There’s a line wrapping around Footsies Bar in Cypress Park, LA. The dive bar is a popular neighborhood joint. Punkish hipsters usually sit at the patio for a smoke, grab a beer after a Dodgers game, or play pool under a Tiffany style lamp. But for one night a month, this neighborhood spot transforms into an otherworldly place: Discostan.
Attendees are here to celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz, with Discostan - a DJ collective that plays Islamic influenced music from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. To attend a Discostan show is to enter the land of vinyl records, dancing, and music ‘from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay’.
"There’s always that deviant side of Discostan. And that’s what I really like about it too," says Discostan member David Gomez. "Yeah it’s culturally based, but it’s not like some ethnomusicologist of what Arabic music is. It’s what it is for the people on the streets, in the backyards, in the nightclubs."
David is a tour manager for the band Chicano Batman by day. By night he spins with Discostan, alongside Jeremy Loudenback and founder Arshia Haq. “I’m still like the visitor while they’re the residents. They live in Discostan. I just have a passport. The concept really comes from Arshia," he says.
Arshia isn’t just a resident of Discostan, she’s its founding mother. She was born in Hyderabad, India and moved to the US with her family when she was five.
“I started playing records kind of accidentally. I’ve always collected them - ever since I was 16 or 17," says Arshia. "And in LA I had a neighbor who knew I had this whole collection and invited me to DJ and after that, I was offered a night. And I’ve just been playing records out since then.”
Now Arshia collects her Discostan music on her travels - to countries like India, Egypt, Morocco, and Pakistan. Most recently she came back from a several week long trip to Algeria. When she's there, she really wants to get a sense of what people are listening to on the streets in these countries. Locals will send her vinyls, but also mp3s, Youtube videos, and CDs of the current popular artists.
Arshia houses some of this music at her Los Angeles studio apartment. She combs through her vinyl collection and finds a perfect embodiment of the Discostan sound: Ihsan Al Munzer's Belly Dance Disco. She says Al Munzer, a Lebanese artist, "is kind of one of the artists who has a classic Discostan sound because he was using a lot of synth, and keyboards to play traditional Arabic melodies, so it definitely combines that love we have at Discostan for traditions but thinking towards the future.”
Discostan started in 2011 with 30 people at a bar in Koreatown. Now, at the Nowruz celebration at Footsies, Arshia expects around 400. But under that synth and keyboard of the dance party, something else is happening.
“One of the ways I like to characterize Discostan is as a love letter. And like a love letter it’s filled with all kinds of notes of celebration, of excitement, of joy, but it’s also of heartbreak and bitterness," says Arshia.
Discostan is really a conversation: about that celebration and heartbreak; but also about homeland and diaspora; tradition and assimilation; and even war and peace.
“I mean when we started Discostan, Syria wasn’t in the state it is in now. And when we play the music, I’ve had people come up to me who will say ‘thank you for playing this music, because all we hear is the violence and the bloodshed, and the savagery of what’s going on in these places and so we really need this counter note of hearing the other sides to these cultures. So maybe it’s always been that way but maybe it feels more urgent now.”
That urgency comes from President Trump’s proposed travel ban on citizens from six Muslim-majority countries - including Iran. David Gomez says this year's Nowruz celebration takes on a new meaning.
"Most of the people in the US only know of Iran that it’s on the banned list. And that’s it. And they have a history and a celebration and so to be facilitating that is awesome. It’s always been awesome.”
To hear the radio story about Discostan click the play button at the top of this page.