As the prestigious Expo 2020 Dubai opens its gates today and visitors from across the world flock to the various pavilions, they will be greeted by a deep and husky voice that says "Welcome to Dubai Expo 2020 – what will be the world’s greatest show. Combining more countries than ever before, to create an unforeseen event unlike any other, in the world’s biggest Expo."
When you hear the same voice in different variations in public transport and the welcome videos of the Expo, residents might feel a tinge of familiarity – this is the voice behind several audio visual promos of scores of much loved and popular entities such as Etisalat, Majid Al Futtaim, Dubai Metro, Emirates Airline, Dubai Opera and more.
The man behind the voice is Ahmad Haffar, 27, managing partner and co-owner at Mindloop Studios. Having done more than 45 projects in three years, Ahmad is now recognised as the voice of Dubai.
Recently, a viral video of him made by DubaiLAD (a private news and media website) managed to put a face to the voice, garnering more than a million views in less than two days.
"I’ve always enjoyed the element of surprise of letting people know who I am, but never for them to stop me on the street for photos!" he says. "But it feels nice when strangers come up to me and say that I am a motivation for them. Apparently, it reminds them that nothing can stop them when they have talent and put the time to develop it with the right mindset."
Tryst with destiny
Originally from Lebanon, Ahmad’s parents were teachers of the French language and English was never spoken at home. Being a self-learner, he picked up the English language at the age of four by watching Cartoon Network and action movies. By the age of 6 he was very fluent in the language.
At the age of 8, his elder brother Wassim introduced a guitar into the household and Ahmad fell in love with it. Music soon became his passion and he started playing the electric guitar and piano very well but there was a flip side, his academic grades began to suffer. "I started teaching people how they could use music as a career and earn a living, and that took my focus away from school completely. But I knew that this was the path I wanted to pursue."
At 15, one of his students Anthony had an audition for guitar and Ahmad went along to cheer his prodigy. As he was watching the auditions, a woman named Michelle came over and asked him why he wasn’t on stage with the kids. "She was surprised to hear my story and wondered how I could be teaching someone twice my age. Keen to know more about my talent in music, she got a bunch of guys to watch me play different ‘mood’ styles that showcased my capabilities. Two of those people were [Lebanese singers] Melhem Zein and Vivian Mrad. They chose me as a guitarist for their song, but I ended up doing far more than just that, playing the piano and other instruments. This was the first real turning point of my life," he says.
Rising from a coma
After around two years of doing freelance work selling melodies for the likes of Nancy Ajram, Elissa, Vivian, Melhem and others, his career hit a unique peak. But as fate would have it, while on a drive with his childhood best friends Ahmad Dib and Mohammad Al Omar, their car fell over from the Beirut-Tripoli bridge. Both his friend died in the mishap. "We were turning a corner known as ‘kou3 el jamejem’ which roughly translates to, ‘the turn with skulls’. Many deadly accidents have happened there due to the immediate curve on the highway after a lot of straights. I was lucky enough to be the only survivor."
Survive he did, but he had also broken his hand, leg and back.
After slipping into a coma for a few days, Ahmad recovered a bit but had to spend over a year in the hospital learning to regain functions of his hand, leg and back. "I also lost my spleen, which gave me a lot of issues in terms of health.
"During those bedridden days, I reflected a lot about why I was left as the only survivor, and I felt it could be to do something good in my life. I knew I had a good voice and began practicing my singing and working on voice-overs for ads (while still in the hospital bed) as I had plenty of time on my hands," he says.
Back on his feet
In 2014, at the age of 19, he arrived in Dubai, to get a fresh start with a healed body and a clear mind. He became a special music coordinator for the company that makes custom music playlists for brands such as Galleries Lafayette, Carrefour, Paris Gallery, and others. But keen to do more, he began to try his luck as a freelance voice-over artist.
"It was all about making ends meet," he says. "During my hospital stint I had developed my voice by practicing different tones. I did free voice-over gigs for clients in order to win better jobs. But then I got signed with a big brand and the rest is history! Everything changed almost instantaneously," he says.
Taking the self-taught route
With the help of his good friend and now partner Ahmad Ghannoum, he took over Mindloop Studios. As the company grew, he taught himself almost everything from improving his English to social skills, guitar, bass, piano, electronic music production, audio engineer essentials, sound manipulation, and more. "I didn’t teach myself to be a nice person though, that happened naturally," he smiles.
He trains his voice based on self-devised techniques, working on new pitches and modulations for every new assignment, rather than recreating what has already been done. When working with a brand, he keeps in mind the guidelines and profile of the company and tries to craft a tone that works for their audience.
Once, a client visited the studio around an hour before a recording session was supposed to happen. Since he had been working all through the night, Ahmad had fallen asleep on the couch. Seeing this the lady woke him up and said she would complain to his boss that he was slacking off during work. "She complained to my partner only to be told that I was actually the owner. The look on her face was truly priceless."
Ahmad manages the company’s day-to-day operations with the help of his manager, Rosy Yaghi. Their newest engineers are Mohammad Taifi and Saif Nasser, "both very passionate about their music. We’re a dream team, one can say!"
Mindloop today is one of the region’s finest sonic branding specialists whose work can be recognised pretty much everywhere – from bus stations, to the Metro, to popular brands and now the Expo 2020 Dubai. To date they have done around 45 campaigns. "I also write slogans and do a lot of stuff other than just music and the voices!" he says.
His biggest influence is British musician Aphex Twin, who "doesn’t focus on fame or money but rather the product itself". Innovative musicians like Mu-Ziq (Mike Paradinas), the owner of UK-Based Planet-mu, who has released incredible artists the likes of Venetian Snares and Jlin, also interest him. Then there’s Boards of Canada, who pushed boundaries and that encourages Ahmad to explore his limits as well.
"Music is all that matters to me, that includes voice, sounds, and anything in between. I am grateful to the big companies and brands who have trusted me in both their music and voices, as I created and innovated new elements that fit their brand guidelines. Sometimes service providers only think of what they could do instead of just how far they can help the client. I am all about innovating, not just doing what’s required," he says.
His company has already garnered the UAE Prestige awards 2020 – best studio in the UAE and producer – UAE Prestige Awards 2021 – Best Studio in the UAE and best composer. MENA Awards – Best Production house in the UAE 2021.
He says his mother and sister are the loves of his life, while his father and two brothers Wassim and Houssam are his constant pillars of support.
He is also working on developing the OnTheField Creative Academy, the region’s first one-on-one, custom-made programs ranging from full comprehensive voiceover, audio, video and photography programs. "We want people to learn from experienced professionals that voiceover is also an art form and help them to make money from their talent!
So, what is his advice to budding artists?
"Keep evolving and learning new talents. There is no end of the road, especially in a fast-growing place like Dubai. The Expo is just the start of the country’s growth... and all of us should imbibe the same energy and be excited to be part of it."