“Hello? Hello!” We call out as we find our way onto the third floor of a nondescript building tucked into the urban maze that is Kuwait City. We’re searching for the hidden space where Kuwait’s all-inclusive musical community initiative, Jukebox Productions, is located. We spy a door covered with thick padding of soundproof material and shyly tap at the door till we hear a collective muffled “COME IN.”
Walking into the studio, an overwhelming feeling of communal support rushes over me. Every corner you look, someone is contributing to the creative energy brewing in the Jukebox. Though it seems an ordinary Tuesday night for them, the compact space is abuzz with an energetic flow of musical tinkering and creative direction coming from all different angles. Perched on stools at the stage, the frontman and guitarist of The Afterthought are jamming to an acoustic version of Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss” as a deep voice booms on the microphone testing sound levels for the latest “episode” of Live At the Juke, featuring The Afterthought. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Live At the Juke recording live from Kuwait City” echoes as the pleasant crooning switched to “Poison,” an original Afterthought track that displays soulful lyrics.
As the camera starts to roll, I notice the well-known musician Timmy CatDog in the studio. TCD is here as a supporter, but he informs me that he frequents the studio, records here and jams here from time to time. “I met Zeus (Juke founder Aziz Alsharhan) in spring 2016 where I was featured in their first Live at the Juke filming, and it was awesome,” he says as the jamming switches to a fitting feel-good jazzy riff. “We needed a place for musicians to meet and collaborate.” Then, I hear the band slowing down into an eery rendition of “The Ants go Marching One by One” in whistle form, going into one of their most well-known covers, “When She Says That She Loves Me” by forgotten 90s band Tonic.
As the music keeps playing, Zeus and partner Khaled Almansour take me into the quieter mixing room where all recorded content is played around with to perfection. When we go into the room, I’m surprised to see that absolutely no music is heard. It is dead silent, thanks to the expert soundproofing in the studio. “Have a seat,” Zeus says, gesturing toward the comfortable couch adorned with cushions and a blanket draped over the side.
Zeus and Khaled start off by telling me about what inspired them to start this initiative in the first place, and how they met in Hawalli last year when Zeus and his other partner Mohammed Al Mazeedi were operating out of the crowded district. “I was drumming for another band, and recorded at the Hawalli studio last spring. I really loved the vibe at the Juke, and so I used my production background and got in as a partner.” Khaled is referring to his self-run production company whose talents he incorporated into the Juke after joining. “Music is my life, but it’s difficult being a musician and playing live in Kuwait. So production was the way to invest myself into the musical lifestyle.” Zeus agrees to that sentiment, tying into why the Juke was established in the first place. “It’s a way that gets me to do my own music, because I don’t think if I worked anywhere else, I’d have time or energy to focus on my own personal work.”
The creative buzz constantly flowing in the studio also means that it’s a place where people feel safe when it comes to self-expression, making it stand out in the musical community. “Music is everywhere around the world,” Zeus says. “It’s in Kuwait too, historically – it died out a bit because the resources were lacking. I mean, it was always here! I remember going to live shows when I was a kid – like bahari music shows, at least.” “It’s in our blood,” Khaled interjects vehemently. “Kuwaitis know how to break it down with music, especially drums!” he laughs in reference to his own talent.
But in all seriousness, the Juke seems to be benefiting the creative community as a whole, and it’s quite clear from the enthusiasm seen throughout the studio during our visit. TCD and the Afterthought aren’t the only acts to notably mention. The [studio’s] stage has also seen performances from Carol Souki and Fabrice, to Galaxy Juice and Shanice Whitney. While musicians regularly schedule studio time, many lurk around with respect to the creative process and end up collaborating with one another. “I’ve literally seen bands born out of here, because so many people spend so much time over here, you have no idea.” Zeus says, referring to Jukebox-born band StereoMalt, scheduled to perform live at some point in November. “It’s like a musical incubator of sorts.” And then there’s the matter of the Live at the Juke shows, where these musicians are given a chance to showcase their music in raw, natural fashion, bringing light to the fact that there’s a collection of talent ranging in genres in Kuwait – just like an actual jukebox.
Our interview is interrupted by a cajone drum emergency, and we make our way back into the room where we’re automatically transported back into a world of music. Sound tests are made while someone is playing around with a heavy bass rapping “Jungle is my scene – wicked! Wicked!” in a cool funk tune. People are greeting one another, picking up instruments and strumming along in harmony amid chatter and laughter. Local guitar legend Hashim Al Nasser, another regular at The Juke and an old friend of mine greets me with his guitar, and after pleasantries have been exchanged he tells me “there’s something big happening here, and it has all the support in the world from me.”
As I’m about to leave, I look around at all the great talents in their own happy world where they feel they are finally free, and something that Zeus and Khaled had previously told me resonates within me: “We’re combining all these great individuals and forming a community. By giving them the resources that they didn’t have before, this is what’s going to break the market.” I then remember visiting Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where I learned that so many of history’s greatest musicians had performed in: from Billie Holiday and The Supremes to James Brown and The Jackson 5. And because so many of Kuwait’s greats have too, performed with the Juke, I help but wonder if The Jukebox is Kuwait’s very own monument for music? I sure hope so, because Hashim was right: something very big is happening here.