Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images (Keb’ Mo’); © Naufal MQ/Getty Images (Burj Khalifa); Paul Brown/Alamy (camel)
I’m not a vacation guy. Traveling is a part of my job. I’ve toured most of the world: Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, practically every state in America. When I’m home, that’s when I’m on vacation. But my first trip to Dubai, this February, wasn’t a normal vacation; it was a visit to another planet. I was playing the Dubai Jazz Festival, and my wife, Robbie, suggested we add a few days onto the trip. As soon as we landed, I knew we were in for something different. The airport looks like Las Vegas: stunning, glitzy, over the top—like everything in Dubai, it turns out.
Beforehand, Robbie researched how to behave in Islamic cultures, and I had all these rules in mind: Don’t cross your legs, don’t use profanity, cover yourself in public. It all brought me back to Beulah Baptist Church, in ’60s Watts, where I grew up. We were on our best behavior when we checked into our hotel, Habtoor Grand Resort, which is right next to Skydive Dubai. You’re right on the Persian Gulf, so there are outdoor activities everywhere. In February, the weather’s perfect—mild, breezy, a bit like Southern California. But it wasn’t until the next morning, looking out our hotel window, that I saw we were surrounded by architectural wonders. All these towering buildings. New ones going up every minute. Cranes everywhere. The best architects in the world are busy there, with no expense spared.
Usually, when I’m on tour, I don’t have much time to explore a city. But here, we did everything. On our second day, we went on a safari—an open-air Jeep ride into the desert—and I got my first ride on a camel. I’ve ridden horses; this was like riding a skyscraper. You’re way up there, but it’s a smooth ride, a very Zen-like lope.
After that, we went to a Bedouin village, where a family cooked us an authentic meal, including camel—I didn’t feel good about that! It was a big stew cooked over an open flame, served with big, round pieces of bread and hummus. After we ate, they performed traditional music and we joined in, dancing and jumping around.
The next day, we went up in the highest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. Four elevators take you up, each one smaller than the last, and then there are tiny circular stairways up to the observation decks. Looking down … man. There’s the Gulf, and there’s a 100-story building below you. When you’re that high, your sense of heights goes away, like what happens when you skydive—your mind dissociates from the ground.
The day of my show, we drove to Abu Dhabi, about an hour and a half from Dubai. The first thing we visited was the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I looked at one painting and was like, “Is that Whistler’s Mother? In Abu Dhabi? Holy moly.” Then we went to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is the largest in the country: absolutely pristine and white, with all this intricate art, so grand and peaceful. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture.
That night, at the festival, I debated whether to perform my new song “Put a Woman in Charge.” The song is political in a way that’s probably not so popular in the Middle East. But I figured since Alicia Keys was headlining, I might as well go for it. The crowd loved it. What can I say? Dubai, honestly, is one of the hippest cities in the world. We came back happy and rejuvenated. It was a bit of a letdown, coming back to earth—but home is a very warm letdown.
The four-time Grammy winner is celebrating his 20th year performing under the moniker Keb’ Mo’ and is currently touring the U.S. in support of his recently released album, Oklahoma.