Sally Bosson meets acclaimed Bahraini indie-folk singer, songwriter and musician Mo Zowayed, whose music evokes feelings of wanderlust and transient experiences such as separation, love, and departures. His upbeat guitar-driven melodies, powerful lyrics, and unforgettable voice shine through album tracks and live performances alike.
Mo Zowayed sits in his living room, surrounded by framed photographs of Nepal and musical instruments. There’s a trumpet, a double bass, several guitars and a piano. Does he play them all? He laughs. “Some better than others,” he says, smiling. “I haven’t touched the trumpet in ages.”
Mo has been carving out his niche in the music scene of the Middle East for some time now, ever since he came back from Canada where he studied biology and played in rock bands with some friends. “We were called Last Drop and I played electric guitar. Singing hadn’t even crossed my mind back then.”
When he returned to Bahrain, he focused his attention on learning acoustic guitar and this quickly propelled him in to the realm of songwriting and eventually, singing himself. Recalling the first time he sang publicly, he says “I was terrified and not really that good. So I made myself get better at it.” Drawing heavily on influences like Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson and The Lumineers, Mo describes the art of his songwriting as lyrical story-telling rather than taking easy rhymes and penning lyrics with little underlying meaning. “I like my songs to tell a story, and I try not to rehash lyrics that have been done hundreds of times before.”
When asked how he was propelled in to the public eye here in the Kingdom, he grins sheepishly and briefly touches the brim of his felt hat. “Well, I’m surprised you don’t already know that, seeing as pretty much everyone does. I was on Arab’s Got Talent.” What he doesn’t say is that he got through to the semi-finals with a song he wrote himself called I’ll Be The King, but that’s Mo all over; he is somewhat reticent to blow his own trumpet and has a humble shyness about him that is endearing.
Inside the Arab sphere, Mo’s namesake, his grandfather, is a musical legend - the stuff of folklore and a time gone by. His face is on the walls of local gahwas all across Bahrain, watching as the grandfathers of today sip their tea below him. Do people here remember him then? “Oh, absolutely!” Mo enthuses, eager to share his grandfather’s story. “People still sing his songs, he’s still on the radio. The Ministry of Culture recently bought his old house in Muharraq and I can’t wait to see what they do with it. He’s very much a staple of our culture here. So much so that videos of him on Youtube have hundreds of thousands of hits, even today.”
In fact, Mohamed Zowayed was the first Bahraini to ever be pressed on to record. He toured all over the Middle East, from Iraq to Kuwait, the latter having an entire museum dedicated to his contribution to the region. Mo proudly shows me two shellac records of his, framed and displayed proudly. “They remind me that everything is possible.”
Of course today, the road to musical success is different, and Mo has been working tirelessly to promote and record wherever he can. Without a doubt, his most successful song so far is Gypsy Queen, written in his bedroom and now sung back at him by excited crowds when he performs. “It’s definitely a surreal feeling, but the real happiness is knowing that people love something I’ve created and it drives me to create more.” And create he does, writing two songs every week and constantly pushing himself to become a better musician. Esquire Magazine presented him with the Music Award at their acclaimed Man At His Best awards in Dubai, certain that; ‘the rest of the world will soon discover [his] talents.' The recognition came as a surprise to Mo, but his work has been speaking for itself.
For the last two years, he has opened for Jools Holland in the UK - his biggest gigs to date - and the last show had him performing in front of 5,500 people at the Royal Albert Hall in London. By the end of his five-song set, people were dancing in the aisles and singing the lines of the backing vocals as he held his microphone aloft, having captivated them with his easy charm and memorable voice. His CDs sold out in the twenty minute interval before Jools took to the stage. “We vastly underestimated how much merchandise we would need to take!” he laughs. “But it’s all a learning curve.”
His music has even started to make ripples in the creative world and he has worked with musicians who tour with Ellie Goulding, Hurts and First Aid Kit. “Their level of musicianship is inspiring, it pushes me to change and improve my work,” he declares. “That they enjoy playing with me and believe in my songs is the ultimate encouragement.” Mo’s next few songs are lined up for release over the coming months. The first one, The Monsoon, was released on August 1st and is available on all main streaming platforms. “The next one is coming out soon,” he says excitedly. “It’s been a busy year of writing and recording, but now it’s all about getting out there and showing people what I’ve got.” And we can’t wait.