Two vinyl-only labels are breathing life into the sparser-than-sparse independent music scene of the Arabian Gulf: Ark to Ashes, founded in Abu Dhabi, and Bedouin Records, based in Dubai, form part of a budding community, which prefers their regional sounds bold and cerebral. Internationally, their rarefied stance and genre-melding work have also not gone unnoticed, resulting in collaborations with like-minded DJs and producers from Tokyo to New York and Berlin.
Ark to Ashes
Back in 2013, when Cairo-born, Abu Dhabi-raised DJ and producer Shadi Megallaa returned to Abu Dhabi after living in New York for a couple of years, he quickly established himself as a regular of Dubai’s embryonic underground club-scape, but was frustrated by Abu Dhabi's utter lack of outlets for independent electronic music. Megallaa decided something needed to be done. That something was to launch his own label.
With three releases of dub-inflected beats now under its belt, Ark to Ashes has been Megallaa's creative outlet ever since. The label was named in honour of the Black Ark, the recording studio used by godfather of dub and reggae Lee “Scratch” Perry, which, as legend has it, Perry turned to ashes in 1979 to banish negative influences and unwanted hangers-on.
Megallaa is deeply influenced by 1990s tech-house from the UK by the likes of Rhythm & Sound and the Tyrant sound system. “That’s the music I loved and I couldn’t find it anymore,” he says. “I would DJ and go back to playing these old records and they sounded great, but no one else was playing them.”
Favouring original tracks over remixes and word-of-mouth over marketing campaigns, the label’s limited 300-copy releases are pressed in London by Disc Solutions and distributed by Juno and Phonica. Apart from working on new releases for Ark to Ashes, Megallaa is also about to launch The Flipside, which will be the UAE's (maybe even the GCC's) only fully independent vinyl record store.
Label founder Salem Rashid grew up in Athens and lived in London for years before returning to his Dubai roots to found Bedouin Records, in 2014. The imprint's first release, BDN001, garnered a review in Fact Magazine, equally gushing and startled, including this memorable line:
"If someone sends us a 12” saying it’s the first release on their new label which is “based in the desert” and tells us the music is “garbed in lamentation”, then yes, we’re interested.
Bedouin tracks a similarly non-commercial path as Ark to Ashes, but the label’s sound is more rebel stronghold than block party. Rashid does no promotion and cultivates an almost secretive aura. With obsessive attention to detail and a keen eye for visuals, Rashid mixes and matches international talent, whipping up new releases at a relentless pace: to date, the label has dropped 12, not counting three cassettes he collaborated on for Bastakiya Tapes. Pressed in Germany and distributed by indie record retail institution Honest Jon's, Bedouin records have so far mostly sold in Berlin, Tokyo and London.
Bedouin’s stark sounds and visuals reflect contrasting sensibilities: tribal and globalized, tight and expansive. There is a lot of darkness and drone going on in these records, something Rashid puts down to influences drawn from early techno and hip hop. Although he wouldn't classify his work as political, he does refer to a need to "facilitate the gospel of originators" and "protect creative beings from systematic oppression".
For now, releases by both labels are only available online (slight caveat: many are out of stock and shipping can take more than a month). Once The Flip Side finally opens, of course, we can all look forward to being able to shop for such local gems the good old analogue way - ambling into a record store and browsing at leisure. That will be the day.