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Phantom of Riyadh

One of the things I like about going to London as a tourist is the possibility of seeing a West-end musical show. I’ve been fortunate to see some of the better shows of recent times, including Les Miserables, Starlight Express and We Will Rock You. That’s something I’ve missed living in KSA, but no longer! We managed to get tickets for the opening night of the touring company’s Phantom of the Opera in Riyadh. But, there isn’t a proper theatre that I’m aware of in the city. So the Royal Commission for Riyadh City (RCRC) have hired one in. They have constructed a huge tent near to the Granada Mall, measuring - by using Google Earth - 100m x 60m. 

Inside the roof is very high, possibly 12m from the floor. At one end the huge stage is raised, with an orchestra pit in front, then the auditorium raised again and sloping upwards towards the rear. There is no circle or balcony, the stalls just head back and back. The tickets are sold in 4 levels, Silver, Gold, Platinum and Royal. The seats becoming more expensive the further forward you get. S, G and P seats are large, comfy, modern cinema style with acres of legroom. The Royal seats are loose armchairs with low tables, laid out in the manner of a desert tent.


Is it an aircraft hangar? No, its a pop-up theatre!

The show was good and professional the sets were well constructed and imaginative, however I found the sound quality disappointing. Although the singers and musicians were amplified, the sheer size of the tent and the thin walls meant that there was no capture of sound. And also, annoyingly, in quieter passages the sound of the Riyadh traffic could be heard as a background buzz or worse if horns blared or tyres screeched. 


10 minutes to curtain-up.

On the plus side, the audience were pretty well behaved. We had received an email early on the day of the performance warning us to be there 30 minutes before curtain-up, and that latecomers would only be admitted at a suitable point of the proceedings. This was good, and had the effect of ensuring that at least 60% of the audience was seated. The rest trickled in over the next hour or so, in the way that is typically Saudi. The ushers were quite efficient and kept disturbances to a minimum. I compare this to the first international show we saw in KSA, the “Blue Man Group” in September 2017. This was a complete rabble with free-range Saudis wandering all over the place throughout the show, calling to each other, using their phones and blocking peoples’ views as the act valiantly tried to keep the show going. We have come a long way in 6 years.


"Royal" seats at the front.

But that’s not the only show in town. The Arab News online newspaper reports on a surprising genre of music making an appearance in Riyadh…

Saudi heavy metal bands will be in the spotlight at the upcoming XP Music Futures conference, which will be held in Riyadh’s JAX district Dec. 7-9. This year, XP will feature heavy metal bands for the first time — a sign that the Kingdom’s music industry is becoming more inclusive. The rock and metal bands performing this year come from Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern Province, as well as elsewhere in the country.

“I dream of giving Saudi metal bands equal opportunities to be promoted on all platforms, from major festivals to cultural events and entertainment seasons. We want to promote them so that it becomes normal for metal bands to participate in local showcases, be on the radio and TV, and give interviews about their unique art without being perceived as strange,” said Gigi Arabia, CEO of the promoter Heavy Arabia Entertainment, which was founded in 2021 with the goal of becoming the go-to artist management and heavy metal promotion company in Saudi Arabia.

Among other things, Heavy Arabia Entertainment runs workshops for metal enthusiasts. The first was given by Finnish music producer Jaani Peuhu in Riyadh, with 20 students in attendance, including producers, bands, and solo artists. They left with advice for producing high-quality albums using easily accessible equipment and at minimal cost. Asim Searah, who has over 15 years of experience teaching guitar, also conducted a guitar workshop in Jeddah. “Many Saudi bands aspire to sound like big bands like Metallica, but the workshop taught them how to develop their own sound by incorporating elements from Saudi culture,” Arabia noted. “As a result, the bands were eventually able to use traditional instruments and vocal elements from Saudi culture in writing an intro to a song that was both metal and, obviously, Saudi.”

Aside from organizing local gigs, the company also managed the first regional tour for the Saudi metal band Dusk. “It’s not common for a Saudi metal band to tour, but we managed to have five successful dates,” Arabia said. “We’ve also helped promote many local releases and sponsored Wasted Land to play at a festival in Dubai.” Her company, she explained, “is focused on pushing Saudi content further. Therefore, we are organizing workshops; they always inspire bands to go back to the studio and produce more music because they offer access to professionals who can guide them, help them, and give them honest feedback. We also give them platforms to play and secure spots for them in both local and international festivals.”

The Saudi Ministry of Culture’s Music Commission is also mindful of the needs of companies like Heavy Arabia Entertainment and provides much-needed support and structure. “In a recent networking event (organized) by the Music Commission, Heavy Arabia paired up with a record label from the UK called Better Noise,” Arabia said. “The goal was to exchange expertise and explore ways to collaborate.”

The Heavy Arabia Entertainment founder believes there is a bright future for metal in the Kingdom, and said that the company will soon start inviting established metal artists for “cultural visits” to “promote Saudi Arabia as a primary destination for established international artists to consider when they go on tour.” She added: “I believe that Saudi Arabia will soon become a hotspot for metal fans, much like the Nordic countries are. We already host the biggest EDM festival in the region, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t have one for metal. The sky is not even the limit anymore for us Saudis. We dream and we achieve.”


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