No one does disco quite like Dar Disku and their secret, it appears, is in the dig. From the souqs of Turkey to the bargain buckets of Bahrain, Mazen Almaskati and Vish Mhatre are out to find and refashion the buried gems that moved their parents’ generation. “A friend introduced me to a Turkish cover of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Want to Dance with Somebody’ and it’s a weapon on the dancefloor,” Mhatre tells us with quiet pleasure.
Roughly translated, Dar Disku means ‘home of the disco’ and takes its name from a 1970s Egyptian culture magazine. The collective came about in 2018 and specialises in a heady cocktail of wistful joy, releasing music makes you long for the past and grateful for the present. The project’s website states that they are “all things HiNRG, New Beat, Disco, Strange and Pure,” but perhaps Mhatre puts it more simply to us: “It’s essentially two best friends with a very geeky side project.”
Almaskati and Mhatre were raised in Bahrain, less than a mile away from one another, and attended the same pre-school. They were brought up on a healthy diet of western music and as their tastes evolved, from IDM and dubstep to indie and metal, they began to indulge in the other’s, swapping albums in the school playground. As teens, they did the rounds in local bands - Almaskati perfecting Slipknot covers, Mhatre tackling the chart toppers - and finally performed together at an end-of-year rock festival.
After school, Almaskati and Mhatre moved to the UK where they saw some of their favourite artists performing in the flesh for the first time. “The only people that would come to Bahrain to play were David Guetta or Avicii,” Mhatre says, drily. The first artist he saw up close was Benga, on his university campus, and it was a life-changing moment. “It was just so mind-blowing,” he tells us. “It’s one thing listening to a recording and another being in the middle of a soundsystem and having your brain blown out by it.”
Many more shows and DJ sets followed, but soon enough, the pair began to feel a deep pang for home and the cultural references that had filled their everyday life. This nostalgia played out, among other things, in their DJ sets at house parties. “We would randomly drop in Arabic tracks when playing and we noticed how it would kick things up a notch,” Mhatre explains. He remembers a particularly “botched” transition from a song by Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram into JME - another lightbulb moment. “The mix was terrible but it was really good,” he recalls, face beaming. The pair began to dig deeper.
By 2018, the Dar Disku collective was a fully-formed idea. Their geographical focus would be the MENA region, and the sonic scope a potent mix of western pop and regional sounds; Khaliji, Sawt, Dabke and ArabiDisco. Beefy Italo disco cuts of yesteryear would be edited and re-issued for the modern dancefloor, and the duo would share the knowledge of these “strange and pure” sounds wherever they were invited. The idea has quickly caught on. “The last year has been full of moments that we’ve been kind of dreaming about,” Mhatre says.
From having their records stocked in countries as far away as Japan and playing at iconic venues in Europe and Asia, to being sent videos of their favourite DJs playing out Dar Disku tracks, the collective seems to have arrived at the perfect moment. What started out as a side project between two friends has over time evolved into a rich community of diggers, producers and music lovers, where artists are being re-discovered and their music reappraised among a new generation.
The duo also see the collective as an opportunity to challenge cultural assumptions about the Middle East. “It’s got to a stage where people are starting to understand a culture that’s been very misrepresented in the media,” Mhatre explains, “so we’re trying to change attitudes through music and introduce people to the music in a way that’s familiar, whether it’s with a Whitney Houston cover or a little chat on NTS Radio about our upbringing and our home.”