“I remember I once saw a flyer supposedly trying to warn you of ‘great sins,’” recalls Masar, a Saudi music enthusiast and one of the organizers of Sharqiya Musicians. “The presentation was epic. There was a heart, not a heart shape, like an actual human heart with veins and stuff, and it was stabbed by a knife and had blood dripping out of it. On each drop, there was something (supposedly) sinful written.” He pauses to laugh in disbelief. “There was thievery, lying, and adultery, which all make sense right? Then there was music – It seemed pretty absurd to bundle it in with the others. But then… then, there was ‘afkar’ – ideas. Not even specifically bad ones, just thoughts.”
New York City gave us the Ramones, The Strokes, and The Velvet Underground. LA gave us Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Guns N’ Roses. Seattle gave us Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. London gave us Led Zepplin, Pink Floyd, and The Clash. You get where I’m going with this.
As a genre, rock is historically dominated by the West, where it evolved from a variety of popular musical styles during the 1940s and ’50s in the United States. But that’s not the only reason Saudi Arabia is so low on the list of places that come to mind when thinking of rock music.
Rock, along with its many sub-genres, has a long-standing reputation for propagating nonconformity, “sticking it to the man”, if you will – a sentiment that doesn’t sit well in Saudi society. When I was growing up, it was largely considered “devil-worshipers’ music.” At best, it was “just noise.”
More generally, it was widely believed that listening to music and playing musical instruments was “haram.” Irrespective of genre, live performances were made illegal in the late 1970s. Up until only a couple of years ago, even sitting in a cafe or restaurant with music playing was a strange phenomenon that you only experienced if you made your way over to Bahrain for the weekend or ventured further abroad for the holidays and music lessons were banned in public institutions.
Evidently, just like Prohibition in the US, neither formal regulation nor informal social stigmas kept people from doing what they wanted; it just forced them to operate underground. Aspiring rockers sat in their bedrooms and learned Metallica riffs by ear, they bought bootleg copies of CDs that were banned in the country, and at the off-chance that they met someone else in the scene, maybe they started a band.
In an exclusive interview with The Tempest, Nader Al-Fassam, bassist of Sound of Ruby, a Saudi psychedelic punk band that has been around since the mid-1990s, shared his early days as a musician. His answer echoed those of countless others, “there was a lot of nothing.” Being a musician wasn’t something people recognized, so if it’s what you wanted to do, you had a lot of one-man (or woman) jam sessions to look forward to.
Clandestine rock concerts did occasionally take place: they were hosted in private venues, with both organizers and attendees at risk of being fined, arrested or worse. When I was 13, and just really growing into my music taste, the religious police raided an underground concert in Riyadh. One of the organizers (a non-Saudi national) was deported, while the other was jailed for months (rumor has it, receiving over 300 lashes).
The last couple of years have looked a little different. In an attempt to diversify and strengthen its economy, attract foreign investment and retain more of Saudis’ disposal income, the kingdom has been working to reconstruct its ultra-conservative image as one of a liberalized and lively tourist destination. With this, have come a number of social and political reforms including lifting the ban on women driving and clipping the wings of the religious police. During last year’s Riyadh and Diriyah Season, the country hosted international superstars such as Imagine Dragons, Calvin Harris, and Major Lazor.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s all about money. Entertainment is taxed at 20% – it makes things expensive,” says an anonymous veteran of the Saudi rock scene. “The country knows that they can’t rely on oil forever, and they seem to have realized, nothing, not even oppression, is free.”
No matter the motivations, with the General Entertainment Authority issuing permits for musicians to play in public spaces, local musicians finally have a chance to show Saudi (and the world) what they’re made of.
“We’ve always been here,” says Methgal, the drummer of Jwa, “but we had no platform. But now? It’s our time.”
But the real gravity of recent changes is realized when a local band takes to the stage, no longer buried by cultural stigmas and societal sneers, and rocks out.