The Belgian-Tunisian DJ and techno producer Sara Dziri has become an integral part of the Brussels club scene. At the end of March her debut album ‘Close To Home’ will be released by the Scottish Optimo Music. An album that radiates a lot of personality and authenticity. ‘ The end of a personal search ‘, she says herself.
Sara Dziri’s music studio is located near Wiels, the Center for Contemporary Art in the Brussels municipality of Forest. The museum café – where it is wonderful to sit, especially when the sun is shining – has therefore become a regular base for Dziri. It is in this cultural temple that she gives us a glimpse into her quest and the eternal doubt that comes with it. ‘I think I had all kinds of things brewing in my subconscious and that came out musically. It wasn’t an easy process. Because it is also linked to my search for who I am as a DJ, as a producer. ‘
It has now been more than a month since we last talked to Sara Dziri. Since, not only has the single ‘Fille De Racaille’ been proclaimed by Bandcamp as the best electronic release of February, but she has also given two release shows at two Brussels locations, which are very important to her. In addition, there were plans with the collective Not Your Techno, to organize the first secret rave of 2022. It’s only the third month of the year. The album hasn’t even been released yet. After two years of wondering ‘Did I make the right choice ‘, Dziri seems to have started a fast flight forward. Here’s someone who clearly enjoys what she does and, despite all personal doubts, seems to have chosen the right job.
While Manpower of Optimo travelled to Fuse for one release party, she played, the night before, in the Beursschouwburg with the Italian Ney-musician Valentina Bellanova . It was an amazing performance. The way in which these two artists brought their two totally different musical worlds together and promptly opened new possibilities. Here’s a performer who not only delivered a more vicious version of her record, but the way the Ney’s contemplative sound was combined with the searing beats here gave a new glimpse into her immense versatility. ‘Fille De Racaille ‘, which she told us to be the most aggressive track on her release does indeed stand out as a ferocious pompous track which truly made it rightly as bandcamp- favourite.
At the beginning of 2020 she decides to go completely for music. With the brand-new self-employed status in her pocket, she is also financially more solid in the suddenly emerging Covid crisis than many other artists. During the Covid crisis, the Belgian government distributed a monthly aid to all self-employed persons who are unable to carry out their activity during the forced closure. It was just enough to keep all looking hopeful at what might come next.
As an artist in Belgium, there’s two options. You either become self-employed, or ask for an ‘artist status’. The latter gives you the same benefits as if you were a regular employee. The downside is that on days you don’t work, this is noted as unemployed. ‘ I have something against that principle. Because then you are seen as someone who contributes nothing to society. There are periods when it seems that you are not working, but which are important to create something afterwards. ‘ It is mainly actors or technicians at large theaters who can enjoy this system.
The Belgian nightlife remained closed for a long time. A not entirely frustrating period for Dziri. The optimism of ‘ this is only for a short while’ disappears after a few months. The thought ‘ maybe this is not the right choice, right now, in this world in which we now live ‘ arises. ‘ If this continues for years, I don’t know if it’s realistic to throw myself completely into music. Now it looks better again, so we’ll see. Still, the question I’m starting to ask myself is ‘do I really want to do everything in music?’.
“In a society that is becoming more and more diverse, to talk about exoticism, I find that a bit unworldly.“Sara Dziri
In the meantime, Dziri manages to keep herself busy with some unexpected projects. For example, she composes the soundtrack for two theater performances and the jingle for the new podcast series of the Ancienne Belgique (better known as AB, one of the larger concert venues in the capital , ks). When these are finished, there was also a request by the Goethe Institute, to provide music for a dance performance. It’s not entirely where her focus is. Her preference goes out to producing music for the dancefloor, to deejay with. To create the sounds she would like to play in her sets.
In the meantime, she is also working diligently on her debut album. Slowly it becomes clear to her what musical story she is going to tell on ‘Close To Home’. Working titles become actual titles. She decides to sing a few tracks herself. A not that obvious choice, she admits. ‘It’s something I doubted about: do I use it and how do I use it?‘ It is vital for her to make a record that sounds the way she wants it. ‘My music comes from me – I don’t do it to please the audience. There are Arabic influences in my record, but not in the way it is expected. Despite this, some journalists continue to use the words “exotic” when describing her music. ‘In a society that is becoming more and more diverse, and where more and more people have mixed backgrounds, to talk about exoticism, I find that a bit unworldly.‘
Unfortunately, it’s no surprise when she says: ‘I’ve never felt completely Flemish. At the same time, I’ve never felt completely Tunisian either. It is an often-heard statement and feeling for people of mixed backgrounds. In early 2022 , Vice published the article , “Racial Imposter Syndrome Makes You Feel Like Your Identity Isn’t Yours.” ‘That was a very interesting article. I think I suffered from that myself.‘
This feeling of not feeling quite at home somewhere, because a part of you is being expelled, also seeps through in the title. In addition, Dziri is not only discriminated against because of her Belgian-Tunisian identity, she also still faces discrimination as a queer and woman. ‘I’ve recently come to realize that despite the fact that I may not be a super hard and very direct victim of racism, I ended up having to deal with it a lot. Either because I was viewed in an exotic way, or because of a confrontation with incomprehension, I have always felt like an outsider. So even if it’s not that in your face, it doesn’t mean my story shouldn’t be told.‘
Dziri spent a lot of time in search for her identity in recent years. In 2016 she ends up in Toronto, to recharge her batteries and, above all, to get away from Belgium. That also heralds the beginning of her quest. The choice for a musical career had already been made. But coming from a completely different background, she needs time and space to work on that career change, away from the familiar environment. ‘It seemed difficult to me to continue this in Belgium.’ In Canada she decides she wants to let her Arabic and North African influences seep into her music. ‘I grew up with those North African and Arabic sounds. My father had a very large box of cassettes. There was mainly a lot of Arabic music in it. As a musician and deejay, I bring a part of who I am. So, it’s been a logical step for me to have those influences in my music.‘
“As a musician and deejay, I bring a part of who I am.”Sara Dziri
Once back in Belgium she organizes parties under the name Souk Sessions. This soon becomes too restrictive: not only does the concept seem a bit too obvious, it also limits her as an artist and person. She eventually founded Not Your Techno together with Yasmine Dammak at the end of 2019. ‘I really click with Yasmine, because we have a very similar story. Although she is from Tunisia and I was born in Belgium.‘ With Not Your Techno, the two want to offer an answer to the white men’s bastion that is techno. ‘Not Your Techno is about claiming space in the electronic scene. It would of course be easier to say ‘we are a queer collective, a feminist collective or a POC collective’, but it is precisely this intersectionality that is important to us.’ During the lockdown, they also felt the urgency to organize some online talks in collaboration with the Brussels organization Missfitte. The first was about women in the Belgian club scene, following the documentary ‘ Platendraaiers ‘, which was broadcasted by the Belgian TV-channel VRT at the time. The documentary pretended to be a historical overview of the Belgian club scene but succeeded in completely ignoring the few women who were part of it, at least in their promo material. When many negative reactions arose, by mainly women, the director reacted rather childishly, which fueled the outrage even more. ‘I remember how angry I was then. And I wasn’t the only one. I think there are many women in the history of electronic music, but they are always pushed aside.‘
The second talk was about, amongst others, the political and economic difficulties that artists from the WANA region (West Asia, North Africa , ks) face. ‘It is still difficult to get a visa when you live there. The artists from that region who are really booming often no longer live there. Because otherwise it is not feasible to travel and live as an artist. Even though there are initiatives to strengthen that region, it remains a political problem.‘
In addition, music software such as Ableton is not only unaffordable for many artists from non-Western countries. The way in which music software deals with rhythms, for example, is also programmed from a strict Western way of thinking. More and more artists are speaking out for a ‘decolonization of music software’. One way to deal with this, as Dziri does, is compose by ear. ‘There are limitations to Ableton. Because I work by ear, the final rhythm may not be exactly the original rhythm. But that’s how I found my way around.‘
Now that the album’s finished, the desire to start producing more analog grows. ‘There is two reasons for this: first, the sound quality is different. Second, I want to limit myself in what I use. In a software like Ableton, the world is infinite. You can look for a certain sound for a long time and you may not need it to achieve what you want to achieve.’ In her studio there is currently a Roland TR-8S and the KORG Monologue.
‘I’ve always been very DIY. I learned almost everything on my own, without much guidance. What is different today for women who want to start deejaying or producing is that there is much more of an opportunity to ask a peer ‘Can you help me with this?‘ In addition, there are also many initiatives in Brussels that specifically target women and /or lgbtqia +-persons with for instance initiation afternoons to learn how to deejay or produce.
A thought that often comes up in our conversation is: ‘Things are not always given to you. You often have to do it yourself.’ This applies both to arranging residencies at online radios such as Kiosk Radio and Tsugi, and to finding a suitable label. For example, while she was putting the last hand to ‘Close To Home’, Dziri wrote to about twenty labels. Optimo Music turned out to be one of the interested parties. ‘It’s quite an honor, because it’s not just any label.‘ As a DJ and also as a producer, Dziri sticks to a dark techno sound, laced with melancholy, flirting with electro and trance, melodic yet mostly dark. ‘I think I have found my own style more and more. My music is eclectic, but for me there is a common thread.‘ That sound not only fits perfectly with Optimo Music, but also made her stand out at the legendary Brussels techno club Fuse. While techno beats blast through the speakers at 170bpm downstairs, Dziri is regularly upstairs. First as a partygoer, and since autumn 2021 also as a resident DJ. ‘The Motion Room has always been my favourite room, so it’s a nice experience to be able to tell my story there. I think it also influenced my style in a short time.‘
Sara Dziri clearly brings more to the dance floor than just rousing beats.