As virus mutes Dubai nightlife, Filipino bands feel the pain

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Dubai: 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 neighbourhoods 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 per cent 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% 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 per cent of Filipino artists have had their visas cancelled 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.

That’s especially true for domestic labourers, 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.