We Are the World

Global fusion takes club music to outernational heights

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."

DJ Nader dropping global dance floor bombs.
Juan Carlos Pometta
DJ Nader dropping global dance floor bombs.

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."

Maybe so, but the globetronic scene wouldn't be where it is today without S.F.'s original world beatnik, Cheb I Sabbah. Still warmly remembered for "1002 Nights," his long-running residency at Haight St. watering hole Nickie's, Sabbah — who refers to himself as "58 going on 25" — has made the transition from DJ to producer with a series of albums on S.F.'s Six Degrees (which, in turn, has emerged as one of the nation's top international labels). His latest offering, La Ghibra, is a collection of remixes drawn from his 2005 release La Kahena, which itself was built around the traditional music of the Maghreb region, a Saharan stretch of land populated by nomadic tribes and connecting Morocco, Algeria, and Mali. Arabic hip hop also appears on La Ghibra, on the "Filles de Marrakech" mix of "Sadats," while the rest of the album further funkifies the North African-inflected original source material, turning it into a dubby, trance-y, big beat-laden journey into a multifaceted, multicultured sound — fulfilling the promise hinted at by Coldcut's sampling Ofra Haza on an Eric B. & Rakim remix almost 20 years ago.

Sabbah calls what he does the "outernational" sound, which to him means "music without borders" and includes Arabia, Africa, and Asia. House, trance, hip hop, and dancehall, he says, are "universal" templates, onto which traditional music has been grafted. From a global perspective, "hip hop is the biggest thing happening," he says, although dancehall might be a close second in terms of its influence on other genres. "Hip hop and popular music has been getting into the bhangra sound and the Arabic sound" for some time, Sabbah relates, adding that his 29-year-old son is a hip-hop artist who calls himself Opium (because he's dope, get it?). "It's working. You need something fresh."

One reason it works, according to Nader, is because with Arabic melodies, "you can put them on top or in between every single beat you come across. The Arabic beats can even go between drum 'n' bass beats. It's percussion, and it's percussion with a beat. That's the beauty of it. When you hear percussion, you get movement."

The tabla — a long, double-sided drum ubiquitous to both southeast Asia and Arabia — is particularly adaptable to club music because of its deep, resonant bass, he adds. "I think the bass is the basic component of music, basically. You can't beat good bass. The bass alone becomes boring if it doesn't have support." That's where the tabla comes in, Nader explains. "If you're into house music, you're into rhythm. House music is basically about the bassline kicking in and the beat kicking in and the buildup. The tabla allows the house song to be prolonged." It also sounds familiar to hip-hop listeners, who are used to hearing the low-end timbre of the Roland 808, which, when detuned, produces a tone similar to the tabla or the African djembe.

While the Bay is definitely a breeding ground for cutting-edge world music, global fusion is rapidly spreading to other regions. Nader reports that he's been received enthusiastically in places like Denver, while in Chicago, the birthplace of house music, electronic music labels like Deeper Soul are pushing the progressive aesthetic of broken beat and IDM one step beyond by mixing house, jazz, and West African music. Listeners are "definitely" getting more sophisticated, says Deeper Soul's Josh Muthart, aka Josh Deeper. "You constantly want to dig in deeper and reach a level of authenticity." To that end, he's been releasing records that blend technology with live instrumentation (like an upcoming remix project by Kahil El'Zabar and Ethnic Heritage Ensemble) and throwing club nights that, much like Dhamaal's eponymous Club Six events, feature DJs and live musicians, together and separately.

"Information and technology are moving so quickly, people have so much access to information, it's just natural for these genre lines to be broken down," Muthart explains. His hope is that one day, there will be "one global audience" spanning "multiple generations" and "multiple demographics." Interestingly enough, that's Sabbah's wish, too: "We try to make it one party."

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