Lost Notes: Uncovering a Pakistani pop gem

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Nermin and Feisal Photo courtesy of Nermin Niazi

On this week's Lost Notes, contributor Arshia Haq dove into origins of Disco Se Aagay, a Pakistani pop album by Nermin Niazi. In the 80s, Niazi and her brother Feisal (the children of two highly respected artists in the more traditional Pakistani musical landscape), chose to make a “New Wave” record despite that being fairly beyond anyone’s comprehension at the time.

Arshia, who is the founder of Discostan, a South West Asian and North African dance/art project, unearths the curious sounds of the diaspora and "decolonizes the dance floor."

In the process of finding and recontextualizing 'musics' which are in and of themselves a conversation between cultures, she (like any trailblazer) finds and inhabits that unique space between the imagined and the literal. That space (Discostan?) is a place of discovery, reflection, self-discovery and self-realization.

I asked Arshia a couple of questions about how this episode came to be and where the project is going.

KCRW: This episode is awesome and super relatable in that it starts from a place of discovery and intrigue about Nermin Niazi and proceeds to dispel the imagined narrative with the actual, and ends up being just as lovely and strange anyway. Why do you think (generally speaking), when we see a stunning work of art or hear music or see a stranger on the street we imagine a narrative to a discovery?

AH: It's kind of a phenomenological question. We are always bound by our own lens at looking out at the world and I think it's a very human impulse to relate to stories or individuals that we are inspired by through our own narrative as a starting point. As a listener or a viewer you filter the experience through your own body so it feels natural to try and find your own story in what influences you. That said, I do think there are some dangers in the idea of discovery, especially when you're an archivist or someone excavating the past. It's almost a colonial impulse (Columbus was a "discoverer,” right?) or a desire for ownership or possession, and I think you have to be careful, especially when it comes to the work of other cultures or times. These things existed before they were "discovered.” I think your own position can be a place to begin but you have to be open to the narrative and history that comes from the work itself. That's one of the things I learned in working on this piece because I had a lot of ideas and projections about Disco Se Aagay that were purely my own, but it turns out Nermin's story was pretty different from what I had imagined.

KCRW: Outside of the commercial functions that drive it, why do you think regional world pop sounds happen?

AH: One of my favorite parts of Nermin's interview is when I asked her about whether she was influenced by goth music, specifically around the way she does vocal stylings that reminded me of the Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush. She laughs and reminds me that a lot of those musicians were probably influenced by Indian/Pakistani classical music, specifically ragas. Although I don't produce music (yet!), I do have a visual arts practice and I absorb a lot of influences subconsciously and then reprocess then when I'm making work. I can only imagine in the music realm, which is so affective and immersive, that applies even more. So maybe this is a roundabout answer, but I don't know if it's always classifiable or traceable or black-and-white in terms of assimilation or co-opting.

KCRW: The internet has unearthed a seemingly infinite trove of stunning world pop from all over. As amazing as it is to be able to discover previously lost things, do you think that it is ultimately good or bad for the previously lost thing? Do you think there'll be some moment when we've discovered the last possible lost thing?

AH: I think this is related to your first question, and I mentioned what I see as some of the issues and dangers of the idea of "discovery.” I do think there's lots of people doing amazing work in finding stories, sounds, images, that were lost or forgotten and bringing them back into circulation. If the work is done with respect for the artist, I think it can be a great thing, especially in cases where artists were overlooked because they weren't working in commercial realms or languages. I personally feel that some of the best art is made without commercial success in mind and so if we can bring light to some of that, that's a good thing.

KCRW: Can you tell us a little more about how Discostan came to be and what the response has been and what you're up to?

AH: Discostan started as a DJ night eight years ago but it's evolved into something beyond that, into an art space, an archival project of both past and present and near future, it's created its own culture, and yes, it looks like we'll be starting our own label next, which is exciting! It originated as a kind of sonic love letter from my own experience as an immigrant, trying to find a sense of home through music, and initially there was a lot of nostalgia. But it became clear that it was also critical to look at the present of music produced in the regions we're exploring, because these places are living; and the myth of the "golden age,” especially for zones of conflict, can be limiting at best and dangerous at worst. And even though it came from a very personal place, it turned out that there was a SWANA (South and West Asia and North Africa) community that really needed a space like this, especially post 9/11, a space of catharsis and celebration and counter-narrative to the endless streams of media we get about brown bodies especially in this country day in and day out. When we started Discostan, there wasn't another space in LA (and possibly the US) that was queering ideas of what it meant to be from these diasporas in this way. In terms of what's next, we are working on a film, a publication, and hopefully a reissue coming soon, plus we are DJ'ing in Europe later this year, in addition to a bunch of parties in LA through the summer - hope to see you on the dance floor!

KCRW: We've been asking everyone this one.. What's an album that saved your life?

AH: This is going to sound contrived but Disco Se Aagey was definitely one of them, and every time I hear some of the tracks I'm instantly euphoric. Aisha Ali's Music of the Ouled Nail is another one. I sometimes joke about how I want that to be played at my wedding and at my funeral. And well, that first cassette of Superuna by Runa Laila was pretty special to me. Plus, I'm a recovering goth myself, and there's a lot of albums from the experimental music realm that influenced me as well, but you only asked for one and I'm already at 3+!