In a bar in LA you might be able to hear ancient sounds, handed generation over generation down the mountainsides of Pakistan. Or, you might be treated to the strains of street music from Cairo cartwheeling across the tables. Or, you’ll see folks swaying to a rare record from a never-forgotten Lebanese songstress. This is the work of the music collective Discostan, who, like their tagline “from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay” suggests, are expansive in their vision.
Arshia Haq says she started the earliest iterations of the party night as a “love letter” to her heritage. After amassing a collection of records through 15 years of careful picking, she was invited by a friend to share her musical archive at a bar. And since then, she hasn’t looked back.
“It turned out there was a community that really wanted this music,” Haq told Kajal about her first forays into DJing. “A lot of people like me – people who had immigrated or of the diaspora who were trying to find ways to reconnect to certain traditions and music but might not feel comfortable in the spaces they’re originally heard in.”
Haq was born in Hyderbad, India to a “conservative, Sunni Muslim family.” Her first musical acquisition, she says, was a cassette she picked out at the age of 4 – the Urdu-language disco album Superuna by Bangladeshi devotional singer Runa Laila and produced by the legend Bappi Lahiri.
Even when her family moved to the United States, she only spoke Urdu at home and her pop culture consumption was limited to music, films, and television from the subcontinent her family left behind. It wasn’t until she left home and began working in a record shop at the age of 17 that she was able to expand her sonic world. The music she listened to as a child was still an ever-present source of inspiration for her.
“I’d always missed the music I grew up with. It was always what felt like home,” Haq said. “And especially with having the estrangement from my family, I constantly collected all this ephemera and music because to me it was a way to recreate what felt to me like my identity.”
Playing from her archive in bars turned into radio shows for Dublab and NTS radio and the local LA station Radio Sombra located in the mostly Latinx neighborhood of Boyle Heights. And it kept growing. Radio shows turned into performances at museums and installations and popups. It was also becoming increasingly political.
Discostan began using their sets to raise money for Gaza and Syria. Even now they still give a percentage of what they make at the door to charities.
“Playing Afghan, Qatagahni, or Syrian dabke in the middle of downtown LA on a Saturday night really loud is a form of counterpoint to everything we see on the news about these regions,” Haq said. “[Discostan] didn’t consciously start as this political thing but it became clear very soon that it had a role like that.”
The nights they play are a blend of music, politics, and performance. Visiting artists will join them on stage to present interventions in tradition and pop culture. And this is important to Haq who sees the nightclub as a place for devotion where many can gather.
For Lailat al Mi’raj, a celebration in the Islamic calendar for the night the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, Discostan collaborated with the artist Sand Ninja who, with the “divine haraam militia,” hijacked the dance floor and took party-goers to heaven. A queer fashion show designed by Hushidar Mortezaie alongside the performance created space for all kind of attendees.
But Discostan isn’t just about celebrating traditions or reveling in nostalgia. Doing that, Haq says, does a disservice to the culture that is being created in real time.
“In the beginning it was a lot of throwback and nostalgia, and I think that is very common among record collectors who are mostly white and male. But there’s a tendency to look back at the golden age of these eras,” Haq said. “Everyone talks about Kabul and Iran and how they were like this or like that in the 70s and what they are now. But I think there’s a danger in just looking backwards because there’s still a lot of music being produced in all these places.
“Everything’s changing with things being digital now. It was always ‘world music,’ a term I hate, that was being exported, but the stuff that was really being listened to never really got out. And I’ve learned a lot more about that through traveling and recording music that there’s a lot of stuff people are listening to that we never hear,” she continued.
Haq says part of her work is also about bringing South Asia “into the conversation” alongside the Middle East and North Africa. She wants to emphasize the shared history of the regions that came through cultural exchange predating colonization. And even now, she says, with the slave trade in the Gulf coming mostly from South Asia, it’s important to recognize what these regions have in common and how they interact with each other.
Haq’s work has garnered attention from all over the world. She was recently invited to Berlin to speak about Discostan. She also does her own field recordings, preserving traditional music in its original context. The work of an archiver is never done.
Discostan hosts nights all over LA. Their next event will be held November 17 at Civic Center Studios and will feature music by Omid Walizadeh and installation art work by Gelare Khoshgozaran, Nikta Mohamadi, and more.