The strong smell of sandalwood-infused Indian Chandan Dhoop incense fills Arshia Haq's Echo Park apartment as she gets ready for the night. She has recently arrived back in the city after working on a music documentary in India and Pakistan, and the jet lag hasn't subsided – nor has that bittersweet feeling of being back in L.A.
For the children of immigrants like Haq, who in 1980 moved with her parents to the United States from Hyderabad, India, the concept of “home” has never been limited by one specific geographic area. The comfort lies not in being somewhere, but in the constant journey to get there, the space in between, where the possibilities of going and coming seem endless.
Amidst woven rugs, folk art, her large collection of records including the best Bollywood has to offer, and lingering nostalgia, Haq presses on. She's pondering whether to include a particular song in that night's DJ set. The track, a mashup of Missy Elliot's “Get Your Freak On” with the Punjabi song “Dil Laa Na Baitheen” by Harbhajan Mann, is from a CD picked up after a rummage through the dollar bin.
Haq and her friend Sasha Ali, exhibitions manager at Mid-Wilshire's Craft and Folk Art Museum, have a quick listening session in front of her laptop.
It's cheesy, Haq says.
“It's trying too hard,” Ali agrees. The song is cut.
Tonight, Haq is DJing at Discostan, the funky, underground cross-cultural dance party she helped create two years ago, featuring music from “Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay.” Her look is far from the black T-shirts of most DJs in L.A clubs: an intricately embroidered Pashtun tribal garment from Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Bejeweled in shimmery purple and red tones, the yoke, an extra piece of fabric that is stitched onto the top part of a traditional kameez, or tunic, sits on her dress as if it was always meant to be there.
With a steady supply of vintage and modern bhangra, Arabic dabke, Thai and Persian pop music, Bulgarian chalga and Turkish disco, Haq and fellow DJs Jeremy Loudenback, David Gomez and Kirk Gee have grounded in the heart of L.A. a party exploring music from across dozens of international borders.
Discostan is held in a dive bar in Cypress Park called Footsie's, located next to a late-night taqueria said to have the best potato tacos in L.A. Its borderless explosion of music in a “pop-up homeland” serves a growing audience, first- and second-generation immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, whose ancestors walked the ancient Silk Road. For these revelers, the monthly party is a chance to reconnect with their roots while sampling a curated, international music mix. Even Alan Bishop, founder of the Seattle-based Sublime Frequencies record label, and best known for being part of American rock band Sun City Girls, has stopped by to guest DJ.
Sometimes, Discostan even manages to make fans out of the most unsuspecting of attendees – bar patrons who innocently come out for a drink, unaware of the themed night. They sometimes find themselves enjoying the music, too.
On this Wednesday night, Serbian dance music vibrates throughout the dimly lit room at Footsie's, which is fitted with a pool table and nude paintings of women hanging above leather quilted booths. Two men who were grabbing a drink as the dance party began walk up to the DJs, who are taking turns with their sets next to the swinging saloon doors of the bar.
“You can't go wrong with cowbells,” one says, as his dreadlocks bop back and forth to the beats. “That shit is banging.”
Soon, the wailing phrase “Yallah” (meaning “let's go” in Arabic) from the first set of songs grows louder, and the bearded, beer-drinking hipsters occupying the bar get restless and move on. They are quickly replaced with a group of feet-stomping and clapping “Discostanis” eager to dance – among them a handful of Iranians whose shoulder-swaying display to a popular south Iranian Bandari song draws curious onlookers. The Iranians are quick to notice and pull in whoever is willing to dance, teaching them to contort their bodies to move in harmony with the bass. It's so loud, you feel it pulsating under your skin.
For the evening's revelers, it isn't just about music. It's about a conversation. Once confined to homes and private family gatherings, the music they grew up with now blasts in a popular (and public) space, and that's empowering. Having that music paired with the finest California craft beer means acknowledgement, acceptance and appreciation of an identity often dismantled by war or lost to assimilation.
“Unlike everything else you do as an immigrant, this is not an isolated experience,” says Tehran-born artist and writer Gelare Khoshgozaran, who came to L.A. five years ago for grad school. “It's not, like, ghettoized into this corner of the city. It's at this very popular bar, it's loud and it's present and it's vibrant. The type of exposure and visibility that it gives to me and my community is what I appreciate about it.”
Khoshgozaran has been going to Discostan for eight months. She hasn't missed a night yet.
For Haq, who grew up on a strict diet of Bollywood music in an orthodox Muslim Indian family and subsequently immersed herself in experimental jazz and punk scenes in college, Discostan also is very personal, a way to bridge her dual American and Indian identities
“It was a way to reconnect on my own terms,” she says. “It was a way to give this music a voice, to get it away from being considered 'kitsch.'?”
In the process, her collaborators, who each come with their own musical perspectives and styles (Gee, for example, has a penchant for Balkan music), have helped her form more than just a dance party. It's a social space where attendees mingle, reminisce and form their own narratives, with the Discostan soundtrack as a backdrop.
“It's a love letter,” Loudenback says just before he gets ready for his set, which often includes healthy doses of Lebanese pop and African Kuduro. “A love letter to the communities in L.A. we don't think about.”