Playing the Pearl

Amelia Robinson Issue: Section:

I never imagined myself playing ukulele.
I never imagined myself getting paid to play ukulele.
I never imagined myself getting paid to play ukulele on a man-made island in Qatar.

The ukulele fell into my lap in my early twenties thanks to a good friend, Reggie Wingnutz, a super-duper 60’s rock star who I met at the Ukulele Cabaret in NYC.  At the time I had left a secure job and was fumbling to find my purpose in life (still am, by the way) and develop as a musician.  With a ukulele in hand, I trekked across Europe, ventured out to bumblef*&ck Kazakhstan and made my pilgrimage to the holy land of Israel.  Eventually, London’s hot music scene roped me in, and I eventually moved across the pond to pursue a career in composition.  After a year and a half of hustling, I landed an audition and found myself escaping the horrid English winter to join the roster of street performers on the boardwalk of The Pearl, Qatar.

The Pearl Qatar is a multi-billion dollar development in Doha, Qatar off the Arabian Peninsula.  This artificial island is similar to that of the Palm Tree in Dubai with the intention to be completely self-contained: adorned with lavish high-rise apartments, a supermarket, schools, hospital, etc.  You never have to leave!  When I was there last year it was truly a sight to see, especially at sunset during the winter months as the Qataris finished their fourth prayer of the day and twenty western artists and musicians took their places in front of a line of luxury designer retail shops like Stella McCartney, Diesel, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.  Our job was to play music and entertain trickles of ex-pats and locals that walked and dined on the boardwalk all night…every night…for six months.

It was quite the experience, as a lot of Qatari’s have never seen live music before.  We got a lot of thumbs ups, flirty “eye” smiles from women behind their burkas, and inappropriate vocal responses from raucous kids.  Mostly, you could see the effect of our music in the children – standing there wide-eyed, jaws gaping in complete admiration.   Sometimes a small child would run up and give us a hug or kiss on the cheek.  That was cute.

There were no stages or designated performance areas on the boardwalk, and no respect for a musician’s personal space.  People would walk straight up to you, try to play your instrument and talk to you (or AT you) in the middle of a song.  Some funny things happened though - one member of our crew was playing clarinet and a few burka ladies hid behind a corner, revealed their faces and broke it down – dancing like they were at a nightclub!  After a few minutes they put themselves back together and walked away like nothing had happened! Another performer had an elderly lady in a burka and a gold mask throw money in her face to get her to stop playing! Oh dear…

I knew it was getting bad when someone asked me to play “happy music”…and I play the ukulele – ouch!  More often than not, it felt wasteful to perform my original tunes with enthusiasm to an audience who requested “Hotel California” or “Careless Whisper” on a daily basis.  We were bored, overworked, exhausted and fueled mostly by a resistance to creativity and self-expression (oh, and the money).  The upside is that I had a lot of time to practice and try out new material to my four dedicated fans – a couple from Florida, a Texan and a nice Australian ukulele teacher!  Tim Gill and I developed Peghouse Rise, a provocative duet between viola and ukulele/voice.  We are touring the world, recording an album and are excited about the prospect of our cinematic pieces hitting the big screen.

WEATHER: Qatar is sandy, hot, dusty, dry & windy– everything you’d imagine a desert to be but surprisingly also very humid.  Playing on the boardwalk daily brought its share of external environmental factors and we had to play through three sandstorms!

URBAN PLANNING: Construction is very much a part of life in Qatar, especially as an outdoor performer.  We often battled against the sound of cranes (we lost) and did our best to play in time to the beat of hammering and drills.  The Pearl is built from the ground up by a percentage of over 800,000 migrant workers in Qatar.  The western ex-pat community (enticed by the gas industry and a tax-free income) makes up 1/3 of the population and they pretty much stay in their own bubble (which consists of a car, the W hotel bar and iron-gated compounds).  However, all of the ex-pats we met who came to the Pearl were an openly appreciative audience; friendly, inquisitive and willing to share their stories.

FAMILY LIFE: The Qatari’s keep tight within their family and community, so there was not much of an opportunity to break into their group or hang out in a tent with them drinking…tea.  I did manage to make friends with a young Qatari lady who wrote a very flattering article about me for her University journalism course.  She was obsessed with the flower I wore in my hair, and her writing was equally botanical.  One day over a Jasmine tea, we approached the reason for why she dons a burka and she referenced the influence of her mother who said that ‘you wouldn’t want to show the whole world your family jewels, would you?’.  

DOWN TIME:  Everyone in Qatar is there to make money (or, in the Qatari’s case, to get money), so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for nightlife, entertainment, or any extra-curricular activity for that matter!  As an outsider, you have to make your own fun, and there’s not much else to do on a weekend but visit a mall and spend half the money you spend all your time making.

THE QATARIS:  Qataris themselves are a beautiful, elegant people to watch. They glide along in groups of at least 3 or more; men together in all white robes and women separately, adorned in exquisitely hand embroidered jeweled black traditional robes called abayas. Men bling it up by flaunting diamond studded cuff links paired with glitzy gold massive watches, and wear different “hairstyles” with their headscarves; my favorite being “the cobra”. The women have the most piercing black beautiful eyes you’ve ever seen. They use so much make up, they must go through one kohl pencil a week! And then there are the shoes; stilletos like you have never seen them before. We’re talking hot pink, diamonds, straps galore...with 7-inch heels – these girls defy gravity! Some of the male performers developed a foot fetish and I went out and bought outrageous shoes!

HOW THINGS GET DONE: It takes time.  Time is “elastic” there. Basically, only three people have the power to make any decision, so you spend most of your time waiting for tomorrow when the answer may or may not come. If you’re lucky to even get an answer, it’ll be vague, contradicting, and always followed by ‘nShallah’ (hope in Allah).  This was the first time a live music project this large was put into practice on The Pearl and we encountered many “challenges”, so it took a while for everything to come together.

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