Syria's underground dance music scene is a welcome distraction in tough times

Nightlife in Damascus is enjoying a minor revival

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In an abandoned cement factory on the outskirts of Damascus, hundreds of partygoers are gathered. Braving chilly, rainy weather, the eager patrons dance the night away, illuminated by beaming lasers and flashing lights in a display reminiscent of a European rave in a Vin Diesel thriller.

This, however, is Syria, and this is the clearest sign yet that the under-reported underground dance and techno scene is finding a new stride.

It’s a storm that’s long been brewing, as a keen community emerges from the ashes of war.

The Dummar factory rave, which was organised by emerging events companies the Siin Experience and UTU Nightlife, is only the tip of a musical iceberg that’s been expanding rapidly since 2017.

In recent months, seasoned western artists have performed in Syria, including Ilona Lica from Estonia and Germany’s deep house DJ Nakkadia, alongside emerging local talents such as DJ Saade and Boshoco.

Syria’s nightlife scene has been much improved. Photo: Danny Makki

Aside from putting the country back on the global music map, the rising popularity of techno and dance events is a welcome distraction for Syrians. In a period of economic turmoil and severe currency fluctuation, music has been a major respite.

Kinda, 22, a graphic designer who moved from Paris to Damascus in 2018, and who has spent summers in Syria for years, says she hasn’t seen this quality of events since before the war in 2011. “Many people are now getting into live music and techno, the community has grown, I haven’t seen raves this good, even in Europe, and people from all denominations come to forget their problems and struggles.

“We all face hardship in our lives, we have to queue for petrol or cooking gas, some have less income than others, [but] techno is my comfort zone now, I don’t have any difficulties there, just music and expression.”

Local DJ Boshoco, 37, who lives in Aleppo, has been a main driver of the techno scene in Syria. He is preparing to tour Europe in June, with gigs lined up at venues in Brussels, Paris and London. While he loves the vibes of these cities, he says the atmosphere at dance events in Syria is unique.

"After having played in many locations I feel a completely different vibe on the dance floor in Syria. It's therapeutic to see people together, united, with smiles. Since teaming up with Siin and UTU we've had some amazing line-ups. We have a refined taste for music in the country."

An abandoned cement factory outside Damascus transformed into a rave. Photo: Omar Sanadiqi

DJ Saade — whose name means happiness in Arabic — is also one of the pioneers of the now-thriving dance community. “The appetite for this genre of music developed uniquely,” he tells The National. “It started as an underground concept for people to join, similar to a society, because this is the type of music that we love. We didn’t have many avenues in 2017. People are frustrated with their lives and their difficulties, so they look to music to vent their frustration.”

Saade’s real name is Saade Khoury, and his sets are among the most popular, with people flocking to his gigs. He believes the Syrian music industry will become more prominent in the future.

“I think, first of all, the limit is the sky. We are now in the space where there is a large community that can help to take it forward. The country is more open. It will not take a long time, with what we are doing, to see an event with 10,000 people, we are still building a base.”

Through the medium of music, people are trying to create new links and opportunities, Saade says.

Quote
It was magic. It’s rare to see this energy
Elia Crecchi, aka DJ Undercat

“People need as much space as equals their anger. After several years, we want to put Syria on the map, and we have so far. It’s the best feeling in the world when you have an idea, and people want more of it, whether it’s motivational, financial or mental.

“For many people who endured the worst times, this is history, to make such high-quality events in the country, it’s a dream coming true.”

Music lovers are travelling from outside Damascus to attend these events, too. Aram Habeshian, a designer who lives in Aleppo, travelled to the Syrian capital for one such rave. “For me, it’s definitely a positive step, and I believe people who attend dance and nightlife events are trying to live their lives and shut out their day-to-day problems. I have many friends from Aleppo who replied to my [Instagram] stories cursing the lack of nightlife in the city.”

Saade says he hopes, through his sets, to encourage other people to be their true selves. “I hope I can inspire those who have an identity, and authenticity, to do what they want. The war was hard, and music gives you balance. This is a cultural thing for us.”

The renaissance of dance is also being propelled by discovering unique locations for shows.

Khan As'ad Pasha, the most illustrious and prominent 18th-century caravanserai in the Old City of Damascus, near al-Buzuriyah Souq, was transformed into a techno party where lasers, lights and music merged old and new together.

“I saw people yesterday dance like crazy and smiles everywhere,” says Italian DJ Undercat (Elia Crecchi), who played in Syria in 2021. "It was magic. It’s rare to see this energy.”

Ilona Lica also posted about her gig on Instagram. “It truly feels special to be here.”

Updated: June 03, 2022, 6:02 PM
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