Scene Setters: Exploring Saudi Arabia's emerging music scene

Scene Setters: Exploring Saudi Arabia's emerging music scene

These are the artists and venues leading a musical revolution in Al Khobar and Riyadh
15 August 23

Walk into Al Khobar's Bohemia Art Cafe on a Saturday evening and you’ll likely find it jam-packed, the crowd crooning to the newest “it” band in town – like indie/folk crew Zamzam Music.

Zamzam Al-Koheji, one half of Zamzam Music, describes their music as “experimental,” sometimes playing a rendition of classics by Simon & Garfunkel and other times Indigo Girls, and even contemporary choices like Taylor Swift.

Al-Koheji’s journey with music started at a young age, when she listened to punk and midwestern rock (considered niche back then). Thanks to a large expatriate population and its proximity to Bahrain, the Eastern Province was home to radio stations and television broadcasts that catered to a western audience. Growing up in the early 2000s, Al-Koheji recalls radio 91.4, playing easy rock from the 1960s and 1970s, including broadcasting live Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, David Bowie, and AC/DC shows.

“They were an insanely informative space for western music [and culture], which in turn, affected the entire generation I come from,” she says. Her uncles playing music during the 1980s and 1990s – at private events or in Bahrain – were also a big influence on her journey as an artist.Two years ago, she approached Bohemia Art Café with her CD and was subsequently asked to come in and play on a live music night. “When I was a teenager, something like a Bohemia Art Café would not have existed,” she explains. “Now, it’s a pillar to the music community.”

After a royal decree in 2019, Saudi’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) announced that music was permissible in licensed establishments, and Bohemia Art Café is one place that has found an unlikely following in Al Khobar.

The café was first envisioned as a record store where Saudis could access their favourite singer’s latest album or discover a new artist, explains Fawaz Alsulaim, co-founder of Bohemia Art Café. As talented musicians became regulars at the store, the owners decided to host live shows to showcase local talent. Eventually, the live music nights gained traction, and even musicians outside of the Eastern Province started frequenting it. Overnight, the café has come to serve as a music record store, a community space, and a live music venue.

Just like Bohemia Art Café, Syrup serves as an epicentre for the creative community in Riyadh by bringing together all types of artists and musicians.

“Syrup is probably the first venue that opened its doors to heavy metal artists and community,” says Amjad, a heavy metal artist manager, who goes by the stage name Gigi Arabia.

Syrup hosts heavy metal, jam, and metal karaoke nights. “It’s always a positive vibe; people love it there,” she adds.

Gigi’s journey with music also started with exposure to popular media. She recalls watching MTV music videos for hours on end, and perusing Riyadh’s CD stores in the late 90s and early 2000s. “Back then, the only way for us to discover music was by going to record stores and buying albums based on the cover artwork,” she says with a chuckle.

Gigi also recalls discovering new music genres through Yahoo! Chat rooms and Myspace. “It was a gamechanger for me – it developed my music taste and helped me discover a lot of heavy metal bands.”

Aspiring to be a rock star during her teenage years, Gigi started a two-person band that was abandoned in college. As live performances became permissible in the Kingdom, she revisited her dream and turned to managing artists and facilitating music performances. Gigi is also the founder of Heavy Arabia Entertainment, a private company dedicated to developing and promoting local heavy metal talent.

In addition to navigating a brand-new industry, she also faces the challenge of educating audiences on a genre that is often stereotyped. “It’s the same stereotypes that people hold elsewhere,” she explains. “Heavy metal is angry music, it’s for disturbed people or that it promotes violence.”

The Warehouse at Jax District

One part of her work is correcting this misconception, while the second is building a heavy metal community that can coexist with other genres in Saudi’s entertainment industry. Despite heavy metal being a niche community and still somewhat “underground,” she notes that the Music Commission (under the GEA) is now seeing the demand for it.

Speaking on audiences’ reactions to heavy metal, Gigi notes that most are thrilled to experience the vibe. “Even if they’re not listeners of this particular genre, the energy rubs off.”

Another emerging creative space that supports local talents is The Warehouse in Riyadh’s JAX District. The space is dedicated to showcasing diverse musical talents and taking the Kingdom’s musical heritage to the world. And this is where Seera Band, an all-girl, Arabic psychedelic rock band, has found a fan base.

Haya Al-Hejailan, the band’s lead guitarist, was largely influenced by folk classics like Fairuz’s Al Bint El Chalabiya, Ilham Al-Madfai’s Fog El Nakhal, and Umm Kulthum’s Enta Omry, but also Nirvana, Jimmy Hendrix, and MTV.

“I used to watch these performances and think, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” she says. “But we lived in a time where things in Saudi were very different.”

While music was an important part of her upbringing (having taken piano and cello lessons in her childhood), Al-Hejailan didn’t see the possibility of pursuing a music career in Saudi and went on to study psychology in the US. Upon returning to the Kingdom, she witnessed how the entertainment industry was opening up and music became a more viable option.

“I’ve always dreamt of having a band and being taken seriously as a musician,” she says. “Now, I have to pinch myself.”

Al-Hejailan explains how she first started with grunge, punk, and flamenco genres, but as she matured as an artist, she found her calling in Anatolian psychedelic folk. “Psychedelic rock merges my two worlds – psychedelic science and music,” she says. “I have a very strong connection to my heritage and want to sing in Arabic. Although my bandmates have very diverse interests, we positioned ourselves as an Arabic psychedelic rock infusion band.”

Speaking of how the genre has been received in Saudi’s nascent music industry, she gleefully says that over 200 people turned up to their debut performance at The Warehouse.

MDL Beast

“I feel like we’re pushing something new and innovative, and people describe it as memorable,” she says.

Al-Hejailan also works with the Music Commission as an events specialist and is a strong advocate of the commission’s vision – building the music industry infrastructure from the ground up.

“I used to watch these performances and think, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ But we lived in a time where things in Saudi were very different.”

In the coming years, she hopes to see more performances, more venues, and more funding for entertainment. Logistical challenges that come with a blossoming industry don’t deter her from believing that Riyadh will soon be on par with any music destination of the world – be it New York or Berlin.

“Thanks to the MDLBEAST festival, we’re already on the map. And we’re getting there soon.”

Saudi has a young population, with 70% under the age of 35. Al-Hejailan notes that this demographic has access to and consumes a large amount of popular media. “There is a lot of diverse and raw talent out there – from opera singers to a metal community and Korean or K-pop musicians,” she says.

“Now, it’s just about nurturing it."

Here’s where you can hear these artists performing live – be sure to check their Instagram accounts for information on upcoming shows.

Al Khobar
The People:
The Place: @bohemia_artcafe

The People: @heavyarabia
The Place: @syrupllc

The People:
The Place: The Warehouse at Jax District @twh_ksa