Middle Eastern party scene thrives in Brooklyn

Just before midnight on a Friday in June, a short line formed outside Elsewhere, a music venue and nightclub in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Saphe Shamounone of the DJs performing that night cautiously approached two women in line.

“Are you here for Laylit?” He asked. They nodded and Mr. Shamoun directed them to another entrance – and a much longer line – further up the block.

Laylitor “the night of” in Arabic, is a New York and Montreal-based party that highlights music from the Middle East and North Africa and its diaspora.

He’s had a residency at Elsewhere since October, but tonight was special: the event had become so popular that for the first time, it wasn’t taking place in the venue’s small venues but in its cavernous hall, where more than 800 people would soon be dancing under a glittering disco ball and a hypnotic light show.

On the program: a performance by Anya Kneesa Lebanese drag queen and DJ sets featuring Arabic popular, hip-hop, popular and electronic music.

Ten years ago, it was virtually unheard of for a major New York club to regularly throw a Middle Eastern-themed party. But now, Laylit is part of a thriving scene in Brooklyn that puts Middle Eastern and North African music front and center.

The events vary in style, but they all celebrate cultures that promoters say have been overlooked in the West. And they offer many New Yorkers a sense of comfort in a bustling city that can nonetheless feel isolated, especially after more than two years of the pandemic.

“It’s so, so beautiful to see the community come together,” said felukah, a hip-hop artist who moved to New York from Egypt in 2018 and is a regular at Laylit and other similar parties. “The sounds remind me of home.”

For some revelers, nostalgia is the main attraction. Yet each event is also forward-looking, whether challenging stereotypical notions of Middle Eastern culture or championing inclusiveness and progressive ideals.

Laylit, for his part, has created a shared space for Arabs who uphold these values, said Shamoun, a Syrian DJ and Ph.D. candidate who founded the party in 2018 with Wake Islanda Montreal musical duo composed of Philippe Manasseh and Nadim Maghzal.

Ironically, it wasn’t until the two left their native Lebanon that they embraced its sounds.

“It wasn’t cool when I was growing up to play Arabic music,” Mr Maghzal said.

“It was actually not cool,” Mr. Manasseh added.

And after migrating to Montreal in the early 2000s, they actively separated themselves from their culture, fearing discrimination and feeling a duty to assimilate, Mr. Manasseh said.

But now they’re using Laylit as an outlet to rediscover their roots. In September, they will celebrate the party’s fourth anniversary with another show at Elsewhere and a tour of Montreal, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

Disco Tehran, a dance party and performance project that channels the international musical culture of 1970s Iran, was also born out of the immigrant experience. Organizers Arya Ghavamian and Mani Nilchiani said it took years to get it off the ground.

Almost a decade ago, Mr. Ghavamian, an Iranian filmmaker who had moved to the United States a few years earlier, asked an organization to throw a party to celebrate Nowruz, a holiday that marks the beginning of the Persian New Year and is observed in several countries of Central and Western Asia. “It was a ‘no’,” Mr Ghavamian said.

A few years later, he started hosting get-togethers in his apartment where he cooked Persian cuisine and invited musicians to play. In early 2018, his apartment could no longer accommodate the crowds, so he and Mr. Nilchiani held their first public Disco Tehran event: the long celebration of Nowruz.

Since then, the party has grown and evolved, and now includes a movie project and community outreach efforts. He recently celebrated his fourth birthday at the Sultan Room, a nightclub and restaurant in Bushwick, with an eclectic playlist and performances by Alsarah and the Nubatonesa retro pop group from East Africa, and Epiloguea Puerto Rican indie-funk band.

Disco Tehran, Mr Ghavamian said, “is about a collection of different cultures that may have nothing to do with each other on any given day, but they come together”.

And the project is on its third European tour, giving organizers the feeling that they “have a place wherever we are in the world”, Mr Ghavamian said. His next New York event is on August 13 at the Knockdown Center in Queens.

Yala! party project also grew out of intimate gatherings in apartments, hosting its first public event in the spring of 2018. (“Yalla” translates to “let’s go” or “let’s go” in Arabic.) Its founder longed for a queer party featuring South West Asian and North African Music.

Over the years, Yalla! has become an artistic collective and an exercise in community development. It’s the start of a business directory to help people find jobs and he runs a market that supports small businesses run by women, people of color and queer people.

Its parties reflect the cultural diversity of New York. During a performance in May at the Sultan Room, a Eritrean henna artist drew intricate patterns on a man’s palm as revelers danced R&B and Lebanese pop. Yala! also ramped up programming during Pride Month, with four events spread across venues in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Once word of Yalla! moved, similar events followed. It was at the beginning of Yalla! show where Mr. Maghzal, from Laylit, first shot Arabic music. A year later, a drag queen named Ana Masraya — her name means “I am an Egyptian woman” in Arabic — hosted a Middle Eastern and North African cabaret called Nefertitties, a play named after the ancient Egyptian queen.

Ana celebrated her show’s third anniversary in May with an event in Littlefield, Gowanus, and traveled to Washington, DC for a cabaret in late June. for her Grand entrance during the anniversary show, she was carried on a makeshift sedan chair, wrapped in a sheet of gold mesh, which she then removed to reveal a gold crown modeled after Nefertiti’s.

On stage, Ana spoke about her experience as a publicly known LGBTQ person from the Middle East, a region where homosexuality is largely taboo and can, in some countries, lead to persecution. “It’s crazy scary sometimes,” Ana said.

The night featured drag performances by Rifi royaltywho is Egyptian American, and Meh Mooni, who is American of Iranian descent; a set of Felukah; and a belly dance contest on an Egyptian song that is a must for Arab evenings: “Shik Shak Shok.”

The following week, the song will be played again on the roof of the Sultan Room during Hazaa dance party and radio program which began in 2019 and spotlights artists from the Middle Eastern and African diasporas and beyond.

One of its founders, an Egyptian-American DJ and creative writing consultant who performs under the name Myyuh, grew up in a predominantly white Connecticut town, where she says she is largely detached from Egyptian culture. She felt embarrassed when her mother played Arabic music at home, she said.

But in Haza, she turned to it for solace – and blasted it to a throbbing dance floor as her fellow Arabs squealed with delight under the Bushwick sky. (Haza will return to the Sultan Room for her next show on July 29.)

“We create a totally different experience with these songs,” Myyuh said.

Its co-founder, an Egyptian DJ and sound engineer who performs under the name Carmen Sandiego, likened the experience to a hug.

“It’s everything you know and love,” she said. “And it’s not just you, but the person next to you is singing the same thing because they understand why it’s so meaningful.”

For Mr. Shamoun, from Laylit, this experience is particularly important for those who have fled the Middle East amid war, uprisings and refugee crises.

“We have been deprived of a present and a future in the Arab world,” he said.

When behind the decks at his shows, he often catches sight of recent immigrants and hopes the songs he plays will bring them home, if only for a few minutes.

While the events continue to generate buzz, few promoters seem to be competing – in fact, most of them are collaborating with each other.

Ana Masreya performed at a Laylit party earlier this month, drawing cheers from the crowd, while Myyuh was in DJ lineup.

Mr. Manasseh believes the scene grew out of what he calls an “assert yourself on the dance floor” movement that took hold after the events and gained strength when Donald J. Trump became president.

Rock was suddenly out, dance and electronic music were all the rage, and more and more people of color and LGBTQ people were creating spaces where they felt seen and heard.

Although Laylit is apparently rooted in distant cultures, Mr. Manasseh attributes its existence to a single city.

“All of this was inspired and made possible by New York,” he said.

James C. Tibbs