Dar Disku: the Bahraini duo re-imagining Middle Eastern musical heritage
I hate the term ‘World Music’,” says Vish Mhatre, “It’s such a lazy term used to classify things without people trying to understand a specific genre or the actual music. There’s a common viewpoint that if it isn’t Western music, then it’s normally just lumped in as World Music.”
For someone like Mhatre such lazy classification lacks respect to the heritage of other culture’s music. “It’s funny, because when people talk about western music genres they are very specific. You can talk about South London jazz or East Coast hip hop, but try telling them about Turkish disco or Syrian dabke and it all becomes just ‘World Music’.”
Mhatre knows a thing or two about niche music, along with his ‘partner-in-crime’ Mazen Almaskati, they set up Dar Disku, a record-label-come-art-collective that focused on celebrating an exciting new awakening of music from the MENA region. The name Dar Disku literally translates to the ‘home of the disco’, and was taken from a popular, independent 1970s Egyptian pop culture magazine of the same name, that sadly has little-to-no trace left. Until now.
Growing up less than a mile apart in Bahrain, both Mhatre and Almaskati shared fascination with discovering new music, and bonded over ‘digging’ for forgotten old tapes and making mixtapes to show friends and strangers—it’s something that has never really changed. Having previously played in several bands together, the DJ/producer duo created Dar Disku as both the name of their live act and their record label.
“Dar Disku is a relatively new thing—we’ve only been doing it for about eight months,” says Almaskati. “We could feel this growing creative energy around a new generation of Middle Eastern and Asian kids who are starting to embrace a heritage that was never particularly celebrated before. It’s crazy to think that in just six months we’ve already played gigs in places like New York, Istanbul, London, Mumbai and Paris.”
A wider picture would suggest that their success isn’t so much ‘crazy’ but more in line with the next step of a global musical evolution. Major cities all across the world tend to have their own diverse Middle Eastern communities, and with a new generation of youth growing up in with dual cultures, a reworking of classic Arabic and Asian music into a more contemporary sound feels like a logical step. “In Paris, for example, there is a large Algerian community, so the records and tapes that we find while digging there are totally different to what we would find in the Gulf,” says Mhatre.
When asked to what that musical evolution sounds like in a Dar Disku DJ set, they describe it as a two-hour journey through Middle East dance music from Turkish disco, to Iranian pre-revolution funk, to heavier, more contemporary Arabic dance music like former ’90s Syrian wedding singer turned hipster festival favourite Omar Souleyman.
“It’s pretty cool to play gigs in random cities watching people dancing along who clearly don’t understand a word of Arabic,” chuckles Almaskati. “Dancing to music without understanding the words—it’s a pure listening experience.”
Along with the clear talent and ear for reediting vintage music with a contemporary twist, the early success of Dar Disku can be placed as early adopters of the current global surge of interest in unearthing forgotten Middle East music of previous decades. However, what is surprising is that they are one of the first acts actually from the Middle East region playing in the genre, with the wave popularity principally led by individuals based outside the region— notably by Berlin-based label Habibi Funk.
“A lot of the first DJs to tap into this kind of music actually have nothing to do with the Middle East,” says Mhatre. “It is inspiring to see what Habibi Funk are doing, but I think having a personal relationship with the region helps us when we play.”
That personal relationship comes from being raised in the Gulf. However, they admit that it wasn’t until they both left the region and moved to the UK did the cultural significance really hit home.
“Growing up in Bahrain we were obsessed with ‘getting out’ and exploring the wider world. Like any hometown it always felt like it had a confined feel to it,” says Mhatre. “We never really paid attention to what was going on right in front of us until we left, when—because we were removed from it—we could suddenly see our home and the culture from a wider perspective.”
Mhatre and Almaskati explain how they both moved to the UK for ‘real jobs’, leaving home with pockets full of Radiohead, Aphex Twin and Daft Punk. But both became nostalgic and “hypnotically fascinated” by the art and culture that had surrounded them their entire lives and, most importantly, the music that their parents “played on dusty turntables”.
“We went to a souk in Bahrain when we were back recently and stumbled into an old music shop. We must have found and bought about 80 to 100 old tapes there,” Mhatre says. Continuously on the hunt for vintage music, the duo then began the process of organising the tapes and converting whatever they could into digital formats. That plays a large part of what Dar Disku wants to do with its record label—preserve and digitise older recordings, which otherwise could potentially be left to the dustbin of history.
Riding the crest of the current Middle East creative boom, in just eight months Dar Disku has gone from two guys digging for old tapes in a souk to filling underground clubs in global music capitals. Next up are a few tour dates followed by an appearance at the Lovebox Festival in London, sharing a bill with the likes of Two Chains and Action Bronson, which, if you ask them is “pretty crazy”, or is it?