Phone calls don’t get much more surreal than the one received by Sanjay Shah one New Year’s Eve. The Dubai-based hedge fund manager was relaxing at his villa on Palm Jumeirah when his friend, Radio 1 DJ Dany Neville, phoned.
“He said to me ‘You know Snoop Dogg is playing at the Meydan Racecourse tonight?’” recalls Sanjay. “So I said, ‘Yes, what about it?’
“And he says, ‘Well, I’m with him now and he’d like to visit the Palm. Any chance we can come round your house for the afternoon?’
“I didn’t know what to say.
Of course Snoop Dogg could come round for the afternoon! It was so unreal – I think my first thought was: ‘But we don’t have any food in’.”
Food or no food, within the hour, Sanjay – along with Usha, 42, his wife, and their three children, Esha, 11, Aman, seven, and five-year-old Nikhil – were entertaining perhaps the world’s most famous rapper and his 10-man entourage.
“What’s it like having a man who’s sold 30 million records sitting in your garden? Bizarre. But thrilling!” says Sanjay, who is from the UK but moved to Dubai in 2009 after falling in love with the city. “I put some pictures on Facebook and no one believed it was him. Everyone thought I’d hired a lookalike.
“He was lovely. He was talking to the kids, asking about Dubai, telling us about his family. It was fun.” But, in fact, it was more than that.
For this visit by the Mobo Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated artist actually inspired Sanjay to get back to music and set up his own charity, Autism Rocks.
The 44-year-old decided after that he would like to try to stage gigs by such superstars to raise money for autism research, a cause close to his heart ever since his youngest son Nikhil had been diagnosed with the condition in 2011.
Not an easy goal to achieve, you might think. Yet he has personally put on shows with Prince and Lenny Kravitz in London, and Elvis Costello and Joss Stone in Dubai, and, in the process, raised more than Dh15 million for autism research...
“It’s been an incredible journey,” says Sanjay, explaining that the money goes to the Autism Research Trust (ART). ART in turn supports research by the Autism Research Centre (ARC) based at Cambridge University, which works to understand the cause and effects of autism.
ARC has 15 ongoing long-term research projects that aim to find methods of identifying, as early as possible, who will develop autism, and then evaluate specific interventions and support, to aid them through the rest of their lives.
A spokesman for ART says, “The ARC is at the cutting edge of autism research. Under the leadership of Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, the ARC aims to develop our understanding of the causes of autism and to evaluate interventions to ensure that people affected by autism receive the best possible support.”
A recent example of the Centre’s work was the discovery, through magnetic resonance imaging, that autism affected different parts of the brain depending on the sex of the individual. “This is one of the largest brain imaging studies of sex/gender differences yet conducted in autism. Females with autism have long been under-recognised and probably misunderstood,” said Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, who led the research project.
“The findings suggest that we should not blindly assume that everything found in males with autism applies to females. This is an important example of the diversity within the ‘spectrum’.”
At this point the obvious question is perhaps how exactly a chap goes from the rather dry (if well-rewarded) business of hedge-fund management to staging concerts by four of the world’s biggest stars. But before we get to that, let’s find out what half of us probably really want to know: What’s Prince like in person?
Sanjay pauses politely for a moment. “He’s very quiet,” he says. “An enigma.”
“Is he a diva?” Another pause. “He made a few demands, yes. He wanted purple drapes in his dressing room. And scented candles. But he was doing this for free, for charity, remember, so I think he deserved all that. And – come on! – this is Prince we’re talking about. When he got on stage he absolutely blew the place away.”
Lenny Kravitz, Sanjay adds, was one of the most charismatic people he’s ever met, “but very down to earth”; while Elvis Costello apparently had trouble with Dubai’s weather.
“He spent the day before the show sunbathing but he didn’t wear any cream,” recalls Sanjay. “When he got on stage he was bright red.”
While the idea behind staging such gigs may have been born the day Snoop Dogg popped round, Sanjay’s desire to help fund research into autism was sparked some time earlier when Nikhil was diagnosed with the condition, aged just two.
He is unable to speak and struggles to stay still or remain focused on any given task for longer than a few minutes. He currently attends The Developing Child Centre in Umm Suqeim, Dubai. “It was like being hit by a train when we were first told,” remembers Sanjay. “As a dad your first question is ‘How can I fix this?’ And when you’re told you can’t – that it’s something that you have to live with – it’s very hard. But if it can’t be solved, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the next best thing I can do?’ As a family, we felt donating money for research was important.”
For Sanjay, donating was arguably easier than for most. Having worked as a banker for Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Rabobank over a period of almost 20 years, he had – after finding himself unemployed in 2008 – set up his own investment management, brokerage and principal trading business.
Since then, Solo Capital, as he named his fledgling venture, has expanded to employ more than 100 financial experts across offices in London and Dubai. It also turned Sanjay into a multimillionaire. Which meant, safe to say, when he approached Dubai Autism Centre in 2011 to ask how he could help and bosses told him they were looking for contributions for a new minibus, he was able to simply buy them a couple of Hyundai vehicles.
Yet he wanted to do more.
“My own view was that the best way to make a difference would be by supporting research,” he explains. “I think support groups and centres for families with autistic children are important, of course, but I wanted to help studies that try to increase our understanding of the condition.”
As such, he set up monthly contributions to the UK-based ART. Not long after that he accepted an invitation also to become a trustee. Around the same time, Solo Capital had reached a point where Sanjay could largely let it run itself. He spends an hour on the phone to London every day but, other than that, is virtually hands off.
“I’m semi-retired,” he says.
He was pondering productive ways to spend his free time when he was paid that visit by Snoop Dogg, something that rekindled a youthful passion for music that had never really gone away.
“That’s sort of when I thought that putting on concerts would be something I’d like to do – and might be a way of raising money,” he says. “I used to promote gigs when I was a student at King’s College university in London and it was such good fun but it has meant that, ever since, whenever I’m at a concert I’m always thinking, ‘They should have a burger stand here,’; ‘They should have done this or that with the lighting,’ or ‘If they’d charged less for the tickets they might have attracted more people, which would have made more money’. I analyse a lot.
“I started thinking maybe I could get into doing gigs again but big ones, for thousands of people. I thought it had to be a better way of spending my time than playing golf all day.”
It was, thus, in early 2013 Sanjay sat down one day and, showing the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has stood Solo Capital in such good stead, phoned Done Events, Dubai’s biggest promotions company. He said, simply, that he was going to put on a reggae festival and wanted the company’s help and expertise. At this point, there wasn’t a charity angle. He just wanted to get some experience at running concerts.
“I’m not sure they thought I was serious at first,” he laughs. “But eventually they said to me that, OK, a reggae festival wouldn’t work here because there’s not a big enough fan base, but that they would partner up to do something else.”
That something else became Blended festival. Over two nights in May this year, an eclectic mix of artists – including Elvis Costello, Joss Stone, American rapper Aloe Blacc and Australian singer-songwriter Xavier Rudd – played at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre to some 3,000 people.
It was such a success, it will now run for the next three years.
“It was an incredible weekend,” says Sanjay. “It’s an amazing feeling to see so many people – families, friends, couples – all partying at an event you’ve organised.”
Though Blended was run as a purely private enterprise (“it just about broke even,” says Sanjay, who invested Dh6 million), the experience and contacts proved the spur needed to set up Autism Rocks.
“While I was working on Blended, the chief executive of Done Events, Thomas Ovesen, called one day and told me that Prince was doing a gig in Hong Kong and would be flying via Dubai,” recalls Sanjay. “Apparently, he had a night here and was willing to do a private performance.
“Thomas knew I was a fan and wondered if I’d be interested in paying for him to play. But I just don’t have enough friends out here who would be into that kind of music to give him a decent audience.”
Undeterred, Sanjay went back with a slightly different suggestion. He offered to pay Prince’s expenses to play a private gig in London next time he was in the city. Guests would be invited along for free, he proposed, but each would be expected to donate at least Dh30,000 to the Autism Research Trust.
The When Doves Cry star not only agreed, he said he would do it a fortnight later. “Everything moved so fast,” remembers Sanjay. “At that point we didn’t even have Autism Rocks registered as a charity so I had to get Solo’s in-house lawyers working on that. I sent out emails to everyone I knew and the response was unbelievable. Obviously Prince is a megastar, but it’s only when you do something like this that you realise the pull of the guy.”
The concert was staged at Café de Paris in the West End of London on April 19 – before the Blended festival, in the end – in front of just 700 people. It raised almost Dh12 million.
On the back of the success, Sanjay instructed his contacts to listen out for other such stars who were passing through either London or Dubai and who might be interested in doing private gigs in aid of the charity.
In September this year, Lenny Kravitz became the second to do just that. “He was looking to do a small warm-up show before his world tour and he was in London for the iTunes Festival,” says Sanjay.
“We put the idea to him and he was really enthusiastic.” The show was held at Koko nightclub and attracted 1,500 people. It made some Dh3 million. “It was another amazing night,” says Sanjay. “These are things you never forget.”
Sanjay wants to increase the frequency of Autism Rocks gigs but is also aware that a level of exclusivity is needed to give them the kind of kudos that allows such sums to be raised. At the same time, he doesn’t want them to be just for the mega-rich and plans to open up future gigs to competition winners too.
“We have a couple of things we’re looking to do in 2015,” he says. “And we don’t just want them to take place in London either. There are lots of good opportunities for this in Dubai because so many stars transit to other parts of the world through here.
“Who would I like to see? I’m a big Eric Clapton fan so that would be phenomenal. But One Direction are playing here in April so just imagine if we could get them to do something for us. I think I would be in my daughter’s good books forever. Obviously I’ve also asked if Snoop might be interested...
“I’d also like to do a compilation album at some point. It’s all about keeping our eyes and ears open, trying to make playing for Autism Rocks attractive to the stars, and just doing what we can to raise as much awareness and money as possible.”