Fawaz Al Shaikh – the artist known as Conference of Birds – tells Amal Sarhan about his songs and his process.

Up-and-coming musical artist Fawaz Al Shaikh is setting the scene in Bahrain with his magical melodies and is gearing up for a return to the stage in the coming months. Under the name ‘Conference of Birds’, the Bahraini singer and piano player found the courage to showcase his talent last year with his first solo album and a live session covering three of his original tracks, both released in 2021.

His album, also named Conference of Birds, has five tracks on it, namely Fly, Jasmine, Two Lost Boys on the Run, Wild Heart at Sea, and Dire Choir, the third of which is especially personal to the singer: “It has to do with a best friend that I once had. We parted ways a decade ago, and all I wanted to say in this song was “I miss him.”

Dire Choir, the fifth song on the EP, is centred around togetherness – an extremely important theme to Fawaz – and was inspired by John Lennon and his campaign for peace and anti-war.

Conference of Birds: The Live Session is his latest achievement. Released in November, it features a group performance with four instrumentalists and five vocalists, all of whom are close acquaintances.

Fawaz found his love of music at the early age of seven, when he received an unexpected present from his parents.

“Do you know when parents randomly go to a toy store and buy you something quite out of the ordinary? One of those items for me was a tiny keyboard. I spent a lot of time playing that keyboard, without even knowing how to read music.

“I gradually learned to play by ear, listening to songs on television and playing the melodies onto the keyboard, making many mistakes on the way, of course! That keyboard is the reason I have achieved the feats I have today. It was an accidental gift from my parents that helped me nurture my hidden passion for music.”

Fawaz henceforth always made certain music played a part in his life, joining music clubs at school and university, and participating in national events. Prioritising his career, he graduated as an accountant and joined the audit banking industry at 22, with music still by his side.

It was only when he turned 31 that he decided to pay some more attention to his passion, forming a band called BG Harmony with his best friend, Sameh, and starting to perform covers of their favourite tunes across the country. They also released two original tracks on YouTube and SoundCloud, namely Chapter One in 2018 and See You Soon in 2019. The duo are still going strong and have performed more than 100 gigs over the past seven years. Fawaz has also performed with local artist Ala Ghawas as his pianist and back-up vocalist in Kuwait and Bahrain for his album Tryst.

The artist argues that life does not need to work on a prescribed schedule and going at one’s own pace is better than going at anyone else’s.

“I don’t regret starting at a late stage because I felt the time was right. I had to initially put my career first and music second until I felt mature enough artistically to advance my craft,” he says.

When the pandemic struck and social isolation became the new normal, it gave Fawaz a chance to work on his music. He approached local sound engineer Abdulla Jamal, who owns SoundMan studio in Isa Town, and local musicians and artists to help him record his EP, which was released last February on streaming platforms and sold in local stores, such as Virgin Megastore.

When asked how he would describe his music, Fawaz responds with: “One word: universal. I like to create songs that connect to all ages, ethnicities and other demographic categories.”

“I love it when kids could listen to the same songs that grandparents would listen to. That, to me, is the beauty of music.”

Fawaz’s stage name was inspired by The Conference of the Birds, a poem written in the 12th century by Persian poet and philosopher Attar of Nishapur. It inspired the global artist Chris Martin of Coldplay, who spoke about the poem and included its title in his song A Head Full of Dreams.

“I actually heard the lyrics before hearing about the poem,” says Fawaz. “Conference of Birds doesn’t reflect me as a solo artist, but I intentionally chose this title because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to complete my album without a little help from my friends and the support of my family.”

He is especially thankful for his wife, Fatema, whom he calls his biggest supporter. A visual artist herself, she continually encourages Fawaz to reach for new heights. She also created the artwork for his debut EP, a silhouette of Fawaz himself, with the Virgo constellation enclosed in the shadow and a flutter of nine birds emerging above (representing the month of Fawaz’s birthday, September). Recalling his friend Sameh, he describes their friendship and the inspiration he has been to him through the years: “Sameh is my backbone, my music partner, and my lifelong friend.”

Some artists search for songs and ideas but, for Fawaz, the opposite is true.

He says: “Most songs just come to me. There are constant melodies and words running through my mind, and when something catches my attention, I pull out my phone and start humming the melody or writing down the words. “Sometimes, when I create a song, I end up finding the song requiring more from me. Once a song is initially created, it has a heartbeat, it breathes, and you have to cherish it and take good care of it.”

Lyrics are the biggest challenge to the singer, who struggles with transforming ideas and feelings into concrete words. Nevertheless, these obstacles only motivate him more, for “what are achievements without barriers?

“Once the songs start materialising at my home studio where I record them as demos, I share them with other artists and ask for their feedback from a production point of view,” says the singer.

“After several rehearsals and sessions at the piano, a demo is finalised and I can then head to the studio, where I work with the producer to create the final piece.”

Fawaz believes that: “Bahrain is a country rich with talented artists of all kinds: poets, songwriters, DJs and others. Nobody can deny that.

When asked about advice he would give to upcoming artists on the island, he replies: “Don’t ignore your passion – work on it, create something that will live forever. When you do, remember to add discipline, commitment and hard work into it. Art requires that.”

Future plans for Fawaz include live performances of his tracks as well as a new album, but with all these goals in mind, his primary hope is to ‘bring joy to people.

“When I hear that people have enjoyed listening to my songs, I can’t ask for more,” he says.

“In the end, I’m just a guy who loves to sit in front of a piano and a microphone.” ✤