Club Chai at three: Collaboration and community in the global dance continuum

This year, Oakland’s Club Chai turns three and celebrated with a stacked lineup at San Francisco’s Public Works in March. FACT’s John Twells was there to witness the performances and talk to a collective operating with liberation, progression and collaboration at its core.

“Don’t let anyone say you can’t play Meek Mill with some techno,” Venus X bellowed assuredly to the crowd at Club Chai’s third anniversary party in San Francisco last month. “This is the diaspora, black people made techno.”

Her headline set concluded a celebratory night of music at Public Works, a spacious, multi-room space best known for its hip, photogenic house and techno events. This evening, the crowd was a little different; the Berghain-lite black-clad startup squad were nowhere to be found, replaced by Club Chai’s genuinely diverse flock of gender-fluid, queer and questioning cuties decked out in colorful, expressive clubwear. It was a birthday party for kids rarely invited to birthday parties.

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
Venus X and Quest?onmarc backstagePhotography by: Grady Brannon courtesy of Red Bull

The dancefloor was equally as welcoming, a space where hugs and screams were far more common than frosty nods and awkward pounds. Even as a relative outsider, jetting in from the other side of the USA, I spotted familiar faces everywhere. It was a family affair and warmth, safety and sex positivity made the night enjoyable in a way that so many parties simply aren’t; without contemporary clubland’s sneering elitism, a wide array of identities can thrive.

Oakland’s own FELA KUTCHii kicked things off with an explosive selection of diasporic bass, before TR4VI3ZA’s politically-charged reggaeton experimentation, FOOZOOL’s global dance continuum transmissions, 8ULENTINA and Davia Spain’s sci-fi tinged, operatic performance art, Thoom’s jawdropping Middle Eastern industrial metal, B-Side Brujas’ Oakland-style dance party, Quest?onmarc’s energetic, euphoric ballroom, Qing Qi’s stage-filling lo-fi rap experiments and a frothy, bass-heavy peak-time set from SHYBOI. All this led up to Venus X, who played the crowd out with a set that veered lovingly from aggressive warehouse techno to Frank Ocean. There were no low points, just a steady reminder of the power dance music can have when it’s supported by and curated for a community that gives back the energy it takes.

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
Thoom livePhotography by: Grady Brannon courtesy of Red Bull

This all might sound fairly unusual if you’ve visited San Francisco recently. I’ve already written about the US tech hub’s transformation into an accelerationist dystopia, so I won’t go into vivid detail again, but I hadn’t expected to witness such an uncynical dancefloor. Credit has to be given to Club Chai here; the collective has done what so many set out to do, yet fail to maintain. It has created a space hinged on respect, consent and freedom of expression – a space so valued by the community in nearby Oakland that devotees were dedicated enough to swallow the cost of transport over the bridge to the big city.

The morning after the party I woke up far too early, grabbed breakfast (surprise: egg on toast has been rebranded now and costs more) and wearily made the trip to Oakland, my thighs still aching. I was set to meet Lara Sarkissian, aka FOOZOOL, one of the founders of Club Chai, at her apartment. Unbelievably, she was already busy preparing another performance for that night, playing alongside Warp’s Yves Tumor in San Francisco. As we chatted, co-founder Esra Canoğulları, aka 8ULENTINA, arrived, followed by Davia Spain, TR4VI3ZA and FELA KUTCHii, who brought along a celebratory bottle of champagne that nobody felt like drinking. It was that kind of crowd.

Dancers at Club Chai third anniversaryPhotography by: Grady Brannon courtesy of Red Bull

Sarkissian and Canoğulları met in 2015; they were both attending the same small art event in Oakland and the two quickly bonded over their Middle Eastern heritage and shared passion for visual art and music.

“We were both in this transitional phase,” explains Sarkissian. “I’d sold my camera, I had gone to sound design through studying film in college. I was more interested in telling stories through sound and catering that to visuals, I felt like I had more access to that than doing film work.”

The experience resonated with Canoğulları, who was feeling frustrated but motivated. “I couldn’t really do ceramics or textiles in the same way I could have with the support of an institution so I was like, what can I do with just my computer,” they tell me as we huddle around a coffeetable eating food that hasn’t been awkwardly rebranded by an algorithm. “We were both thinking a lot about Middle Eastern music and folk music or traditional music we had grown up with, but wanted to reinterpret it in our own way. I was doing that visually, but didn’t really have the space to think about it as a sound thing when I was in school, so I was gravitating more towards DJing again, which was something I did as a hobby.”

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
8ULENTINA and Davia Spain livePhotography by: Grady Brannan courtesy of Red Bull

Canoğulları taught themself to DJ at 15 but hadn’t dared consider taking it more seriously. “It was just something I really liked to do for myself and I would DJ house parties, but once I got out of school I was making art about music. So I just thought why not jump into it, and started making edits and sound art. We were both doing edits on Virtual DJ and putting them on SoundCloud. We’d find each others stuff and be like ‘ohh this is so sick!’”

“We would freak out,” laughs Sarkissian. She had experience hosting shows on college radio, but wanted to learn to mix properly and Canoğulları was in a good position to assist. The more they worked together, the more similarities emerged in their approaches. “It was so refreshing to meet another Middle Eastern person who didn’t have this same story,” she adds. “Someone who was down to experiment, or only take certain elements and make something totally new. I felt like I never met any Armenians doing that.”

“Sometimes diaspora stuff can be really nostalgic in a way that glorifies a past that was actually really fucked up,” says Canoğulları. “There’s ways you can take from the past while still showing how it should be in the future. I’ll play producers that are Muslim or from that region and they’re making techno or industrial or experimental stuff and that’s still a sound from that region. I love Middle Eastern percussion specifically, it’ll always be there for me, but I don’t need to use it in everything I do.”

Both artists’ use of non-Western sounds and themes in their art is central to their practice, but Sarkissian and Canoğulları aren’t cynical about the elements they take from the diaspora or what they might represent. Instead they examine everything critically, something that the rest of the Club Chai family has taken to heart.

“Being born here, my history has been sold and erased, so what part of the diaspora do I then fall into?” Amber Royal, aka FELA KUTCHii, is the kind of person who immediately lights up a room with her infectious laugh. “I find myself really drawn to sounds from my motherland, and I think that I’m kinda like that too, being here as an American and really trying to tap into my ancestral magic.”

Royal contributes an important energy to the group and has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes, most of which stay off the record. An East Oakland original, she was a member of dance-rap outfit Hot Tub, and came across Club Chai almost by accident. A mutual friend took her to a Club Chai event where she ran into Sarkissian and Canoğulları, who just happened to be fans of her music.

“It was really cute cuz I hadn’t heard anyone talk about Hot Tub in a minute,” she laughs. “Like you guys know Hot Tub? OK I’ll stay, this sounds awesome. It blew my fuckin’ wig back; the party was off the hook. I just remember that was the first time I’d heard music that was being spoken in Arabic in a club context and that was really dope for me, ’cause just a few years before, I had been in Morocco. I was happy to hear how they’re bringing their story and their sound and introducing it to people like me in Oakland, I thought that was so fucking cool and really the shit that gets me all juiced inside and all excited. I knew I wanted to be involved. Oh my gosh. Like how? So when they invited me to come and get down with them I was like, ‘hell yeah, I’m ready for that.’”

Vienna Xkalva, aka TR4VI3ZA, meanwhile, discovered Club Chai after attending a CDJ workshop that Sarkissian and Canoğulları were hosting. “I had just come back from living in Mexico and doing some work with abortion stuff there and I had a USB full of music that I’d just downloaded from meeting a bunch of homies making music,” she recalls. “I was just getting the hang of music. I had zero musical background. Then I plugged into the CDJs and had all these poppin’ ass tracks that I still use to this day.” Welcomed quickly into Club Chai’s open-minded, inclusive community, Xkalva knows that she’s avoided some of the more negative aspects of the music industry.

“Because I was introduced to this game in a non industry way, I’m so much more able to be like, you want my 300 tracks in my USB, here take it. Not hold onto this ego.” Her comments seem especially pertinent in the wake of the recent Twitter controversy over Track IDs. “The reason I feel so able to share is because a lot of my tracks are actually my friends music,” she says. “I’m like actually YEAH. Play that shit!”

“DJing is a collective consciousness and it’s an archive,” adds Canoğulları. “If you’re only thinking about yourself, is anyone in the room going to be able to relate? Are they going to dance, are they going to see if you even feel good about what you’re playing?”

“You should be celebrating the music you’re playing, it’s not about you,” says Sarkissian. “Obviously you curate it, you play it a certain way, whatever, but it’s about literally what you’re playing.”

“I think a lot of DJs that aren’t part of a collective or work in an isolated way, they don’t collaborate that often with anyone,” replies Canoğulları. “They’re not pushing themselves to think about other people’s approaches and maybe that they could learn something from that. Even if you don’t make music with another person, just sharing space with them. Lara’s work is really different from mine, even if our cultural backgrounds are similar, or the musical spaces we come from share a lot of similarities. I feel like a lot of other DJs are like, I gotta hoard my sound so it can be my sound.”

“They don’t think of the community. They don’t see that,” says Sarkissian. “They just see themselves as an artist, as someone who’s constantly taking.”

So far in the conversation, Davia Spain has been reserved. It’s in marked contrast with the night before, when her astonishing main-stage performance with 8ULENTINA was one of the most powerful moments of the night. She commanded the room, both with her studied, operatic vocals and with quips as she coaxed dancers into convulsions later in the set. “I felt like I was not in my body,” she recalls. “You looked like you were above, like your energy was everywhere in the room,” adds Royal. “I felt like I was expanding,” Spain replies. “And then after I felt like, you know, after an orgasm.”

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
Davia SpainPhotography by: Grady Brannan courtesy of Red Bull

The room erupts in screams. Spain adds another dimension to the group; as a classically trained opera singer with a background in theater, she interacts with sounds that are rarely combined successfully, if at all. “I’m not a DJ,” she says quickly. “But I’ve done so many different things with Club Chai: I’ve danced, I’ve modeled, I’ve sung. I was a fangirl and I would just live my life and sweat.” Spain met Sarkissian and Canoğulları at San Francisco’s first Club Chai party, at the large, eerie Midway venue. “That place is haunted,” she states plainly as everyone laughs and screams. “I’m serious because that night I caught the spirit. It was not me dancing, but I was dancing. It’s near a very black space and the water, I felt there was a heavy black energy there but there were no black people there really. So I felt like I was channeling something and it was that same night that I connected with Esra. And then the first show that we did together was also at The Midway.”

That show was the first Club Chai event I witnessed, last year at MUTEK.SF. The mood was the first thing that struck me; I was familiar with the music itself, but the communication between the community and the performers was the evening’s most striking component. It’s a familiar feeling that I’ve experienced a few times recently, often outside of the context of European dance music hierarchy; In São Paulo last year with Tormenta, out in Uganda at Nyege Nyege festival and on the dancefloor at the Genome showcase for CTM earlier this year. These are similarities that haven’t gone unnoticed by Club Chai.

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
Quing Qi livePhotography by: Grady Brannan courtesy of Red Bull

“When we play our parties in London especially, the immigrant community is so visible,” says Sarkissian. “They get what we’re doing. And when we started playing shows out there I felt even more affirmed. I was like, ‘ok what we’re doing is beyond the Bay Area, this is a bigger story than just us.’”

“I’m really inspired by what’s happening in China, it’s really amazing, the club scene,” adds Canoğulları. “I really like Genome, they grew really quick and also they don’t give a fuck about the West. They don’t care about genre. Whenever I see videos from those parties the room’s energy looks so intense. People will be screaming like metal style on the mic and everyone’s like ‘yeahhh’ and crying. That energy? I wanna be in that room, I don’t even know what music you’re playing but I can relate to wanting to create that kind of experience.”

“That’s the language that connects us all,” assures Sarkissian. “I had someone from Brazil contact me recently saying, ‘this is so moving to me, you need to keep making art like this, because this is our way to fight against our governments.’ I never thought that my own music could do that for someone in another part of the world.”

Club Chai 3rd Anniversary
Dancers at Club Chai third anniversaryPhotography by: Grady Brannan courtesy of Red Bull

It’s powerful, and while Club Chai is at its core a party bonded by positivity, acceptance and, above all, enjoyment, the collective talk soberly and confidently about the message behind what they’re doing. Across the world, marginalized people are isolated and desperate to find some kind of connection. Collectives like Club Chai are part of a growing movement that puts liberation philosophy at the forefront of their identity.

“Collaborating with people in other cities and not only Western places, that’s my goal,” says Sarkissian. “Collaboration works with me because I can work with people to build things that are bigger than just what I could do on my own and also share knowledge that I don’t have. And people have skills that you don’t have and you can create things that are really big. That’s what makes really good music: dialog.”

“We’re not appropriating each other, we’re actually creating something better by mixing the sounds and doing different things,” adds Spain. “That’s what chai is, chai is a bunch of different spices together that taste good, you know.”

John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.

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