The sound of Saudi Arabia is changing at breakneck speed, and an MTSU professor is an eyewitness to it all.
With help from Department of Recording Industry chair and Grammy Award-nominated sound engineer John Merchant, history professor Sean Foley organized a concert and academic symposium on the emerging independent music scene in Saudi Arabia.
The event took place at Hayy Jameel Cultural Center in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in March.
A chance meeting with Raghad, a Saudi disc jockey who uses only her first name professionally, at the airport in Jeddah led to her inclusion in the event.
Merchant managed the audio, and Raghad performed between sets.
Singer-songwriter Ghada Sheri; Moe Abdo, a Sudanese musician who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia; R&B artist Ahmed Amin; and singer Hamza Hawsawi, winner of the 2015 “X-Factor Middle East” competition, were the entertainers.
“Saudi Arabia has a conservative religious tradition and, for a variety of reasons, music was not as much a part of public space … until the last couple of years,” Foley said. “It is moving very, very quickly.”
In fact, Foley said he gets the feeling that this musical transformation is moving so quickly that his essays and research papers could become outdated by the time they are published.
Foley is the author of “Changing Saudi Arabia: Art, Culture and Society in the Kingdom.” He has written about modern changes in Saudi culture for years, including a July 2021 article published by The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington that mentioned Wall of Sound, the first independent music label in the kingdom.
The article, which was translated into Arabic, got the attention of a grant funder who was willing to back the concert and symposium, as well as a paper providing an overall assessment of the burgeoning contemporary music scene in Saudi Arabia.
Raghad said this transformation is happening not only with the permission of the monarchy but also with its resources. A comprehensive reform program called “Vision 2030“, under the direction of 36-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, includes the arts, as well as economic development, women’s rights and cultural heritage preservation.
“Our government has been giving us (courses) for music production, sound engineering, DJ skills and vocal engineering,” Raghad said. “I graduated from one of them, and, after I finished, I continued (with) my passion.”
The day after the concert, Foley hosted a small academic symposium with 20 to 30 selected participants who included musicians, lawyers and concert schedulers. They discussed copyright issues, personal experiences and how musicians are paid.
“We set them up in a circle … to promote discussion but also to make it seem like a cultural institution that’s very important to the kingdom, called the majlis,” Foley said.
“You see a majlis in almost every house in the kingdom. You see them in public places. It’s a place where people gather and talk.”
Foley said another major topic of discussion is the rapidly developing inclusion of music education
“Music is, for the first time in many, many years, being integrated into the curriculum,” Foley said. “People are dying for music education, both online and in person.”
“It was very amazing to me to be a part of a job that includes also my culture and my country and my city,” Raghad said.
As for the possibility of making the concert an annual event, Foley is optimistic.
“My impression is this is only the beginning,” Foley said.
To hear some of Raghad’s work, go to https://soundcloud.com/rhythmbyrag. Foley’s 2021 article on contemporary music in the Arab Gulf States is available to read here. Arab News’ coverage of the Jeddah concert is available to read here.
— Gina K. Logue (firstname.lastname@example.org)