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Place of Disco: The Republic of Discostan

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Discostan | Photo: Nanette Gonzalez/Discostan Facebook Page

​In partnership with The Los Angeles/Islam Arts Initiative brings together nearly 30 cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles to tell various stories of traditional and contemporary art from multiple Islamic regions and their significant global diasporas.

On the second Wednesday of every month, Footsie's bar in Cypress Park becomes the capital of a temporary, sonic ummah named Discostan.

Footsies is an unlikely locale for such a thing by most measures. Perched on the southern lip of an overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood, the bar has long been a fixture of Los Angeles' dive-&-DJ scene, the changing circumstances of its ownership making it a sibling at various times to venues like Monty's, The Short Stop, La Cita, El Chavito and others.

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Footsie's Bar | Source: Footsie's Bar Facebook

Like any Los Angeles location worth its salt, Footsies has stood in on screen for itself and other places, some part of the bar appearing in "Bad Santa," "Parenthood," a Rhianna video, two episodes of "Southland." But on nights that Discostan is in session the bar embodies a Los Angeles unlike most found on screens large or small. Laying claim to a notional territory that stretches "from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay," the Discostan collective -- founder Arshia Fatima Haq, DJs David Gomez, Jeremy Loudenback and Kirk Gee, former member Sasha Ali -- called dancers and audiophiles into semi-regular community there as they have regularly since 2012, Discostan appearing and disappearing "Brigadoon"-like first in Koreatown and then at its current home.

Discostan is a party but its form and function varies depending on who you ask, or, perhaps more accurately, who you are. Haq's sense of what Discostan is (or could) be spans the southern and brown portion of the globe. Calling herself currently obsessed with the field recording of Aisha Ali ("She was a pioneer musicologist, she traveled through Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Syria, Tunisia, you name it, in the 1970s."), she also cites "Middle Eastern double reed madness -- it's the music I want to get married to, give birth to, and I hope they play it at my funeral as well," and speaks audio story-telling where sets pan-Muslim sets build with "prologue, climax and denouement" around themes such as hauntings, heartbreaks and psychedelic Islamic States.

Discostan is both a geography and a condition entered into by the ceremony of dance, hence the "disco."

"I like melodies and rhythms that are pushing the edge of collapse," says Haq, "and I think the element of repetition that you see/hear in trance ceremonies and music is really key to reaching a particular state. I love unexpected rhythms and the dark lines underlying contemporary dabke, choubi and right now I am really into the rhythms of qataghani from Afghanistan. I also love watching the qawliya dance from Iraq. The best ones involve daggers and lots of hair. Sometimes I get the hair thing down but I'm nowhere near able to do this dance."

On the Discostan's actual ground in Footsies, art, politics, connoisseurship, dive-bar flirtation, psychedelia, the liminal pleasure of being pulled off a stool by a novel or familiar sound, are in play on any given second Wednesday. More officially, the monthly event has also been an anchor participant in the Los Angeles / Islam Arts Initiative (LA/IAI), operating as a kind of pop-up clubhouse for the artists, curators, and fellow travelers who came together this fall to, as the LA/IAI put it, "tell various stories of traditional and contemporary art from multiple Islamic regions and their significant global diasporas."

Since September, Discostan's night has framed a running series of LA/IAI performances: guest DJ sets by Yavaran aka Kamyar Jarahzadeh of Ajam Media Collective and crate-digger/curator Arash Saedinia, dance performances by Qabila Folk Dance Company and Burqa Girls, musical performance by Amit Kotecha and Vinay Sharma, as well as inspired rendition of the Talking Head's Dream Operator by Gelare Khoshgozaran, where David's Byrne "dream" was recast as a drone:

In keeping with the heterodox notion of an Islamic L.A., this profusion of sound and movement doesn't sum up as much as it complicates. Asked how she came to found Discostan, Haq (an Indian American filmmaker who also DJ's Discostan's Radio Sombra and dublab streams) begins with a complication, wondering whether the notion of a generalized "Islamic" art is a function of art world colonialism even as she shares that her party grew from her own desire to revive her own connection what she calls a larger "Islamic" cultural sphere.

"Discostan formed organically," Haq recalls, "it was a way to reconnect on my own terms to a cultural and religious heritage I had inadvertently become exiled from, through emigration, displacement, generational differences, etc. From this very personal place I became more and more engaged in discovering the popular and raw music from the larger Islamic world, the stuff that wouldn't necessarily get studio produced on an international level but that people in these places actually listen to."

For Discostan, the question of what people actually listen is often a function of a memory, family, and translation. When Haq closes her eyes and thinks of her own auditory genealogy, she hears a 1971 song by Kishore Kumar, the don of Bollywood playback singers. "I'm six years old and sitting on the armrest between my parents in my dad's Oldsmobile, and this is on the 8-track machine.

The chorus translates to: "Life is a beautiful journey, who knows what will happen tomorrow? (The poetry is utterly lost in my 5-second translation.)"

Similarly, her road to "disco" (half of her -stan) comes through the familial frame as well. "I was around 4 when I started learning Arabic to read the Quran," Haq says, "and I was already exposed to Bollywood all the time at home. We weren't supposed to imagine what Allah looked like but as a kid your imagination is paramount. So in my mind, Allah was an Arab man wearing a keffiyeh in a black void but with disco lights around him. I suppose that was my first idea of disco. True story."

It goes without saying that this vision is an implicitly political one. That implicit politics became explicit in October when Discostan organized a fundraiser at the Echoplex for the Palestinian Children's Relief Fund. "There were so many venues that wouldn't host us," recalls Haq, "because they thought supporting the Palestinians in any way was too political. Imagine, raising funds for children whose limbs are being blown off by American dollars is too political! Thinking about it was keeping me up at night. The news and the deliberate whitewashing of it all it was beyond disturbing and we couldn't just go on celebrating and playing the music of all these places and not acknowledge what is happening there right now. We are really grateful to Liz Garo and the Echo for giving us the opportunity and space to give voice to these issues."

"There is this monolothic definition of Islam being propagated right now," says Haq, "and it's a reduction and simplification with a political function." Ultimately, her Discostan exists to counter that definition. "There are multiple manifestations and definitions of Islam, historically there have always been, and we have to fight to keep these other traditions from being suffocated and stifled and silenced."

 

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