Jazz artists strive to share music with locals despite alcohol obstacle

"Matthew Rybicki, Dominick Farinacci, and Ulysses Owens Jr. play a tune at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Doha's St. Regis hotel on Tuesday, January 28. Rybicki and Owens Jr. have since finished their two-week stay and returned to New York, while Farinacci is there long-term as a JALC global ambassador."

James Zach Hollo

Over the past year and a half, Jazz at Lincoln Center at the St. Regis Doha hotel has been a popular draw for many of the country’s residents, especially expats.

In the darkened, cozy club, women tend to dress less modestly than is expected of them elsewhere in Qatar. Laughter and waves of side conversations carry on amid the sound of the band. And waiters scurry about noting drink orders.

But even though the hotel is in Doha, it is not exactly a place for Qataris.

Since it opened here in late 2012, Jazz at Lincoln Center has had strict policies about who can enter the club. Because alcohol is sold there, no one in national attire – wearing an abaya or a thobe – is permitted entry. However, women wearing headscarves but not the black robe are welcome.

Though the dress code policy is not new, it still frustrates some residents. Recently, Nayla Al Thani, an 18-year-old Qatari student at Northwestern University in Qatar, tried to reserve a table for a friend’s birthday.

But she was informed that she would not be permitted to wear an abaya, and she ultimately decided against going there.

Speaking to Doha News, Al Thani said:

“It was very upsetting to be honest. I was mad at the concept that I can’t eat at a restaurant in my own country.”

Profit motive

This is not the first time Qatar’s restrictive entrance policies at venues that sell alcohol have caused residents to chafe.

In October, organizers of a Russell Peters comedy show at the Sheraton Doha hotel quickly retracted a ban on national attire after some locals began urging a boycott of the event. Also last year, women in headscarves reported problems entering a Tom Jones beach concert at the Intercontinental Hotel, a sign of inconsistent enforcement of the law.

At JALC, there is no cover charge to enter the club, so much of its profit comes from the sale of food and mostly alcoholic drinks, manager Isabella Murgu told Doha News.

Though Qataris can still turn up not wearing national dress (as they can in bars around the country), many may not want to.

Qatar is a conservative Islamic country, and Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol. Abdelhak Hamiche, an associate professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Qatar’s Faculty of Islamic studies, said that being in the same room as alcohol is explicitly forbidden for Muslims unless it is absolutely necessary.

Not everyone adheres to this rule.

Though an usher at the entrance to JALC checks IDs, Qatari women sometimes do manage to enter. Matthew Rybicki, an American bassist recently in town for a two-week stint at the club, said he and Ulysses Owens Jr., a renowned American drummer who also was briefly in Doha, managed to befriend a few Qatari women outside of St. Regis.

They stopped by the club twice, and each time stayed for several songs.

“I think the idea was they weren’t supposed to be there at all, but they wanted to come, sort of as a gesture of friendship and a gesture of reaching out cross-culturally,” Rybicki told Doha News.

That kind of exchange is what many musicians here have hoped to promote with their craft.

New York’s JALC has endeavored to use St. Regis as a home base for bringing jazz to the region, said Dominick Farinacci, JALC’s global ambassador and star trumpeter.

New strategy

But having learned about Islamic views on alcohol, musicians have tried to extend their offerings in different venues.

JALC for example gives a free concert at the Museum of Islamic Art park once a month – and will host music under the stars tomorrow during the kickoff of the Doha International Food Festival.

And Farinacci has performed for grade school students in Dukhan, and even for patients at the Cleveland Clinic’s branch in Abu Dhabi.

We don’t want to offend anyone, Farinacci told Doha News, adding:

“And we want to bring (jazz) to this region in a way that reflects the spirit of the music – teamwork, spontaneity and respect for others.”

The most effective way for musicians to spread their music locally has been to venture outside of St. Regis. Farinacci says his band from New York collaborated with a famous Qatari musician named Ali Abdul Sattar for a Qatar TV special.

“It made it really clear how related we are through music,” he said. When rehearsing for their performance, Farinacci says Abdul Sattar requested a Bob Marley reggae beat, something any musician could relate to.

Additionally, the club often holds collaborative concerts on Wednesday nights in which Arab musicians and American jazz players perform together. Indee Thotawattage, a culture and politics student at Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, is currently writing her senior thesis on the history of American jazz.

After attending a concert last month that featured an Iraqi artist and the visiting jazz musicians, she said she was blown away by the blending of culture in the performance and the way it was able to incorporate the sounds of so many genres.

She added that it spoke for the potential for jazz in Doha, as “America’s music but not an American import.”

Future plans

While Farinacci plans to stay at St. Regis for some time, most musicians come as a group and stay for about two weeks. Some who spoke to Doha News said their compensation is “very fair,” but added that they mainly see their time in a Doha as a way to introduce jazz music to new ears – particularly to Qatari nationals, who have presumably never been able to experience jazz live.

Bassist Rybicki said:

“It’s not like we’re trying to get them to change their music or their culture. My thought is just, ‘Hey here’s this thing I love. Check it out. Maybe you’ll love it too. It brings me a lot of joy. Maybe it’ll bring you a lot of joy.’”

While JALC is a nonprofit institution, the hotel is not. According to Murgu, the club performs well financially.

The partnership began in New York, where St. Regis on East 55th Street has always featured artists from New York’s infamous JALC in its concerts. When Qatari magnate Omar Alfardan, now owner of St. Regis Doha, visited New York several years ago, he admired the venue and nurtured a love for jazz music.

Upon St. Regis Doha’s opening in 2012, a partnership was negotiated between Alfardan, St. Regis, and the hotel consortium Starwood to establish an overseas branch of JALC, said Kaarin Pfeffer, the hotel’s communications manager.

Other branches are expected to open at St. Regis hotels around the world. “One is opening in China and more are coming to the Middle East,” Pfeffer said.

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