Ala Ghawas: Breaking out of Bahrain

We get to know singer-songwriter behind hit album Armor

Interview

As one of the island’s best known musicians celebrates the release of his album being rolled out across the region, we sat down with the Bahraini singer-songwriter.

The local release of Ala Ghawas’ debut album Armor at the tail end of 2013 was a triumph of more than just good music. It was a triumph of artistic drive, with the Bahraini national one of very few homegrown talents to work towards a professional album release. It was a triumph of open-mindedness, when scores of fans turned up for a free, state-backed gig at Bahrain Fort on January 30. And it was a triumph for the island’s whole creative scene when the album topped the Virgin Megastores chart for three weeks straight.

And now, with news the record is being rolled out to record stores across the Gulf, and with 32-year-old Ghawas planning gigs in Europe, it looks to be a triumph for the whole region, too. We thought it was time to find out more about the island’s newest notable export.

Let’s start at the beginning, how did your musical career begin?
I started in 2006 in Boston. I was doing a Master’s [degree] in advertising but I’d always been interested in music. I started writing some songs and decided maybe I should bring them all together on a record – which was Hums (2007) – and the feedback was amazing. Then I did another EP in 2008, Whispers, and Screams in 2009. Everything was home produced, just focusing on good songs.

Where did last year’s Armor, come from?
In 2013 I took it to the next level. I rented a studio, and the difference is that it wasn’t just me this time, I collaborated with a band and had a mastering engineer, a mixing engineer, everything.

Where do you get your inspiration from, lyrically?
When I started it was all about my personal experiences – my childhood, some romantic tunes – but as I grew older I became less interested in my world and more interested in the world around me. I was inspired by things that happen to people, friends, family, and I was very much influenced by what happened in Bahrain in 2011, which was reflected in Armor.

When did you start playing music?
I started pretty early. The first instrument I picked up was an accordion – very weird. That was when I was eight, and after three years I moved to keyboard, and then to piano. I picked up guitar pretty late – 21 – I don’t consider myself a guitar player.

So what next?
I invested so much in this record, it’s my only LP, I want to promote it more and more. I don’t want to go home and write more songs, I want to take these as far as I can. I’m looking at gigs in Dubai [UAE], Beirut [Lebanon] and Manchester [UK].

Tell us about the band you perform live with, Likwid.
They are my friends. We grew up together, I’ve known them all along, but we became very close recently. They’re four amazing instrumentalists, anyone in Bahrain will tell you they’re the biggest band here. They’re working on their first album, which will hopefully be released by the end of the year, and I’ll be involved in that for sure. They come up with the music, I add lyrics, and we just have fun creating.

How healthy is the Bahrain music scene generally?
We have this culture of just playing covers and just enjoying playing music. I’m not saying I’m the best, but I don’t know a lot of people focused on making their own material and putting an album out there. It’s really unfortunate.

What remedy would you prescribe?
It needs a lot. I don’t think it’s matured yet. We have talented artists, but we don’t have the facilities. Bahrain is very small: it’s not a country, it’s a community. It’s very hard for an artist to be dependent on music – to ‘make it’ you have to go outside. There’s a lot of potential, but it needs more support, more venues and more stages.
Armor is available in Virgin Megastores now. www.alaghawas.com

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