My worldwide open mic journey began in China in 2008 after the Formula One race in Shanghai, and little did I know that it was a journey that would continue for six more years and cover most of the globe, every continent except Africa (where I once lived and played music in an open mic decades earlier) and Antarctica, and that it would spawn a book, a blog, an album, a documentary film, numerous podcasts, music videos and other multimedia projects.
This year, 2014, I have decided to finish all of the projects and tie them together into a consolidation of multimedia. As part of my personal impetus to gather it all together for myself, but also put it into perspective on this blog, I have decided to create a page for each city I have visited on the journey, tying together samples of the whole multimedia adventure linked to that city.
PARIS – So I am now back two weeks ago to the weekend in Abu Dhabi, the last weekend of my worldwide musical travel for 2014. This totally absurd approach that I’ve been taking in the last week of back-tracking through time in my web log of my life (remember where the word blog comes from, and what it is?), brings me therefore to the musical weekend that essentially was not.
In closing off my sixth year of travelling the world with my guitar – wherever my job as a Formula One journalist takes me – I therefore arrive at an uncharacteristically disappointing weekend. I’ve only failed to play in a bar or other venue in a country about three times in the full six years of the adventure.
But Abu Dhabi has never been one of the easiest places to find somewhere to play, and I now have a much greater understanding than ever as to why. But first the good news: I now know of two regular open mics in Abu Dhabi, but one of them – on Sunday night – was disappointingly cancelled on the weekend I was there, for the Formula One race!!! The other was not scheduled for that weekend anyway, as it is just once a month.
But the truth is that Abu Dhabi, which is a fabulous city in many ways, has amongst the world’s most Draconian laws for musicians wishing to play in public. I found this out firsthand two weeks ago when a contact in Formula One who was working with a client at a very big hotel in Abu Dhabi offered to me to do a gig at the hotel. He had learned that I play my guitar and sing wherever I go, and he very kindly offered me to play at this hotel.
I agreed. But then the hotel management got in touch with me to arrange the whole thing, and according to the laws in Abu Dhabi, we had to undergo a few formalities: Could I please send my passport, my mother’s full maiden name and a list of the songs I intended to sing. I felt a little peeved that it all came to so much work for the hotel people, but since they were nice enough to go this far to offer me a stage and a mic, and considering I figured it would all be a great adventure for this blog – and my life in general – I sent a scan of the passport, my mother’s maiden name and a list of the songs I intended to sing (as well as a link to my personal music site Brad Spurgeon Music, so they could hear my songs I would sing).
Back to a French Moment and “open mic” at the Mercure in Abu Dhabi
As I awaited their response and the day and time for the gig, I visited a Mercure hotel for a meal, and what should I find but a duet from France singing French classic songs. At one point, a man from the audiences asked if he could sing a song, and the couple accepted. So we had a kind of open mic. On the other hand, I did not bring my guitar to the meal and so had nothing to play with, and anyway, I figured I had my gig coming up, so I was not desperate.
The next morning as I went to the circuit for a day of work, I passed through the spectator area and there I found an Englishman doing a solo guitar-voice gig for the empty canteen area in the extreme heat of Abu Dhabi. He had a fabulous voice, I videoed him, and then went to speak to him. He lives in Dubai, was just doing the gig at the race, and told me how doing musical gigs in Abu Dhabi required a lot of paperwork – i.e., if I had any idea of playing on his stage, forget it!
So it was that the weekend slipped by, I played my guitar in my hotel room several times, but with no response coming from the hotel after I sent my passport, mother’s maiden name and song list, I never DID get a gig. And at the same time, I did not further press the poor management person at the hotel. It was, after all, my last musical adventure of the year, I had a massive number of articles to write about the exciting Formula One season, and when I thought about it, I actually DID have a kind of musical adventure to write about on this blog….
Someone had the bright idea to delay the only true open mic that I can find exists in Abu Dhabi for the second Saturday of November, when it always appears on the first Saturday of November. This is the open mic at the B-Lounge at the Sheraton Hotel, and the excuse for delaying it was that it is the Formula One Grand Prix weekend in Abu Dhabi. That, of course, was precisely the event that drew me to Abu Dhabi in the first place, and that permitted me to be present in a hotel across the street from the Sheraton and ready, willing and excited to take part in the open mic. Alas, they decided that racegoers do not, after all, want open mics. So I was unable to attend, and as a result, I have put it on my list, but under the section of places I have heard of and can recommend, but been unable to attend. Still, I have seen the venue, and read about it, and it looks interesting and fun. Anyway, aside from that failed opportunity, the Bait al Oud, or House of Oud, still exists, and that is open pretty much all the time, and it has pick-up jam sessions now and then. And there are plenty of expatriate bars and pubs throughout the city that have live music. The problem for musicians wishing to take part in open mics is that either Abu Dhabi or the United Arab Emirates, I have heard, have music taxation laws that do not promote the idea of an open stage. I have been unable to confirm this information beyond my original source, but what I have been told is that bars are obliged to pay a kind of entertainment tax for each band or other artist who takes to the stage – to the tune of something like 1000 dirhams. That instantly makes putting on an open mic a major expense, and somewhat impossible as a concept. Still, I know there are open mics here and there in the U.A.E., and so either bars are able to pay, to get around the tax or my information was incorrect. I felt it good to mention, though, as a way of spurring on dialogue, should anyone be able to find information on that fact that I cannot find. Ultimately, though, it would explain the lack of many open mics in the region – a region that is otherwise full of live music of every kind.
Worldwide Open Mic Guide Philosophy
The only guide I am really in a good position to update regularly is that of Paris, since I live there. But I decided to do guides to all the other 20 and more cities on my worldwide open mic tour in order to give the knowledge I have personally of each city’s open mics. The guide has links to sites I know of local guides that may be more up-to-date, but I have chosen to list the open mics or jam sessions that I have played in myself. There may be others that I know of, but if I have not played there, I will not include it on the list. That way, the user learns a little of my own impressions. But I cannot be as certain that the guide is up-to-date – so check before you go.
ABU DHABI – I have seen busier days at P.J. O’Reilly’s pub in Abu Dhabi. In fact, I usually don’t like being there alone when it is so busy that party-goers are bursting at every seam. Last night, I decided to drop in to see the regular Wednesday night act, Paddyman, in order both to have a nice night out, and also to seek an open mic or open jam session for myself. I achieved the former, but not the latter.
Paddyman is a one-man-band Irish phenomenon who has travelled the world playing his music in Irish pubs and elsewhere, usually with an Irish theme from the crudest to the softest. He also does most bar rock stuff you can imagine, in his own way, and, I noted, it is so fast-paced that he rarely ever finishes a song before segueing into another song. He also writes his own songs, both comical and touching.
He is now based in Dubai, and sings around the Gulf, from Bahrain to Dubai to Abu Dhabi, and other spots. A highly in demand Irish singer, carrying the home flames to the legions of expatriates of the region.
A High-speed Paddy in Dubai
His real talent is in getting the audience to react, request songs, sing-along, and generally turn the most staid Irish pub into a party. That’s pretty necessary in Abu Dhabi where, although P.J. O’Reilly’s is an oasis of merriment, there are certain things in the Emirate that seem not to be tolerated…such as taking videos of the performer.
So it was that I only managed to get a couple of snippets of Paddyman, and they are in no way representative of the raucousness of his act. I got told off by the security guard at the door, near where I was standing, and he said if I continued making videos I’d have to leave the premises.
Anyway, I thought I’d mention this, my first night out in the music of Abu Dhabi. Yes, this is expatriate stuff in an Irish pub, and not representative of the local music. But in other ways, it kind of is. Keep posted for further notes as to why….
I did not find a place to play in Abu Dhabi last night, but even if I had, the cold I – and many other journalists – got in India meant that I could not sing anyway. Total loss of voice. But that meant the perfect occasion to go out and listen to other musicians. It would turn out to be a big contrast in styles and atmospheres. The first place I went to was the massive, enormous, colossal hotel called Shangri La, where the oud player with whom I jammed the night before, was playing with his guitarist in the lobby. This was Layth Aldaene, whom I wrote about on the blog yesterday. The lobby of the Shangri La is massive too, and the music was beautiful within that environment. But it was all very much a laid back, don’t disturb anyone kind of music as the cream of the F1 crowd sat around and drank aperitifs or waited for their rendezvous of the evening.
Unfortunately it was not the best set up for recording the music with my Zoom Q3HD in a discreet manner. But I did my best.
After that I went back to my hotel, and there, I found the outdoor – tented – restaurant of the hotel with chicha pipes being smoked, snack meals or buffet being eaten, and people generally drinking fruit juices and other non-alcoholic refreshments. It was a family feel to it, a popular feel, and it was the first night of the weekend. So the live music reflected this, and as it went on it got more festive. I felt slightly intrusive filming the merriment, so I only got a few brief glimpses. But it was indeed a lively and contrasting popular moment of nightlife in Abu Dhabi, compared to the staid, laid back Shangri La opulence.
And the music itself… no comparison. After hearing the virtuoso playing of Layth Aldaene and his guitarist, the electronic drums, keyboards and other synthesized sounds of the musician and his singer at the One-to-One hotel was a little crude by comparison. But festive and fun, indeed….
Readers of this blog may remember that last year I found myself on a long, difficult and seemingly endless four-day quest in search of the elusive Bait al Oud – or House of Oud – while I was in Abu Dhabi. I finally found the place on my last night here, four hours before my flight left, and I spent an hour and a half being introduced to the oud by a master builder, a teacher and a student. And I played with them. This year, more than the very opposite has occurred: Without realizing it, I booked my room for five nights in Abu Dhabi in the very hotel that I had used as a reference point for finding the Bait al Oud, which is located behind the hotel. It was only after booking the hotel that I suddenly realized that I was now a neighbor to this extraordinary oasis of Middle Eastern music and yesterday, the House of Oud was the first place I went after booking into my hotel – finding extraordinary moments of oud-ness, jamming and recording of one of my songs with an oud master.
Absolutely astounding are the most common but certainly the best words I can think of to describe the two visits. Let me backtrack a little, though. For those who do not know what an oud is, just imagine hearing music from the Middle East, imagine the sound of the stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a guitar and a lute. In fact, it is a kind of lute. It is a rounded shell-shaped instrument with a short next and four strings – or rather, four groups of two strings – and a bass string. It is held on the knee like a guitar, and most often plucked with a long plastic pick that looks like a coffee stir stick.
I just don’t know where to start to get all the emotions and experience of my two visits there yesterday. Let me back track a little more: The House of Oud is a project created and funded by a wealthy patron, and the first of these institutions was created in Egypt. The second was in Abu Dhabi and is also supported by an Abu Dhabi governmental cultural foundation, called the ADACH. It is located in a large mansion-like house with two or three floors and out back, the oud workshop of the master craftsman Amr Fawzy, an Egyptian. The Bait al Oud offers oud playing lessons, shows, jams and various other cultural events. Its goal is to support and promote and prolong the cultural history of the oud.
Yesterday on my first visit, as I approached the workshop I heard the beautiful sound of an oud coming from within and my first thought was that it was a recording – although it sounded live. I walked into the room and found a woman playing the oud. It turned out to be a very interesting woman in addition to a great player, and the oud she was playing belonged to the luthier himself, Fawzy. The woman was Shirine Tohamy, and she is an Egpytian who teaches the oud to students at the Bait al Oud.
Shirine was, in fact, I would learn, the first woman graduate of the original Bait al Oud in Egypt, where she graduated 12 years ago. She allowed me to film her with my iPhone doing a tune. It was apparently a famous tune, but I’ve forgotten the name…. something like “Sunshine,” I think….
I had not brought my guitar, but they invited me to return later in the evening with my guitar. So I did. But by then Shirine had left for the day. No problem. I spoke to Amr and watched as he worked on an oud from Iraq, on which he had replaced the wood on the neck. I showed him my guitar and played one of my songs. While I was playing, we were joined by another oud player, who had come to pick up the oud Amr was working on. This was Layth Aldaene, who is a professional musician and composer who lives in Abu Dhabi, but who is an Iraqi. And not just any Iraqi musician. He is the nephew of one of the greatest oud players of the 20th century, Munir Bashir.
Bashir was an Iraqi too, although he ended up moving to Europe and settling in Budapest. Layth composes music for films, television and advertisements in addition to playing concerts and composing his own music. He also specializes in playing the oud along with a guitar player, which traditionally was not often done. He gave me his CD and I listened to it in the car on the way to the F1 circuit this morning – excellent.
But what was really surprising in listening to Layth was how he could not only play Arabic music, but he also slipped into some classic Spanish music, some blues, and get this: Bluegrass. That was all just in fun. As I had my guitar out, he tried to incite me to jam with him, asking me to do some basic chords that I could not quite figure out! (Problem especially with the rhythm.) But I suddenly realized that I had one of my own songs that used some of the same chords and that has a Middle Eastern feel to it, as I had written it about a Turkish woman I know. When I had recorded the song with a friend in Paris who played lead, he had worked out a Middle East theme. So it was perfect to try with the oud.
It is called, “Let Me Know,” and I suggested we play that. So we did, and he accepted that I record it on my Roland R-26. It was nothing more than a jam, and my voice is still a little fractured by my col – caught in India or Korea – and I even made a mess of some of the lyrics and rhythm. But as a demonstration of the possibilities, I wanted to put it up on the site here. Don’t come to any conclusions about Layth’s playing from this, though, go to Layth Aldaene’s excellent web site and listen to his beautiful compositions there.
In any case, I could never have imagined such an evening and good luck in my efforts to play with different musicians around the world…. Thank you Bait al Oud!
Who will ever be able to trust my rambling accounts of playing music around the world ever again? Yesterday, despondent, having failed after three days of effort to find the elusive “House of Oud,” or “Bait Al Oud,” I wrote a post talking about how great it was to fail! But at the end of my working day at the racetrack I found myself with two and a half hours available before I had to go to the airport for the flight back to Paris. So I decided to make one more attempt to find the mecca of oud.
That would require a half-hour cab ride downtown from the track, followed by eventually another half-hour cab ride from there to the airport. That would leave one and a half hours to find the oud joint and hope that it was open and hope that I could jam, film, talk and sing with whomsoever might be there. What spurred me on to having a little hope at the end of the day was that by changing my search method online to “Bait Al Oud” I discovered a Facebook page for the House of Oud AND a web site talking about the Oud House and on these I actually finally found a photograph of the building – so it was now an identifiable object. (What a saga!)
The Time Out story about the place had said people could just walk in off the street and see the place and ask for a jam. So I took a cab to the same place behind the One-to-One hotel where I had been before, and I asked the cab driver to drive around ALL of the surrounding back-streets. We were almost ready to quit and go directly to the airport when suddenly a seeming mirage appeared before me: The very same majestic image of the House of Oud that I saw online! All was pretty dark, but the front door was slightly ajar. So I asked the cab driver to wait while I explored. Picture a horror film where the victim enters an empty, massive, mansion in the middle of nowhere – “Hello, is there anyone here? Helllooooo? Anyone home????”
I just kept following the lights from within to a back room, and there I met up with a man in Arab clothing and with an oud – a beautiful handmade oud – by his side. On the table next to him was an interesting auto-harp type of thing too, and there was another man as well. The Arab with the oud spoke the best English, and so I explained that I was a musician on a visit to Abu Dhabi and I was about to leave the country but I had been searching for three days for this place, that I had heard there were jam sessions. Could we jam?
Another man came and joined us, and it turned out that they were all about to leave for the day, that the place had closed for the day. But they were curious about me, about my guitar – which was still in the cab – and they invited me to join then, get my guitar, and we would jam. Eureka! It was no longer just a mirage.
musicians at house of oud
I got my instrument and my luggage and asked the cab driver to return an hour and 15 minutes later to take me to the airport. I went back into the House of Oud and proceeded to have the time of my life, jamming with the oud player and the harp player. They also let me play the oud myself, they allowed me to film us and interview them for my film. And they took me on a tour of the workshop where the ouds are made, in a back room of the same building. The third man who had shown up was the luthier who made the ouds, the man in the Arab dress was a student, and the harp player was an oud music teacher. He and the luthier were both from Egypt, which is the greatest land of the oud. I immediately fell in love with the instrument and its beautiful feel and sound, and I regretted upon leaving that I had not tried to see if I could buy one.
The luthier, whose name is Amr Fawzy, builds around 40 of them per year, if I understood correctly. He showed me how they are built, and with what wood. He later inspected my guitar, and liked it. The oud, an ancestor of the guitar, has existed since 2350 BC! It is central to Arabic music, and this Bait Al Oud is a project that was started by a man named Naseer Shamma, who also started one of these institutions in Cairo, and I believe elsewhere as well, as he tries to develop and maintain the oud. In fact, he brought about some changes with the making of the oud to bring it up to more modern standards, without detracting from the traditional instrument. One of these, Amr – who was trained in the Cairo House of Oud and is a master luthier – pointed out to me, was that the tuning head is made entirely from one single piece of wood, which is carved out in the middle.
The House of Oud, which was founded only two years ago, is partly sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, which provides wood, strings, budget, I suppose. And the villa is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. There are rehearsal spaces, concert spaces, a library, all sorts of rooms. The institution chooses students through a system of try-outs, and they follow a course with the teacher I met – who is also Egyptian – and in turn can go on to teach. Aside from the regular free jams, all the students usually gather on Thursdays to play amongst themselves.
I said yesterday that I was happy with failure as I travel the world and seem only to meet with success on this musical adventure seeking out the music of the world and places to play and jam, and I said that failing to find a place proved just how difficult a task it has been, and how different each place can be. But the feeling I had playing with these musicians, discovering the oud and their institution, and succeeding at the last minute after so many efforts, was far, far, far greater than that feeling of accepting failure! It was also, above all, a window into a real bit of Abu Dhabi and Arab culture – and hospitality – that I had before then had no inkling of. Before the House of Oud, my only experience of the country was the backstreets of the smokey cafes, and above all, the western bars in the western hotels. Soooo glad I made the last effort, so glad the House of Oud was so accomodating.
I made several videos, but the best one is too long, too big, to put up here – and I will put it in my documentary. It contains much more oud playing and me playing the oud and all three of us jamming with me on my guitar, and the other two on the harp and oud. But for the moment I have only these two shorter ones to put up, which have more of the harp than the oud! But the workshop one is fabulous, and I like the moment where the luthier tells me the oud is made of Indian rosewood, and that he had noticed part of my Seagull guitar was made of rosewood too….
Well, that makes four nights in a row where I have failed to find a place to play in Abu Dhabi. I decided to leave my guitar behind and go into “Heroes” bar in the Crowne Plaza hotel, but there is no live music there on Saturday night. I then went to the Intercontinental that someone else suggested, and there was just a very classy piano cocktail lounge thing with a jazz singer, and way too much class. Oh, and that story about the House of Oud I promised to talk about?
The House of Oud, according to Time Out, does have jam sessions, and clearly this would be a bona fide local scene. But four days is clearly not enough time in Abu Dhabi to cross the cultural divide and move from the world of expat bars in fancy hotels to a jam in a non-descript town house behind the One-to-One hotel. I called the number provided by Time Out to order up a jam session, and the person who responded only spoke Arabic. I therefore asked my hotel manager to call. It turned out no one in the hotel spoke Arabic, just Indian and English. So I then caught a cab for the second time in two days – this was yesterday, as I recounted that I already searched for this place on foot the night before – and the cab driver DID speak Arabic.
So the cab driver spoke at length to the man at the House of Oud and then hung up and told me he knew where to go. So he went and stopped just behind the One-to-One hotel and told me I was there. But I said, “Where?” I told him I had already been to this spot and saw no House of Oud. He said, “Here.” But I said, “You don’t really know where it is, do you?” He said he did, but that it was on a larger street on the other side of a field. So I asked him to take me and he drove me to the precise spot where he said was the House of Oud. The only problem was that he was dropping me off at the main gate to a military camp. I told him he really did not know where it was after all, and please take me to the race track. So he did.
At the track, I asked for the help of an Arabic speaking employee. Unfortunately, by the time the phone call finally took place, it was precisely 9 PM, which is the time that the House of Oud apparently ceases its oud lessons and starts the jam – if there is one.
So I failed.
But failure, I decided, in this case is what proves the rule. Failure, it seems to me, is exactly what I needed here in Abu Dhabi in order to give more value to all the other places where I have found open mics, open jam sessions and live music joints where anyone can play. If all the world was exactly the same, what value would there be to such an adventure. It would not be an adventure, it would be a formality. Abu Dhabi is the one place on earth where I have failed to find the kind of musical culture I have sought around the world. By the same token, this place is unique and wonderful in many, many ways, and partly for the same reasons there is not much free musical culture: Because Abu Dhabi is such a finely – if strictly – run society that it is clean, crime seems to be at a minimum, the cab drivers use their meters and do not rip you off, there is abundant housing, drinkable water and eatable food, and all the things we need to be comfortable and well off. Just not so good on the free-for-all live music scene.
But that, as I say, is precisely the story I came to find – an original tale of a place. This never-ending open mic adventure is not only about me having to mark my territory, it is about discovering the reality of the musical culture in the places I go. I found that here, and in that sense, did not fail. If the world was the same everywhere, it would be a bore…. I catch the night flight to Paris and doubt I’ll find a place to play – unless Paul McCartney wants me to join him later on in his concert tonight….
Things are looking grim on the battlefield searching for an open mic or jam. So grim that I can’t bear to go into details about it and don’t want to bore the dear reader. So here is a point-form, bullet-method, approach to last night:
Went looking for the House of Oud which is reputedly behind the One-To-One Hotel and which has jam sessions on the oud. Result: Spent an hour wandering the streets finding nothing.
Went to the F1 Fanzone on the Corniche where there is a small stage that apparently became a kind of open mic for locals on Wednesday and where further up the coast as part of the Yasalam festival of music and fun, there was a bigger stage that shows off local talent as well as international stars. Result: The small stage was closed, the action had moved to the big stage, but I was not allowed into the area of the big stage because I had a camera and no cameras are allowed.
Went to a small and cool pub at the Sheraton Hotel. Result: No music.
Wandered the back streets near the Sheraton for an hour in amongst the small gentlemens’ cafes and chicha joints in search of any sign of local or other music – an off-the-beaten-path serendipity approach. Result: Did not even see a single oud.
Went to the reputedly wild and crazy “Heroes” bar at the Crowne Plaza where there is a live band and a place where one person told me in the past that if anywhere, that would be the place to play. Result: The guard at the door stopped me and told me I could not enter the bar with my guitar. “Wait, isn’t this a live music joint?” I asked. “Yes, but only the artists can have their instruments.” He told me to check it outside in a closet. I said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It did not, like on the first night, sound like my kind of place.
Returned to my hotel/apartment. Result: Played my heart out on my guitar and singing in my empty living room before packing it in and going to sleep.
One night left in the so-far barren adventure. I have a little tale about trying to find the House of Oud again this morning, but I will save that for tomorrow.
I complained yesterday in my post about how I found a music bar that refused me entry with a guitar and camera. Last night I managed to get a step closer to Nirvana in an expat bar called PJ O’Reilly’s, located within the compound of the Royale Meridien Hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi.
I say I got just a step closer because I managed to get into the bar with my guitar and my camera and no questions were asked. And I also managed to sit there for some time contemplating how, when and why I would approach a member of the house band to ask about places to play at jams or open mics in Abu Dhabi.
But as I sat and listened to this cover band and the music was very loud, and the full-house of clients dancing, laughing, joking, talking and moving about in cramped quarters, and as I used my Zoom Q3HD camera to try to get some of the music and atmosphere on video, I felt a tap on my shoulder from behind after only my third video. It was a security guard who told me I had to turn off my video recorder.
“No videos,” he yelled.
Well, this was all a step closer to my goal of finding my musical jam, open mic or other venue to mark my musical territory in Abu Dhabi. But, of course, there still seems to remain a very large hurdle before I get there. On the other hand, with two venues in a row that don’t like cameras, I’m beginning to form an interesting picture of music in Abu Dhabi. Hope it’s the wrong one….
In the end, the bar was so jam-packed, my welcome less than that, and when between sets I sought out a band member and found I could barely move and that even if I did find a band member they would not hear my voice over the loud piped in music, I decided to leave PJ O’Reilly’s and call it a failure. I’ll try another couple of ideas tonight.