BY Nadine Khalil AND Zahra Bundakji in Opinion | 25 JUL 23
Featured in
Issue 236

Enter the Hidden Discos of the Arab World

All-female parties, discos for listening and the Saudi histories of the dancefloor

BY Nadine Khalil AND Zahra Bundakji in Opinion | 25 JUL 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 236, based on the theme 'After Dark'

While electronic music has spread rapidly in the Arab world in recent years, the social networks and cultural nuances associated with dancefloors have been studied mostly from a Western perspective, with little attention paid to the Arab experience in Southwest Asia, North Africa or across the diaspora. This creates a dichotomy between the perspectives of those interested in understanding this vital part of contemporary Arab culture, and those who participate in it. I’m trying to bridge the gap between the two, by bringing the research to the dancefloor.

Music spaces are important sites of inclusion, bringing together people from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. However, they are commonly experienced as fleeting moments in fast-paced environments, rather than as something to be studied, which means there’s a blind spot concerning the social interactions they implicate.

A woman running through on a pink dancefloor.
Zahra Bundakji playing a live and interactive light show, 2022. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Iman Al-Dabbbagh

Since DJs started performing for the Saudi public in 2019, people have more opportunities to gather in safe, regulated spaces, where measures are in place such as paramedics on call and swift action taken in case of harassment, a long-standing issue across dancefloors globally. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the accessibility of public venues, in which different social, cultural and economic groups can meet. More than just an experience of space, they offer an opportunity for interaction and exchange.

All-female gatherings are not new to the Arab world, however. Tagg parties, which revolve around Khaleeji dance music, have been hosted, performed and attended by women across the kingdom for more than four decades. Tagg (طق) is an Arabic word that references a single bang on a drum – the key feature in local music from the Gulf region. Today, you’ll find these parties on varying scales, from living-room gatherings to wedding-hall events exceeding 500 attendees. Tagg parties offer women the opportunity to come together, dance and dress how they like without experiencing the kind of socio-cultural influences on behaviour you find in mixed-sex environments. These are powerful displays of a cultural practice that exists mostly in private.

A daughter and her mother taking pictures of a giant disco ball.
Zahra Bundakji, ‘The Voice of Listening’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Noor Riyadh

Growing up, I regularly attended all-female parties where male DJs played music remotely in another room, so they couldn’t see the attendees. Now, there are plenty of female DJs who play music for women. Today both men and women have more confidence in pursuing a career in the performing arts because there are spaces that support their practices, enabling them to network and participate in the music industry in a professional capacity – rather than just as a hobby.

I interviewed Taggagat (percus­sionists) for my work ‘The Voice of Listening’ (2022), a sonic instal­lation that brings together interviews of women who have shaped and supported dancefloors in Saudi Arabia for generations. This is an area I want to develop further in my practice: documenting the all-female bands that sing for mainly female audiences and play a wide range of sounds, from traditional folk to modern takes on Arabic vocals remixed with electronic music. We need to make space for women to share their experiences in their own words.

Two men talking next to a giant disco ball.
Zahra Bundakji, ‘The Voice of Listening’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Noor Riyadh

When ‘The Voice of Listening’ was shown as part of the Noor Riyadh festival in Saudi Arabia, I wanted it to feel otherworldly, like an alien disco ball landing, conveying atmosphere through the use of light, fog and sound. For the music, I referenced contemporary electronic music while insisting that the interviews predominated. People danced, chased lights or lay quietly on the floor. I watched a mother standing close to the disco ball, staring at her reflection for the work’s entire 48-minute duration, while her children ran freely around the space.

The dancefloor is a space where you find a community deeply committed to listening. With this in mind, I’ve been inclined to create multisensory installations that allow people to experience visual, spatial and sonic essays – spaces that encourage dancers to listen, and can sway listeners into dancing.

As told to Nadine Khalil

This article first appeared in frieze issue 236 with the headline ‘Dance Free’

Listen to Zahra Bundakji's 
Frieze DJ in Residence playlist on Spotify, here.

Main image: Zahra Bundakji, ‘The Voice of Listening’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Noor Riyadh

Nadine Khalil is a writer, editor and researcher based in Dubai, UAE.

Zahra Bundakji is a multidisciplinary artist and independent curator.