At home chez Sara Dziri

Why is it that during half of the conversation Sara Dziri and I have, we discuss topics that aren’t directly linked to her music but focus on her identity, her roots and the struggle as a queer female artists in a white male dominated world? Yes, this is a rhetorical question, but a necessary one. Let’s build a society where Dziri can wholly focus on what she does best: produce music, DJ and bring people together whether it's on a dance floor, in a theater’s audience or in a record shop, without having to fight or reclaim anything. The responsibility is not hers by the way, but ours.

That being said, I’m climbing up what seem to be the endless stairs of an apartment building close to Gare Midi, with a beautiful view of the Palais De Justice as a trophy for my physical work. The height also fades out the noise of the ever buzzing city, it’s here that Dziri has created a minimalistic yet warm and welcoming home for herself. Some music hardware is laid down nonchalantly in the corner of the living room, two potent studio monitors face me from the cupboard and a remarkable framed photo graces the wall. Apart from some furniture, there isn’t an object too much in the room, which seems to reflect well the thoughtful and elegant nature of my host.

Sara Dziri is a 30-years-old multifaceted artist, a resident DJ at Fuse and Kiosk Radio and the founder of feminist, POC and queer underground party Not Your Techno, born to a Belgian mother and Tunisian father. We have a chat looking forward to the NYT night she will be hosting at Listen in April and the latest (big) news she has to share.

I’m impressed by the amount of output you have produced over the past years, whether it’s music, nightlife, events, talks, DJ sets, … What’s happening right now for you?

Well, DJing is a bit hard for the moment, but Covid did push me towards a more multidisciplinary take on my practice as an artist, that’s for sure. I had always considered exploring other art scenes, but locked out of clubs the process got immensely speeded up. Last year I collaborated with renowned choreographer and director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on ‘Walk With Amal’, a performance where a giant puppet representing a young Syrian girl and through her all the displaced children in the world passed through Brussels on a long journey through Europe. I created the music on which dancers performed in front of the puppet, quite an intense and gripping moment. Based on this music, I’m planning now to make an integral dance performance in collaboration with a choreographer from Tunisia. 

In April you’ll be hosting a Not Your Techno night during Listen Festival. What’s the story behind the name Not Your Techno?

I started NYT with Yasmine Dammak in 2019 and we have hosted six parties so far. It’s a wordplay on I Love Techno, with an intersectional philosophy behind it to reclaim space for people that aren’t represented well enough in our scene: females, POC and the queer community. Techno doesn’t only belong to white people with a lot of money, but belongs to all of us. We try to make our point without sounding too hostile, in a soft and moderate manner, but we do claim our space. 

Can you describe a personal highlight during a Not Your Techno night, what defines your events well? 

In August and September of last year we hosted two events in two weeks time. First an intimate party for about 100 people in Decor Atelier in Molenbeek, then a huge open air rave in collaboration with Catclub in the center of Brussels. Both events were great and left us behind fully energized, especially the familiar context at the former was exactly what we intended to offer: a feeling of freedom and open mindedness. Such freedom for everyone is still utopian, looking back at what happened when the Instagram account Balance Ton Bar was created.  

How did you feel when Fuse, the club where you just started working as a resident DJ, appeared in a testimony on Balance Ton Bar? 

I was obviously shocked and immediately contacted the staff, realising that their reaction would be crucial for the continuation of my residency at the club. But I was relieved to notice that they reacted well and immediately addressed the case seriously. Unfortunately, despite the goodwill of the staff, there is still a long way to go when it comes to changing a certain mentality among a part of the clubbers.

How did you experience your first two months as a resident DJ in Fuse?       

They booked me three times: for the opening night, the closing night and a night I was allowed to curate myself. Each and every night I had a great time. Fuse has gone through a redevelopment with a new team behind the scenes and has given me all the confidence by showing the will to take risks and make adventurous bookings although the financial pressure for such a huge club is always high. So I’m grateful in every possible way, the audience has shown a lot of love and it only takes 10 minutes for me to make it home afterwards.

As the host of a queer party yourself, do you feel connected to Fuse’s queer concept La Demence? 

La Demence is a very sexually oriented event only for gay men, I have never been there. I have always expierenced the gay scene in Brussels as quite introvert to be honest. When in my twenties I was going out often, I was at numerous occasions intimidated, both directly and indirectly. I wasn’t welcome, simply because I’m a woman and gay men can’t score me. That’s exactly the kind of scene or event that we don’t intend to host with Not Your Techno. 

How and where did you find a way into the rave scene yourself? 

Mostly through Catclub. I started going to their parties about 10 years ago, it was one of those places where I felt comfortable and free. The host Lady Jane first started to do parties for her girlfriends, but soon it became a quite popular queer night open to all kinds of people. Their talent was to find special locations for each event. I have fond memories of a Catclub party during Pride in an abandoned Fortis building, the same space where food market Wolf is located today. The whole premise was open to wander around, such an amazing vibe. 

During the lockdown you started hosting debates on diversity and inclusivity called ‘Sound On’ in collaboration with queer event host Misfitte. How would you describe the current state of affairs?

Quite simply, there is still a huge lack of diversity in our society. It’s not because the topic is hot and much debated, that all issues are solved, quite the other way around. The statistics on women and POC on line-ups of electronic music events are still very depressing, our scene is still dominated by white males. The current attention for this topic must be more than just a trend. 

Your layered identity as a Belgian with Tunisian roots has for a while been explicitly part of your identity as a musician and DJ, using Arabtechno often as a hashtag or hosting the Souk Sessions. But over the years I noticed an evolution where you dropped the hashtag. How do you see this?

It’s true that there has been quite an evolution in my musical identity. When I first started working with music the identitary part wasn’t there yet. In 2016 I was living in Toronto for a while and I was completely hooked to electronic music with Arabic influences, but there weren’t any events where I could connect with. So I decided to launch Souk Sessions and started coining the term Arab Techno. But lately I have left behind these explicit links with Arabic culture, since they started to limit me. It took a while for me to feel confident enough to make this move and still hold on to my roots, to have my whole identity balanced out. 

You don’t want to become the next Acid Arab?

I don’t want to be stuck in a box. Regardless of my roots, I’m interested in any kind of electronic music, whether it’s coming from the Arab world or from Detroit. My identity is much more complicated than a simplistic term as Arab Techno can signify and on the other hand, the Arabic connotation can easily be used to exoticize. Step away from the Western perspective on electronic music and you’ll easily notice so many interesting and unique scenes from Asia or Africa, while we still use our Western glasses to look at these scenes, which is imperialistic and even post colonial behavior. That’s why the term Arab Techno isn’t appropriate anymore for me, it puts people and scenes in an unjust order.

From Arab Techno to I’m Not Your Techno! Speaking of techno, I see some gear piled up in a corner here in the apartment. Do you have a studio space and what are your favorite conditions to produce music?

I have a studio space, but it’s being renovated for the moment. I'll soon be able to install all my gear again. Much of my music so far is completely made digitally though, only using my computer and Ableton. But lately I’m experimenting much with analog gear, mostly to limit the endless digital possibilities somehow, noticing an increase in inspiration when I have a limited set of options. Once I get into a good workflow, I can continue working for days and all else in my life is paused, until I feel satisfied. I usually start working in the morning until late at night. A current challenge for me is to find more structure in my work and improve my skills to finish a track, to find satisfaction with the result instead of trying countless other alternatives.

Have you got any releases in the pipeline right now?

Yes, actually I do. I have just released the first single ‘Fille De Racaille’ of my upcoming album ‘Close To Home’ on Optimo Music, the Glasgow label run by Optimo's JD Twitch. Racaille is an old French term referring to a group of society which isn’t accepted by the establishment. Throughout the album I’ll be exploring this theme of belonging in an introspective way, it will be out at the end of March. 

Wow, very much looking forward to that, congratulations on the release. 

As a party host and DJ, how much do you allow a hedonistic lifestyle, do you find moments to let the pressure go?

Less and less hedonistic since I turned thirty, but I definitely still enjoy it. Partying was very important in my twenties though, as an important road to self discovery. Not the hedonistic part per se, but the idea of letting go, of finding more open-mindedness. I grew up in a rather closed environment in Antwerp, where everyone went to the same clubs and dressed matching. Moving to Brussels when I was 19 years old and discovering the rave scene meant the world to me.

Who is the woman in the framed picture in your living room?

Sherihan, an Egyptian Egyptian actress, singer and classically trained dancer who was pictured in a cinema in Cairo in the eighties. I find it a beautiful and strong image, loaded with symbolic value about the position of women in the Arabic world. I wish to work more with female Arab artists in the future, to broaden my spectrum as a Belgian woman with mixed identities. In most Arabic cultures female artists are underrepresented. Artists are badly commented on in the first place, seen as hedonistic and subordinate, so imagine being a female artist. The actress in this picture shows strength and focus, while also just being pretty and well-dressed. Though I don’t want to purely romanticize this kind of portrayal of Arab women, there should be just as much room for women who stick to a strong Islamic identity and a headscarf. 

Amen to that. Thanks for your inspiring words, Sara!

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