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Profound connection: Dar Disku's pumping dance music is powered by Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian sounds

Safi Bugel speaks to the DJ duo and label heads about their process, eclectic sonic identity, and why Western producers shouldn't reinterpret music from Eastern cultures with an orientalist lens

  • Words: Safi Bugel | Photography: Flaneur Company
  • 18 August 2021

The concept of home is central to Dar Disku. It was within the houses of friends and family that Vish and Mazen, the duo behind the DJ collective and record label (whose name translates to 'home of the disco'), found their interest in music as teenagers in Bahrain. Being a small country, gatherings within these private settings were embedded in Bahraini culture, allowing the pair to soak up the sounds of the time and their surroundings through a mix of iPod excursions and old CD collections. Now based in the UK, they are devoted to sharing the musical history and subcultures of the region they grew up in. Through their expertly-curated DJ sets and pumping club edits of Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian gems, Dar Disku is all about nostalgia, warmth and familiarity.

Growing up just 10 minutes away from each other, Vish and Mazen bonded over being music-obsessed “inbetweeners” at school. With Vish based in the largely-expat community of Sar, and Mazen not far off in A’ali, the pair were able to engage with a wealth of different cultures and, in turn, a plethora of sounds.

Though it was always in their periphery, the two friends initially neglected the old Egyptian and Indian tunes of their parents’ catalogues in favour of more current Western music; they cite the Klaxons, Foals and Yeasayer as favourites at the time. The leftfield pop they listened to, alongside their interest in soul and funk, then lent itself to an ear for dance music. Only in their twenties did they return to the sounds of their ancestors, driven by feelings of homesickness. As a consequence, Dar Disku’s sonic identity is eclectic: it’s strongly characterised by new beat, synth pop, psychedelia and Italo disco, but stretches much further.

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Despite their history as friends and musicians in the same circles, the pair only started DJing together three years ago at a Pride of Arabia party in London. Their relationship continues to be one based on sharing and learning from each other, with Vish introducing Mazen to mixing as Mazen did to Vish with drums over 10 years ago. They have since established themselves as regulars on the festival, gig and radio circuit across the world.

But alongside the sets on air and in live settings, Dar Disku is also a record label. Devoted to reviving the music of their Middle Eastern and Arabic forerunners, the duo release reworks of forgotten songs, from Tunisian folk to Algerian pop. They approach their production with both skill and utmost respect for the material’s origins, researching contemporary instruments and styles to craft tunes that are more dancefloor-appropriate yet still authentic.

Though relatively new on the scene, Dar Disku fosters a profound sense of connection: just as it brings together punters from all walks of life in a party setting, the project strengthens the pair’s relationship with their heritage.

Check out their Impact mix and Q&A below.

What was the music scene in Bahrain like when you came of age?

Mazen: Just very, very eclectic. For some reason that I don't understand, the music scene there is kind of polarised into two groups with a few little different subgenres in between. People are really into their rock and metal type music; it’s heavy stuff. For one of the first gigs I went to— I was like 10 or 11 years old — my cousin snuck me into this underground death metal/screamo metal gig. There were 200 to 300 people there. That was my first experience of going to see live music, where there was something… rebellious about it.

Vish: Haram!

Mazen: It was sweaty, everyone was all over the place jumping up and down, people were on stage smashing up their instruments. It was the kind of thing where you had people in their own kind of community, pushing the boundaries. They had really tightly knit communities underground in these spaces. They weren't always obvious but once you peered in, you realised there's a whole community there. So there was a lot of that, a lot of people into hip hop, R&B, rap music. Somewhere in between, you had people who liked psychedelic music, indie rock, and others who were really into house music, electronic music.

Vish: Now, it’s just so much more varied. Every time I go on Instagram, I see a new Bahraini artist or DJ. It’s part of a wider movement that’s happening across Palestine, Dubai and Jordan too. There's so much independence: independent promoters, independent labels, independent motion graphic designers, fashion designers. There is a creative boom happening in, say, the last 12 months that we have never experienced before. It’s the highest I’ve seen in my 20 years of living in that side of the world. It’s so exciting; there's always something new. People are not afraid to do them.

Mazen: Back in those days, even though there were subgenres and communities for music, you had to know someone to get into them. It was very much a person-to-person invite into that group, and then you knew it existed. Nowadays, it’s just so much more present; it’s online and people are collaborating, exchanging contacts, talking about ways to work together. We're getting some really interesting stuff that’s not just aiming to emulate things you see from other parts of the world, but people coming up with their own thing: their own voice, their own style.

You've spoken before of a new generation of young Middle Eastern, North African and Asian kids embracing a heritage that wasn't celebrated before. When did this happen and what prompted it?

Vish: I don't think there was a specific time but, if we had to, probably the last 24 months. No matter where you look in the world right now, I think the idea of one's identity is questioned. Everyone's being questioned about their identity and is a lot more self-aware about what it means to have your own identity. It’s kind of similar to the punk movement in ‘70s, how people were really figuring out who they were personally. And you see it now with crews like Daytimers— shout out to them, they're doing it big for the brown kids! Seeing what they did recently, where people were DJing in a saari and air maxes— if that isn't frickin' Asian culture, I do not know what is! It is frickin' amazing. But it’s the same in Bahrain: people are dressing different, listening to different music, eating different food. I think in the past, people thought that being yourself would be to assimilate to what was ‘cool’ or popular, but now people realise that by being themselves, that’s when they're probably artistically at their best, when they're not copying or imitating someone else's style. That goes for music as well, it’s what we’re trying to do.

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How did your surroundings in Bahrain and further afield influence the sound you now push?

Vish: Middle Eastern music in general is extremely percussive. If you listen to our sets, a loooot of it is percussion-based. With me and Maz both being drummers, as well as hearing drums in traditional Bahraini weddings or in India on the street during a festival, there's something hypnotic about it. Our sound is very rhythm-first, then melody, then rhythm, then melody. It’s layered like that.

Mazen: You touched on a couple of things there with weddings and parties and drummers in the street: it’s very festive and collective. It’s something we still gravitate towards when we're producing our own tracks or playing out tracks in a live setting. We want songs that make people celebrate, get up and dance together. That’s the kind of vibe.

From a production point of view, I think even ’til this day, percussion, syncopated grooves - that all comes first. I don’t know why, it just always has. From that, everything is built around it, chord structures and basslines, etcetera. Everything sits in its own little pocket and then altogether, you've got this very collective sound. It sounds like there's 20 people all in sync together.

Now based in the UK, how does playing the sounds you grew up with, as well as reinterpretations of those sounds, help you feel connected to the motherland?

Vish: I’m learning Arabic through music and I’ve never spoken the language before. Maz was saying something the other day and I picked up everything he was saying. He was like “how the fuck do you know that?”

But yeah, with India as well. I’ve had a very difficult childhood in terms of connecting with my Indian identity but if it wasn’t for music, I honestly don't know what I'd do. It makes me feel so good when we play live; it makes me feel so proud to see all these people dancing to the music of my heritage, and Maz' heritage. It does have an influence, on what we play.

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You bring together acoustic and guitar-led music with more dancefloor-orientated stuff— what's your approach behind curating a show or a set?

Vish: This is gonna sound incredibly geeky. First, I sit down with a notebook. Every day of my life for the last few years, I download and buy new music… every single day. I make it a thing to find one song a day at a minimum that not that many people have heard before. If you apply that approach, come the end of the month when you have your radio show on NTS or Worldwide FM or Noods, wherever we play, you have 28 songs to choose from, or more. This is roughly two hours of music, which is how long our show is, so it’s a case of layering. All the shows have the exact same pattern: they start with something traditional and slow, then they move into something leftfield and completely oddball. Then, they go into something more pop and into night-time mode: faster, high percussion, breaks, new beat, weird stuff. And then it closes off with something euphoric or really feel-good. It's never necessarily that order exactly, but every show has those elements in it. Once you plan shows less by song names and artist names, you plan them more by a feeling; it becomes a lot more easy to curate a style and develop an identity on radio. It’s very emotion-based, I'd say. It also depends on my mood: if I’m feeling really depressed, it’ll be really sad and quiet, you know?

Mazen: That's something I’ve learnt from Vish, actually, going by emotion instead of genre. Before, if there's a song that’s very 4/4 or skippy and shuffley, you'd want a track that emulates that next or before. But you stop thinking that way and start thinking about what emotion that track gives you. You can pair it with something that’s a completely different genre - it could be folk-y, it could be traditional. Vish started DJing way earlier than I did and I picked up little bits and pieces from him. I think to this date, it’s clear in the mixes and things that we play out live.

Design seems to be a big part of Dar Disku. Is this aspect also influenced by your heritage?

Mazen: With any pieces of merch we put out, we always like to have a reason why we're making it. Sometimes it’s related to music we're making, and that’s given us the idea to put out some new merch, or sometimes there's been a theme we've come across, something we've been reading about, that’s inspired us to make something visual that represents it. For one of our early bits of merch, we made this jumper which was inspired by Middle Eastern airlines from the ‘70s, '80s and ‘90s. A lot of that was through finding pictures from way back in the day: of their artwork, old tickets, what it looked like on board, uniform, menus, all that kind of stuff. I just thought it was really cool and the idea stuck with us.

On another occasion, we used the idea of pearl diving, which was a big thing in Bahrain. Historically, Bahrain is known for its pearls and pearl divers used to go out to sea for months on end looking or the next biggest pearl because it would be life-changing for them. That search for the next big thing resonated with us from a musical perspective, so we just thought we'd tie the two together. There's always a story.

As a label, you release edits or reinterpretations of old Middle Eastern and Arabic tunes. What’s your process behind grabbing a song, dissecting it and moving it around?

Mazen: Well, something about it has to stand out. Sometimes it's the entire track, sometimes it might just be a little snippet, where I just want to keep playing it over and over again. In those cases, we use it more as a sample and then work around that, seeing what kinds of sounds bring it forward. We never want to mask or smother original tracks or samples we use. We want to do things to them that will make them shine, to frame them, in a way.

With other tracks that we've worked with, sometimes we come across tracks that just need minimal work and that’s the technical process of just cleaning them up and making them more suited to being played on massive speakers in a large venue. It might be a matter of just adding a bit of that kick and snare that just sits under a track. Sometimes it’s been a bit more elaborate work when you take something that has a beautiful melody but it sounds very traditional and you want to transform it into something that's a bit more dance-appropriate. In those cases, it’s been hard work but the most rewarding stuff because what we've done is gone back and listened to tracks that have come out at a similar time, either a couple of years plus or minus when that was released, and thought about what instruments they used, what kind of synthesisers or drum machines they used. What kind of recording set ups did they have, did they track their bass sounds on a bass synth or did they use live bass? Were there guitars in the background? Do we have live percussionists and tambourine players? That kind of stuff. And that all goes into that track. We want it to almost sound like the original artist made this track, not us. But there's no one size fits all approach: each one of them is a challenge and some can take longer than others to figure out and get right.

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I’ve noticed that there seems to be a wider pattern of reinterpreting Middle Eastern, Arabic and Asian sounds in the last few years, particularly in downtempo, chuggy music. Why do you think that is?

Mazen: From a sonic point of view, I think it just works really nicely. There are these high lead lines you get: in Turkish music they're played sometimes on a saz, or in Arabic music on an oud, or in Persian music it’s a santur. First of all, they're beautiful sounds. But at the same time, they're kind of plucked instruments that are played incredibly rhythmically. Some of them are very skippy and have these kinds of gallop-y rhythms to them; when you pair that with a kind of chuggy bass layer, if you may, you get this kind of otherworldly but hypnotic sound. It’s just the perfect pairing, really.

Vish: I also think that in many ways the kind of chuggy, new beat-y sound that Arabic music generally gets edited into is very abstract to the original format. It’s not meant to sound like that and at any moment where you have this kind of space on a dancefloor or behind the decks, when you mix two tracks together, you're like that shouldn't work, but it does.

Mazen: In a way, you want that to happen. You want to transport whoever's listening from point A to point B. You might not know where point B is in the process, but you want to transport people. So when you take those sounds and then put them somewhere where they shouldn't fit but they really do, you’ve just taken someone to a completely different place.

Vish: That’s my favourite kind of moment when you're DJing: having unexpected tracks come together.

A lot of this reinterpretation comes from producers who aren’t from Middle Eastern, Arabic or Asian countries. How do you feel about this?

Mazen: It highly depends on the situation, I think.

Vish: Yeah, it’s very subjective. Because the white dude from Europe might be giving it more respect than even we do—I’m not saying that that happens ha, but it’s possible. There are white DJs who get a very bad rep for what they do but actually deep down inside, they have a very respectful and calculated approach to reissuing and editing or releasing Middle Eastern music.

But it can also be the total opposite with people being absolute dickheads about the whole thing, not crediting the original artist or not even bothering to try get a license. Also, using totally ridiculous artwork, like completely orientalist, exaggerated magic carpets or snake charmers, belly dancers, etcetera. Again, personally I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but it depends who's doing it and in what context. I mean, every single Lebanese record had a belly dancer on it— all the Ziad Rahbani and Elias Rahbani. But that’s because the record was made for belly dancing. There are Arabic records with magic carpets and lamps and genies on them but that's because they're based on folklore— Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which is a really common folklore record across the Middle East. It’s all about context.

You’ve spoken about people approaching any 'non-Western' music with an orientalist lens, can you tell me a bit more about this?

Vish: Don't do it.

Mazen: We've talked quite a bit about orientalism, with other musicians and producers but also between ourselves. We've got into heated discussions because there isn't an easy answer— and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s something that needs to be thought about on a case by case basis as the idea of orientalism is almost as if the intention behind it determines whether it is orientalist or not. Sure, the execution of it as well, but if the intention of it is to portray a group of people— their art, their music, their culture— as being 'other', from being otherworldly to being different to the norm in a subhuman way, that to us is quite damaging and toxic. But in some cases, through folklore and old stories and artwork, orientalism has served as no more than a means of stimulating the imagination, creating stories and mystique; it’s been quite benign and hasn't been malicious at all.

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Have you noticed any changes in the industry since you started out?

Vish: I think people are more conscious of where it comes from now and they don't just lump it into one thing. People are a little bit more aware of the history, because Arab music is such a broad term. That’s like me saying 'UK music’— there's so much behind it. You can't just say 'Arabic music' because there's so many different types and subgenres and stories behind each subgenre. That’s in some ways why we exist, it’s not an authoritarian “we're gonna educate you on what Arabic music is”, but more like a “hey, check this out.” We do that by way of many things, whether that’s through our radio show, our Spotify playlists, our mixes. I always try to make a conscious effort to try to shed light on where that music came from.

You kicked off your return to live shows with your Boiler Room party last month, what's that been like?

Vish: It was the best show of my life. I'm pretty sure Maz had the same feeling.

Mazen: Yep.

Vish: I’ve never played to 3,500 people before. I cried halfway through the set because I saw other people crying. We played music that we've been playing right from the very start of Dar Disku along with new music we've found. Our best friends were in the crowd and there were moments where every single person's hands were in the air. We are very pessimistic as a duo, we're always like “nahhh, I don't know if this is gonna work.” It’s just a complete dystopian view of the world: everything sucks, we're all gonna die, this music isn't gonna work, haha. But for that moment, we just felt like everything was amazing. And we've just been pretty much non-stop since that show, playing loads of shows like Liverpool earlier this month with Young Marco, who is a hero of mine. It's just felt like we never really left but in many ways it’s just so refreshing.

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Vish, you said you're gathering new tunes all the time, but have either of you explored any new sonic territory over the last year?

Vish: Oh yeah. This sounds terrible but I’ve got really into very mainstream pop. I’m obsessed with Caroline Polachek, Charli XCX’s new record and I really like Ariana Grande. Whoever reads this article is probably gonna rip the shit out of me for it but, trust me. These people are successful because obviously, yeah, they're an image, they're entertainers, but the songwriting is really smart. If you can make like 4 billion people stream your song, you've gotta be doing something right.

I think everyone sits on a high horse too much, especially within our industry— the whole digger scene of “I've got this record that no-one has ever heard before and therefore I’m the best DJ in the entire world.” But if I see a DJ play like 20 of those tracks and then drop an Ariana Grande track in a set, that is far more impressive to me than hearing two hours of just noise, terrible rips of records. Screw that! I just want to be surprised and made to feel good. We've also been exploring curveball territory, finding old tracks or samples of hip hop tracks that I really like. What else? A lot of trance, a lot of Goa trance, electronic stuff from back home.

Mazen: For me, proper ‘90s— some early drum 'n' bass, acidy stuff. Through producing stuff, I started getting really into this kind of acid type house sounds, synthesisers and drum machines. I really wanted to get into where it all came from, go way back.

No Ariana Grande for you too then?

Mazen: I definitely will.

Vish: Dude, he loves it. He loves it! Also, big up Doja Cat, she's amazing. I think in that whole sphere, female rap music is going through an amazing movement right now. We’re not gonna appreciate what's happening until like five years later, I think its insane. Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi, Doja, Kali Uchis… there's so much good music right now that I don't think is getting enough credit. Everyone's too busy jacking off to Drake, or whatever.

Can you tell me about your Impact mix?

Vish: It's like an hour into a Dar Disku DJ set. It’s eclectic, there's a lot of stuff from friends and family, there’s some high energy moments, there's some stranger moments. It plays homage to the kind of non-electronic sounds of earlier Moroccan and Algerian music, all the way down to edits of some Libyan stuff. It closes off with a few heaters, some absolute spicy ones. It’s a mezze platter, that's the mix!

Check out Dar Disku's upcoming tour dates here

Safi Bugel is Mixmag's Digital Intern, follow her on Twitter

Tracklist:
Caravan - Siciliano
Wayala - Sahraoui
Opus 303 - Le Mystere
Data - Yokocho
Afacan Soundystem - Untitled
??? - ???
Apaixonite A - Kanela (MC edit)
Aquarium - Donna Dolores
Love Don’t Live Here - Basement Boys
Wayne Arab - Coeo
City Girls - Gift (Schegg Edit)
???-???
Jami - Mangulica FM
Everybody Groove - Laurie Burgess
Wheel Drumtrack - Lipelis
Sahrany - Ehab Tawfik (DD Goose Flip)
Lemon - Moktar
Ya Tabtab Wa Dallaa - Nancy Ajram

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