Saudi Arabia: Musicians’ freedom expanded

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Saudi Arabia:
Musicians’ freedom expanded

There has been a quiet, yet marked increase in cultural activities in Saudi Arabia during the past couple of months. New music bands emerge, and the internet has become an important meeting place for underground musicians.

“There is a revolution taking place,” stated the American tv news reporter Nic Robertson on CNN in February 2008 when he reported from the practising room of the Saudi Arabian heavy metal band Wasted Land in Jeddah. Even though music is considered a sin by the country’s religious leaders, there has been what many call ‘an explosion’ of Saudi pop, rock and rap bands within the past two-three years.

Two years ago there were only two bands in Jeddah. Now there are said to be around 60 underground bands in Saudi Arabia playing Western style rock music, according to the daily newspaper Arab News. Many of these are heavy metal, grunge and death metal bands with names such as Final Serenade, Rivers Running Red, Breeze of The Dying, Forgotten, Grieving Age, Octum, The Empty Quarter, Immortal Pain, and Outl!ve.

They all dream of a time when they will be able to perform in public instead of being forced underground by the religious authorities. At the moment they have no venues in Saudi Arabia where they can perform. Public music is banned.

Online networks
Instead, the young Saudi Arabian musicians use cyberspace to express themselves, and they travel and perform abroad when they are invited to perform at festivals in countries in the MIddle East, Europe and USA.

“The internet is the engine of change,” 25-year-old Ayman Al Ghamdi, lead guitarist and founder of Wasted Land told CNN. The members of Wasted Land are all in their 20s, and they practise their music in the privacy of a friends studio. It was mainly because of their MySpace-profile that the musicians found out that they had an audience out there which liked the kind of music they compose, and it was also through this page that CNN spotted the group.

Bands and musicians from all major Saudi Arabian towns and cities link to one another on social networking websites such as MySpace, and Facebook as well as Sametal.org which is a portal for Saudi metal bands. They use their home pages as a way to say “We are here!” to the society around them that often seeks to silence or even deny their existence.

On YouTube and Facebook one can see videos from underground concerts and private gigs where up to 500 young people – mostly teenagers – gather, even though it is technically illegal in Saudi Arabia for so many people to congregate.

The Facebook group ‘Concert’s & Gig’s in KSA’ distributes information concerning concerts and gigs in Saudi Arabia to it 335 members, and on ‘the Wall’ 328 Facebook members who signed up for the group ‘Metal freaks in Saudi Arabia’ openly discuss issues of the field in both Arabic and English.

Releasing the steam

A growing number among the youth in Saudi Arabia is frustrated with the Kingdom’s tight restrictions on social freedoms. In tv and on the internet, they observe how people live in other parts of the world, and they are beginning to question the traditional values of their parents.

“The younger generation have a lot of anger and repressed feelings, because basically here in this country we have a huge cultural gap between the older and the younger generation,” Hussein Mohammed, a heavy metal fan, told CNN’s reporter. “Music is the only way to release that steam,” Hasan Hatrash, the band’s manager, added.

“Young boys here are not satisfied with how their lives are going,” guitarist Ayman Al Ghamdi told a journalist from Arab News: “The restrictions, the lack of entertainment, bachelors-for-life. All these things make us angry.”

All-girrl metal band
Jeddah, known as the principal gateway to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, is now also the base for an all-girrl metal band named Chicks Behind Walls. To put their existence into context, Saudi Arabia is a country where women are not allowed in outdoor cafes, and it is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive a car. They must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times, and special women-only shopping malls have been established to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless chaperoned by male relatives. In restaurants women sit in booths with drawn curtains or partitions to shield them from the male relatives of other women. Men and women are segregated even in the lines at fast food outlets.

Chicks Behind Walls started rehearsing at the end of 2006. They write on their MySpace profile:
“We know that many people in Saudi Arabia will not agree with this & we will find many hard ways to get what we want, but we will fight for Chicks Behind Walls, for metal, for life!”

Website turned into real life event
Saudi Arabia Metal is the first rock and metal organisation in Saudi Arabia. It was started by Kamal Khalil, who is a guitarist and vocalist for the heavy metal band Deathless Anguish, based in the oil port town Damman in the east of the country. Kamal Khali currently runs the organisation together with Badr Hussain, and Fawaz Nasr. They launched the website sametal.org in 2003 where they began to upload interviews with Saudi Arabian bands, and information about the music. It evolved as a forum where all metal and rock music listeners gathered and talked about music and local bands, and then one day they decided to take the risk of making the first public Rock and Metal show in the kingdom’s history, with an open invitation for anyone to show up. “Anyone“ – that is, except women. The organisers were aware that a mixed gender event definitely would get them in trouble with authorities.

In early 2005, Sametal organised their first public rock show under the name S.A. Metal gig. It took place in Dammam in a somewhat isolated place called Estiraha – a small place where people go for gatherings such as weddings or lunches. The show was free of charge and it featured three bands from the Eastern Province: Creative Waste, Sound of Ruby, and Deathless Anguish, as well as one band from Riyadh: Crimson.

This event paved the way for a follow-up, entitled ‘SAmetal Gig II’, which again had no entrance fee. In the meanwhile, the organising team learned from their online activities that elsewhere in Saudi Arabia there actually were other bands existing. They invited two bands from Jeddah, Wasted Land and Panjiah, to give a public performance for the first time in the Kingdom.

After this, the idea started to pick up. The metal boys from Damman had proved that such shows weren’t entirely impossible to pull off. A first public show in Jeddah took place under the name ‘Jeddah Metal Resurrection’, held in an “estiraha” similar to the one in Damman, and also free of charge and with no women allowed. The poster for the event spawned a plethora of bands, and it encouraged the Jeddah scene to expand. Soon after followed the first full-blown public show which was open for everyone, men and women, entitled ‘S.A. metal Gig III’. This time, for the first time, the organisers charged a ticket fee, around 20 riyals (five US dollars).

Mixed gender audience
On 2 May 2008, the news of an embassy-sponsored concert which took place in a 500-seat government-run cultural center in Riyadh went around the world because it was reported by Associated Press to have “challenged barriers” and “broke taboos”. Featuring works by Mozart and Brahms it was not only the first European classical music performance held in public in Saudi Arabia ever. What caused headlines as well as raised eyebrows, however, was the news that the performance was held before a mixed gender audience.

Many reporters and bloggers saw this event as an indication that Saudi Arabian authorities now seeks to expand freedom in the conservative society.

“The concert is a sign that things are changing rapidly here,” said the German ambassador Jurgen Krieghoff, whose embassy financed the classical performance, to Associated Press’ reporter Donna Abu-Nasr.

“Evidently, the government has decided that a minimum of openness in our new world economy and in our information-based world is necessary for us and also for good understanding among cultures, ” he was quoted as saying.

Concept of dialogue
Actually, the need for change in the cultural scene has been discussed in councils and ministries in Saudi Arabia for quite some time. Four years ago, at a time when two professors of the Harvard Law School in USA reported they had identified 70 websites within music categories to be blocked by the Saudi authorities, a member of the the country’s consultative Shura Council’s cultural and media affairs committee, Abd Al-Rahman al-Inad, was quoted as saying:

“We want to expand the scope of freedom so that it will serve the concept of dialogue.”

A few weeks ago, in May 2008, the country‘s leader, King Abdullah, made an unprecedented call for an interfaith dialogue – the first such proposal from a nation that forbids non-Muslim religious services and symbols.

A couple of segregated folk music performances were recently reported to have been held on the sidelines of Riyadh’s book fair, and Jeddah’s annual Economic Forum opened with a surprise this year – a performance of Arab and Western music.

Music bands emerging
“Now, here were are, as if we woke up from a dream, and – wow! is this Saudi Arabia?! it’s good. It is there. We have a lot of music bands emerging now,” the manager of Wasted Land, Hasan Hatrash, said with enthusiasm in his voice on CNN.

The melodic death metal band Wasted Land along with the grunge-punk band Sound of Ruby, the death metal band Deathless Anguish, and the metal band Santasmagoria are considered to be among the leading bands in the Saudi music scene of 2008 – with a growing number of new groups following in their tale.

Arrests
Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is frequently criticised by international human rights organisations. A number of reform advocates have been arrested over the past 15 months in Saudi Arabia, among those Matruk al-Faleh whose arrest is allegedly linked to his defence of fellow reformist Abdullah al-Hamed, who is serving a six-month jail sentence on charges of “inciting women’s protests”.



Click to go to Wasted Lands MySpace profile
Wasted Land: Heavy metal from Jeddah



Saudi Arabia


Click to read interview with Faisal Al-Alamy from Octum
Faisal Al-Alamy of the thrash metal band Octum.

Click on photo to read an interview with the band’s founder


Click to go to Chicks Behind Walls' MySpace profile
Artwork from the MySpace profile of Chicks Behind Walls


Click to go to Wasted Lands MySpace profile
Excerpt from photo of Wasted Land


Sources – articles

The Associated Press – 3 May 2008:

‘A first for Saudis: Mozart performed publicly and women come’

Arab News – 22 Februare 2008:

‘Metal and Rock Music an Outlet for Saudi Youth to Speak’

Sources – video

CNN – 29 February 2008:

‘Mid-East metal’
(Nic Robertson’s report from Jeddah and interview with Wasted Land starts at 2:38)

This CNN-report can also be found on 
YouTube


 

Video clips on YouTube

Rock band blazes Saudi Arabia

CNN’s Nic Robertson profiles the Saudi heavy metal band Wasted Land.
[5:34]



Saudi Arabia changing

CNN’s Nic Robertson finds Saudi Arabia is changing, but getting the pace
of reform right is critical.

 

S.A Metal Concert in Riyadh (1st Part)

Saudi Arabia Metal Society organised this concert in Riyadh

Saudi Arabian bands on MySpace

These are more than 30 examples. You will find even more out there, and new ones keep coming.

Jeddah

   Breeze of The Dying
   Chicks Behind Walls
   Crescent Light
   Final Serenade
   Forgotten
   Grieving Age
   Immortal Pain
   Most Of Us
   Octum
   Outl!ve
   Rivers Running Red
   The Empty Quarter
   Wasted Land

Riyadh

   Autism
   Crimson
   Death Adder
   Fear the Fallen
   Misanthropist

Dammam

   Anxaity Attack
   Deathless Anguish
   Flesh Laceration (Kamal Khalil)
   Sound of Ruby
   Weird Anomalies

Qatif and Eastern Province

   Al Namrood
   Creative Waste
   Inversion

Khobar

   Embodiment of a Disease
   Mephisophilus
   Paradigm Deviation

Dhahran

   Conflict Serum
   Hed2ground
   Sandstoned

Mekkah

   Altering Raze

Saudi Arabia Metal’s profile on MySpace:
‘The Saudi Metal Portal’

Click to go to Chicks Behind Walls' MySpace profile
Chicks Behind Walls


Click to go to Wasted Lands MySpace profile
Wasted Land


Click to go to see a video with Wasted Land performing live

Portal for Saudi metal music

Saudi Rock and Metal Society:

SAmetal.org
List of bands

Facebook groups

Concert’s & Gig’s in KSA
Saudi Metal And Rock Music
Metal freaks in Saudi Arabia
The Networking Lounge Of Artists in Saudi Arabia
The Networking Lounge Of Artists in the Arab World


Click to go to the Facebook group Concert's & Gig's in KSA



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