After escaping the war in his home country Lebanon in 2006, drummer and composer Rony Afif set about exploring his love for jazz music in the UAE. It has not been easy, he says, with the genre’s limited fanbase and the nascent local music scene in the Emirates.
But he’s not done too bad. Since his move here, Afif has shared the stage with everyone from American vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin, Lebanese composer Zian Rahbani to American composer Bill Saxton. He’s performed at the Emirates Airline Dubai Jazz Festival, Abu Dhabi Jazz Festival and world music festivals across the UAE and in Goa, India.
And now, he’s just launched his debut album, a collection of instrumental compositions called Zourouf.
Soundbites caught up with the 36-year-old to talk about his passion for music and the long journey he’s made to have his own album.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about Zourouf?
A: ‘Zourouf’ means circumstances in Arabic and unlike the negative general middle eastern trend of addressing circumstances, I meant by it the infinite daily set of actions and reactions that we face and survive. That’s the emotional or the philosophical aspect behind the work. Musically Zourouf is the result of being exposed to various musical genres, but despite that the instrumentation and the general musical direction tends to be on the jazz side of things. The melodies exceeds a single genre... I would not want to categorise it and would let people decide what it sounds like.
Q: How long has it been in the making?
A: The music dates to 2009 and I took my time because I did not want to present a mediocre recording, I waited till the circumstances convened and I managed to work with the proper musicians. Tarek Yamani produced and arranged the music. Recording was done at Shapeshifter lab, Brooklyn, New York, mixed and mastered by David Darlington. It was worth the wait!
Q: Why did you decide to release it online for free?
A: It is my first album and the process of printing cds took longer then expected, so I decided to release it online, but it is not for free. At some sites you can listen to it but not download it without paying, but at the end of the day the purpose is to share the music. I am not looking to compete with pop music sales but rather put my musical statement out there and so far results are surprisingly good.
Q: Has it been difficult trying to make it as a jazz musician in the UAE?
A: It is difficult to operate and survive as a jazz musician in the UAE. It is a combination of many factors: the audience is not exposed to the genre and therefore cannot specify and rate jazz except a handful of people. People’s perception of the genre is distorted whether by false advertising or by musicians claiming to play jazz, and the whole population of the UAE is entitled to one hour a day of jazz on the radio while they are being bombarded with everything else for the rest of the day. I dont want to be misunderstood, we still make it as jazz musicians and we get support on our gigs from our fans, but it would have been much easier if we did not have to deal with the above.
Q: Is it impossible then to be a full-time jazz player in the UAE?
A: In order to be free, support my music and the genre I love, I had to establish financial independence so I can choose what gigs to play, to fund and produce my music and keep a daily standard of living for my family.
Q: What would you say is missing in the local music scene in the Emirates?
A: More support, more exposure to decent music regardless of the genre, set up some quality control. So far people clap for almost anything and many unskilled individuals are feeding on that and good music is suffering. It is not only happening in cameras — buy an instrument and you can become a musician, too.
Q: Now that you’ve released an album, what next?
A: Now I am trying to promote and spread the music and perform it live with the musicians who recorded it. And of course thinking of the next album.
Q: Where do you see yourself five years from now.
A: In a better place musically as a hardworking productive musician and a happy father.
For more on Rony Afif, go to ronyafif.com.