Jazz Night in Riyadh

Like many Saudis, I have never been to a music concert in my life. We do not have concerts in this country because the religious establishment believe that music is haram i.e. not permissible. Some Saudis go to concerts in Dubai, Bahrain or even Canada to see their favorite artists, but the majority cannot afford the cost of traveling to another country just to listen to live music.

Prince Khalid al-Faisal, former governor of Assir and current governor of Jeddah, supported organizing concerts in the past few years in an attempt to boost local tourism. Only men were allowed to attend these concerts and performers were male artists from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf countries, but this did not stop the conservatives from denouncing the concerts strongly and showing their anger toward Khalid al-Faisal.


When I went to Egypt for a workshop two weeks ago, I told my friends there that I would really like to go to a nice place where live much is played. My friend Courtney nicely offered to take me to the Jazz Club in Cairo, but unfortunately my schedule was very tight and I didn’t have enough time to do that. “Next time I go abroad, I will make sure to find some time,” I kept telling myself upon returning home.

Few days later, I received a phone call asking me if I would be interested in attending an evening of jazz in Riyadh. I was very, very surprised, but unlike many surprises in this city, this was a pleasant one. I mean, it is not everyday that a prestigious jazz band come all the way from New York to play their music in Saudi Arabia. Actually, how often do you hear about live music events in Riyadh anyway?

So I was one of the lucky select few to be invited to a jazz night at the US Embassy featuring Chris Byars Quartet, a band that has been performing together for two decades, most frequently at NYC jazz club Smalls. This concert comes as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program.


It was a lovely night and the audience, a mixture of Saudis, Americans and other nationalities, enjoyed it immensely. The band did not stick to the announced program as their visit to the Kingdom has inspired them to play songs by Gigi Gryce, a jazz musician who converted to Islam and adopted the name Basheer Qusim.

After the concert two of the organizers jokingly told me that now they are thinking about bringing Kanye West for their upcoming event :-) The idea left me with this unsettling question: which of these two dreams seems more plausible, a Kanye West concert in Riyadh or a constitutional democratic Saudi Arabia?