By Lisa Patterson
Ever do something radical to fund an album? I did. And I’m sharing the story publicly for the first time.
I was offered a three-month contract playing saxophone with a band in Dubai. As a singer-songwriter playing original material, I wouldn’t normally consider this, but I needed funds to make an album of my own. It was also attractive that it would be in a desert climate during the Canadian winter, all expenses paid, playing soul classics with stellar musicians. Sounds ideal, right? It was, until distressing realities set in, culminating with the Canadian consul rescuing the band from jail.
Our venue – one of dozens in Dubai – was in the Ramada Continental Hotel. Patrons were a mix of ex-pat businesspeople, nationals, tourists, and female sex workers. Each musician had a large private room in the hotel – our homes for the next three months. There was an in-room safe where I stashed my passport, plane ticket home, and American cash wages.
After a month, difficulties had emerged. The hotel started placing limits on food, charging for soda pop during performances, disrupting in-room phone service. I received regular offers of cars and jewelry in exchange for sex. Among show patrons, there were open displays of racism and wealth bias. And our sets were long and unchanging, six nights a week.
With rising hotel/band tension, we asked the booking agent to negotiate a new venue for the last month of our contract, and a new club was arranged. But contractually, we were still entitled to live at the hotel. The new club was a 20-minute drive away, so every evening passenger vans whisked us to our new venue, then back again later.
One night the hotel called the new venue, as our show was ending at 2:00 a.m., saying we should wait at the venue, that all our belongings from our rooms would be brought to us, and we’d be escorted to an apartment. What a shock! How could they dismantle our rooms so quickly? And without us present? We were worried about our safe-locked valuables, so we took taxis back to the hotel.
Security was positioned in the lobby, but we were peaceful. After a long wait the hotel owner appeared, and said they’d over-booked the hotel for the Dubai Shopping Festival (which draws hordes of wealthy tourists to, um, shop), so they needed our rooms for other guests.
When the bandleader demanded our valuables and was dismissed, their exchange became heated. A couple of us snuck off to see if our room key cards still worked. Mine didn’t but the drummer walked in on a man asleep in his bed. Now I was really worried: What happened to all the cash I was saving for my album? My plane ticket home? My passport?
Back in the lobby, while the arguing continued, I approached the front desk, and asked if they had the phone numbers of local consulates. They did. It was about 3:00 a.m. when I dialed the number. A live voice answered – in Ottawa, where it was eight hours later than Dubai. It turned out this was an emergency direct line to our capital, for Canadians abroad. I summarized the situation, and the official said he’d alert the Canadian Consul in Dubai in the morning. I wrote the phone number on a piece of paper and hid it in my shoe.
The hotel announced that the dispute would be resolved at the police station. Vans zoomed up in front of the hotel. At first, we refused to get in, but it became clear there was no choice. That van ride was a weird mixture of outrage, fear, and jokes about Alcatraz.
My five male bandmates were put in a holding cell together, and I was taken to a women’s holding cell. It was about 10 feet square, cement floor, bench along one side, a large bucket in the middle to pee in. There were about five sex workers there.
I was sweaty, exhausted, hungry, and freaked out, but I had that phone number. As if in a vintage film noir, there was an old-school telephone hooked on the wall. I dialed the number, it was again picked up in Ottawa. The same official was startled by this escalation, and told me to hold tight, that he was going to wake up the Dubai consul and get us out.
Around 6:00 a.m., I saw our consular saviour pass by. Voices bounced down the hall in both English and Arabic. Around 8:00 a.m., we were led to a waiting room, disheveled, and stressed. The Canadian Consul presented us each with a sheet of paper that we had to sign. We were told it said in Arabic that we “agree to not misbehave in Dubai ever again.” We hesitated briefly, then signed. All we wanted was to get out of there – and bathe, eat, sleep. We still had to perform that night.
The consul chaperoned us to the hotel’s underground parking garage. A hotel official handed us each a garbage bag that contained our personal belongings from our rooms, and one envelope each with our documents and cash. We had to count it, verify documents, then sign a release.
The six of us were driven to a run-down apartment complex and given keys to a dirty two-bedroom suite with one bathroom. As the guys argued about the beds, I passed out on the couch. When we arrived at the venue that evening, I went to its accommodations people and feigned gender modesty requirements that I knew would get me sympathy, based on cultural traditions. I pleaded that a woman in an apartment with men “who are not my husband” put my reputation in jeopardy. Of course, I’d toured in original bands with guys for years. Survival makes you do odd things. They arranged a private room for me.
After the final month of the gig, back in Canada, I was eager to work on my album. Doing pre-production on my songs was soul medicine. But it took three months of vocal coaching to locate my natural singing voice again.
And I filed the experience under: Things not to do to fund an album.