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The Republic of Discostan

by Tasbeeh Herwees

November 18, 2014
Photo by Nanette Gonzalez

Walk into Footsie’s, the eastside bar in Los Angeles’s Cypress Park neighborhood, on almost any day of the month, and you’ll probably take in a pretty typical dive bar soundtrack—your favorite classic rock group or a cut from some local indie band’s new EP. On the second Wednesday of every month, however, patrons are more likely to encounter the musical stylings of Bollywood “Disco King” Bappi Lahiri or the classic ‘60s ballads of Lebanese diva-songstress Fairouz. This is the work of Discostan, an L.A.-based musical collective that transforms Footsie’s into a psychedelic celebration of sounds “from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay.”

This isn’t just a dance party—this is an imagined geography, a composite space comprised of cultural products from Muslim-majority states and beyond. And they use this space to engage musical narratives and performances in highly politicized and personal ways. On one night, Iranian artist Gelare Khoshgozaran performed a rendition of the Talking Heads’ “Dream Operator” and switched out the word “dream” for “drone.” Arshia Haq, Discostan founder, and Sasha Ali, the collective’s co-producer, say that particular night was one of their best.

“We make sure that people know that something radical is going on here,” says Ali. “It’s not something mainstream. We’re portraying something that has a political slant. This isn’t just ‘these cultures’ made palatable—this is our political belief.”

In recent weeks, the Discostan collective has been busier than usual, putting together programming under the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affair’s LA/Islam Arts Initiative, a city-wide project to bring arts from Muslim-majority countries to Los Angeles.  But Discostan has already been around for a few years now. Haq started it in 2011, as a way to reconnect with her cultural past. Born into a strict Indian-Muslim home, where her consumption of Western media was “severely limited,” Haq grew up on a diet of the sights and sounds of Bollywood. In college, she began DJ-ing experimental jazz and punk rock for her local radio station, working at record stores, and amassing a large collection of albums. At some point, she became estranged from her family.

“Everyone that was Muslim and brown was doing the ‘right thing’ and I was smoking cigarettes and hanging with punk rock kids,” says Haq. “I would always end up at these punk rock shows and feel like, ‘I’ve had such a different experience from everyone here,’ and it was isolating.”

Eventually, Haq found herself returning to the music of her childhood, collecting old Bollywood music records and downloading tracks from all over the world—dabke music from Palestine, the psychedelic Brazilian rock of Os Mutantes, old funk songs from Turkey. These soundscapes helped create a new imaginary homeland for Haq. She would play them for her neighbors and friends, eventually founding Discostan and bringing on Ali to help produce and promote events. She also brought on L.A.-based DJs Jeremy Loudenaback, Kirk Gee, and David Gomez. It was Gomez who helped move Discostan from a Koreatown bar to its new home at Footsie’s. “The bar manager was a big Bollywood music fan,” says Gomez. Footsie’s eventually became the permanent backdrop for all their heady musical visions, the place where friends and fans gathered to take part in this collective imagining of a new Islamic world.

“There’s definitely a community that’s growing around Discostan and people really value this cultural space that we created. They’re part of that culture too,” says Ali.

Gomez, who also works for Radio Sombra, a radio station popular for broadcasting Latin-American sounds, says Discostan is welcoming to all diaspora and marginal communities in Los Angeles. “It’s about having a safe space where you don’t have to compromise for the dominant society,” he says.

Discostan is not about recreating music as much as it is about reviving old sounds and promoting new ones. Haq mixes pop and top 40 as enthusiastically as she mixes traditional wedding songs and low-fi tracks ripped from YouTube videos. You’re as likely to hear old Algerian raï music as you are to hear the synthy beat of Egypt’s electo-chaabi movement.

“The main thing is to keep it to stuff that’s happening from the region,” says Haq. “It’s not reinterpretation, it’s remixes, it’s not Diplo taking it and putting a foreign beat on it.”

“Fuck Diplo,” Ali says, “Make sure to write ‘Fuck Diplo.’”

Both Haq and Ali speak about a time in the “Islamic world” in which people thrived—a golden age that occurred right after independence from colonizing states. The music that came out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the East of the ‘60s and ‘70s painted a picture of an Islamic world that was prosperous. This is the music that people in the diaspora grew up listening to. For people born or raised in the diaspora—people like Haq or Ali—this music became a repository of yearning for mythical places of belonging. The music is Haq’s canvas, on which she projects all idealized visions of the past and future.

“I’m the biggest Orientalist there is, in a way, because I’m creating this idea of homeland, and it’s not really true,” says Haq. “It’s just nostalgia. It’s syncretic. We all create our own experiences.”

Discostan did this more recently with a mix they titled Music of the Psychedelic Islamic State. “It was trying to create a soundtrack for the Islamic world that we want to live in, or did exist,” says Haq.

Decontextualizing the music from the histories that produced them and the territories they belong to, the Discostan collective runs the risk of self-Orientalizing. But Haq and Ali are hyper-aware of the ways in which their performances may be misinterpreted by casual musical tourists or homogenized under the “world music” category. “You can’t control the fact that there’s going to be some girl who shows up and does ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ on the dance floor. That happens more often than I would like to admit,” says Haq.

They do, however, welcome anyone who is ready to forge a deeper connection with their compositions.

“My ideal set is one in which you can mix in rhythms that people are used to dancing to and sneaking in rhythms that are so festive and danceable that people get scared,” says Haq. “It’s to break the hegemony of the Western four-beat as well and push the idea of other rhythms. Its a very sensory way to approach decolonizing sound.”

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The Republic of Discostan