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Death metal rockers raise eyebrows in sedate Bahrain

By Grace Wong for CNN
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In Bahrain, metal bands and their followers can attract unwanted attention from the authorities.
  • Rocking out to riffs does more than just raise eyebrows in Bahrain
  • Metalheads are often branded as Satan worshippers and gigs are regularly shut down
  • "We follow our hearts and don't care about what people think," metal rocker Omar Zainal says
  • Social platform devoted to underground musicians in Middle East launching soon

London, England (CNN) -- He's an airline worker by day, and unknown to most of his colleagues, a death metal rocker by night.

Omar Zainal, guitarist for Bahraini heavy metal band Smouldering in Forgotten, says he tends to keep a low profile on his musical moonlighting.

"I try not to mention it. There are some people who just won't understand what I'm doing," Zainal, who also goes by the moniker Voidhanger, told CNN.

Metalheads are used to being on the fringe. But in Bahrain, a tiny kingdom located on Saudi Arabia's eastern coast, rocking out to riffs does more than just raise eyebrows.

"People don't accept the fact of metal being music and having fun. It's always in conflict with religion," the 22-year-old guitarist, who spends his days working in aviation maintenance, said.

In Bahrain, metal bands and their followers are often branded as Satan worshippers. Gigs are regularly shut down, and the movement largely stays underground to avoid public attention. Many groups rely on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to stay connected.

"A lot of Islamic scholars have a vision that rock and heavy metal is related to Satanism and the devil," said Ammar Alaradi, founder of Bahrain Talent, a Web site that promotes independent musicians.

"They don't understand the rock and metal movement, which is mostly an expression of freedom," he said.

They don't understand the rock and metal movement, which is mostly an expression of freedom.
--Ammar Al-Aradi
  • Bahrain
  • Metal and Hardcore
  • Music

A battle of the bands show in Bahrain was shut down last April after police arrested the guitarist of a metal band for wearing what was considered to be an offensive T-shirt. The T-shirt depicted a devil-like character that said "God's Busy...Can I Help?," according to local media reports.

It isn't easy being a rocker -- or a fan for that matter.

The consequences of attending a metal or rock event is a topic of discussion that's frequently raised on Mideast Youth, according to Esra'a Al Shafei, founder of the online forum.

It isn't just young people but professionals who don't want to put their jobs on the line who are worried. Women, in particular, express concern about harming their reputation, she said.

"A lot of times," she said, "you'll find people secretly arranging to attend these groups."

In true metal style, the louder, the better, usually holds for the live shows that manage to go on. Often held at clubs, you'll find mosh pits and dancing, said Alaradi.

But a gig in Bahrain is likely to be less extreme than what you might expect from a metal concert elsewhere.

"We are bound by certain cultural ideas" and gigs always draw attention, he said.

The metal scene in Bahrain may be small but it's passionate. In September, a one-day metal festival featuring 10 bands was successfully staged without any interference.

Originally composed of bands that mostly played covers, the scene is slowly developing its own sound, helped by groups like Smouldering in Forgotten, who write their own music.

The three-member band self-released its second album, "I, Devourer," which is available on iTunes, earlier this month.

Zainal, who was at the show that was closed down last spring, derided the idea of anyone being arrested for being a metalhead, but said such occurrences don't deter him from making his music.

"We follow our hearts and don't care about what people think," he said.

A melting pot of different cultures, Bahrain boasts a diverse cultural scene. But partly because of small size of the country, it is often overlooked, said Al Shafei.

"Noone looks at Bahrain as a place where talented musicians are emerging," she said.

In fact, overall there's been little attention placed on the underground musical scene in the Middle East, which is one of the reasons why she's launching Web site Mideast Tunes.

The site, which will be rolled out later this month, is a platform for the region's alternative musicians, from hip hop and trance artists to metal and alt-rock groups.

These groups are expressing themselves in a way -- sometimes personal, sometimes religious -- that has not been explored properly, Al Shafei told CNN.

Smouldering in Forgotten will be included on the site, as will Thee Project -- a Bahraini band that fuses Arabic and Persian songs with heavy metal and rock.

"Why isn't metal so big here in Bahrain?" Zainal pondered. "Because we don't get everything like everywhere else."

Unlike in Europe and the United States, there are few tours and gigs. Many metalheads just end up giving up and going back to normal life, he said.

Smouldering in Forgotten faces the difficulties familiar to most struggling bands. Trying to juggle full-time jobs and find still time to rehearse and record is a constant challenge.

But they plan on keeping the faith.

"We're still surviving and plan to stick together. We're hoping we get the chance to maybe go and play a gig in Europe or in the United States some day."