Saturday, February 22, 2014

A lyrical PechaKucha Night Sharjah IV

Maraya Art Centre (pretty much the only reason I ever make the trip to Sharjah) hosted the 4th edition of the growing Sharjah PechaKucha this weekend.

The themes for presentations at the event ranged from inspirational to entrepreneurial to social, with speakers including hearing-disabled Emirati graphic designer Mariam Wissam, e-grocery app developer Ghadir El Ghafri, and crowd-sourced tourism promotion campaigner Yorgos Kleivokiotis.

There were also some rather entertaining, if strange, presentations by amateur comedians, including an awkward (self-referential, I'm guessing) presentation about awkwardness by Mohammed J Al Serkal, and a serious-sounding presentation about esoteric popcorn conspiracies by Rami Salame.

Farah Chamma and MC Yazen, local young stalwarts of spoken word currently promoting their upcoming North African crowd-funded tour, were also presenting that evening, and closed the event with a live performance of poetry and rap.

Surfing a smorgasbord at Dubai Food Carnival

I had myself a little weekend indulgence at the first Dubai Food Carnival, which is held together with other food festivals in Dubai under the umbrella of the new Dubai Food Festival.

I was mainly looking for independent restaurants from which to sample, but most of the places were still very hotel/chain-ish. We seriously need a "Taste of Karama" food festival or something. Anyway, I found a couple of such places, including the seemingly all-female burger place called She Burger. Theirs is a seriously good burger; the bun has a soft and non-crumbly texture, the patty is generous and succulent, and the cheese they use rounds it off really well.

I also liked the chicken mashwi from Barjeel, an Emirati food place. The chicken was just falling off the bone, and the rice was cooked with hearty lentils and a rich spice mixture.

Holland House's fluffy and moist mini-pancakes, drizzled with chocolate sauce and honey, made for a sweet finale. Apart from these, I also dipped into some of the samples that many food manufacturers and startups had lain out.

The carnival, located next to the Dubai Festival City mall, and run over two days, naturally included a lot of entertainment; a massive 360-degree stage for variety show performances dominated its center, while live music was performed in the licensed section at the back. There were also a few live chef demos and cooking contests to attend, although I was disappointed when the Beat the Heat pepper-eating contest was moved ahead by half an hour, causing me to miss it. I would have also liked there to be cooking contests open to more demographic segments than just dads or kids i.e. to me.

Dubomedy's stand-up comedian and emcee Ali Al Sayed and visiting American comedian Dean Obeidallah were also part of the evening lineup, valiantly working the crowd out of food comas over the other live shows in the background.

A Short+Sweet showcase of Dubai theatrical talent

Heart in the Ground, one of those plays with excellent acting

Dubai's thespians answered the call of the second Short+Sweet Dubai short play festival with a response that required an extra week to accommodate this year. Some of the best of our city's growing theatre scene, as well as a fresh pool of talented actors, writers and directors, made it to the three-week festival, entertaining audiences with 10-minute-or-less plays that ranged from the cringe-worthy (overuse of sound and light effects, gaggy and/or shouty acting, loitering pace, preachy dialogue, predictable plot) to the glorious (the opposite of the aforementioned).

The Romeo and Juliet spoof

I had to miss the Top 30 Week 2 plays because of an improv show of my own, but I was able to see almost everything else. Many fellow improv actors were involved onstage or backstage, though, and the popular vote eventually went to a Romeo and Juliet spoof put together by some of them. Among the theatre groups that presented their plays during the festival, I felt that Third Half Theatre pushed through the most consistently impressive performance with their stagings of Badke Bhaiya, The Man Who Was Music, and It's All Been Done Before, followed closely by American School of Dubai's A Charming Affair and Controlling Interest. Backstage's Last Drinks and Theatrics' Noreen were also among the better plays over the three weeks.

Alice and the Tightrope Walker, by Loom Ensemble

Experimental theatre got a significantly higher representation this year, with three entries by Loom Ensemble and one by Resuscitation Theatre. Another technique that reached new heights this year was the monologue, George Mitton's Farewell, Francis standing out among them. And a special note for good writing by a locally-based author should be added for Frank Dullaghan's clever penning of DNA.

Friday, February 21, 2014

More community film in Dubai

Now that cooler weather is back in town, I thought I'd make the best of it and check out some now-outdoor free film screenings in Dubai. Some are old traditions (well, "old" relative to the Dubai pace), and some have just started out. Here are the ones I enjoyed this past month.

Following the merging of their DIFC gallery into the Bastakiya XVA Art Hotel's gallery space, XVA Gallery's film screenings now take place in the hotel's courtyard cafe. They have had a screening almost every Wednesday, and while the films have ranged from black-and-white classics to 90s cheese, there is seems to be a theme for each month. The hotel itself is lovely, with the rustic ambiance of the converted old merchant quarter along the creek, art pieces installed here and there, and light vegetarian and pescetarian food at the cafe to munch on while watching. One can also check out the gallery's running exhibition at the hotel. Charlie Chaplin films were on in January, so I caught a show of the Chaplin anti-Nazi classic, The Great Dictator, on January 29th.

I also went to the launch event of LOCO'MOTION, a new community cinema initiative, which screened the anti-consumerism/conformism documentary, I'm Fine, Thanks, on February 1st, behind The Archive in Safa Park. They plan to screen films on the first and third Saturdays of every month, and probably ones in similar genres. The grass can be damp, so it would be a good idea to bring a lawn mat.

The Emirates Golf Club Poolside screens a double feature at their outdoor poolside projection area every Friday evening, starting with an animation or children's film, followed by a live action one for grown-ups. The menu's priced at hotel rates, but they do throw in a free tub of popcorn, and you can watch the film(s) while comfortably lounging by the pool on deck chairs, surrounded by palm trees. Here, I watched Open Season on Friday, February 21st.

And if you'd like to unwind and clear your mind with a light B flick, the Pyramids Rooftop Gardens at Wafi hosts a late evening (and free) open-air show every Sunday. I caught a screening of the romcom, When in Rome, on the 26th of January; it was not as bad as its rating, in my opinion. The audience space is pretty large, with a bar and food service (and, of course, many sit-down restaurants around), a stepped section at the back, and plenty of beanbags. If world cinema is more your thing, they also host an Alliance Francaise French film screening on the first Monday of each month, thanks to which I was able to watch Sport de Filles early in January.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rhythms and a blue note at the Dubai Jazz Festival

The hardest thing about inviting people to come to the Dubai Jazz Festival is convincing them that there is any jazz to be seen. And it's quite understandable when the promotion for the event makes it look like it's all about pop and rock. In fact, I thought so too, until I researched further and found out the Jazz Garden, with its lineup of actual jazz musicians.

(L to R) Rob DeBoer and Shilts; Sax Gordon and Alex Schultz; Raphael Wressnig

To be fair, it's nice of the organizers to have four free-to-attend weekday events of jazz music here. I attended two of them, the first act of the first night being the Canadian acid/groove jazz duo Four80East. Nu jazz is not something I typically listen to, but the band had a great beat from percussionist Tony Grace, with crisp keyboard/electronic and sax sounds from Rob DeBoer and guest feature Paul "Shilts" Weimar, respectively. I bought a dropcard after their set, and found some more nice, bouncy tracks by them online.

Guitarist Alex Schultz and organist Raphael Wressnig in their band Soul Gift were next, featuring guest appearances by some other nights' vocals artists for some of their numbers. The set was made by Wressnig's energy at the Hammond and Schultz's demonstrations of amazing guitar technique. Sax Gordon jammed with them, and was, well, simply phenomenal. I forget the name of their second tune (I only remember it was a cover of a famous song), but it was irresistibly catchy.

(L to R) Lebron and Jonathan Fritzen; Tad Robinson; Tad Robinson and Soul Gift with Sax Gordon

On the second weekday night, popstar-ish pianist and cheery crowd-pleaser Jonathan Fritzén had the stage, featuring saxophonist Lebron for a boppable smooth/contemporary performance.

Tad Robinson followed with great blues and swing vocals (and some nice harmonica too) in a most enjoyable set, supported by Soul Gift and Sax Gordon.

Nestor Torres and band (top row); Billy Childs and quartet (bottom row)

The first act on the ticketed night I attended was Nestor Torres, a renowned Latin jazz flautist. His was not quite my kind of sound, but it was good music within the genre, and he is definitely very skilled with his instrument (as was his band's keyboard player with his own).

Being a fan of jazz piano, I was eagerly anticipating the appearance by Billy Childs and his quartet in the second half. And I was not disappointed by what was on stage; Childs was as brilliant at the piano as I expected he would be, the band had a great harmony, and their saxophone player was outstanding. Unfortunately, the set was ended half an hour earlier than stated on the program, and (maybe this had something to do with it), due to the proximity and orientation of the so-called "Main Gig" stage, we had to endure a good deal of sound from Santana's performance and roaring fans very audibly intruding into our Jazz Garden listening zone --- especially annoying during Childs' more mellow pieces. It was really unfair to Childs and his quartet, as well as to us paying audience members, to have to deal with that, and it soured the end of, and what would have otherwise been the high point of my DJF experience.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Baked falafel and tahini dip

I prepared a little snack of baked falafel and tahini dip to share with my fellow improvvers at Maestro.

The tahini dip is a simple blended mixture of a half cup tahini, a quarter cup of water, two tablespoons of olive oil, zest and juice of a lemon, a tablespoon of minced garlic, half a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of dried parsley. So good, I could just eat it with a spoon. I added a little more water and lemon juice to get the desired consistency.

I chose to make baked falafel because, while I love falafel, I try to avoid the wasteful, messy process of deep frying, and its unhealthy results. I first rinsed and mixed a 425g can of chickpeas and a 425g can of ful/fava (can also be substituted with chickpeas if you have favism or don't like this bean) with a cup of chopped onion, two tablespoons of chopped fresh garlic, and four tablespoons each of chopped fresh cilantro and parsley. I then stirred in two teaspoons each of cumin powder, coriander powder, onion powder, salt, and baking powder, along with four tablespoons of all-purpose flour and two tablespoons of olive oil.

I blended the mixture (really difficult if you only have a mini-blender) and refrigerated it for a few hours to let it set and lose some moisture. To bake, I preheated my oven to 200C, and used the multi-tart tin trick I used when baking Lebkuchen last year: I patted lumps of the blend into the cups, brushed them with olive oil on top, and baked them for about 20 minutes before flipping, oil-brushing the tops again and baking for another 25 minutes. This got me about 20 falafels.

The falafel medallions are best served fresh from the oven, with the outside still crisp, and with lots of the tahini dip. Both are delicious, 100% vegan, and a relatively healthy indulgence.

A Valentine special Maestro improv

An ominous-looking Highlander-styled poster announced the first Maestro improv games in the Middle East and Africa this weekend at Courtyard Playhouse. Competing with Valentine's Day, two music festivals, and a short play festival, and with an entry charge for the first time, our improv group still managed to pack the venue to capacity on both nights.

Despite the risk of being booted out early, playing Maestro brought with it the opportunity to perform in more diverse combinations than in Theatresports. It was our first time performing in public with this format, so it was not quite technically perfected yet --- we literally had hearts dropping at one point.

The Valentine's Day timing also made it into many scene themes, including one in which improvisers acted out an audience couple's account of their relationship history. Congratulations to Salman and Eric for winning the Maestro title (and the grand prize of AED 5) on the 13th and 14th, respectively.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Looming large in Dubai theatre

Visiting Loom Ensemble members Sasha Bogdanowitsch and Michael Bauer joined their now Dubai-based fellow members Raphael Sacks and Neva Cockrell at thejamjar, staging their experimental play Say I Am You for the first time here. While the Dubai-based members have been running workshops and short public performances at the same venue for some time now, this marks their debut feature play in the UAE, and is a testament to the potential of online collaboration in theatre production.

We have had plays in the genre in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including ones featuring dance, but the ensemble brought in something fresh with laudable integration of excellent synchronized singing, and live music performance by actors who often made use of unconventional instruments like panpipes.

Multiple stories taking place in different times and places took turns onstage as they interwove on approach to a shared conclusion. Some of the cast play roles in different stories, so there had to be a lot of quick costume changes. I think the play's greatest strength is the colorful and well-written characters, along with some memorable bits of dialogue for those paying close attention. Michael's performance was especially commendable. I also liked the light use of props (which included visual projection, symbolic objects and found objects), and the use of lighting. A new semi-stepped seating arrangement greatly helped with the visibility of lower parts of stage space. After the show, the Q&A session with the cast and director answered many of our burning questions.

A couple of days later, performing as the Loom Vocal Trio at The Fridge's Fridge Concert Series, Sasha and Raphael sang together with Kate Hamilton, who also directed Say I Am You, and is herself a rather talented singer. Much of the music that night was composed by Sasha too, with cryptic and elemental lyrics sung in forms somewhere between monastic chanting and communal tribal song. Some of the instruments from the play were used in this concert, including a jaw harp in a mesmerizing solo by Sasha.

Friday, February 7, 2014

STREETCON urban art fest and the new Al Ghurair Centre

Al Ghurair Centre seems determined to not disappear amid the deluge of new malls that has flooded Dubai in the last couple of decades. While geographic factors ensure that it will not be able to compete with Dubai Mall and the planned Mall of Arabia, its latest expansion is extremely bold, and is also timed to coincide with a re-branding that includes a new positioning, new marketing, a new logo, and community activities like the STREETCON urban art festival. If the momentum is sustained, it could result in a new lease of life for Dubai's first mall, and a revitalization of what used to be Dubai's high street.

Most of STREETCON is not actually on the street, except for a couple of murals painted along the road that runs through the mall's premises. One of them is a collaborative mural, to be completed by numerous artists over the ten days of the festival.

A small multi-artist gallery and studio called "The Mash-Up" was packed into a vacant space at the Spinneys block, in which customization toys were being worked on by artists, and urban/alternative art works, ranging from tin art to glass art to graffiti, were displayed.

The AGC expansion itself is actually quite revolutionary. It's a three-level complex with two large atria and many more shops and cafes, connected to the old mall, but with a brighter, swankier look. An expanded food court and entertainment centre have been added. AGC has also launched a magazine that, despite being an obvious promotion for the mall, actually has some low-spiel, interesting content.

A study of Union Square with tasmena

It's been quite a while since I've been on a tasmena urban mapping walk. The last couple of walks I attended were pretty long, taking hours to complete. The group has been doing some shorter workshops recently, and I happened to find one for Union Square in Deira listed in my feed on Saturday afternoon, fitting neatly into my late afternoon. Signing up for this almost immediately, and barely an hour before start time, was my most spontaneous sign-up in recent memory. But, after all, this part of town used to be my 'hood.

As usual for a tasmena project, it was not a willy-nilly stroll; everything was planned and executed methodically. We started with a briefing of the extant work on the mapping of the location. We looked at satellite photos of the old Union Square (pre-metro), when it was a large, almost uninterrupted, star-patterned public park. Then we looked at how the square changed with the arrival of the metro stations, with much of what used to be public space cut off for a construction site and metro station facilities buildings, and much planted space converted into walkways for metro users. For both of these, we used tracing sheet overlays of earlier mapping work to study the layout and use of the area. Finally, we looked at future plans for construction of towers that will cut across the square, enclosing a good deal of the part of it closer to the intersection.

I and a teammate were given satellite photos of the square and tracing sheet overlays on which to map the spaces in the square and the human use of these spaces. We walked around the perimeter of the square, noting the types of spaces and their boundaries, and the movement or presence of people.

I focused mainly on the former, noting the visual fences, the locations of unused interstitial hard space, the economic environment and its interconnections, automobile and pedestrian access/barrier lines, and various other observations. We discussed our findings with the others, and brainstormed for ways to enrich the place, such as uses for the interstitial spaces, and the introduction of public games.

After we were done, I succumbed to nostalgia and went to the still-standing Vrindhavan Restaurant bordering the square, and enjoyed a hearty idly-rasam.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Civil wars then and now

NYU Abu Dhabi's latest public talk featured Yale polisci professor Stathis Kalyvas presenting a history and academic analysis of domestic conflict (he prefers not to call it "civil war"). The talk was very broad, from the reasons for the recent 1.5 decades of intensified interest in domestic conflict to the various perspectives regarding triggers and motivation. He also presented some useful primer points on the topic, such as categorization of domestic conflicts based on tactics used by the factions, and presented a still broad but extensive summary matrix of the four major periods of modern domestic conflicts against common defining characteristics of ideology, trans-national movements, and such. A good talk, with much to discuss during the Q&A.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Acoustic afternoon with Fresh Sounds on The Grass

Scattered clouds and mild sunny weather gave Freshly Ground Sounds' Fresh Sounds on the Grass event the perfect atmosphere for a lazy afternoon of live, local, acoustic music.

Sara Aridi; MoFloh & JJ

Nadine; Steven John Bond and Izzy Abidi

Physical Graffiti; Peter Martin

We got to listen to several of the city's musicians playing and singing across a variety of acoustic music styles. The lineup was not exactly as on the poster, but it was a good show from all performers nonetheless.


The closing open mic call was answered by Anant's impromptu performance, winning all over with his peppy rendition of "Sexy and I Know It", and ending the event on an especially cheerful note.

While attending the event, I also happened upon the unexpectedly massive Dubai Flea Market nearby. I had never been to one of these before, and it was a nice trip down memory lane to see 90s laptops, modems and other antiquated items being hawked.

At the crossroads in Al Quoz Pond Park

The last major park on my list, Al Quoz Pond Park is a pretty good deal: it's conveniently located right at the intersection of Meydan Road and Al Khail Road, with a view of the downtown skyline, and while there's not a lot of turf, it's trim, clean and well-kept.

The pond is large and surprisingly beautiful, with Caribbean-like blue-green waters, light sand, and three small rocky islands. It's fenced off, but one can at least enjoy the sight of it while walking, jogging, or using the public exercise equipment on the rubberized track that runs along its shore.

There are also a bunch of facilities, including a kids' play area and a baseball park, although these appear to be for residents only (not sure how exactly this status is demonstrated). Entry is free, but there are no vendors inside or within easy reach, so it would be advisable to bring one's own refreshments.