Arqam Al Abri is a uniquely talented individual in a community filled with talented individuals. His full, soulful style, inspired by his musical idols – who include the incomprable Sam Cooke and Lauryn Hill – draws you in and immerses you in a rich musical world, one song at a time.
Creativity Undefined spoke with Arqam about his musical journey, following your life’s purpose, and finding a ‘home’ for the UAE’s indie music community.
Tell us about your creative journey. How has your style evolved until today?
Singing has always been a part of my life, however singing in public is relatively new to me. It’s become a need in a junction of my life where I needed to focus on things I believed in, and music has always been a big part of my life. I had to start myself off at open mics to help build my confidence, and especially find my voice. It’s been a gradual build from there to understanding more about music and myself. Starting to play the guitar has also been a beautiful and fun evolution.
What was the first instrument that you learnt to play? Why?
The first instrument I played was the guitar. I’ve always wanted [to] pick the guitar up because of its versatility. Also helps with song writing.
What inspired you to pick up your first guitar? What was the first song you learnt to play on it? Why?
I had been doing open mics and felt that I always had to rely on other musicians to play the guitar for me. It made sense for me to start [being] able to play [the] guitar for myself in case there weren’t any musicians around that I knew or [who] knew my songs. Also, [I] really wanted to explore making my own music, [and] guitar really helped with this. The first song I learned to play was “Hallelujah”. The song moves me, never in my wildest dream did I think I could sing it, let alone play it. Now I can do both and I’m super grateful for that.
How many other instruments do you play? Is there one that you hope to start playing? Which one and why?
To be honest, I play just the guitar, and even that I would say I’ve still got a long way to go with it. I dabble with the piano a little but would love to be able to master this instrument. [I] would also love to learn the acoustic drums or some other percussion.
Looking back, what was your greatest achievement and your greatest challenge? Why?
My greatest achievement pretty much led to my greatest challenge! I was doing relatively well in the corporate world that I had been in for a good 13 years, but was growing disillusioned with my purpose there and where I need to be in 10-20 years. [I] started to wonder if perhaps my “career” was a distraction from being the real me. Decided [that] time and life [are] short and if I was going to do something, it would have to be something that puts my body and soul at ease. Music wasn’t my first option but it came about by doing things I always wanted to but didn’t pursue.
Thankfully my endeavor into music and its development went hand in hand with developing as a person. The journey has been a blessing. The greatest challenge came about by trying to figure out how to bring in some funds, especially since [COVID19], and maintain [that] as a musician. It’s been a matter of separating my needs from my wants and focusing on the bigger picture.
Is there anything that you would’ve done differently or wished had happened differently? What? Why?
Not at all. Everything that I’ve been through, every decision I’ve made, has made me who I am today. Wouldn’t want to be any one else.
You have a wonderfully rich voice and amazing soulful style. Was that a deliberate choice from the start or was it the result of your artistic evolution?
Thank you so much! I’ve always been into soul music, or songs that were held up by powerful voices, I built my music around that.
Tell us more about “Towards The Light”. What inspired it? How was your experience from concept to complete record?
The song is about the fragility of life. I imagined it through the song Towards the Light, its been pivotal in my mission to be the best human being I can. The song explores that aspect of teetering into the unknown and the ephipany that comes with it. Life flashing before your eyes as it were. Its meant to be hopeful and insightful – “Did time ever tell you? Or did it pass you by? ‘Hold on to those you love, you’ll eventually know why’”. Those were actually the first lines I wrote and the rest of the song came so naturally. I then got my brother Igor Ivanovic (@bu_oleg) to turn the chords into a full song and he absolutely killed it. Then we were looking for a female vocalist and were blessed to find Sara Cavic (@sara_17_music) who inbued the song with her light. Finally my boy ils Make Mills (@filsmakemills) came in and mixed and mastered it to the polished gem that it is.
Are you working on another single or album? If yes, can you tell us more? If no, why?
Yes I am, Im working on a collab track with my boy SQ (@s.q.music). It’s a song called “All I’ve been” – out on the 12th of August! It’s a song about our musical journey and the internal conflict we go through to get there.
We noticed that your performances are all in English. Have you considered performing in Arabic? Why?
Most def. That is something I am working on. As an Emirati/Omani national I should be able to represent my art in my language as well. Work in progress.
Do you feel any cultural pressures as an Emirati to perform in a certain way or style? How about focusing on certain topics or avoiding them? Why?
I tell a lot of people the same things, the values I explore and share are values and principles that I learned [and] digested from my country. And now, I am trying my best to exude these values and principles in my music and my life. Tolerance, untiy, acceptance, honesty. My music reflects that.
What did your family and friends think about you embarking on a musical journey?
My sister and mother have always been very supportive. My father is a musician so he’s also pretty supportive. Friends have been more supportive over time I suppose.
What advice do you have for anyone who is just starting their artistic journey, especially Emiratis, that you wished someone had told you?
Perfect your art. Develop yourself as a person and immerse that into your music. I’d love for us to have a unique sound that appeals to the world, [I] think that stems from incorporating who we truly are into our music.
Who are your musical heroes? How have they influenced your artistic style?
Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Lauryn Hill, Marvin Gaye, Jacob Banks, Leon Bridges, Musiq Soulchild, Nas, 2Pac, [and] Bob Marley [are] some of the ones on the top of my list. All of them sing with such emotion and have amazing lyrical prowess. I strive for that.
Who would you jump at the chance to collaborate with, if given the chance? Why?
Lauryn Hill. She’s one of the last living legends in my opinion. And Stevie Wonder, of course.
It’s been over a year since the pandemic began. Do you feel that it’s affected you creatively? Why?
It had some positives tbh. I had the opportunity to stay home and work on my guitar skills [and] voice, and I came up with the track “Heavy”. I was fairly productive during the lockdown.
Are there any changes that you’ve noticed in yourself or the indie music community that emerged – or is still emerging – as a result of the pandemic? If yes, what do you think about them and do you think that they will last once we return to “normal”? If no, why?
The Indie scene here still has a long way to go. There is no “home” for music where you can witness some amazing local talent. There’s no real community, just little silos. It still has a long way to go.
The UAE government has launched several initiatives to support the arts and culture communities. What do you think of them? Do you think that they also support the indie community? Why?
There are some amazing initiatives by the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Govt. A lot of the initiatives focus on the art scene as opposed to music, but I’m optimistic that they have their eyes set on developing the music scene from a grassroots level and beyond.
What more do you think can be done to support indies here?
Radio play. It still frustrates me that most radio stations don’t play local music. Most countries set a quota as to the percentage of music on air that is local vs international. Our airwaves (English) are 99.9% international! That also plays into the idea that making music here isn’t a serious endeavor. No one can take it seriously if they won’t even play it on the radio.
What do you hope to achieve – both personally and professionally – in the next five years?
Def get more local music on the radio, and I’d love to work in a venue that [is] focused [as] a platform for local talent. But I have plans to explore taking my music abroad and represent the UAE in various festivals. Fingers crossed.