As far as music scenes in the Middle East go, Kuwait’s generally tends to fly under the radar, far eclipsed in the news by the country’s financial and political exploits. By-and-large, Kuwait’s local musicians very rarely have their voices heard beyond the borders of their own nation.
One night, during an insomnia-fueled session of algorithm surfing on SoundCloud, I stumbled upon Kalibr+, a record label and loose music collective operating primarily out of Kuwait for the past five years. Diving into their extensive discography, I was met by the sound of an extremely forward-thinking collective with an almost playful disregard for genre and convention, leaping effortlessly between trap, techno, glitch, IDM, ambient, baile, post-club, as well as many, many others.
With members collaborating together from across all corners of the globe, and a deep archive of over 200 tracks released since the project’s inception, something exciting has clearly been brewing in Kuwait, completely unbeknownst to those outside the country.
On the eve of the release of their most recent compilation, the 16-track Pipeline, I sat down with founder Mohammed, and member Yacoub for an unfiltered conversation about their art, the dynamics of the music scene in Kuwait, and the challenges of putting together such an extensive global project.
Let’s start with a brief history of Kalibr+ - how did this all start?
Mohamed: At the very end of college, I found myself making a lot of music, and by the time I graduated, more people ended up joining [the project], and more people ended up liking Kalibr+ than I had expected, so we just kept going forward with it.
When we first started, it was myself, my friend Sarah who used to live in Kuwait, her cousin Najeeb, Morad and our friend Reggie, who also used to live in Kuwait but moved. Talal had just moved to Canada and was settling in and I didn’t know Phyllis at that time so they both came into the picture around half a year or so into the project. There have been a lot of artists involved in Kalibr+, and at that point we were in a lot of Facebook groups with a large number of musicians, so a lot of artists were involved in creating what later became Kaibr+.
Yacoub: For reference, Talal’s moniker is CH4INS4W, Phyllis’ is ‘dvdv’, and Morad goes by ‘Scuba Girl’, but he’s gone by a couple different monikers in the past. Mohamed also releases music as ‘St. Gold’, ‘Gold Plates’ and ‘Edyth,’ so these are a couple of the names you’re going to be hearing a lot throughout this interview.
Mohamed: I have like a gajillion names.
That makes sense, actually. Going through earlier releases, I kept on hearing a lot of sonic cues that the music was made by many of the same people, just under different names.
Mohamed: We’re really big fans of the seapunk and vaporwave scenes. There are only about 5-10 artists on the whole vaporwave ‘team’ that release music, but under 5 million aliases. We thought if other people were doing that, why can’t we? We could get away with it doing things online, so why not?
How does that work in practice, when performing live, for example?
Mohamed: I haven't really been performing, it's really, really difficult to perform here in Kuwait.
Yacoub: We’re up against a lot. It’s very, very difficult to do any kind of event that’s public, both sexes can attend, and with music involved. Electronic music is in this really weird gray area where it’s not illegal, but it’s also hard to get off the ground.
Mohamed: On top of that, electronic music is very niche, and Kuwait is a country with only about 4 million people.
Yacoub: Although, one of the coolest parts of doing things out here in Kuwait, when we can get it off the ground, is that there's a lot of space to push boundaries. There’s a lot of space to do stuff people have never seen here before, whereas in other markets, you’re pigeonholed. Audiences have already seen most of what can be offered, you know?
I empathise with that, there’s so much bureaucracy - official and unofficial - that you need to go through in order to get any kind of public social event to happen in the Middle East.
Yacoub: Everyone in Kuwait that’s operating in music, at least that we’re aware of, has to do things a little bit on the fringe. I don't think there's a single outfit - even ones that have pull with the National Art Council and stuff - that’s 100% on the books with permits and that sort of bureaucratic system. It’s part of the deal here, and we’ve adjusted to it.
Paint me a picture of what the music landscape looked like in Kuwait, pre-corona.
Yacoub: There was a lot of stuff happening, whether
it’s all good or all bad is up to interpretation. I don't listen to techno, but
there are a couple really technically proficient techno DJs, who pulled off
very organised, very big production events and threw these crazy underground
raves that you hear about every now and then. Blues and rock music are still
pretty popular, and there’s a couple rock bands still operating. But it really
What do the crowd’s in Kuwait tend to go for?
Yacoub: Here in Kuwait, it’s not very often that people are able to go out and enjoy music. So, when the weather is nice, everyone suddenly wants to go out. It’s not just enough to put together a nice stage, nice lighting, food, a good sound system with good musicians. The crowds want more, and they show up expecting the night of their life. If they don't have the exact experience, they gassed themselves up to have, for whatever reason, you will never see them again, no matter what kind of show you put on.
Mohamed: You’d need a full festival-type feel, in a way that doesn't resemble the European model. It has to be family friendly, there has to be food, freedom to move around. The people that succeed here, in whatever shape or form, abide by that or try to find creative ways to make a living. You’d have DJs that play on the radio, but also in cafes, or at family events etc. This is how they string together shows in order to make money.
Not a lot of people take that path, but there are people who do and are successful. I’m in a group with Saudi musicians who are doing really remarkable things. They’re not only DJing, but making livings off of workshops and giving lessons. There are analog synth nerds giving these workshops, and getting accepted into the established Arab music societies and institutions that used to just be people who play classical Oud.
So where does Kalibr+ fit into the Kuwaiti ‘scene’, in terms of genre?
Yacoub: It’s really hard to describe. When I was doing the write-ups and stuff for the promotion of Pipeline, I came across a lot of different genre names that I hadn’t heard of before. I only heard the term ‘post club’” for the first time about a month ago. These genre titles are arbitrary, but on a practical level, it lets the consumer know what it is that they’re consuming.
Mohamed: It really comes down to how you promote it, right? If I’m going to try and get the music on a playlist, or if we’re going through curators, they're going to want to use industry terms. They’re going to ask: “Is this urban? Is this world [music]? Is this global bass?”
You have to pick those terms up, or else you end up in a situation where you send the wrong music to the wrong curators. You have to spend the time categorising things, or finding new ways to market your music so that it has a little more appeal.
Mohamed: You’re forgetting [arguably] the biggest ‘scene’ in Kuwait, which is Iraqi music. There are people making hybrid mixes [of this music], and there used to be a large mixtape culture. When I think of Kuwait’s music scenes, I think of the mixtape culture. You used to be able to go to stores and get mixtapes of DJs mixing reggaeton with Iraqi. We don't have these [mixtape] stores anymore, but all those DJs are on YouTube now. Mohamed: You find those DJs playing in some of the weirdest places. It could be at a chalet, or some sort of farm, or you could hear it being played on the radio, or in someone's car.
Yacoub: In a Silverado somewhere in the desert.
Mohamed: They’d be the wildest mixes, combining Iraqi with Dabke, or mixing it with top-40 pop music. I know there are similar things in Egypt, so imagine the Kuwaiti version of that.
Yacoub: The mixtape scene was really cool because all these DJs would have their own storefront named after them. DJ Crow would have the ‘DJ Crow Store,’ and you’d go there and find a big bookshelf of mixtapes.
Mohamed: It’s also all underground, by default. It has to be. No one’s allowed to exist on the surface, which creates this really cool dynamic because everyone has to abide by a certain set of cultural rules, but at the same time, they have a lot more wiggle room to be creative with who they are, with their persona on social media. Some are flashier than others, some aren't, and it’s become a really cool counterculture.
With Kalibr+, it’s clear that you’re very open to a diverse range of sounds and genres. Do you feel like you guys are settling into a sort of jack-of-all-trades role with your releases, or is there a specific direction or sound you’re working towards?
Mohamed: The way I see it is that we’re always going to make what we feel like making. Nowadays I’m finding genres that I want to focus on more than others. I really love glitch, dub and ambient music. You’ll find that littered around a lot of my work.
Maybe that will go somewhere down the line, if I decide I want to put a full ambient record out. For the most part if I wake up and I’m like, “I want to make trap today,” or “I want to make Afrobeat.” Sometimes we just want to pick up a guitar and just make a lot of noise, or metal.
It’s interesting you mention that, because I heard a lot of metal influence deep in your SoundCloud.
Mohamed: I think pretty much everyone in the group is a [former] metal head. We all grew up on hardcore and sludge metal. It might not show on our released music, but we all really love metal.
Yacoub: When I first met Mohamed, we’d just chain smoke cigarettes in my basement and listen to hardcore music.
Mohamed: We did that for about three months before we did
any musical projects together, and then [after some time] we were like, “we
should probably put a show together or something.” It always goes back to heavy
Tell me a little bit about the latest Kalibr+ release, Pipeline - it’s the third one, right?
Mohamed: Officially it’s the third, but I consider it the fourth. We first released Carbon Social, first, which was kind of rough around the edges, but very fun to make. We released Midnight [after that] and then Carbon Social 20XX, followed by this release, Pipeline.
Yacoub: It’s bigger and badder than anything Kalibr+ have put together, in my opinion. And the cool thing is that the music already released is pretty big and bad already. I feel like Pipeline is the most self-realised project Kalibr+ have put together, and it’s pretty obvious that a team put it together, know what I mean?
Yacoub: Kalibr+ is basically a collaboration on all fronts, especially with the compilations. The art, the marketing, the release strategies are all a collaborative effort with everyone onboard, with both the artists and even a couple people on the outside of our ‘circle.’
Yacoub: If you go back and listen to the other compilations, Pipeline is the one that really feels like Kalibr+ had a system in place. With the other compilations it seemed like they were developing this system, but Pipeline was like a conveyor belt; we worked hard on organising it, and then executed it well with that organisation. On every front, it’s just ‘razor blades’, it’s cleaner than anything else we put out.
Looking at the way you have packaged your releases, it’s clear that you’re more confident with it now, and there’s an obvious trend of improvement and refinement. Did you feel like upping the scale for this release a conscious goal?
Mohamed: This particular compilation took us a while to release, because we had so much fun creating it. This was something that we did out of love, not necessarily as a way to push or market ourselves. Everyone in Kalibr+ has a career outside of it, and the record spent nearly a year in ‘hibernation mode’ because of that. Just having people take part in the compilation was really amazing.
Abbi Press, for example, is really talented but has a full-time job, so It’s amazing that she had the time to make the track ‘Shutdown’ and let us use it on the compilation. Azzam (Kadisa) is like a ghost sometimes. I had to go to his house and physically take the track ‘Headchop’ off him; we worked on the track for a day and then I was like “ok cool, I’m taking this.” I don’t think he would have given us the track any other way, and Pipeline is one of those compilations where each track has its own story, and a long process behind it.
Even the mastering has a story behind it. Morad (Scuba Girl) lives in Georgia (USA) right now, and works as a nurse. He’s on the frontlines of the pandemic and still used his free time to master the project. A lot of time and sacrifice went into making Pipeline, and we spent such a long time making it, so we figured, “let’s give it our best shot, and just see where it goes.”
Being spread out all over the globe in the way that you are, is there a shared understanding/vision of what Kalibr+ is?
Mohamed: I feel like, yes, but loosely. I think we do
have overlaps in music, but I don't know if that ended up happening because
we’ve been around each other for so long. We all seem to love seapunk a lot,
and we don’t really know why. We all just love the aesthetic of PS1/PS2
graphics, you know? Really bad CGI skies, things flying through the air, stuff
like that. I think that’s something we have in common; the really outdated
aspects of Japanese culture that you see in PS1 games. That’s pretty much most
of what ties us together - a love for that PS1/PS2 culture.
That’s really funny to hear, I had noticed that you put the racing ships from the game WIPEOUT on the cover art for Carbon Social 20XX...
Mohamed: Yeah, when we first came up with that idea, we all unanimously agreed “yes, this is the idea we’re going to go with.”
Yacoub: When I first met Mo, the very first thing I
asked him was: “yo, was that whole compilation based off the
WIPEOUT: XL soundtrack?” He replied with
“yeah, pretty much,” which was such a deep cut for me, because I thought I was
the only lunatic who played a burned CD copy of that game as a child. It was
shocking to see that Kalibr+ was modelling a whole compilation off of this
weird, obscure reference.
When things in the world open up again, and return to some sense of normalcy after corona, what do you hope to see for Kalibr+ in this next period.
Yacoub: Speaking for myself personally, I would love to see more gigs happen. We put together two shows last year, and I had a blast putting them together and executing them.
We sold a lot of individual tickets for that show, and a lot of people came to the show alone. They hung out, vibed, had a good time, and we ended up meeting a bunch of people that we still talk to and hang out with. I think there’s a very nice and healthy enclave of people here that can keep a scene like this alive.
It’s really cool that we do actually have enough people here in Kuwait that can keep something like that alive. I really believe that it’s just a matter or trying to decide how we’re going to go about [making events happen], and I’m interested to see, once things are back on track, how easy or difficult it’s going to be to throw these kinds of musical events.
You have to keep in mind that we’re right next to Saudi Arabia, which went from about 500 years of iron conservatism to having Carnage perform for 150,000 people last year, you know? Afrojack lives in Riyadh now or something. It’s very weird, and there's a lot of weird stuff going on.
Yacoub: In the Gulf, a lot of the moves we make in
music are based on the moves Saudi Arabia makes. Whether we like it or not,
it's a fact. All of that was starting to snowball into something really
interesting right as Corona hit. In Kuwait, we now have an arena that’s
operated by Live Nation, we have our own Ticketmaster website. A few years ago,
we had nothing like that, and if you had told me I wouldn't have believed
I feel like Saudi Arabia is a pretty good marker for whether something is permissible or not, you know? You have to wait till Saudi Arabia books Armin Van Buren in a massive stadium in order to be like, “ok, dance music is halal now.”
Yacoub: My concern with Saudi Arabia is that the model they’re using is not sustainable. They’re the only Arab country that has the government’s 100% support for putting together these shows. Each kingdom has its own art season; there's Riyadh art season, Jeddah art season, etc, and they're all competing for who can throw the biggest, baddest, craziest shows. Since they're using Saudi Arabian government-backed budgets, they're not worried about the costs, especially not for these first couple years; they're trying to attract people from around the world to look at them as potential vendors, as potential booking agents, or even as potential artists as well.
The problem with that model is that it's not sustainable; you can only hemorrhage money on every single gargantuan show for a certain number of years before they realise that they're bleeding their economy. It doesn't make any sense.
Another issue we face here in Kuwait is being able to [pay an artist the amount that Saudi Arabia does]. For example, if ‘artist X’ is playing a show in Saudi Arabia for five or six times what their normal asking rate, when a promoter in Kuwait tries and book the same artist they can't offer the same rate, so the artist is going to be like: “why would I play a show in Kuwait when Saudi Arabia pays more?” So in a way, their actions still hurt our scene.
Is there a better way to be going about things, in your opinion?
Mohamed: Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the way we as promoters try and push electronic music isn’t close to how a huge portion of the people in the Middle East want to experience music. So, if you're trying to do things with the ‘European model’, that probably won’t work. The Middle East never really upheld the ‘European model’ in terms of musical culture, so trying to [go about] things that way just doesn't work.
So, to see success for musicians in the Middle East, we kind of need to look towards the more Shaabi musicians and see how they do it, how they've come up with their own models for success.
Have there been any musicians from the MENA, outside of Kuwait, that you've interacted with positively, or admire?
Yacoub: I think all the Egyptians musicians that I've ever personally dealt with have been kickass. Do you know Bosaina?
She came out to Kuwait A couple of years ago, and I've been following her since. Her set was one of the most punk rock things I've ever seen. It was just her, a laptop and a tiny loop station. There were no rules and there was zero structure to anything she did. It was awesome. She just came out dressed like a stewardess. I thought she worked for the venue.
And then she just got on stage and literally clawed everybody's face off. She did it without even like, breaking a sweat. It was one of the coolest things I've seen to this day, it really was.
Wild. Before we wrap up, are there any last words you’d like to share?
Mohamed: Have fun with it, because if you're not having fun doing it there's no point. There are people who are really creating the most interesting art and, for whatever reason, the world doesn't get to experience that. No matter what kind of art you’re making, whether it’s underground or mainstream, whether you're seeking success, fame or money. Whatever you create, just create it and put it out into the world, and don't stop.