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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: While Riyadh has hosted concerts and festivals with massive acts such as Metallica, Pharrell Williams and Post Malone, there is a burgeoning grassroots scene of local musicians playing at smaller venues, years after restrictions on live music were lifted.
One of the first and best-known of such venues is Syrup, a small theater space located on the northern outskirts of the Saudi capital.
It was founded in 2018 by Mostafa Shirah, then a ministry employee, who had gained an appreciation for karaoke and open mic nights while traveling abroad.
When music began to return to public life after the Kingdom’s General Entertainment Authority was founded in 2016, the next natural step for Shirah was to start organizing his own concerts.
The first of these was in 2017 and involved a rare public performance by a female musician. He set up Syrup as a company in 2018, and opened the venue in 2019.
Being one of the earliest venues of its kind in the city posed challenges. For one thing, the regulations around opening a music venue were unclear.
“I had to create six different permits from six different entities just to make sense out of this place, because at that time we didn’t have a Ministry of Culture,” Shirah told Arab News.
• Syrup was founded in 2018 Mostafa Shirah, then a ministry employee, who had gained an appreciation for karaoke and open mic nights while traveling abroad.
• One of the bands that are quickly becoming familiar faces in Riyadh’s music scene is the all-female psychedelic rock quartet Seera.
• Guitarist Haya stumbled across bassist Meesh’s cover of ‘LA Woman’ by The Doors on Instagram, and they became fast friends and bandmates.
Another issue was public perceptions in a city that had little experience of concert venues. “When it opened, they thought of it as a bar or a pub,” he said.
But soon, Syrup’s open mic nights began to attract a diverse mix of performers who relished their chance to be in the spotlight after years of restrictions.
Shirah recalls how one of the first singers was a woman wearing a niqab, and another was a man in his 40s who had never been able to sing in front of anyone before.
Shirah recognizes that Saudis today are growing up in a wildly different society to the one he knew as a young man, and he hopes that venues and businesses can help foster new musicians. “I want people not to go through what we went through when we were 18,” he said.
Mohammed Dossary, 21, grew up in a deeply conservative household. Following a restrictive interpretation of religion, his parents enforced an outright ban on music. “If they heard me listening to music they’d punish me,” he told Arab News.
But in private, he came across pop star Sia’s hit “Unstoppable” and began to develop a love of the art.
“After that I felt something different. I felt like this is something that I need to listen to every day, because music is healing,” Dossary said.
In November 2022 he visited The Warehouse, another of Riyadh’s eminent performance spaces, located in Jax District, the creative hub sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.
“It was the first time I could be myself,” he said. “I’d been closed in my room for 19 years, listening to music alone. There, I found people who really seemed like me.”
He met others there who shared similar stories and were just discovering the joys of live music. Dossary started to learn the drums and hopes to form a band some day.
His family have become more understanding of his love of music. They remember when they used to listen to Arab musicians such as Fairuz in their younger days.
“The problem is that my parents are afraid of their sisters and brothers judging me and judging them, and my uncles and aunts are afraid that they’ll be judged by my grandfathers,” Dossary said.
“It’s just that the community is afraid of being judged. I just want to break this for everyone to just enjoy life.”
One of the bands that are quickly becoming familiar faces in Riyadh’s music scene is the all-female psychedelic rock quartet Seera.
Guitarist Haya stumbled across bassist Meesh’s cover of “LA Woman” by The Doors on Instagram, and they became fast friends and bandmates.
With the addition of Meesh’s sister Nora on vocals and keys, and Ilham (who goes by The Thing) on drums, the line-up was complete, and a nine-hour jam session during their first meeting in 2022 solidified the bond.
“There was this fun element,” Nora told Arab News. “When we’d meet, the inner child would just have fun, we’d move, we’d dance ... we felt allowed to be ourselves, which is a very important thing.”
Seera is quickly gaining traction and recently played the XP Music Futures event in Jax District organized by MDLBeast (the company behind the major Soundstorm festival), as well as a gig in AlUla to inaugurate the Dakar Rally.
Remembering a time when the scene was almost entirely underground, Ilham told Arab News: “There weren’t really any opportunities 10 years ago. We were playing in hiding. It was pretty hush-hush.”
Meesh said: “I didn’t expect any of this to be possible, because it wasn’t at that point. Until five years ago or so, the whole music scene sprouted from nothing, out of thin air.”
As well as writing and performing, a driving factor behind the band is to serve as role models for the younger generation of Saudi girls.
For a young Haya, “being a musician, being in a band and all that just wasn’t in my planet … I think if at the age of 14 I saw that there were older women who were making music, I would’ve been more motivated to do it.”
The band is releasing its first EP and plans to finish its album by the end of the year. “And from there on,” said Meesh, “we’d love to go global. We have very big dreams, like playing Coachella some day.”
Sami Mohammed, from the sustainable cafe and arts center Cosefan, has a slightly different outlook on Riyadh’s music scene.
For him, it did not spring out of nowhere, but rather was bubbling under the surface for some time.
“Ten years ago, or 30 years ago, or 50 years ago, we had musicians, we had artists. But now in recent years, we’re having this more and more and more,” he told Arab News.
Government programs to educate Saudis abroad paved the way for society to be more accepting of the arts, he said.
“We as a society were very ready. Once the regulations became more tolerant to the artistic scene, we had this smoothness in society into showing more art,” Mohammed said.
The cafe, founded in 2022, is a cornucopia of artistic offerings including pottery and painting classes. It hosts live musicians several nights a week, with a focus on local jazz players.
“These musicians who are playing in Cosefan, they haven’t learned music in two or three years,” he said.
“We had musicians before. Now it’s just that we have more opportunities and more chances to exhibit it, to show it off, to share it with everyone.”
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