It’s January, and what better way to start the year than with sleep deprivation and swift trips to foreign lands? Kuwait seemed the obvious choice.
Arriving at our hotel at around 7AM, we were bleary-eyed and delirious, but didn’t fail to notice that the hotel looked less like the five-star super-modern vision of luxury we’d seen online and more like the Brutalist 1970s time-warp that had been described to us by some of its current guests – another team of our own LED drummers, also gigging in Kuwait at this time. Following an awkward meeting at the airport with a bunch of men who carried all of our luggage to the minibus – and who we had assumed worked for our client but were in fact just opportunist buskers of the airport world, hoping to earn some dollar (of which we had none on arrival) – our driver, who actually did work for the hotel, taxied us off without a single word of understanding passing between us.
We waited in the lobby, confused and trying not to appear impatient in our sleep-deprived state, while two important-looking men in traditional Arabic attire had a lengthy meeting with the concierge. After eventually checking in, we decided to take a quick look at breakfast before stumbling to bed, and found the best in Middle Eastern cuisine laid out in the restaurant on the 17th floor, which boasted a panoramic view of Kuwait City and a breathtaking sunrise (okay, so it was still luxurious). A few moments later, just as we were discussing whether or not this was the very same hotel in which our colleagues were currently staying, the lift pinged and in walked our boss in his pyjamas. That’ll be a yes, then.
We slept into the late afternoon and awoke to the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off skyscrapers, just in time to get a late lunch – because every free meal you can get is a valuable one – and to discuss our evening plans: to go and see our own show, as performed by the other team, at an open-air food court across town. I suppose you might compare it to something like working in a restaurant and going there for a meal on your day off. Whatever the case, it seemed perfectly reasonable.
The event at which the other drummers performed was in celebration of the Arabian Gulf Cup Final – that’s Gulf, not golf, thus football, not golf – featuring the Emirates and Oman national teams, a big deal in this region. Though this was nowhere near where the match itself was taking place, they sure knew how to sell it. The programme included virtual-reality goalkeeping (a game for which I accidentally broke the highest record), mini football pitch for kids (and a few grown men, but I won’t name names…), memorabilia for sale, virtual 3D maps of new stadiums being built for the 2020 Qatar World Cup, plus a huge stage reserved for music, dance and laser-based acts. Among all of this, three shows took place each night, performed by five of our own LED drummers.
Watching a show you know so well is a bizarre experience. Those of us not playing felt like we should have something to do, something to worry about that we might have missed. I filmed the first two shows on a fellow drummer’s Go-Pro, partly to capture the action for the performers to watch later on, and partly just to have something to do, to feel useful rather than becoming a mere bystander. That’s not to say the performers didn’t keep us fully engaged: they did a incredible job and reminded us just what a great show we do (collective trumpet fully blown).
Feeling at a loose end between shows, we enjoyed lemon mints at an Iranian restaurant, and then ordered a ridiculous feast – as this part of the world tends to encourage us to – at a Lebanese place. As we listed about five mezze dishes each from the menu, as always, there would be that haunting question asked in earnest: ‘Are we sure that’ll be enough food?’ The answer is YES, YOU IDIOTS, THERE IS ALWAYS ENOUGH, EVERY SINGLE TIME. As we tucked into gargantuan amounts of hummus, aubergine moussaka, cheese sambousek and spinach fatayer (‘Whoops, this is definitely too much… please waiter, stop giving us bread!’), musicians took to the large stage in front of us, and we felt serenaded by the sweet sounds of hammered dulcimer, Hang drum and darbuka. Meals like this typically start with rumbling stomachs, an air of excitement, and a familiar rapidity at reaching for each dish. The pace gradually decreases and, by the last tidbits, is slowed almost to a halt as each consumer feels their body balloon beneath them. It’s a game of two halves, in which the latter half will determine the final winners and losers, though it’s difficult to tell whether this is down to eating more or less.
After what felt like a long day of work but, for half of us, was in fact a day of doing nothing, we all reassembled in the hotel. Drummers from both teams gathered in one room, some with the remains of clown white around their eyes and ears, and others still blissfully clean, accompanied by production managers and light painters (those also involved in the show from that evening). Never before have there been so many of us in one hotel at the same time, and we were like excitable children meeting their heroes after a Christmas show.
The following day it was time to stop observing and actually do some work, and so we loaded our gear down to the underground carpark and waited for our gig contact to arrive. After a quiet half hour waiting, we suddenly heard the monstrous rev of an engine, and in fled a sleek, black Maserati: oh good, the client. We threw all of our luggage onto the back of a huge, vermillion pick-up truck, driven by his friend, and four of us jumped straight into the Maserati. I didn’t think I cared about fast cars at all, and still try to maintain this stance, but it was hard not to feel the thrill being driven down open highways at breakneck speed in the tan leather front passenger seat, windows down and rock ‘n’ roll blasting from the stereo. A few times we stopped at traffic lights as the red pick-up pulled up alongside us, and we gesticulated at our bandmates as we rapidly pulled away, reducing them to nothing but a dot in the far distance.
Our gig was at The Avenues, a shopping mall which is currently the largest in the Middle East and, due to new developments, is set to soon be the largest mall in the world (that’s if Dubai doesn’t compete and get there first). Walking through it was not like being in an ordinary mall, but something far more overwhelming. Whole buildings and warehouse-sized stores, such as an entire Ikea, occupied relatively small spaces within it; real palm trees lined what can only be described as indoor streets or boulevards; and finding the way outside was an ordeal that involved a half-hour walk, only to reach the mall’s very own garden, complete with ponds, waterfalls and concrete paving.
The gig itself attracted bigger crowds than we knew it possible to squeeze into one mall, and there were gold iPhones springing at us from every angle as we paraded along one of the many boulevards. At times there was so much excitement from the masses of shoppers that we could barely move from one space to the next. Following our main set, we stood in front of a stage for the world’s longest drum roll in anticipation of a prize draw, in which one lucky entrant would win the equivalent of a few hundred thousand pounds and the other a very expensive car. It’s no wonder there were so many people waiting around looking eager. As expected, the final winner wasn’t actually present but was instead informed of his newfound riches over the phone, and the host kept him on the line, baffled as ever, for as long as possible before announcing his prize, at which point the winner sounded like he’d nearly died of excitement. It was like watching any TV gameshow, in which the host can be expected to say any number of predictable things, and is easy to understand due to his tone, never mind the fact it was all said in Arabic.
After one more set parading in the opposite direction to the first, we returned to the dressing room, sweaty and hungry as ever. You wouldn’t believe just how much we felt like the prize-winner on the phone, then, as when our client turned up with bags full of Middle Eastern buffet food – falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, fattoush, stuffed vine leaves, sambousek, and warm bread. It was the perfect feast before rushing off to the airport to begin another long journey home.
This time, those of us who had already been in the Maserati swapped with the others to allow everyone the chance for a speedy thrill, and enjoyed sitting up high in the pick-up, getting lost on roads that all looked the same and learning some Arabic words and phrases in the meantime (about ninety per cent of which we’d shamefully forgotten by the time we alighted at the airport).
After a short flight to Dubai, four hours in another glittery airport passed quickly with the help of card games, to which we may or may not have learnt all the rules. The pressure was on as we sat around a table between crowded departure gates, observed closely by a few elderly Pakistani men and women, who watched the whole thing as if it were a spectator sport. We hoped they didn’t notice our crude naming of every game, shouted out at short intervals, and the fact the rules kept changing in every round. One or two people came to introduce themselves, and asked about where we were from, before glazing over at our enthusiastically wordy responses and then slowly walking away. Airports can be tiresome, there’s no doubt – these anonymous worlds in which a sense of time and place seem to be entirely lost – but fortunately travelling, especially with this bunch of drum-crazed weirdos, remains enriching, always different, and always interesting.