See How Omani Musicians Are Making Their Voices Heard

26 Sep 2019
POSTED BY Alvin Thomas

The world of popular music is a fickle one. Mediocrity is no barrier to megastardom while the truly talented can struggle to get their voices heard, even in a YouTube era. While the Sultanate’s finest have yet to find a foothold on the global stage, some are as focused and as gifted as their Western counterparts, as Team Y finds out.

The pain of being a struggling musician can reverberate through their voice and music.

This is the cornerstone of the global music industry. It’s a ruthless field that can make or break an individual. But whether the artist decides to bounce back or not with content is what drives the pop-culture industry to greater heights.

Perhaps this is slowly where Oman’s pop music is heading towards; with a handful of artists pounding on the doors to fame, hoping for a response.

While fame and fortune lies at one end, the flipside can be undermining. But that hasn’t stopped the youth from trying.

Nine months ago, on a lowly December evening, Omani singer ‘Akram’ Masruri and producer Firas ‘Viirgo’ al Bakri sowed their hard work – a music video titled, ‘Phantom’s Intro’ – on YouTube.

Filled with heavy R&B nuances, intimate lyrics, and showcasing vocal talents, the song is one of their best works yet. They subsequently released 10 more English tracks under the ‘Akram x Viirgo’ label, praying for the attention they deserve.

While their videos have slowly received recognition – with a few thousand views (3,500 at the time of publishing) to mark their efforts – the rewards are still far beyond what artists from other markets would receive.

“We need a change here. And we will try to be a part of that change,” remarks Akram in an interview at the Base in Al Khoud with Y Magazine.

Viirgo (pictured with mic) and Akram at the launch of their documentary

He is talking during the screening event of their documentary, which highlights the struggles they have faced while making music.

“Music is a very important part of our lives, and it’s about time we give musicians a chance to shine in the mainstream media.

“This is why we came together to create a documentary while making our music. We wanted to show people what goes into creating an English album in the Middle East from the ground up.

“We’re also unknowns here trying to find our come-up, and we’re trying to show the youth how two complete strangers got together and created an album.”

Pop itself is a new notion in Oman, and as Akram says, there’s an identity crisis among musicians, which could be the reason why a lot of their work goes unrecognised by the public.

But, as history teaches us, the very underlying roots of pop-culture – or popular culture – is a changing identity to keep in line with the modern trends, be it in the field of music, art, fashion, and even movies.

Pop-culture when relating to music forms the core of ‘pop music’.

As explained by The Cambridge Companion to Rock and Pop – a study published by the Cambridge University – pop music is a genre that originated in its modern form in the United States and United Kingdom in the mid-1950s.

This has since spread worldwide, with music being described as ‘pop’, if it appears in the charts. The study shows that pop music often borrows elements from other styles such as urban, dance, rock, Latin, and country; nonetheless, there are many core elements that define pop music.

Identifying factors include generally short to medium-length songs written in a basic format (often the verse-chorus structure), as well as the common use of repeated choruses, hooks and bridges.

As Akram and his partner Viirgo’s album relies heavily on pop elements, their work classifies as pop music from Oman – and this is opening fresh avenues that were once unknown, as Oman has long remained rooted to its heritage and culture, thereby appreciating traditional forms of music.

Ahmed al Wahaibi, a music teacher based in Oman, is quite critical of how we treat pop artists in Oman. He says: “Traditional music has had a strong place in the hearts of the citizens, and international music from parts of India, Pakistan, Zanzibar and Tanzania.

“It’s probably the first time people are talking about this matter in the country. But, I’m all for any form of music – whether it’s R&B, blues, jazz or pop. Oman is predominantly heavy on music such as Aazi, Bara’a and Maydan.

“But, there’s a lack of exposure for artists here, and that can be due to the pace at which we’re adopting English music. The youth is into more Western and international music such as Pop and Hip Hop, but you don’t see many people taking the initiative to create things locally.

“This is probably why some of those who do don’t get the recognition they deserve,” he says.

While failing to knock on doors and creating a legacy for themselves is a part of the problem, there could be bigger trouble stemming from accepting the music.

Salim Ghalib

At least that’s what Omani rapper Salim Ghalib says he has struggled with for the past decade or so.

Having been active for long, the 35-year-old rapper is yet to find local success, even if his music has transcended internationally. His music is heavily inspired by artists such as Nas, Jay Z, 2Pac and Dr. Dre from the US.

The singer of the hit single, ‘Shine’, tells us: “It’s very difficult to break into the music industry in Oman because it’s still in its early stages. There isn’t a pop market here, unless the music comes in from established markets such as the US, UK, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey.

“There isn’t any real Omani name that has gone global, except for Salah al Zadjali. But, we all are trying to change that. On a positive note, Oman is accepting of great music and it has superb tastes.

“But, when it comes to local musicians of any genres, you don’t see one making it to great heights like they do from the West, or from India and so on. If you think about it, there’s no one who has broken beyond a certain point and become an international star from Oman.”

Salim’s concerns are in line with those of Akram and Firas – but neither of them can pinpoint why the struggle is beyond their control. A quick research shows us the biggest international music name Oman has created in the pop music industry is Salah al Zadjali, a classical and pop singer; and Sham Maskari, an Omani Arabic rapper.

It’s also worth noting that this means artists must hold full-time jobs to sustain themselves.

For instance, both Salim and Akram hold full-time jobs in Oman, and must record in their free time after work.

Meanwhile, Firas boldly claims he makes money selling his beats online to singers – though, he adds that making ends meet is a struggle as his income is limited.

As Akram says: “Being a musician in Oman right now means you need to have a steady income to support yourself. You’ll need support from your family too. Otherwise, it’s practically impossible to sustain yourself and push the music you like outside.

Despite their minor success, Akram and Firas’ project was completed in a makeshift studio at their home. They call their album a ‘DIY (do-it-yourself) project’.

Shabib al Zadjali, 27, an Omani music student at the Yale School of Music, chimes in: “Oman is not devoid of musicians or music. There have always been great singers and producers within the country.

Haitham Rafi

“Some of these talented singers – like Haitham Rafi – choose to sing covers while others try to script their own music. That’s where artists like Akram Masruri, Ghazi al Balushi, Sham Maskari and Salim Ghalib come into play; they’re trying to make a new industry in Oman by showing the youth that it’s possible to create your own signature and style.

“Things won’t change overnight. One of the reasons why pop music doesn’t do very well in Oman is because of the population count. The math is simple: the more the people, the more chances you have of getting a hit out and recognised.

He says: “Oman has somewhere around 4.7 million people currently, and the ratio of Omanis to expats is somewhere around 52 to 48 per cent. Pop artists focus on both segments of the audience, as opposed to local singers to cater to the Omani audience.

“The latter will be a sure win as they already have a strong ground to showcase their music. But it’s the new-age musicians who will struggle as several singers fail to find an identity, whether it’s with their voice, style or lyrics.”

It’s a statement with which Akram concurs.

“What is our sound? What is our product? What is our style? That is a struggle, because once you put an identity out, people expect that from you consistently. But, then you need to know how to balance that identity and grow as an artist at the same time.

“And being consistent all the time isn’t what music is all about. You need to adapt, learn and do the best you can lyrically and instrumentally.”

With the nation’s roots running deep with influences from Zanzibar and Tanzania, and from Asian countries such as India and Pakistan, the Sultanate has long been touted as a multi-cultural nation. 

And with that comes a strong love for music. But as Shabib says: “You cannot force a new genre of music to someone and expect them to like it. Take for instance the coastal side of Oman like Muttrah. Their music is inspired from South-Asian music, while the Sharqiyah region of the pond is heavily inspired by songs sung by sailors.

“And then we have a crowd in Oman with influences from Africa. They’re more inclined to genres such as pop, rap, hip hop and R&B. And many young people embrace that and carry the torch in Oman.”

That said, the youth is on a mission to change the face of music in Oman – and they’re using social media to set their ideas in motion.

Photo credit: Ghazi al Balushi

Moreover, with singer Ghazi al Balushi founding the ‘Just Jam Sessions’ – a travelling platform promoting poets and musicians with the hopes of developing the local art scene; and young entrepreneurs such as Aisha al Bakry paving the path for young musicians by offering them publicity and support, there’s enough evidence to conclude that the future of music in Oman is bright.

Addressing the 100-odd guests at their documentary screening event, Firas says: “It’s hard to say where our journey will end. But, what I can say is that ours has begun. We all are the future of the country, and together we will create something big.”

His words are applauded, before a hip hop song takes over the speakers.

But just as they close for the night, we catch hold of Firas to ask him if he truly believes that their struggles as musicians will come to an end. To that he says: “It will take some time to change this situation we’re in and I can’t see that changing overnight.

“But, if we can change one person’s mind with this documentary, that will be worth it. And I can assure you, there’s no one more motivated than a struggling artist.”

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