“I’m a full-time struggling musician.” In most countries, that phrase is unremarkable. This is the U.A.E., though, where – without an employment visa – you can’t stay. So when a dreadlocked singer of Zanzibari descent tells you that’s how he’s getting through life here, it catches your attention. Hamdan Al Abri is still pursuing his dream of establishing a serious music career for himself, despite the “involuntary hiatus” of his band, ABRI (for the foreseeable future, one member is in Brazil and another in the U.K.) and the lack of regional support for English-language artists.
Importantly, Al Abri is blessed with the vocal talent to back up his ambition. You could hear this guy’s voice – rootsy rock/blues delivered with a healthy dose of soul – on the radio anywhere in the world and he wouldn’t sound out of place. Just as importantly, for his ability to remain a “struggling full-time musician” in Dubai at least, he’s got an Emirati passport. Al Abri was born and raised in Dubai after his parents emigrated here. So when ABRI first introduced their keyboard-driven brand of jazz-tinged soul-pop to the Emirates around 2005, they grabbed themselves a bunch of media coverage – a dreadlocked Emirati who could sing, really sing, was an irresistible hook.
“An Emirati singer and we were the first soul-based band in Dubai; we were definitely a novelty,” Al Abri admits. “But, quality-wise, I felt our music was good. At that time, there were very few bands playing original music. From the get-go, we were adamant we didn’t want to play covers.” That’s not a choice most musicians have here. Most clubs and bars only want cover bands. So most professional musicians in the U.A.E. are expats employed in resident groups, because that’s the only way they can get a visa. Emirati musicians are few and far between, and the handful who actually make a career out of it are generally performing Khaleeji pop (in Arabic) or classical instrumental music. Al Abri is in a unique position. “I’ve been blessed,” he says of his U.A.E. passport. And he means it.
He almost ended up with a Saudi Arabian one. His father left Zanzibar in the Sixties to work for the police, Al Abri explains. “He was actually heading to Saudi, but they docked at Dubai on the way, and he decided to stay here.” Al Abri’s mother came over in 1979, and two years later Hamdan was born.
His father is a musician as well as a policeman. He plays East African music and often sings and plays in the house (Al Abri, when he’s in Dubai, lives with his parents). Despite this, as a child, Al Abri says, “Music wasn’t really something that I wanted to do. I wanted to be an archaeologist at one point. Then I wanted to be an artist.”
It wasn’t until he was in high school when a friend heard him singing in class, that Al Abri discovered he had a voice other people liked. But his musical taste was limited.
“At that point – I was around 16 – I wasn’t really listening to anyone except Michael Jackson,” Al Abri says. “So I was just doing his songs. But once I’d done a few shows at school and people seemed to like what I was doing vocally, I started to get into music, listening to people like Maxwell and Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo and trying to emulate them when I was singing in the shower.”
After graduation, Al Abri went to Miami to study visual arts. He arrived little more than a week before the 9/11 attacks. Not the best timing for a Muslim emigrant. “I don’t look like a typical Muslim, so I didn’t really get bothered,” he says. “But at one point they were beating up Sikhs because they were wearing turbans. It was just blind rage at the time.” He escaped any abuse, but Al Abri’s U.A.E. passport worked against him for once. “For a while I had to go and register once a month so they knew where I was.”
Generally, that was in university studying visual arts. “I did a bit of music in Miami,” he says. “But that wasn’t my primary thing.” However, the change of scenery also prompted an expansion of his listening habits to include genres apart from R&B and hip-hop. Björk and Radiohead were among the artists that made the biggest impression on him.
Miami also gave Al Abri his first taste of recording in a studio, as he auditioned for various producers. It’s hard to imagine the unruffled Al Abri being anything other than laid-back, but things didn’t go smoothly. “I was really nervous,” he says. “It was amazing to be in a studio, but it wasn’t something I was used to, so my voice would be quivering and I’d be sweating. It wasn’t really the best.”
When he returned to Dubai in 2004, Al Abri was introduced to Julian Symes, a jazz enthusiast teaching music at Dubai Mens’ College. Soon, Symes and Al Abri began working together and ABRI was founded. Within a few months, the pair had written enough “soul with jazz influences” tracks to put out an album, Sunchild, recorded in Symes’s house and after-hours at the Mens’ College. They added Andre Atherley on drums and Rami Lakkis on bass and set out to find some gigs.
Things went well at first. Which was something of a surprise, Al Abri admits. “I was nervous doing the first shows. I didn’t know how people would react to something they weren’t familiar with. And I wasn’t sure jazz/soul would be something they were into; there’s not a huge community that’s into that sort of music.”
All true. But ABRI had tapped into something. And they soon had a manager. “When Rebecca [Brinaceau, who manages both ABRI and Al Abri] came on the scene I don’t think we even had a website,” Al Abri says.
Brianceau was working as a marketing manager for a local distributor, with a brief to sign up local talent. But her decision to take ABRI on, she says, wasn’t based on commercial thinking. “Not at all. I was thinking that the band was tight. Each musician played with so much soul, and Hamdan’s voice is brilliant.”
Brianceau’s appointment and hype-creation undoubtedly gave the band new impetus. They headed to Fortress Studios in London to record Blank Notes, their second album. On their return to Dubai, they played a series of gigs and appeared on TV, radio and in just about every local publication. “Things started getting really big,” says Al Abri. “We got a lot of coverage. It was amazing.” Most of that coverage focused on Al Abri – either his background or his vocal talent. The others are accomplished musicians, for sure, but without their particular singer ABRI would’ve been a solid, unspectacular jazz-funk band. Instead, by 2008 they were regional nominees for the MTV Europe Music Awards, losing out to Karl Wolf.
The stage seemed set for ABRI to take it to the next level. There were realistic expectations that they could become the first English-language band from the U.A.E. to achieve some semblance of mainstream international success.
As things turned out, that didn’t happen.
INSTEAD, ABRI RAN into the wall which most local musicians hit sooner or later. Once you’ve played a few big shows, maybe supported Guns N’ Roses or Nickelback (with ABRI it was Kanye West and Joss Stone, among others), and enjoyed the hype of an album release for a month or so, there’s really no next level. No equivalent of the white-van tours of minor venues beloved of English bands. No equivalent of the U.S. college circuit. Just more of the same.
“We reached this point where we couldn’t do much else except shows here and there,” Al Abri says. “We wanted to get out there and expand and be known as an international band, as opposed to a U.A.E. band. The plan was for us to go down to England together and start working, maybe touring. It didn’t really work out.”
Instead, Symes is in Brazil, Atherley is in the U.K. working with his music producer brothers and Lakkis and Al Abri remain in Dubai. ABRI’s not over. Not officially. But there are no concrete plans for the four of them to get together in the near future.
Talking to Al Abri, you get the feeling the band was getting a little stale anyway (although he’s way too nice to actually say that). He does allow that he would’ve liked to add some rockier touches to their music “I felt the element of having a guitarist was missing, you know?” he says. “I really wanted to go in that direction. Still have the piano in there, but make it more rocky. I hoped the sound would evolve a little bit.”
Symes, he says, “wasn’t a big fan” of the guitar idea. But if you see Al Abri on stage, getting lost in the moment, you can see why he’d want music with a bit more oomph. “I’m not hating on jazz, or the slow, or mid-tempo, R&B and soul music,” he says. “But I love people like Sly Stone and James Brown. I love that energy they create on stage.” It was tough to rock out to ABRI.
When the band went their separate ways, Al Abri says, he was “lost.” He was in London, as planned. But he was there alone. Or not quite alone. He had his laptop.
“I started to put a few ideas down, working on harmonies, layering them. I’d always wanted to do that: get something that was just me, creatively, rather than two or three other minds putting it down. I wasn’t thinking of going solo at the time, but it felt like the perfect opportunity.”
He hooked up with a few musicians for some acoustic gigs, but “it was hard to get them to commit.” Eventually, he was introduced to a producer, Yasser Anderson, a.k.a Dozing Duke. “I wasn’t really interested at first,” Al Abri admits. “I’d heard the whole spiel about people being ‘producers.’ I didn’t really give him face at that point. But he came to one of my shows and I told him to send me some of his tracks. I was blown away, man. It was exactly the direction I wanted to take. It was beautiful.”
He had been listening to “a lot of Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi.” Anderson, Al Abri felt, shared his desire to create something “a little more experimental” than the music he’d been doing previously. “His tracks were totally that; putting samples here, slicing them beyond recognition. And they sounded beautiful.”
Anderson ended up producing three of the five tracks on Al Abri’s self-titled debut EP, which drops this month. The plan is to make it available for free download, then hopefully tour off the back of it. “I’m very proud of it,” Al Abri says of the EP. “The sound is very different to ABRI – it’s more electronic-based. It’s like starting from scratch again.”
How do the band feel about his solo move? And not being included in the performances he has lined up? “I think they’re completely cool about the fact that it’s my little baby,” he says. ”I’m sure they’re not bothered about not being included.”
He still seems hopeful that the four of them can work together again. “It’s not like we’ve disbanded,” he says, typically unflustered. “ABRI came together naturally. Nothing was forced. And if we get back together I think it’ll be the same way. It’ll fall into place.” For now, he’s focusing on his solo work, and hoping it brings in enough cash for a struggling musician to live on for a while.
“For me, the money thing’s not a huge factor. Obviously, I’d like to be in a position where I don’t need to think about finances, but I just don’t want to do stuff I’m not 100 per cent into.” He speaks from experience. “I did once do an M&M commercial. Or was it Smarties? One of them. Anyway, it’s not an experience I want to repeat.”
So, his parents may have him around for a while longer. “It’s hard, man,” he says. “But I’d rather be struggling and happy than miserable and stable.”