About a month ago, I received a mail from Amelia Robinson, telling me she had been spending several months in Qatar, playing ukulele on the Pearl Qatar, a man-made island in Doha, off the Arabian peninsula.
My curiosity was piqued and I decided to interview Amelia in order to find out more about her unique experience on the Pearl Qatar. Reading her vivid and amusing depiction of the place will transport you there in a flash.
U&L: I read in your bio that you were a Suzuki trained classical singer and pianist, how did the ukulele come into your life ?
Amelia Robinson: My good friend, Reggie Wingnutz, introduced the ukulele into my life through the Ukulele Cabaret in NYC hosted by Sonic Uke. I instantly took to it, and found it a great (lightweight!) companion while backpacking solo around Europe. I’ve done a lot of traveling since then and the uke became an springboard for meeting new people and making us all smile!
U&L: You write original music for TV, advertisements, theatre and jingles. What is your main source of inspiration ?
Amelia Robinson : A major source of inspiration is my Grandfather. I’m not very prolific, but I like to think I’ve inherited his knack for playful poetry. As every artist does, I draw from personal experience. When a melody pops into my head, I’ll use descriptive words from my immediate surrounding environment to fill in the notes and rhythm mainly so that I can remember how the tune goes! I always carry a dictaphone around to record sounds and voices.
As much as you try to seek out inspiration, you just can’t force creativity. Some of my best pieces have come to me straight off the bat, just like that, as soon as I’ve picked up an instrument to play it. Most of what I write has been lurking in my subconcious for ages waiting to get out, but I can’t ever pinpoint exactly what the trigger is.
U&L: You are currently in Qatar, performing on the Pearl Qatar, an artificial island in Doha. Why did you decide to travel there ?
Amelia Robinson: It was a fluke really! On a whim, I attended an open audition and was selected to join 19 other artists to bring some life and entertainment to an island in the making (picture something like The Palm Tree in Dubai, but 20 years ago).
I had been living in London for a year and a half pursuing a career in composition and had just started performing solo on the uke. The idea of spending a English winter in the desert was reason enough to escape!
Since being here, my style has really developed and I’ve improved tremendously! We perform 5 days a week, 3 hours a day for the wealthiest people in the world – the Qataris – on a boardwalk featuring designer stores like Alexander McQueen, Diesel, Georgio Armani, and Missoni, to name a few!
It’s quite the experience, as a lot of Qatari’s have never seen live music before. You can see the effect of our music most in the children – standing there wide-eyed, jaws gaping in complete awe. Sometimes they run up to you and give you a kiss on the cheek – it melts your heart.
U&L: Are you enjoying your stay in Qatar so far ? Not many people have been to or will ever travel to Qatar, can you give us an insight into what it is like to live there ?
Amelia Robinson: It’s sandy, hot, dusty, dry & windy– everything you’d imagine a desert to be! Qatar is one big construction site – a city built from the ground up by over 800,000 migrant workers. The 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).
The Qatari’s keep very tight within their family and community, so there is not much of an opportunity to break into their group or hang out in a tent with them drinking…um…tea. Everyone is here to make money (or, in the Qatari’s case, to be given money), so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for nightlife, entertainment, or any extra-curricular activity for that matter! 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 your money you spend all your time making.
Qatari’s 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 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, 7-inch heels – these girls defy gravity! Some of the guys here have even developed a foot fetish!
Time is “elastic” here. Basically only three people have the power to make any decision, so you spend most of your time waiting for the 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).
Qatar has spent a lot of money to portray a Westernised image that competes with neighbors like Dubai and Abu Dhabi; such as hosting a Tennis Tournament with big names like Roger Federer, forming the Qatar Symphony Orchestra , building Education City housing some of the best Universities, and boasting a skyline filled with tall glass buildings engineered by the world’s best.
But ex-pats still face a massive amount of resistance as strangers in a foreign land. Qataris sure pay for progressive change (importing American professors to teach freedom of speech to Arab youth) but will they ever fully accept it? Many still consider Qatar a developing country; at least mentally. There is massive gap between rich and poor and an obvious, open, accepted discrimination between Asian workers and Europeans. Of course this inequity exists on a worldwide level, but I’ve never seen it so apparent as in Doha. Nepalese (the lowest in the hierarchy) do the dirty jobs that nobody else wants to do and get paid in peanuts. They are the the construction workers, the cleaners (Qataris are obsessed with hygiene), and the people who hand cut the “grass” lining the divides on major roads. Most every family (Qatari and ex-pat alike) has hired help, mostly Phillipinos, who are often seen running after the children while the parents sip coffee. I can go on….
U&L: Playing in Qatar must be quite a culture shock both for you and for your public. Do you have any funny anecdotes to report ?
Amelia Robinson: I was once asked to play “happy music” — umm I play the ukulele?!?! There is, of course, your everyday request for “Hotel California” or “Careless Whisper”. Too often a group of young teenage boys dressed up in dish dash try to sing (or wail, rather) as they walk by.
I wear a wireless headset, so I like to break the barrier and walk alongside Qatari men as they scurry along – provoking a reaction and if I’m lucky, a smile! There is no concept of a musician’s personal space so people come straight up to you, try to play your instrument and talk to you (or AT you) while you are playing a song.
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 girl here who plays flute had an elderly lady in a burka and a gold mask throw money in her face to get her to stop playing! Oh dear…
U&L: What are your future projects ? Will you write more ukulele songs ? Travel to other unlikely destinations ?
Amelia Robinson: After Qatar, I return home to see my family in NYC and record a few songs. I then head to London in June for the Spitalfields Music Festival, where I will be performing original site-specific ukulele tunes for A Magical History Tour, led by comedians Alan Gilbey and Steve Wells. Audiences have a chance to submit their own song idea and have it composed/played live at an event called Front Room with cellist Francesca Ter-Berg at the Geffrye Museum.
I’ll also be hosting the Holloway Arts Festival’s first all female singer-songwriter competition on 29 June.
In July, I cross over to the mainland to embark on a tour with Tim Gill (Viola extraordinaire) performing and devising works throughout Europe. So far, Berlin, Paris, Alicante, Vienna and Serbia are scheduled stops on the map. We’re open to any further invitations/bookings, and if you have any suggestions for small festivals or hidden gems, get in touch! (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
In terms of unlikely destinations – I’d like to check out the primates in Madagascar, and head to Mongolia (have you ever seen the film “Mongolian Ping Pong”?), plus Base Camp at Mount Everest (check out Into Thin Air by Jack Kerouac)!
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