As guests were settling into a three-course dinner at the 2019 Oman Woman of the Year Award ceremony held recently at Grand Hyatt Muscat, most ears perked up as the singer on stage pitched her first notes of Sam Smith’s I’m Not the Only One. The event was a celebration of women’s achievements and what the second year student of business management was accomplishing behind the microphone was no small achievement. The tuned ears among the diners stopped halfway through their meal as Tasnim al Khalasi hit the right notes in her soulful rendition of another Sam Smith song Stay with Me.
Accompanying Tasnim was Ahmed, a junior logistics officer who likes to go by his first name. Far from the logistical issues he’s professionally equipped to untangle, he’s effortless on the guitar too. He uses percussive fingerstyle riffs and a Loop Station to solidly back vocalists. He used to hang around with a bunch of friends all of who played some instrument or the other when he picked up the guitar. “But then, it got boring playing other people’s songs. And besides, I believe I can’t cover anyone’s original and do it justice. That’s when I started creating my own songs,” he says.
Complementing Tasnim’s vocal timbre and tempo of songs was the playlist itself to set the mood for the evening. Covers of Lady Gaga’s Shallow, Rihanna’s Unfaithful, Ed Sheeran’s Give Me Love and The A Team, and Saudi singer-songwriter’s Arabic track Maagool helped the build up to the awards finale. “You have to know your audience,” says Ahmed, referring to the song selection.
He and Tasnim are part of a collective called Just Jam Sessions (JJS) started in 2016 by Ghazi al Balushi, a singer-songwriter who jumped in at the deep end a year ago. He saw a business opportunity in these sessions and quit a job in social marketing so he could invest more time and energy into something he was passionate about.
Since he started performing live, it was mostly at nightclubs and such other venues where many people are not comfortable going, limiting the reach as a musician. Besides, the shows Balushi was playing – solo performances - were getting monotonous.
That’s when the idea of JJS popped. “If we played to a halal, family friendly audience in not a nightclub but let’s say a coffee shop where anyone can go, we’d have a bigger crowd.” And to do away with the monotony of a single musician performing, Balushi lined up multiple singers. So the first JJS event in 2016 saw a line-up of 15 performers each singing one or two tracks.
Tasnim didn’t perform in that first session but she heard about another at 360° from a friend and mustered the courage to sign up for it. When the time came for her to take the stage for the first time, she was a bundle of nerves. But another musician, who she didn’t know from Adam, offered to beatbox with her to give her confidence and she wouldn’t feel alone on stage in her debut performance. Tasnim hasn’t looked back since. “I want to push the culture of collaboration,” says Balushi. “I want to kill jealousy and competitiveness among musicians.”
With a roster of close to 30 musicians now, JJS has grown into collective offering talent with a wide repertoire in various genres of music. Most of the musicians hold day jobs - a chocolatier, schoolteachers, a car retailer and even a sailing instructor – but there are also two students currently pursuing programmes at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. “We have Omani, American, Egyptian, Filipino, Indian, Jordanian, Sri Lankan and Sudanese who beatbox, hiphop, rap, reggae and rock,” says Balushi. “We curate music for events.”
He has taken it upon himself to promote local talent to the corporate world. “We have talent that is on a par with the best in the world. All they need is some support.” And word is spreading fast prompting inquires even from neighbouring countries and a JJS event held recently in Qatar.
Musicians, Balushi says, don’t care about 50,000 likes on Facebook. “If 50 people come to see me perform live, that’s what matters to me.”
That opportunity is being offered by JJS to rising musicians like Ahmed. “For eight years, I imagined myself on stage in front of a big crowd as I played to myself in my bedroom,” he says, thankful of having found an audience through Just Jam Sessions.