain.
In an alley, vendors set up booths and sold everything from T-shirts, artworks on canvas and calligraphic masks to flowy dresses and lavender pouches. Inside, a secondary stage — and workshop area with industry experts — kept visitors busy during the afternoon.
Security guards stood at every corner and entry way. Some counted how many people were coming in and out of designated areas, presumably to keep to safety regulations regarding capacity. Others did rounds of the tables and ensured that patrons were abiding by rules — particularly the one to keep your masks on.
With a crisp-clear background view of the Burj Khalifa, its distinctive structure shooting towards clear skies behind the main stage, the sentiment shared amongst audience members seemed to be the same as ever: a sense of fortification that live music, in all its glory, was finally back — no matter what new form it had to take during a global pandemic.
On the first day, fusion trio Noon set the tone, musically, for the night. Their opening genre-bending set was gloriously heavy on the rhythm, a la Arctic Monkeys. With only a bassist, drummer and oud player, you can imagine the kind of mind-melting riffs and beats the band delivered, setting the bar high for what’s to come.
Big Hass made sure to keep the crowd hyped between artists, and after MKO delivered a 30-minute set, Emirati singer Arqam blew the crowd away — in his gold kandoura — with soulful renditions of his original music, as well as a chilling take on Radiohead’s ‘Creep’.
Longtime UAE star Abri hit the stage next and serenaded the audience with his signature falsetto and impressive range.
By the time Layla Kardan took the stage for her headlining slot, it was all too easy to forget we were all sitting around in a parking lot. What Kardan delivered felt more like a polished arena performance that reached out to all the senses.
Charl Chaka closed out the night with a psychedelic DJ set, and finally, by 11pm, the crowd filed out ready to return and do it all over again the following day.
Already familiar with the setting from the night before, day two felt almost like returning home.
Syrian singer-songwriter Ghaliaa opened up the afternoon with her haunting vocals, trading off between an electric guitar and piano depending on what the song demanded.
The Gypsy Swing Project were up next and took listeners back in time with their take on jazz manouche, a genre that originated back in 1934 by Romani guitarist Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt.
The next hour was dedicated mostly to spoken word, starting first with DJ Lobito Brigante ft Nana D, before Jaysus Zain delivered his signature brand of conscious musings, and Sudanese artist Hiba Rasheed invited audience onto her own journey.
Australian singer-songwriter Jaymie Deville took us into The Weeknd-esque territory with a glossy set of sultry alt-R’n’B offerings, shouting out his producer Rayan Bailouni in the crowd.
Set up alone on stage with her keyboard, Emirati-Honduran singer-songwriter Fafa headlined the final night with a stirring set that spanned back to a song she wrote when she was 16. Fafa’s heartfelt lyricism tied in with her wide-ranging vocal performance provided a perfect end to the two-day line-up of singers.
But of course, the night wouldn’t be complete without a DJ set by Shef Codes to bid audiences farewell.
The day after, we were feeling the burn of overexertion. We’re out of practice when it comes to these two-day music festivals after nearly eight months of quiet, brought on by the pandemic and ensuing closures. But, it’s the good kind of burn — the kind we hope we can get used to in no time.