"This is the only sound we know how to make".
I'm on the line with Kamal Rasool and Charles Prest from five-piece outfit Flamingods. Our conversation has been circling around the issue of the what genre their music belongs to, throwing out different reference points – the 50s, the 60s, psychedelic exotica – when Kamal finally hits on it.
"This the only sound we know how to make, and it's the only sound we want to make. We have all these different influences, but we don't necessarily want our music to sound like any one thing. The only sound on our records is the stuff that's in our head. That's the stuff we put onto paper and make into records. It happens naturally".
As part of their ongoing exploration of the Dubai music scene, AXE are showcasing some of the brightest emerging talent to come out of the region in their 'Bring the Quiet - The Dubai Underground' film. Which is why I'm talking to Flamingods, who've been hand-picked by AXE as one of the hottest exports to come out of Dubai today.
Founded in 2009 by Kamal Rasool in Bahrain, Flamingods would probably be filed under "ethnic pop" if people still bought physical records anymore. But the narrowness of this definition would do them an injustice. The band is obsessed with cultural exploration, taking inspiration from the extensive collection of instruments they've amassed from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
This sense of geography is reflected in the band itself, which is split between continents – Rasool and Prest are based in Dubai full time, whilst fellow members Karthik Poduval, Craig Doporto and Sam Rowe live in the UK.
Ahead of the release of their third album, VICE caught up with Rasool and Prest on the phone from Dubai.
VICE: Hi guys! Thanks for talking to me. Tell me about the influences for your new record?
Kamal: We're such cultural nerds. We love reading and watching things and taking it all in. We're kind of hermits really, we just geek out on all the stuff over here in Dubai. On our new record we're channeling a genre called exotica that was popular in the fifties. It's about these amazing musicians putting together instruments to heighten the imagery of faraway lands and mystical concepts. That kind of daydream aspect of it really appealed to us and mixed that in with our own psychedelic tendencies. The new record is meant to be this journey through the jungle in search of enlightenment, with a lot of different inspirations along the way.
Your sound is heavily influenced by 50s exotica and 60s psychedelia, but your approach is so modern. Like you create music across time zones and continents. How do you make a record when the band isn't even in the same country most of the time?
Kamal: It's a little hard! [Laughs]. A lot of communicating online and sending stuff back and forth. It's not ideal at all really. But it definitely shaped our last recording and opened us up to new, different methods of doing things.
Charles: Lots of emails back and forth, lots of Skype sessions. It would be a lot easier if we were all together obviously, but we've got good at making the most of a situation like this. But we see ourselves as cultural nomads anyway. We grew up in Bahrain but never saw it as our home, we never felt we were from one place in particular.
I suppose that makes it better when you get to perform together?
Kamal: Yeah, absolutely. We don't do any full shows without the band being there. Glastonbury this year was really fun, one of my favourite performances ever. We actually played three different stages so we got three very different experiences out of the festival. One of our performances was in this boat stage called HMS Sweet Charity; they put on this amazing tropical experience with lots of weird different acts like ancient Egyptian dancers and stuff. I think Charles went to a dating show too? [Laughs].
Charles: Yeah I did, they had this dating show that was all choreographed beforehand so everyone was in on it apart from the audience members! It was really outrageous – like Blind Date or something.
That sounds pretty crazy. I watched some of the Glastonbury footage on YouTube and I didn't even recognise half of the instruments you guys were playing – where do you find them all?
Kamal: There's this museum in Dubai we love – it has all these different cultural artifacts for sale, like Indonesian Gamelan instruments and stuff. We pick them up and learn our own way of playing the instruments through trial and error – it's important not to fully rip off another culture's traditional sound but rather adjust it to what we know and explore different ways of doing that.
Do you ever feel like there's a risk of cultural appropriation or are you more about paying homage to all these different influences?
Kamal: Yeah, so the whole cultural appropriation thing is a funny one. One of the reasons we can get away with integrating all these cultures into our music is because there are so many nationalities in the band. I'm half Turkish, half Arabic, so I explore both of those cultures and all their wonderful sounds. Charles is half Jamaican, half Nigerian. Craig's half Spanish, Karthik's Indian. Part of what we do is explore all our cultural pasts and understand all of the different sounds that have come from these different areas and put that into our music.
Tell me about Dubai – what's the music scene like out there? Is it all just luxury hotels and lounge music?
Kamal: Dubai's such a melting pot; there are so many different cultures that live here. All these people who've come here for work or a better way of life have also brought their food, their culture, their music, so in the older parts of town you get a lot of really interesting bars and music venues where these traditional bands are playing this amazing music. There's this Nepalese bar we love –
Charles: [Interjects] - it's got this amazing kind of cabaret going on...
Kamal: [Laughs] Yeah so in between the band playing songs they do this kind of cabaret thing with women and it gets kind of bizarre...like one time they tried to add this comedic vibe to the cabaret...[Both laugh]. We go there all the time but they only did it once, this guy came on stage and pretended to take a shit. It was pretty bizarre! We enjoyed it but they never did it again after that.
That does not fit in with the Dubai I had in my head at all.
Kamal: I'm really hoping people realise that Dubai is much more diverse than people make it out to be in the mainstream media. It's definitely split between the new side and the old side.
Charles: There's more to it than people think – I've only been here for a year, and I've already discovered so much since being here in that time, and I'm still discovering more. There's a whole other world in the older part of town that you can discover.
Kamal: It's a confusing place, I've been here three years now and I'm only now have a limited understanding of what this place is and everything that's going on, because it is a bit of a head-fuck. But it's beautiful at the same time.
What aspect of it is a head-fuck? Like, the fact that Dubai didn't exist until recently?
Kamal: Yeah, it's nuts. You can go on this website called Dubai As It Used To Be – it's run by this guy who's lived here from the 1940s. And he's documented all the changes that Dubai's been through, and how much of that change came like fifteen, twenty years ago. It's insane; they literally built this city from sand. It's crazy.
Do you feel like your music reflects that tension between old and new also? You create music across two countries using all this modern technology, but you're influenced by all these older sounds. Kind of like how Dubai is this ultra-modern city with all these historic influences?
Kamal: Yeah, absolutely. We make music with traditional instruments, collected from different places all over the world. But we mix in that newer, electronic sound, too. These are all these different things we've chosen to have an interest in. At our heart we're all about mixing the old and the new.
Learn more about Flamingods and the Dubai music scene by watching 'Bring the Quiet - The Dubai Underground', presented by AXE.
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