As virus mutes Dubai nightlife, Filipino bands feel the pain

As virus mutes Dubai nightlife, Filipino bands feel the pain
Filipino bands, a mainstay of nightlife across the Gulf and Asia, face an uncertain fate as the Covid-19 pandemic draws crowds away from clubs.
6 min read
15 November, 2020
Filipino migrant workers face dismal working conditions in the UAE [Getty]
Eric Roman struts onstage in his torn jeans and grasps the microphone. 

It's midnight on a Friday and in normal times, he'd hear wild applause from this tightly packed hotel bar in one of the old neighborhoods alongside the Dubai Creek. Sweaty throngs of fellow Filipinos, Arab businessmen and mall employees fresh from their shifts would hit the dance floor as he belted out Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" with his nine-piece Filipino band.

But now the crowds, along with his bandmates, have vanished — in compliance with coronavirus restrictions that ban dancing and cap the number of musicians onstage.

Roman took a 65 percent pay cut when his club reopened after the lockdown. Guitarists, bassists and drummers weren't so lucky.

"Dubai is dead," said Roman, 40. "Every day we're wondering where we're going to get our next meal, our next glass of water, how we're going to survive in this city."

Show bands from the Philippines have long animated Dubai's nightlife, satisfying an appetite for rock, R&B and pop that has grown with the emirate's expat population. Now, as the pandemic mutes the city's live-music scene and clobbers its economy, hundreds of Filipino performers are struggling to survive.

Traveling Filipino house bands burst into prominence in the early 1900s during the US occupation of the archipelago.

Already well-versed in Western church music and military anthems from three centuries of Spanish imperialism, Filipinos deftly picked up on the latest American music trends, from jazz to rock 'n' roll, said Mary Lacanlale, an assistant professor of Asian-Pacific Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills.

By the century's end, karaoke was a national pastime. Filipino performers — with an uncanny ability to imitate Western music legends — became a mainstay in the nightclubs of emerging entrepôts throughout Asia and the Persian Gulf.

Dubai drew legions of Filipino cover bands to fuel its rapid transformation from a desert pearling port into regional party capital. 

"Our music builds Dubai's reputation as a place that transcends political, racial and geographical divides," said Paul Cortes, the Philippine consul general in Dubai, who also happens to be a singer.

An uncertain fate now awaits the musicians, plucked from impoverished provinces to work in smoky lounges and hotel bars overseas.

"Agents promise you heaven and give you hell," said AJ Zacarias, a singer-keyboardist and president of the UAE's Filipino Bands Alliance, an advocacy group. "We're some of the world's most sought-after artists, and they treat us like garbage here."

British vocalists can earn close to what Filipinos make in a month, Zacarias said. Managers reserve "the good hotel suites" for traveling Indian dancers, while Filipinos are often packed eight to a room in unsanitary accommodations, he added.

"It's unfortunately the reality of the market. It's cheaper to hire a band from the Philippines," said Ricardo Trimillos, expert in Asian performance at the University of Hawaii.

When clubs closed in Dubai, dozens of Filipino musicians living in dormitories at the mercy of their employers were kicked out with nowhere to go.

According to the band association, 70 percent never received their promised gratuity to buy food and other basics. Some are selling their clothes to survive. Out-of-work dancers, like 33-year-old Catherine Gallano, have taken to livestreaming their routines — gyrating, backflipping and blowing kisses to followers who send them money.

The UAE's Filipino Bands Alliance said some 80 percent of Filipino artists have had their visas canceled by their employers, a consequence of the UAE's "kafala" labor system that links expatriates' residency to their jobs.

For the millions of low-paid migrant workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere that have built up the UAE as a hub of the global economy, the virus has magnified decades-old abuses like wage theft, delayed salaries and dire living conditions, said Hiba Zayadin, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Read more: Will Lebanon's new domestic worker contract end 'kafala slavery'?

That's especially true for domestic laborers, she added — another precarious job that Filipinos dominate.

When the virus struck in March, Jhune Neri, a 38-year-old singer and stand-up comedian, was trapped — literally. As a "public health precaution," he said, his manager bolted all the doors and shut down the elevator of his crowded dormitory, locking the 11 performers inside for months. Living off just weekly deliveries of rice and red sauce, the bands pressed on, cranking out renditions of Whitney Houston's hits.

"I was thinking, at least I'm still singing, at least still I'm alive," Neri said.

Weeks later, he was jolted awake by the landlord cutting the electricity and evicting everyone. He's still determined to make it in Dubai, though he said most of his friends have "given up hope" and gone home.

But quitting the city isn't so simple. Like thousands of other Filipinos, Rommel Cuison, a 30-year-old guitarist at a hotel bar, has languished for months on a repatriation waiting list, his employer unable to pay his way and the Philippines unable to quarantine masses of returnees. When Cuison's cash-strapped club brought back only solo singers from lockdown, he sold his cherished guitar to afford food.

For performers fortunate enough to have a gig these days, Dubai's newly resumed music scene looks very different.

Hotels struggle to fill rooms. Partygoers are dwindling as the pandemic hits everyone in their pocketbooks. Undercover health inspectors patrol clubs and threaten $13,600 fines for violations. No more reveling into the wee hours — the speakers switch off at 1 a.m.

Marino Raboy, a rock singer in Dubai's working-class district of Deira, said his club feels desolate. Some nights, he performs only for the hostesses lined up at the bar waiting to serve pitchers of Heineken.

As the virus continues to surge in the UAE, many expect the hard times to last. Dubai's live shows and big conventions, including its Expo 2020, have been pushed back. S&P Global, a ratings agency, predicts the city-state's economy will shrink 11 percent this year, recovering only by 2023.

Roman, with a voice like Journey's former frontman Steve Perry, said the new reality means fewer tips and meager pay — not enough to cover the bills for his aging mother and four kids in the Philippines. Still, he feels he has "no choice" but to hope.

"This is the worst time of my life," he said. "I have to believe at some point it will end."

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