I received an email at the end of 2012, an email that at first I thought was some sort of scam. The words ran together into “Lost Prince of Dubai Needs Paypal Quick Help Fortune For You Totally No Problem” or “Middle East Sheik Loses Beautiful Daughter to Pirate Such Sadness Just Send Paypal, Emirate or Daughter of Ones Choosing to be Awarded”. I fear my own geographic prejudices were surfacing, my cultural naivete of the Middle East reinforced by a junkbox full of “African Princes” in need of a little financial aid. But something made me actually read the message(not a thing I can always do with strange emails) and a few recognizable names started to pop out; Kevin Shea. Tatsuya Yoshida. Jim Black. So is someone luring avant garde drummers to a distant land to melt down their pocket change? What a strange scam. Who is this sound artist Tarek Atoui who is inviting me to this art biennial in Sharjah, the Emirate next to Dubai? What’s an Emirate? Is Dubai a city, a country or a fairy tale you hear about in the side column of news sites? Am I going to get to go indoor skiing? Suddenly this trip was looking weird enough to be interesting.
And it was! Things came together, the plane ticket arrived, I got on that plane and 22 hours later was sitting in a fish restaurant with Tarek and a few Biennial artists in Sharjah, an Emirate and city built on a wealth of natural gas. 10 drummers spent about 7 days there, Lukas Ligeti, Jim Black, Uriel Barthelemi, Cevdet Erek, Susie Ibarra, Morten Olsen, Kevin Shea, Tatsuya Yoshida, myself and the Boredom’s Yoshimi, a group in a way though not overtly representing Austria, France, Turkey, Norway, Japan and the US. The drumming was just one small piece of Sharjah’s 11th Biennial, this year being a collection of contemporary works titled “Re:emerge, Toward a New Cultural Cartography” curated by Japanese curator and teacher Yuko Hasegawa. The Biennial was hosted by the Sharjah Art Foundation, an organization run by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the daughter of Sharjah’s Sheikh Al- Qasimi. Sheikha Qasimi was everywhere and ever friendly, in constant motion as the Biennial prepared to open. The works, such as Lamia Joreige’s “Beirut, Autopsy of a City”, a real and imagined history and future of Beirut, were installed in old houses. Many of these houses had tremendous courtyards where larger works such as Thilo Frank’s “Infinite Rock” sat looming. Our drumming gang saw what we could of the labyrinthine show that involved over 100 artists, a show heavy on video installation and themes of a Middle East in transition.
For our part, Tarek Atoui, a sound artist and composer from Lebanon (though currently living in Paris) had worked out rough guidelines for a piece he called Within. Drummers would perform three sets on each of the 3 performance days around the old historical area of the city where the Biennial was based. Solo sets mid day in areas of their choosing, such as abandoned lots, echoey alleys, covered markets. Groups of 2-5 would play in other areas in the afternoon near the Sharjah Art Foundation, the sponsor of the event, and then all 10 drummers with their full rock kits would play together in the evening. We had one day to jam a bit as a group with just 3 full drumsets and then away we went.
The result? Drumming in the 90 degree heat in(or out of) the noonday sun. Trios formed with bashers and butterflies alike, trying to find common ground. It totally worked. Kevin Shea and I played a spastic duel under some palm trees while little kids stood staring. Drummers played on roofs. Drummers played with huddles of middle eastern men crammed in around them taking photos with their phones, smiling. Cops waved. A quiet man invited me back to his apartments to “rest”(it will only take 10 minutes). We made sure to Never Ever play over the prayers amplified through various loudspeakers 5 times a day calling for the pious to enter the Mosques. A full throated drone of voice that welled up around you transforming a simple dusty street to a mystical pathway. The full 10 drummer group began its first night more of a clown troop in the street with less drumming and more dancing or abstract soundmaking but tightened up over the next two days into a unit that could listen as well as it lashed out. It was rad. I learned so much. I ate so much. I bought a couple of really pretty scarves. I felt a camplike bonding and sadness toward my drumming companions as the week came to a close and one by one they slipped off to Dubai and the long flight home.
The taxi driver who drove me to the airport at the start of my neck breaking 22 hour return trip to Providence RI talked about his life in the UAE. According to him(and Wikipedia) about 10 percent of the population is Emiratis. The rest, like him, are from other places, and can never become citizens. He says he will never be able to bring his family. He was from Bangladesh and had not seen his wife and children in 5 years. He worked 15 hour days and mailed all the money back. I tipped him 30 Dirham. The equivalent of about 8 dollars for the 30 minute trip. 30 Dirhams seemed like a good tip, but it was nothing really. I really gave him nothing. This one man, one of a huge group of people living within the UAE with no real power. That was the hint of discontent. Mostly it was smiles, waves, and introductions to men, men and more men. Men hanging out in lots in the evenings after prayer smoking cigarettes, watching, curious. I wonder if they really get their own shoes back after leaving the Mosque. It’s hard to believe they do, but I guess with faith the shoes will fit.