Two years ago, while seated on the floor making çoban salad for guests at an art gallery, I met FOOZOOL, an artist and DJ, who would soon become my collaborator. I was peeling cucumbers when she said, “Oh my God! My grandma makes this salad!” She asked if she could film me, and I agreed. I explained how I learned to prepare the dish from my Turkish family. She told me that her Armenian family, who lived for generations in Iran, also makes the dish as a staple.
After connecting over çoban, FOOZOOL and I discovered that we’d both made short films about our experiences of Middle Eastern diaspora in the West. Our interest in each other’s video work led us to further explore sound design and DJing together.
We view our music and mixes and as a process of archiving and abstracting non-Western sounds. After our initial collaboration we began to crave a space where we could DJ non-Western music hybridized with club tracks, and out of that desire Club Chai was born.
[pullquote-1]I DJ and produce music under the name 8ULENTINA (pronounced bu-lent-eena). The name is a nod to the famous Turkish transwoman singer and actress Bülent Ersoy, and my creative approach as a DJ is based on the rituals and re-interpretations of my personal history, and my family’s Turkish, Arab, and Jewish traditions. I first started DJing when I was fifteen but didn’t take it seriously because I didn’t have anyone around me to relate or look up to. Living in Oakland for the past eight years, I have found likeminded artists, collaborators, and platforms that affirm me and have been crucial for my survival and development as an artist.
Collaborating with FOOZOOL is a constant reminder about the importance of storytelling in mixing and DJing; she layers traditional Armenian instruments, vocals, and dark industrial percussion, to create deeply textured sounds. Her work is an act of preservation, of Armenian identity, one that resists simplification and embraces fluidity and nonlinear narrative.
Club Chai started in January 2016 as a warehouse party in West Oakland. The name Club Chai comes from both FOOZOOL and I’s relationship to communal tea drinking in Middle Eastern culture. This ritual and space is a time for discussing politics, storytelling or relaxation and a distraction from day to day anxieties. We wanted the Club Chai party to mirror that experience. When booking artists for Club Chai we think about the kinds of conversations we want to focus on, booking DJs that explore their own diasporic narratives while also dedicated to booking women, trans people, and people of color, whose talents need a space to be showcased.
One of our frequent guests is Oakland DJ Fela Kutchii. Her sets combine political intentionality with the power of femininity, always reminding me how important the role of a selector can be. I particularly remember her set at a Club Chai party in December. We were all feeling extremely broken after the Ghost Ship fire, and her set took me and lots of others in the crowd to a necessary place of release and healing as the packed room moved from dancing to 90 BPM dancehall to 160 BPM footwork tracks. She pushed the boundaries of the DJ booth, jumping into the crowd during her set creating a ritual space for the crowd to join in on. In that moment I remembered why we why we converge in these spaces, to heal each other’s traumas, to create families, to grow, learn, mourn, and rebuild.
After a while, it became more and more difficult to organize warehouse parties due to many spaces getting shut down and a general lockdown on underground venues after the Ghost Ship fire. We started to organize Club Chai at bars in Oakland but still felt that we needed a platform to support interdisciplinary artists beyond the club. So we formed a label and an online radio show on Radar Radio as extensions of Club Chai. This past January, we released our first compilation, Club Chai Vol.1, which, like our party, isn’t restricted by a specific genre or sound, and instead features 21 tracks from locals (Turbo Sonidero, The Creatrix, and Ambr33zy BA!, to name a few) and out-of-towners (DJ Haram, Stud1nt, DJ Florentino, and more).
Continuing our vision of supporting interdisciplinary artists, Club Chai curated our first art show, LIMB II, at San Francisco’s Et al Gallery. Focusing on non-Western perspectives in visual art, LIMB II addresses the ways the practices of diasporic artists exists as an extension of the body. In addition to the art show, Club Chai also had the opportunity to teach a workshop on DJing as storytelling at Anti Lab’s recent creative-resistance residency.
Club Chai remains an opportunity for us to rethink what “dance music” can be, and specifically explore how Middle Eastern genres correlate with dance music in the West.
And as Club Chai continues to grow and shift, we remain indebted and in service of the musicians and visual artists in Oakland who push against assimilation, creating their own traditions and narratives outside of the dominant Western standards.
Find More Club Chai:
LIMB II is on view through June 3, Fridays and Saturdays, 1-5pm, and by appointment, 620 Kearny St, San Francisco.
Club Chai Vol. 1 is available for download for free at ClubChai.Bandcamp.com. Check out the next Club Chai party on Thursday, June 22, at The Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave, Oakland.
“Musicians Talk Back” is first in a series of essays by local artists. Look for the next installment later this Summer.