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The rooftop terrace of the upscale Mission District eatery Medjool, with its urbanized Middle Eastern atmosphere and sweeping views, makes an appropriate setting for a chat with Arabic mix-master DJ Nader. An S.F. native of Palestinian ancestry, Nader has emerged as the city's leading exponent of contemporary Arabian music in the burgeoning world music club scene.
Over a hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush plate, the 39-year-old Nader relates that it's taken him 22 years to get to this point, timing a DJ would call quite a buildup. After cutting his teeth in the house scene back in the '80s (at one time, he co-hosted a Live105 segment with Steve Masters), he's become known for featuring Middle Eastern melodies in his four-on-the-floor repertoire, blending current dance music from the Arabian diaspora alongside more typical Western material.
"My thing is to associate our music with good popular music," he explains, as the rooftop sound system cranks out a steady succession of Prince and Michael Jackson hits. "So you can see this is just another genre of music. That's why when I play my music, you'll never see a whole set of strictly Arabic music or Arabic house." In his club sets, he says, "You'll hear big bombshell songs right around [Arabic music], before and after. My whole thing is to connect. You want to dance. I won't let you leave."
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In addition to appealing to adventurous, booty-shakin' Westerners, Nader's developed a loyal, even rabid, following of hip young Arabs in both San Francisco and L.A. and helped to promote the scene by making mix CDs of contemporary Arabian music, licensing tracks from artists overseas, and often remixing them or adding his own rhythmic touches. He's also come up with a catchphrase to describe this new sound: Hizzy, a word borrowed from the belly dance tradition, which literally means "shake it." Nader's latest CD, Hizzy: Hips in the Mix, may just be his best yet: 19 songs covering 70 minutes of nonstop beats equally appropriate for belly dancing, snake charming, or smoking hashish (maybe even all three), with a song selection that makes the Thievery Corporation's attempts at clubland exotica seem rather pedestrian and rote. He describes its theme as "Arabic chill out," representing much slower tempos than his typical club sets and perhaps a bit more emphasis on grooves and a bit less on the endlessly repeating peaks and valleys of house.
Arabian music is literally nothing new; its tradition dates back as far as the sixth century, when Islam first spread throughout the Middle East and Africa, and it's easy to find a historical predecessor for trance and rave in sacred Sufi Laila rituals. In recent years, however, Arabian music has moved away from the 30-40 minute-long, sometimes dirgelike traditional vocalist-with-orchestra settings to shorter, dance-oriented material that's placed it more in line with youth-oriented Western pop culture. That's a good thing, Nader insists. "You don't understand the amount of mothers who come to me and say, 'My kids are back into Arabic music. They now think Arabic music's cool.'"
Nader says the modernization of Arabian music began in the '80s with the progressive influence of Iraqi bands, but really took off around a decade ago, when young Arabs began demanding music that represented their generation. "In the early '90s, Arab music became urbanized," Nader explains, and along with an improvement in recording quality came the introduction of remixes to the Arab world many of them by producers in Greece and Turkey. Today's Arabian music is exploding with innovation and freshness, like Hizzy's titular theme song, an infectiously catchy hip-hop track by Get Lit Entertainment that brings the East-meets-West mash-up vibe of Panjabi MC's 2002 collaboration with Jay-Z, "Beware," to another level.
While the new-school Arabian scene is in itself a fascinating trend that has both revitalized and created new directions for traditional sounds, even more interestingly, practically the same phenomenon is also taking place with other strains of world music. DJ nights ranging from southeast Asian bhangra to North African rai to West African soukous and Afrobeat to Brazilian baile funk have carved out niches in the local club scene alongside hip hop, neo-soul, dancehall, and house. From Nader's ongoing gigs at Cocomo and Roe to Cheb I Sabbah's Wednesday weekly residency at UndergroundSF to DJ Sep's Sunday-night bhangra and dub-a-thons at the Elbo Room to Dhamaal's quarterly throwdowns for the "Asian Massive" at Club Six and "Worldly" sets at 1015 Folsom (which have drawn as many as 1,200 people), there's suddenly a lot of global culture in the nightclubs and that's not even counting the salsa, meringue, cumbia, samba, and reggaeton parties. Even the East Bay has gotten into the act: Oakland's Oasis, known for its dancehall reggae nights, recently debuted a monthly world night, Mundo.
The existence of a happening world music club scene should come as no surprise to any local resident. As Worldisc's Mark Gorney, who handles national publicity for several world music labels out of his Kentfield home, notes, "San Francisco has always been among the top two markets for international music (N.Y. being the other), and this dates back a long way. We are a cultural mecca and that's why the city has one of the best worldtronica/globetronic club scenes in the country."