Features, OPINION - November 29, 2022

#BahrainBios: An Interview with Bahraini DJ, Producer, and Live Act, Ahmed Zainal

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The Music Comes First

A Bahraini Techno, House, and Electronica Producer, DJ, and Live Act, Ahmed Zainal has been a known face in the underbelly of the Bahraini music scene for over 20 years. Bahrain Confidential recently had the opportunity to interview the electronic maestro to know all about his journey, music, collaborations, and future. 

Tell us about yourself.

Like most musicians in Bahrain, I live a double life. During the day, I am a corporate communications professional and leader. Outside of working hours, I am a Bahraini House, Techno, and Electronica Producer, DJ, and Live Act. I have been juggling these two lives for over 20 years. It started with a CD full of pirated music-making software given to me by my friend Talal Mahmood when I was 15 years old. That same friend and I learned how to DJ using an old mixer hooked up to a desktop computer (which we lugged around to parties, including one of those old heavy monitors), playing tracks through an old media player called Winamp, and a Sony Walkman CD player.

I honed my DJ skills at university where I lived with 3 musicians (including a DJ), by learning to mix Drum ‘n’ Bass and UK Hardhouse vinyl. After I graduated, I continued to play small local parties and various gigs for fashion brands started an online radio show and released music on various labels in Dubai, Europe, and the US under the monikers QWRK and Ed Buzzerk.

Today, I am grateful to have gained enough trust in my abilities to play big shows such as MDL Beast Soundstorm 2021 in Riyadh, Boiler Room Bahrain in 2021, and in December 2022, I will be playing MDL Beast’s first Balad Beast festival in Jeddah.

What inspired you to become a music producer?

Music has been a part of my identity ever since I can remember. My parents tell me about how I would stop whatever I was doing and give my entire attention to songs when they are played. I started producing electronic music with version 2 of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software called Fruity Loops (now FL Studio), using trial and error to learn as I go. Since my father is a Disco record collector, it was natural for me to gravitate towards House and Techno, which is most of what I was listening to at the time, so that is what I produced and continue to primarily produce to this day. As a teenager, I wanted to use music for self-expression, and to be understood and seen. Today, my purpose in production is to contribute a piece of myself and what I enjoy to the recipe of a magical nightlife experience. 

Tell us about your creative process and your approach to music.

Sometimes, it begins with an idea in my head; other times, I start with a clean slate, testing out one-shot and loop samples until I combine them into a foundation I can build on. My goal is to produce a piece that moves physically and/or emotionally, mainly through rhythm and groove. I insist on pushing myself to try new things because no matter how much experience I have, I will always remain a student of music. I use the same approach when I play live. I mostly improvise the sequencing and patterns, because sticking to a pre-planned set or a formula for a certain sound would bore me and the audience; I cannot expect them to have fun if I am not having fun. This mantra also applies to my DJing, which is why you always see me smiling and dancing in the booth.

Speaking of DJing, I always over-prepare for my gigs; I would prepare a 6-hour playlist for a 2-hour set (in case I need to play at different times or for longer durations). I spend hours collecting the tracks I want to play and placing them in an order that makes sense harmonically and energy-wise. Having a big playlist helps me shift the energy when required depending on the crowd, as they also play a part in the direction the party goes.

What have been your biggest learnings in music as an artist and a listener?

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn as an artist was never to wait for inspiration. I became a productive artist when I understood that 90% of what is required is to just show up and start working. Instead of being afraid of making mistakes, I now fear not learning from them or not learning how to recover from them. We are not perfect, so why set that expectation on ourselves?

Another lesson I learned can be summed up perfectly by the late Frankie Knuckles, the Chicagoan DJ who played a pivotal role in the development and popularization of House music in the 1980s: “The minute you think you’re greater than the music, you’re finished.” As a person who struggled with imposter syndrome for a very long time, I always worried about whether my music, and therefore myself as a person, was good enough in the opinion of other people. Self-doubt would eat at me as I was working on my music or DJing in empty clubs. What I did not understand at the time is that it is not about me at all. I play a small part in what makes a party a success. I learned to let go of my ego and just put in the work and have fun while I am doing it, for the love of music.

Lastly, I learned that it is never too late. Start that project, have that conversation, make that apology, learn that skill… You are never too old to start and never too invested to end. This old proverb always stuck with me, even though it sounds very cheesy and cliché, but I cannot think of a better one to explain it: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

What are some of the best locations you’ve played at locally and globally? What locations do you want to play at in the future?

The first New Year’s Eve party my friend and I DJed at on the eve of Y2K did not have more than 15 people at one time. What I remember from that party was a friend handing us a CD single of the Artful Dodger’s Re-rewind. We played it and had the biggest smiles on our faces because before then we had never heard of 2-Step or Garage, and it opened our eyes to a new world of sound. Today, the Garage plays a big part in what I play and produce.

One of my proudest moments was taking the stage at MDL Beast Soundstorm in 2021. I had family and friends behind me and a crowd of almost 2400 people in front of me. It was my chance to prove to myself that I was good enough to do something like that. Baloo, the Creative Director at MDL Beast, whom I had met years ago DJing here in Bahrain, decided to let me have my shot, and I will forever be grateful to him for it. My proudest moment was when I looked into the crowd towards 3 random guys waving to get my attention, and when I did they lifted a Bahraini flag. I had tears in my eyes.

Boiler Room Bahrain in 2021 was the first big event where I played a live set with my fellow musician Rashed Al Dhaen. We had been practicing and playing live together alongside other artists since 2019, and this was our chance to see if the practice paid off. We had a blast and we were very happy with the results. With a sick lineup of DJs and artists, and an amazing crowd, that day went on to be a party that people will be talking about for years, and I am very happy to have played my part in it.

Ultimately, I am excited to play anywhere no matter the size of the crowd, as long as all the elements of the party come together. I hope venues in Bahrain focus on the quality of the sound system and sound treatment, as they play a huge part in the experience of the music. I definitely want to do Boiler Room outside of Bahrain, as performances from their parties are what started my passion for playing live and not just DJing. I want to take my live collaboration project named XO to places and events such as The Lab (London) and to play the major hubs of electronic music, Chicago, New York City, London, Paris, and of course Berlin.

Tell us about your collaborations with other artists – which ones have been the most memorable?

I always prided myself as a collaborator and I feel my best work is done with others, whether through joint projects or remixes. Uniz Kazz was a fellow schoolmate of mine who played a big part in my humble beginnings as we both started producing around the same time, and would always push each other’s boundaries. I would send a track that he would find good, get jealous, and work hard to create better music. He would in turn send me his track and that would have the same effect on me. One of my favorite productions was my remix of his original track called “Bad Behaviour.” We remain friends to this day, as he is now running sound systems through his business Phantom Audio.

Later on in my career, I worked with one of the best Prog-Metal producers in the region, Hamad Ebrahim A.K.A. 7MND. He wanted to venture into electronic music so we started a band called Slim Fit Tea, where we went on to create a 6 track EP. I learned a lot from this experience and I am proud to say that the student has surpassed the master, as Hamad is currently on the rise to become one of the most important artists in his scene.

Today, I am proud to be a member of a group of live electronic musicians called XO alongside Rashed Al Dhaen, Na Der (Nader Ameeruddin), and HSE (Hasan Ebrahim). We started practicing together in 2019 and have had a few public performances at various events since. We had our debut party performance at the Art Hotel in November 2022. We took the audience into the sunset with our improvised grooves for almost two hours. The response was better than we expected, and we owe it to our friends and fans on the dance floor for making the experience magical.

Describe the sound people should expect when they attend one of your shows.

My DJ sets vary depending on the event I play at, as they have different audiences, but the common denominator in all my music is the groove. I love music with rhythms that make it impossible for you not to, at the very least, nod your head to the beat. Basslines are funky and beats are groovy no matter the genre or energy level. My sets range from deep, ethereal, and minimal tracks at low tempos to banging, jacking, and peak-hour tracks with various transits around genres such as House, Techno, Garage, Breakbeat, and classic Trance.

As for XO, since we are a live group, we cater our sound to the place and time we play, from Ambient to Hard Techno. The energy is always appropriate to the event itself, however, since we improvise our sets, we do not have a clear picture of how the set will play out exactly, and we make up most of it as we go, aside from prepared samples and synth presets. We like the fact that it is as much a surprise to us as it is to the audience, so we make sure to record as many of them as possible!

How do you like to spend your time outside of music in Bahrain?

The pandemic gave me a lot of time at home, and being in corporate communications, our workload was reduced due to event cancellations. I spent time reading about psychology, learned how to make the best cup of coffee I can make, honed my cooking skills (which my wife is very happy about), and grew a beard that has become synonymous with my identity in the last year (making it more and more difficult for me to remove it). I am a bit of a Sci-Fi nerd and love all things Star Wars and Star Trek. I co-own a CrossFit box called CrossFit Blacksmith in Hamala. But music is still the most I spend my time on, whether making it, listening to it, researching it, or talking about it.

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