Nooriyah’s culturally diverse DJ sets are enriching the future of dance music
Nooriyah shares an upbeat mix and speaks to Zab Mustefa about going viral, how algorithms are affecting musical diversity, and representing music from the SWANA region in her genre-spanning club sets
You’ve probably seen the viral video clips of Nooriyah showcasing how Arabic samples have been used to make some of the most iconic tracks in popular music on Instagram. Take Aaliyah’s 'More Than a Woman' as a prime example, many people (including myself), didn’t know that it was originally sampled from the classic Arabic song 'Alouli Ensa' by Syrian singer Mayada El Hennawy. But for Nooriyah, it’s not just about documenting the influence her region has had on genres like hip hop and R&B. It’s about sharing her culture and roots globally.
Brought up in Saudi Arabia and Japan, Nooriyah has been in London for more than a decade now. In that time, she’s used her expertise and knowledge to draw attention to music from the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region. In her own words, “representation helps break how mainstream media continues to falsely portray us for decades now.”
She founded Middle of Nowhere, a project that merges unlikely musical worlds together. Most recently, during her Boiler Room debut in November 2022, she curated a strong line-up of SWANA DJs such as Moving Still, Saliah and Pekodjinn, and brought her dad out to play the oud alongside her own set. Her tracklist included remixes of household names like Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram and Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf. It didn’t stop there. An amalgamation of Arabic music, trap, Brazilian funk and dozens of other genres formed one of the most unique mixes out there – and the crowd was truly buzzing.
It should go without saying that music from the SWANA region is not a monolith and in the UK, a lot of it has definitely not been given enough airplay. When Nooriyah initially began her music journey, it started with radio. Her full-time job is in public health, but she was doing radio shows in between work and ended up hosting on Foundation FM and Plus 1 Radio.
But again, it’s about more than the music. Nooriyah wants more women of colour to have opportunities in the industry and it’s something she’s really passionate about. She’s held workshops specifically for underrepresented women to help them get mixing and is shining light on underrepresented sounds through the decks.
After closing out last year as one of Mixmag's Breakthrough DJs of 2022, Nooriyah has big plans for 2023, including a UK and Europe tour. We had a chat about her dad’s influence on her music and what representation means. Check out her full interview and mix below.
How did the places you grew up in influence the sounds you now push?
I carry all the places I lived in in an imaginary suitcase. Growing up between Saudi, Japan and the UK made my ears conditioned to enjoy different tuning systems and you can see how this variety in my music taste is reflected in all the sets I play.
What inspires you when you make your mixes?
I love storytelling in my mixes. I enjoy choosing themes and spending time researching them for days as a challenge and then stringing together all the music I collected in a mix in a way that makes most sense. That’s how my “An Ode To…” series started! So far, I made an ode to cartoon theme songs, game soundtracks, SWANA trap, darbouka, and my latest, an ode to Latin music which you can find on my YouTube channel.
Can you tell us about which areas you get inspiration from?
I’m inspired by all music across the world, but I am particularly inspired by the varied tuning systems and drum patterns across different areas in the SWANA region. For example, how an oud can be tuned to a Turkish or Iraqi tuning system. Or if we take North Africa for example, Egyptian drum patterns are quite overrepresented relative to Rai drum patterns which are incredibly interesting and infectious in their own right. It’s these nuances that inspire me the most.
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Can you tell us about the community radio that you worked in when you moved to London?
My intro to the radio and DJ world seven years ago came about when a friend introduced me to Radar Radio, an ex-London-based station. Before that, I always looked at radio as this inaccessible place that only certain people get to practise in like, Mars. I looked at it as this out-of-reach extra-terrestrial thing. Then I was asked to record some voiceovers for the station and in the corner of my eye I’d always see the decks. I practised a lot, hopped between so many different stations as a radio presenter and producer. At Westside FM, I used to wake up at 4:AM to do the breakfast show and sleep on the Piccadilly line, Reprezent Radio, Balamii, Foundation FM, NTS and most recently, I had my first BBC Radio 4 audio documentary commission on why our ears enjoy certain music over others.
What was the biggest thing you learned from producing this BBC Radio 4 documentary?
From speaking to scholars and music cognitive researchers, I learned that our music tastes and choices are dictated by what our ear is conditioned to listen to. This includes the music we grew up listening to and are most familiar with, but also includes the music in which music databases like Spotify and iTunes algorithms push on you most. Overtime, our ears start to enjoy certain music over others. The biggest learning of all is discovering that globally, music biodiversity is under threat with many rich musical traditions and systems migrating to the Western standard scale to fit the “norm” and losing their own traditions over time. This is supported by the very technology that we use to produce and platform music. The equal temperament, or standard Western scale, is used everywhere, especially because it has become embedded in all the technological tools that are at our disposal, both for learning, for practising, for producing music. So there is an element of supremacy that has embedded itself not only within Anglo-European musical culture and musical thought, but also in the technological development within the musical industry where it is much easier to create electronic music within the standard Western scale, but you would have to find workarounds to work with other tuning systems like Maqams or Indonesian Gamelan. So there’s kind of, what Khyam Allami calls a “straitjacketing” of music, whereas in an ideal world, we should have a free canvas to imagine, hear and play around with any sound and/or system.
And do you think it’s this conditioning that makes people so attached to nostalgic tunes?
I think this notion exists across the globe, right? I fully still listen to 'Let Me Love You' by Mario and most of the nostalgic R&B tracks, I think ear conditioning is one aspect and the other aspect is that feeling nostalgic is powerful because of the associated feelings it can bring up for us, even when our lives have changed so much from when we first heard that tune. There is something special about that and the same applies to nostalgic SWANA tunes. The other side of the coin is that that stuff is actually really great? To me, it’s timeless music. I also think there is space for both nostalgic work and all the amazing current work artists are creating in and outside the region, which more often incorporates the concepts I spoke about above with traditional musical systems moving more and more towards Western music theory and scales. It’s so exciting to see music evolve, but I think it’s also important to talk about how and why.
How did Middle of Nowhere come to be? What inspired you to start it?
I started Middle of Nowhere at a point in my career where I had been championing SWANA sounds and stories for eight years through different mediums: written articles, radio shows, films, and documentaries on top of playing them as a DJ. I reached a place where I was feeling bored of the repeated curations and music played in events and club nights that existed in our space. Middle of Nowhere is a playground for me to bring the ideas and curations I wanted to see come to life. I didn’t want to create something that excluded itself by only playing SWANA music. I didn’t think something like that would progress the narrative at all or help reshape how SWANA music was engaged with at large. While slowly testing the waters at first, I feel over time it grew into a space where the audience who comes knows to come with an open mind. Whether it’s the Boiler Room or the recent sold out Jazz Café show, they both included every genre under the sun. As a DJ, I have all sorts of genres on my USB, from Afrobeats to amapiano to reggaeton. If it’s fire to me, I will carry it and play it alongside my SWANA sounds. But, I found it rare that non-SWANA DJs would carry SWANA music and often, it’s not due to a dislike to it, but rather an unfamiliarity with it. I know this because I am often asked for track IDs. So, Middle of Nowhere is a place where those different worlds can come and collide naturally and be enjoyed.
Are you experiencing any challenges with curating and producing Middle of Nowhere?
The biggest challenge I’d say is the amazing artists in the region that I wanted to bring out here having visa barriers, which makes producing some of my curation ideas and sharing their work live super hard.
We've all seen your viral Instagram mixes. What inspired you there?
The world was on lockdown and I was working on everything COVID and public health related. It gets a little emotionally tough if you worked in healthcare during a global pandemic. So, I had spent the first lockdown trying to figure out how I could successfully create these visual virtual worlds in my sets. The first one wasn’t great, I didn’t nail how to edit them yet. Then the second went viral! With millions of views on Twitter and Instagram. I enjoyed making something in my bedroom that others probably enjoyed in their rooms too during that time.
We have to talk about your Boiler Room moment.
I had been in talks with Boiler Room for almost a year prior to the event. It was something that I was highly anticipating. We were making history. The first SWANA line-up curation on Boiler Room UK. I had a lot of mixed emotions before it even happened: The excitement, the fear, the adrenaline. When I curate and co-produce an event of this scale, as well as perform in it, it feels like the success, or the failure of the show is all on my shoulders. It took everything I had in me. I cared about the details so much, everything from set design to curation to venue, but how people show up is something you can’t control. I’m still feeling emotional because the biggest gift and surprise of all is how people showed up that day: full of energy and love. You will see people, wiping my sweat as I play, fanning me, telling me I’m doing great, throwing money at the decks and ululating. When you watch the video, it will look like the people behind me and I have known each other for years, not strangers who are feeling connected by the energy in the room. That was enough for me. The viral moments and the big online reaction that followed were just an extension of sharing that same energy with people that weren’t in the room that night and it resonated with them, which makes me smile. Big love to the incredible line-up too, who brought so much to the decks.
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You’ve never been afraid to shake things up. Is it scary to keep bringing new concepts to life? What made you feel confident about doing something that has never been done before in the UK?
Who says I am not afraid? Shaking things up and doing something for the first time is terrifying. But it’s either I leave my ideas as ink in my notebook and drown in regret for not doing them, or I take the risk. For me, the feeling of regret is worse than taking the risk. Being disruptive can bring both reward and punishment. But I am just here feeling grateful that I get to do and experience all of it.
How did you decide on the track selection?
As this was my debut Boiler Room and first video recorded set, I knew I wanted to do a set that told my life story and one that was high-energy because that’s my style as a DJ. I love high-energy, infectious music when I’m playing out. For the set, I had a giant crate that I then whittled down by thinking about the progression and what went together sonically, while telling my story. For example, I had a moment where I played Super Mario 64 on a Nintendo Switch in the middle of my set. That was literally what I was like as a teen in Japan.
Tell us about your dad. How did he come to be part of Boiler Room? Did he enjoy himself?
My dad is naturally musical even though before retirement he did something completely different to music. I thought about how this will be the first introduction to me for many people and I know indirectly my love for music comes from my dad, so it made so much sense.
Why was it so important for you to have him featured alongside you?
I wanted him to enjoy my moment with me. His sacrifices allowed me to dream big in the way that I do and I am convinced in another life, if he had the opportunity and if he wasn’t concerned with springing out of poverty as a kid and with providing for his family, then he would have been a professional musician. My dad taught himself different instruments just because he enjoys it. He also plays the oud while on the toilet so you already know it’s like the greatest love story of all time — that's for the acoustics apparently. The oud is his best friend. So I invited them both. I also wanted him to experience a bit of what I experience when I am on an important stage. He got a lot of love and it still makes me happy. I occasionally get booking requests for him in my inbox!
What was the response in the region after the Boiler Room set?
Oh, I can answer this because I went on a West Asia mini-tour just a couple of weeks after the Boiler Room and the reaction was so, so heart-warming. Everywhere I went, there were people giving me love. It was like a giant hug.
Why does representation matter when it comes to artists from SWANA?
It matters for all underrepresented artists across the globe because it makes the music ecosystem richer and more interesting and allows it to evolve for the better. Representation definitely makes the future of music more exciting. But in the case of SWANA artists in particular, in addition to continuing their rich contributions to music, representation helps break how mainstream media continues to falsely portray us for decades now.
What does the future hold for you creativity-wise?
I produced five edits for my Boiler Room set alongside friends whose work I love. I have to say big love to USFoxx and Yv Shells for the help with tying the tracks up with me in time for the set. I will continue to produce more edits and my own originals and I’m excited for this. I have a European/UK tour coming up and I look forward to connecting with supporters in this way. I also will be speaking on the AVA London Conference x The Right To Dance - Migrant Footprint Panel in the infamous venue, Printworks, on February 24. With Middle of Nowhere, I plan to do more fun curations. A few more surprises to come but I’ll announce them all in due time.
Can you tell us about your Impact mix?
This mix is soundtracking someone waking up on a weekday — they start slow, just a little two minute snooze and BAM they’re now up and have to seize the day till sundown. Eventually the day slows down a little, they’re relaxed, ready to start it all up again the next morning. It’s an hour in my usual style, an upbeat mixed bag of genres from Arabic bits to Brazilian Funk to trap to UKG and more.
Zab Mustefa is a multimedia journalist and regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter
Weli – Alaa Wardi
Oasis - Bass Viper
Radio Morocco (Jonny Rock Edit)- Les Yeux Orange
Red Label Special – Toumba
Lose Control (Edit) - Soulely
As Mulher (Gregor Salto Remix)- Chernobyl Ft. Zuzuka Poderosa
Bellycious - DJ Kaan Gokman
Keify Keda Remix - Wegz (Elhamy Production)
Maglouba – Balti (DJ Clow Remix)
Bamboleo (Loky Remix)- Gipsy Kings
Goumi - Myriam Fares (DJ Wow Boy Edit)
R Movement - Ghana Boys
Dámetu- Zwart -Wit ft. Maxvll
When Doves Fly (Taar Yilli Bahibbu Taar) - Thanks Joey
Eh Sonieh - Amar Arshi
Thong Song (Artful Dodger Remix) - Sisqo
La Luna - Jude & Frank Feat. Toto La Momposina
Doin it again - Skepta
Mans Not Hot - Michael Dapaah (Alex Sargo x Sento Remix)
R.E.S.P.E.C.T - Aretha Franklin x DJ Jayhood Jersey Club (Myyuh Edit)
Fenoh - Hisham Abbas x LiL Silva (NOORIYAH x USFOXX edit)
Ekhwaty - El Sawareekh (DJ Abdo Niger Remix)
Ya Bnaya - Omar Souleyman x Daddy Yankee (NOORIYAH x USFOXX edit) Unreleased
Bel Mercy - Jengi
POW - Lethal Bizzle x Mohamed Henidy (NOORIYAH x USFOXX edit) Unreleased
IDWWMT - Genick feat. Catarrh Nisin
Shake N Bounce - DJ Swisha feat. Bassbear
Like I Love U - Justin Timberlake (Smochi & Excez Edit)
Darama – Dracaena
Basbousa - Ahmad H Music Bullo Producer Remix