Many DJs want to pull off mind-blowing blends, but few execute them like Manara. When she plays, you’ll hear thrilling combinations of deep-cut rave tunes, South Asian classical and contemporary music, catchy pop vocals, and steamy dancefloor bangers — all mixed with intuitive, dextrous skill. “I’m into the perfect combination of sweet and sour with blends,” the UK-based DJ and broadcaster says. “I feel like girls are better at that kind of thing!”
In recent years, she’s played Glastonbury’s Lonely Hearts stage, at venues in Tokyo, New York, Karachi and Copenhagen, and even at the Commonwealth Games 2022 for the India vs Pakistan women’s cricket match. DJing carries a spiritual weight for Manara, and spreading a sense of euphoria has been her mission since she co-founded the BBC AZN Network show on Radar Radio in 2015. Nowadays, she brings this energy to clubs and festivals at home and abroad, as well as presenting the weekly Saturday night show, Pure Spice, on the actual BBC Asian Network. “My family are Sufi [Muslims], so I’ve always been into the transcendental nature of music and sounds. The same trance that can come from religious chanting, can also come out through electronic music and a vocal.”
Manara grew up in the suburbs of southern England, listening to a plethora of South Asian sounds she found on CDs from shops in Southall, including Bollywood, bhangra, qawwali, Nusrat, and nasheed. At the same time, she could be found head-banging along to emo music, or raving to drum & bass in a field. “I used to be a hijabi that would go out raving! I thought the two things couldn’t be together, but I think now people are realising that it’s common, and hopefully, this is releasing a lot of the guilt and shame associated with that.”
Despite growing up outside of London, she was close enough to pick up the frequencies of the capital’s radio stations, enriching her music taste and exposing her to harder, funkier, and more unorthodox sounds. She always tries to ensure that her full music taste is represented when she plays: “feminine energy mixed with chaos”. Vocals are key to a Manara set, and she cites her long-time idol Mariah Carey as an example of this. “If I can fit a Mariah track in, obviously I will!” she jokes. Dance music can be too serious, she says, and can be “boring” if it’s not spiced up with a big, fun, feminine vocal.
Mariah Carey’s history of releasing gay-club-ready remix packages of her albums is inspirational to Manara, because it highlights the importance of catering to traditionally marginalised communities. It’s something she wants to recreate at her own club night, Cousins, which was originally created to be parallel to her friend Nino Brown’s party of the same name in Toronto. With an emphasis on creating a fun atmosphere and a sense of safety, the party is intended as a sanctuary for those who share Manara’s love for music and a community-focused ethos.
Manara’s upbeat demeanour goes beyond the dancefloor too; it permeates her radio shows and recorded mixes. She learned to mix in her late teens, but it wasn't until she was in her mid-twenties that she seriously embraced DJing and radio. When, alongside her mates 2SHIN and Sweyn Jupiter, she started the bi-weekly BBC AZN Network show, it served as an ideal testing ground for them to combine Asian sounds and styles with genres synonymous with the UK, such as grime, garage, UK funky, and jungle/drum & bass. They soon realised they were onto something special.
In August 2020, Manara’s Pure Spice show on BBC Asian Network — originally a temporary guest slot — became a regular Saturday night fixture. The aim at the time was to “bring the party” to people in lockdown, and each week’s three-hour-long session was split into pre-party, post-party, and afterparty segments. It showcased the latest sounds created by South Asian artists, while incorporating fan-favourite dance tracks. In the years since, the show has continued to grow, and in 2022 was nominated in the Best Radio Show category at DJ Mag’s Best Of British awards.
Humour is a key ingredient in a Pure Spice mix, and Manara laces memes, in audio form, throughout the show. Most famously, she often plays the familiar “You’re asking for it, you’re dying for it” line from the viral lockdown meme, ‘Pooja, What Is This Behaviour?’, lifted from the Indian reality TV show, Bigg Boss 5. The humorous slant started when Manara and her friend Asmara did guest shows for Rinse FM. “Sometimes we’d edit it and would add loads of sound effects and funny samples in, and it just made it so much funnier! I thought, ‘Why are we not doing this all the time?’ Because otherwise it’s just so serious — and it’s not that deep! You’re bedazzling your show; it’s like a little bit of lipstick or mascara.”
Like many other people from Muslim backgrounds in the creative field, internal conflict has been a common theme throughout Manara’s rise, despite her being ferociously proud of her identity and heritage. “It’s always a bit of a struggle internally because part of you will always want to do the ‘good’ thing and make your parents and elders happy,” she says. “But I guess someone has to be the person to break the cycle.”
A recent trip to Pakistan, organised by UK-based, South Asian-focused festival Dialled In, provided Manara with an opportunity for grounding, and for “finding” herself, she says. As part of this trip, she and fellow British-Pakistani artists Nabihah Iqbal and Ahadadream taught DJ workshops, played sets in Lahore and Karachi, and participated in Boiler Room’s debut event in the country. “This was my ‘rah gap yah’ moment!” she jokes, referring to another meme, this time about gap years. “But really, imagine being me, where my job is quite controversial in my Pakistani family, to go to Pakistan and do my job.”
The attention to detail given to these projects and events in Pakistan was awe-inspiring to Manara, who sings the praises of Dialled In liaisons Daniel Panjwaneey (AKA Alien Panda Jury) and Sana Nasir from the local scene. A DIY ethos, akin to what dance music was founded on, is what keeps the music community alight in Pakistan, she says. “These people have it so much harder,” she explains, explaining how negative stigmas, a lack of infrastructure, and climate issues create barriers for communities throughout the Global South.
However, in London and the West, Manara notes a shift in how club culture is operating. “No matter how much you call something ‘underground’, the thing is that you do have to align yourself with a brand or sponsorship these days. I’m not blaming people at all, because it is how you have to make money these days. But it makes me question how ‘underground’ the ‘underground’ still is.”
This poses challenges for those making a career in the scene — but Manara is ready for new challenges. She’s got more shows and festivals lined up for the summer, and she’s taking a leap into production and planning to release her own music. Apart from that, she continues to remain grateful for what she has achieved thus far. “I did put the work in and manifested it. But I’m lucky because the infrastructure was already there. [The UK] already had a long-standing rave scene — it had clubs, stations, a scene. Dance music was here well before I was, and so were so many people making Asian mash-ups.
“[But, my show is] the only show doing what it’s doing in this way,” she concludes. “Bookings will always come, but radio has kept me really grounded.”
Listen to Manara's party-starting Recognise mix, and check the tracklist, below.
Serious Danger ‘Battle Plate’
Rainmann ‘Ah Ya Alby’
N00kie vs Big Ang ‘Sound of Music 2021’
Panjabi MC ‘Kori (Manj 4x4 remix)’
Skeptic ‘Fake id’
Jack Marlow ‘Thief in the night’
MXTT HXLL ‘Bassline Junkie’
Origin Unknown ‘Valley of the Shadows (Pj Bridger Refix)’
So Solid Crew ‘21 Seconds’
Sliime ‘Lehenga (Su Real Remix)’
Glamma Kid ‘Taboo (MJ Cole Full Vocal Mix) [feat. Shola Ama]’
Klean ‘Rudeboy (Omar - Rude Lagta hai remix)’
Mariah Carey ‘Dreamlover (Def Club Mix)’
Steve Gurley ‘Walk On By’
Nelly Furtado ‘Give it To Me (Casnova UK Funky Dub)’
RDB ‘Dekh Jawani’
Busta Rhymes ‘Look at me now (BRLLNT Remix)’
Katy B ‘On A Mission (Soulecta Dub)’
Craig David ‘Fill Me in (Jeftuz remix)’
Mattik ‘Big Poppa’
Flo ‘Cardboard Box (Sunship Remix)’