One sector particularly affected by the international pandemic of COVID-19 has been live music and performance, with nightlife perhaps being the most so given its necessity for close proximities. Traditional destinations for nightlife cultures like Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and New York have now gone some six months without events (legal, at least, as so-called «Plague Raves», illegal parties held without health and safety measures in place and some of the world’s biggest DJs participating, continue across the West with promoters in UK, France, and Belgium being particular offenders) drawing concerns on the loss of jobs, venues, and opportunity within the sector. Yet, despite this temporary inconvenience, there have been many regions who have never enjoyed such prominent cultural positions, industries, and resulting tourism, that comes with such titles as «nightlife mecca». In fact, the colonization of nightlife through said «meccas» creates something of a microcosm of lost opportunity for many of its outsiders, where exorbitant artists fees and production costs trickle throughout the globalized world, affecting local scenes and the subsequent chance of international exposure. Factor in local religious, political, and/or social apprehension and conditions for success prove difficult in more places than not.
Next week, WOMEX, running 15 – 25 March 2020, will present a slew of music documentaries as part of its digital conference on global music. As part of its film programme, the culture around electronic music features prominently, drawing attention to many underrepresented scenes and subcultures. In drawing from my past life, a decade+ within the international electronic music scene, I sought to look at three short films from three particularly underrepresented nightlife locales – Tblisi, Tehran, and Ramallah – and how each has carved out their respective identities despite restriction/oppression and the women who have been lead the way.
If there is one nightclub on Earth that also acts as a seminal space for dissent, it is Tbilisi’s Bassiani. An industrial, imposing destination for Techno, the club sits underneath the Georgian capital’s massive Dinamo Arena, located in its abandoned swimming pool area. Bassiani belongs to the same ilk, in terms of aesthetics and curation, as Berlin’s Berghain and Tresor, the rough and raw approach, a world away from the velvet ropes and high-end clientele of Ibiza, Amsterdam, Las Vegas, or Paris. Bassiani also houses the secretive queer night – the only in the country – Horoom, itself frequently drawing the ire of the country’s influential religious crowd. Now, after a police raid that drew international attention, and the subsequent mass dance gathering that followed, Bassiani has become a representation of progressive ideals in post-Soviet Georgia.
In Naja, a short documentary from Jan Beddegenoodts, a documentary filmmaker focused on rave and resistance around the world, the Bassiani/Horoom founder Naja Orashvili speaks on her trials and tribulations as a multi-faceted nightlife figure (also founding drug decriminalization group White Noise Movement, as well as cultural innovation fund Electronauts), while traversing some of Tbilisi’s most recognized monuments with her daughter. The svelt film of 12 minutes covers much ground in unearthing the mindset of a born dissident and cultural champion, culminating in the intimate thoughts on the Bassiani faithful’s massive Parliament demonstration. This was May 2018 where, following a (so-called) drug raid and subsequent closure, thousands gathered in front of the Georgian Parliament in a mass demonstration of dance, unity, and defiance. It was an event that Orashvili describes as «the best dance of my life».
Over the past handful of years, Bassiani has also been the central location of Stepan Polivanov Raving Riot and Peter van Langen, Iris-sanne van der Aar short documentary Midnight Frontier, which specifically looks at its role within the country’s LGBTQ+ community.
Jan Beddegenoodts also documented one of the electronic music’s most exciting young acts, Ramallah’s Sama Abuldhadi in an eponymously titled short film. Under stage name, Sama, Abuldhadi rose to prominence in 2018 when her debut Boiler Room set, a first for Palestine, drew upwards of 5 million views. Now, the young Palestinian artist with a penchant for punishing, aggressive, yet groovy Techno has become one of the international nightlife scene’s most in-demand DJ’s, traveling the world with her record bags while flying the flag for her much-loved country and its capital city. In just two years, Sama has become something of a Palestinian cultural pioneer, opening the doors for other local artists to make waves around the world (the, now Paris-based, experimental electronic artist 00970, comes to mind)
In its 13 minutes runtime, Beddegenoodts manages to capture both the volatility of life in Ramallah, especially as a touring artist, as well as the unforgiving pace of life within the electronic music community. Starting off with a tense ride across the Palestinian/Israeli border – one that is successful but yields stories of failed attempts – the film then follows Sama to Cairo, Paris, Ibiza, and more (the latter sees her sharing the stage with Techno hero, and Lebanese-British superstar DJ Nicole Moudaber). Along the way, Sama describes everything from her affinity for Ramallah, the (life) education she received during her time in Cairo, as well as her concerns for the mental and physical toll, the life of a touring DJ takes.
Sounds of Tehran
Electronic music culture in Iran is generally something that remains deeply underground, as the 2016 documentary from Susanne Regina Meures Raving Iran proved. In that film, the Tehran DJ duo Blade & Beard struggle to find their way outside of Iran as political asylum seekers to Switzerland where, in the meantime, they continue to operate as musicians and promoters (sometimes) beneath the careful watch of the country’s culture police. In Aleksandra Bilic & Victoria Fiore’s 9-minute Sounds of Tehran a different story is presented. It is one that tells the story of a burgeoning underground electronic music culture and does so through the experiences of Nesa Azadikhah.
Nesa Azadikhah is the founder and Deep House Tehran, a community platform meant to offer a showcase and destination for the discovery of Iranian electronic artists. A quick search through Soundcloud will yield many such «Deep House [City]» (as the former editor in chief of the original, Deep House Amsterdam, I do take some element of pride in seeing the global popularity of the approach), but not many are created equal. However, it is the diversity and distinct mission of Deep House Tehran that is able to separate itself from the pack (and the brutally competitive, financially destitute international music media scene). Deep House Tehran now boasts a robust international listenership across its collection of digital platforms. It is Azadikhah’s organic, determined approach to cultural curation and community building that exudes through her soft-spoken demeanor responsible.
Featured Image: Sama’ Abuldhadi, a film by Jan Beddegenoodts (c. Cameltown)
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