Jeddah dances to its own heavy metal beat

Talents from various music genres are sprawling in the Saudi red sea port city of Jeddah as taboos appear to ease in the Kingdom. MENASSAT met with the Jeddah-based hip-hop band Red Coast, death metal group Breeze of the Dying, and rock metal band Disturb the Balance, whose lyrics aim to deliver a message of social change to Saudi youth.
Breeze of the Dying (left) and Red Coast -- the godfathers of the new hard core music scene in Saudi Arabia.

JEDDAH, April 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) - “Playing our music a few years ago, we would have been dead or in jail, especially considering our genre,” said 25-year old Thamer Farhan, one of the lead members of the Saudi hip-hop band Red Coast.

Farhan’s mobile phone rings out with his band’s first official track, “Fawda” or Chaos, a heavy beat-driven song that urges young people to take control of their lives and act as responsible individuals.

“It’s about how people come to live in a state of chaos because they don’t follow the rules. In chaos, you’ll never reach anything. You’re late for school and for appointments. Why did we invent a system if we’re not even following it? It’s corruption from our side if we don’t follow it,” Farhan told MENASSAT.

Fawda ended up becoming a hit song and Red Coast is currently working on releasing their new track, “Ana El Nas,” or I am the People. Like the band’s previous songs, the lyrics of Ana El Nas also call for social change, but it's social change in a Saudi context.

“This song is about how a guy, when he gets depressed, blames the people and his surroundings. We want to send a positive message with this song, telling people to make the best out of their lives and take chances instead of complaining. Sixty percent of Saudi Arabia are young people, all of them have dreams along with issues they have to deal with,” adds Farhan.

While the alternative music scene in Jeddah, especially hip-hop, has been active for quite some time, it is only in the last few years that it has started to enjoy widespread visibility and more acceptance from the public.

“We were rejected at first, both by the people and the government. They associated hip-hop with gangsters and drugs,” said Farhan.

But with bands such as Red Coast and Jeddah Legends, Saudi hip-hop appears to be making waves today. According to Farhan, Red Coast has been able to organize and participate in several public events.

Jailed for jamming

Ten or fifteen years ago, things were quite different, Saudi musician Hasan Hatrash told MENASSAT. Hatrash remembers being a lone rocker in 1991 and then having been jailed three years later for organizing a rock concert in the mid-90’s.

“In 1991, there was no one listening to rock here. I couldn’t find people to play with. In the mid-90s, opportunities to play in public began to emerge. So our band organized a gig in a restaurant in 1994. Five hundred people were busted, three hundred of whom remained in custody after the concert. I was jailed for five days,” Hatrash told MENASSAT.

From that point on, Hatrash explained, the alternative Saudi music scene retreated underground in fear of further crackdowns, until the arrival of the Internet in Saudi in 2000. The Internet, along with satellite TV, said Hatrash, gave people a chance to “loosen up" and consequently the "boom" followed.

“Internet and satellite TV infiltrated people. They started to slowly accept it.  The music boom here peaked in 2003. Ten or fifteen years ago though, I wouldn’t have thought this to happen,” added Hatrash.

Several Saudi music bands have made media headlines including the Jeddah-based all girls rock band Accolade, which recently became famous with their debut track “Pinocchio.”

"Hard to play death metal in Saudi Arabia"

Rock music set aside, how has the Kingdom received death metal?

“It’s kind of hard to play death metal in Saudi,” said Breeze of the Dying guitarist Jude Al Dajani, because it is often tied to what people call the “Satanism problem."

“Here, they think people like us, dressed in black coats, are Satanists. But we love God. We go to mosque. And in the end, we’re all peaceful and we laugh like they do,” he said. 

“And think about it, this is probably the only metal scene in the world without drugs and booze,” a fellow band member said with a grin on his face.

Al-Dajani sits next to fellow band members Khalid and Majed, who are both decked out in black and have a number of piercings. Al-Dajani is dressed in baggy jeans, a loose t-shirt, and a hat with his long hair sticking out - quite different from the traditional Saudi thobe he is required to wear in his day job.

Born in 2006 under the name “Fire Cell,” Al Dajani said Breeze of the Dying went through many phases before becoming a death metal band. Today, the group has a total of six members, all of whom are in their early twenties.

“First we played melodic death. Then we became more brutal and turned to death metal. Fantasy love is not really what we’re about,” vocalist Majed told MENASSAT.

In “Enter Virus,” one of the band’s debut tracks, Majed, Khaled, and Al Dajani speak out against what they call the “wrong image that the world gives to kids,” through growling, intermittent singing, and stretched out guitar chords.

The growling, the band members said, is perhaps the toughest part for new listeners to get acquainted to and accept.

“I don’t blame people for not understanding us and our type of music. But if only they would ask before they start criticizing us,” Majed said.

Despite the skepticism towards death metal in Saudi society, the group appears to have fans in the Kingdom. Al Dajani said Saudis actually constitute a good part of the band’s fan base.

His own mom, for example, is a big fan of their music. Al Dajani said she’s even made one of the band’s songs the ring tone on her mobile phone.

Accept the growling

Perhaps a softer version of Breeze of the Dying is “Disturb the Balance,” a seven member Jeddah-based rock band that use quite a bit of oriental influences.

Like the two other bands, the group often tackles issues of dual lives and hypocrisy among the youth.

“People are not living in reality here. They’re covering themselves up with masks. We’re trying to change that.  They should have courage to be themselves,” Disturb the Balance member Mohammed Zein Eddin told MENASSAT. 

“Well, it’s society. Partly. You can translate our songs into your own situation,” one of the other band members said.

When asked if the bands ever criticize the social and political order in the Kingdom, Farhan said he supports the government.

“The Kingdom has helped us and our families. We’re in a safe place. A lot of the things people hear about in Saudi Arabia are just from the headlines. They don’t look into the details,” he said.

But, added Farhan, he’d like to help bring the “voices of the youth to the government” through his music.

Like Breeze of the Dying, Eddin’s band has also had difficulties with listeners that are unacquainted with metal.

“Music is an art. Metal is an art. Don’t get narrow-minded. Accept the growling,” he told MENASSAT.

Through what Eddin refers to as the band’s “Oriental vocalist,” listeners open up to the rest of the group’s beats.

“We inject some oriental beats into the music and then the listeners often open up to the rest of the song with its metal and rock beat,” he added.

Have any of the bands been threatened for playing the type of music they do?

“I’ve been threatened to be killed for my music. Over the phone, through emails, and over Facebook,” said one of the musicians.

“The real enemies of change are those who refuse to think. They fear that change might wipe out their culture. Sixty percent of this country is youth. In ten years it will be unstoppable. There will be no space for close mindedness," another ban member chimes in.

Breeze of the Dying on Myspace.

Disturb the Balance on Myspace.