If, like me, you’ve ever been stuck on one of Kuwait’s arterial routes during the lunchtime/school run/shift change rush hour traffic, you’ve probably tuned into The Drive Back show hosted by DJ Maha. With her non-regional English accent, Arabic name, eclectic playlist, and close to no online presence, Maha intrigues people and I thought it was time to get to know her a little better.
Kuwaiti-born Maha is warm, thoughtful, funny and friendly in person – pretty much how she sounds on the radio. Having spent her childhood years in the UK, she returned to Kuwait in her teens before completing a degree in Mass Communications and Art at Intercollege, Nicosia. Spending her formative years in the UK has clearly had a strong influence on Maha’s musical taste. As anyone who listens to her show will confirm; she is a huge fan of 80s post punk, new wave and electronic artists, including The Smiths, New Order and The Cure. After completing her degree, Maha returned to Kuwait and briefly worked in retail, but it wasn’t where her heart was and it was at this point, in 2003 that her mother suggested applying to RKFM. They were looking for a DJ for their Late Night Lounge slot, which turned out to be perfect for her creative style and diverse taste in music.
So what got Maha into music originally? “Gary Newman! The Pleasure Principle album in its entirety was genius. It was ground breaking and experimental and it’s amazing how it’s being referenced and sampled even today. Our Friend’s Electric, for example, which came out in the late 70s, is still being sampled today. He experimented with electronica, found sounds (tin cans, etc) and crossed over with something that shouldn’t have been according to the rules at the time. His work hugely influenced subsequent bands, right up to today.” Whilst the 80s had a strong influence on her early musical tastes, Maha is always equally on the look-out for new bands and sounds, particularly anything that is crossover and derives influences from traditional sounds like Afrobeat and Rai.
When Maha joined RKFM, all the prime time shows were live, but these days most of the daytime programming isn’t. I observed that a live DJ brings so much more to a show. Even if they aren’t always to everyone’s taste, it makes the listening experience more interactive than having an automated playlist. “Yes, a live show is more engaging, but for whatever reason, there aren’t many live DJs on the station at the moment. It’d be great to get new talent on the station, but…who knows?”
After a few years of presenting LNL, she took a break, but returned to the airwaves when she was asked to present The Drive Back. “I was hesitant at first as I knew I’d have to play more mainstream music, including pop, which was an adjustment and I wasn’t sure about it initially. I’ve managed to find a way to play ‘my music’, particularly with ‘Alternative Tuesday’, and still cater to a wider audience. I’ve also grown to like (some) pop music, but I love that I have listeners who only tune in on Sundays (Oldies) and Tuesdays (Alternative). When it comes to putting together my shows, it’s sort of both planned and organic. At the start of a show I will play a mainstream or dance number to get it going, but then I’ll blend a more alternative or indie track in amongst the pop and genre-referenced tracks. I do need to be organized and have an idea in mind for each show and have prepared a playlist, which allows me to be organic and react to listener’s requests. Also, it’s really important, when you go on the radio, to leave whatever happens outside out of the studio at the door and not bring it on air with you. So being prepared, but equally there are times when I say: “You know what? I’m not having the greatest day and I thought it’d be nice to listen to a chilled out, acoustic track,” and I will ask listeners to let me know what their favorite acoustic track is and I’ll just go with it.”
So, I wondered, does anyone ever react with surprise that a female DJ is playing such diverse and non-mainstream tracks? Maha laughs: “Yes! I had Matuto on my show last year, a band from NY who were brought here by the U.S embassy, and they were really shocked when they were in the studio with me. They said “We’re here in Arabia being interviewed by a woman and she’s talking to us about bands from NY that we play with!”
That women are often underestimated means they regularly surprise people with their passion for music and the breadth of their musical knowledge; it can be an advantage. “That’s the thing, women are always underestimated and it’s presumed that we don’t know about certain genres or aren’t drawn to them. For instance, DJ Bonita, who’s on in the evenings, is not only really good at what she does, but her wealth of knowledge about hip-hop is amazing. She’s a great personality on air and she educates people on hip-hop as a genre – she is so passionate about it and she’s so well-informed that it shines through.”
One of the freedoms of doing a show like The Drive Back and having a reputation for an eclectic musical taste means Maha can interview musicians and singers from diverse genres, as well as people who use music to cross over into other arts and forms of expression. Maha and I further discussed what has traditionally been classified as ‘World Music’ crossing over and becoming mainstream, either when an artist works with a famous producer, or mainstream artists sample traditional sounds or someone features alongside a mainstream artist (Cheb Khaled working with Pitbull on ‘Hiya Hiya’ a few years ago, being an example). ”Yes! For example, a band like Vampire Weekend, taking Afro-beat and mixing it with mainstream stuff, and allowing it to cross over to the mainstream. Talking Heads started it back in the 80s, but lately it’s being brought into mainstream music. I think that hip-hop is saving music by doing this. They’re mixing these amazing sounds, which is a good thing, but sometimes…well, I hope they don’t neglect to credit or reference the source.”
Always keen to interview and promote local and regional talent, Maha is looking for new artists when she visits locations across the region. “In fact, I went to Bahrain a couple of weeks ago just to check out the music scene and I was pleasantly surprised to see the level of support their bands and singers have locally.”
I asked if she believed there was the potential to develop Kuwaiti and regional artists if there were a regular DJ-driven show along the lines The Peel Sessions? “I LOVE John Peel and The Peel Sessions – he’s my idol, he is what I want to be (in DJ terms). I want to expose these artists. He knew if a band had “it” and he was like “these guys are good and he put them on (air).” I know there isn’t a universal love for Alternative Tuesdays, but my listeners support it and hopefully I can take it further and use it as medium to introduce new talent to my listeners. I’m also really lucky to have a lot of support and this makes such a difference. In fact, the reason it’s called Super Station – well, it’s run by super women! From production to presenting, it’s almost all women and it happened organically. We are very lucky with our extraordinary boss, Sheikha Shejoun Al Sabah. She gave us the freedom to do what we do – within some limits, of course. This station exists because of her! Of course, it would be great to have more live shows, primetime shows, with diverse DJs on the station – currently there are only two male DJs, Aki in the mornings and DJ Rakesh at night.”
After a long, laughter-filled conversation, I asked if I could take a photo of her but Maha deferred: “The reason some DJs don’t last is because they’re there to promote themselves or they think of themselves as celebrities…well, we’re actually here to provide a service to people. We’re making someone’s day with music, so if someone’s here to self-promote, if they come on the radio thinking they’re going to be famous… It’s about the music on radio – this is a service. People forget that and then it doesn’t work”
Clearly Maha lives for music and it is as much part of her life as breathing and eating, so before saying goodbye I had to ask:
“If you were to host your own Peel Sessions – or The Maha Sessions – which three local artists would you feature?”
- Empty 1/4 (Ahmed Jaafar)
- Galaxy Juice
- Yousif Yaseen
“And your dream The Drive Back playlist would be…?”
- Broadcast – ‘Come On Let’s Go’
- Talking Heads – ‘This Must Be The Place’
- Beatles – ‘The Sun King’
- Peace – ‘California Dayz’
- Bibio – ‘You Won’t Remember’
- Grizzly Bear – ‘Ready, Able’
- Allah-Las – ‘Catamaran’
- Velvet Underground & Nico -‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’
- Beach House – ’10 Mile Stereo’
- Vashti Bunyan – ‘Train Song’
Tune into Maha’s ‘The Drive Back’ show on 99.7FM from 1-3 P.M, Sunday to Thursday, or listen online at media.gov.kw.