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During his performance for a group of students in New York in April, Saudi musician Diya Azzony prompted the audience to ask him questions about anything from his musical technique to his life story to his politics. This open exchange was exactly what Azzony hoped to facilitate during his four-day U.S. tour this April. “A lot of people have questions about Saudi Arabia—the culture, the society, the music,” he said. “I just want to clear these ideas out. I want people to know that we have music, we have a very strong musical culture in our country.”
In Saudi Arabia, the music industry has two sectors. The more commercial side consists of mostly solo artists accompanied by backing bands. These musicians play primarily at weddings and produce pop songs under one of two major Saudi labels. Many female singers perform in this sector, but often only use their first names in fear of possible backlash. Azzony chooses not to produce music with these two popular labels. Instead, he works in the second sector, the alternative, “indie” music industry. He runs his own independent music production studio, encouraging artists who wish to play and perform in styles and venues that deviate from the mainstream. Libra Productions, a sound production studio where Azzony acts as music director, provides a platform for fledgling artists to record music in Jeddah and promote it throughout the Arab world.
Saudi society is usually viewed as ultraconservative and austere, due to the country’s dominant faith, Wahhabism, a rigid form of Islam that follows a strict interpretation of religious text. Yet music like Azzony’s, which melds modern jazz-rock melodies with old traditional poems, is popular among youth and has avoided negative feedback from elders.
In Saudi Arabia, finding venues for live performances poses a challenge for many bands. The country’s religious leaders believe that public concerts are harmful to the public and are sites of debauchery. Until recently, artists were only allowed to perform in private gatherings. But in May 2016, the government created the General Entertainment Authority to begin developing and organizing venues and events for the Saudi public. Now, artists like Azzony can apply for a permit to hold a live performance. The move is part of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud’s Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia, which has been seen by many as an attempt to diversify the Kingdom’s economy and move away from a massive, and potentially debilitating, dependency on oil revenues. The oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, the second largest in the world, have made the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco the biggest source of national wealth. With global oil prices in flux, the country’s monarchy has been looking for other sources of revenue.
One part of the plan is to increase internal and external tourism by expanding entertainment options for the public. In January 2017, in the capital city, Riyadh, the first large-scale concert in seven years took place featuring popular singer Mohammed Abdo, who sang for an 8,000-person, all-male audience. The General Entertainment Authority has curated a calendar of other events, including a monster truck show and Saudi Arabia’s first comic convention. These plans have been contentious, with some of the country’s religious authorities condemning them and others expressing support. Azzony’s trip to the U.S. was sponsored by another new initiative, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture by Saudi Aramco. The center aims to be a space to support Saudi art in all forms, featuring exhibits of local artists, offering a new venue for live performances, and facilitating cultural exchanges like Azzony’s.
“In the beginning, we got a lot of shows cancelled. But in the end when they realized that our music is positive, [society] gave us the green light,” Azzony says. “And of course now the government has created the Ministry of Entertainment, which can give you all the paper work you need to do an event, no one can refuse it. It’s getting better.”
Even prior to the monarchy’s active support, however, independent bands had been emerging in Saudi Arabia and playing on the Arab stage. Azzony credits social media for the fast-developing music scene in Jeddah, where he is based, and the rest of the country. One of the bands Azzony plays with, Al-Farabi, started out on a YouTube show. “Social media is free,” Azzony says, “so anyone can be famous in a glimpse.” Today, 80 percent of Al-Farabi’s SoundCloud audience is from Egypt, where music played a key role in the Arab Spring. Middle Eastern musicians are also well equipped. Yamaha produces different versions of an “oriental keyboard,” an electric keyboard designed to echo the sika quarter notes that give the music an “Arabic feel.”
Azzony, who studied music production in the U.K. and speaks fluent English, wants to promote awareness of Saudi culture through his own understanding of both his home country and the West. In his music, he illuminates history’s lessons by taking ancient poetry and presenting it in a modern light. When he shares his songs with a Western audience, he takes that one step further, demonstrating the political undertones and both Western and Eastern influences of his art.
Al-Farabi’s sound blends cultures; the songs feature an electric guitar but also an oud, a pear-shaped lute that originates in the Middle East, and Yamaha’s oriental keyboard. The band’s first live show was in the Mozart Hall in Salzburg, Austria. Before the Saudi government loosened performance restrictions, many of the band’s live shows were performed in other countries in the Middle East, including in the UAE, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Additionally, the messages in their music at times address current political issues. One song, “Oh Oblivious,” features a 600-year-old poem that the band chose because of the lessons it could provide today regarding the Syrian civil war. Writing songs like these is a technically difficult process, trying to perfect the pronunciations of the old language while finding the right chords to go with the words.
Azzony hopes that by sharing his music with American audiences during this visit, he can expose the lesser-known side of Saudi culture. “I want them to know that we have music, it exists in different ways, different styles,” he said, referring to the Western audience. “And we are using the same methods of recording and producing music, it’s the same, we have studios, software, hardware, both electronic and acoustic instruments. What differentiates it is the authentic beats, percussions, and all the other string instruments that are Middle Eastern based. I want them to know that Arabic music has endless styles that they can enjoy.”[Banner photo courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski]
Melody Chan is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a student at New York University specializing in journalism and politics.