I stumbled upon Souk Sessions last summer, when my life felt, at most, temporary. I was on a constant rotation of losing confidence in myself, and then regaining it, to only question it all over again. After many fits of panic, I acquiesced to how things were rapidly shifting in my daily life, and turned to music as a way to keep up with that pace. This was reflected in the different ways I would spend my nights. It felt good, not having to feel left out because I didn’t want to go to mainstream and unsafe clubs the people I had once known would go to— the very white ones (hi, Dance Cave). I loved joining friends to go to dance nights like Yes Yes Y’all, or the Souk Sessions: Arab Techno Night. The latter being a Toronto-based series held by Sara Dziri, who DJs under the name Sadziky.
Arab electronic music is on the rise. Some of the biggest names in the genre, like Omar Souleyman and Fatima Al-Qadiri, come to mind when I listen to Sadziky’s music. (Dziri samples Souleyman’s Wenu Wenu in her set, “Do As You Please.”) But ultimately, she has carved out her own sound by focusing on the pure traditional and techno elements of Arab and house. By adding the influence of her roots in DIY culture, Dziri is evolving the genre.
When it comes to Souk Sessions, it’s been exhilarating to see a series like this take place in Toronto. As a Palestinian-Iraqi woman living in Canada, I don’t usually get to hear Arab music on the dance floor— except at a wedding. To integrate Arab music with electronic music is to integrate it with the nightlife of a city.
Last October, I met up with Dziri over coffee. The spot was a café on the west side of Toronto—Sara’s usual working spot. I could see why—despite the café being well known for people having to jump through a waitlist before scoring a table in the evening, it barely struck up a crowd during the day. No bustling patrons made it perfect to put on a pair of headphones and listen to music, which was what I found Dziri doing when I had grabbed a seat. The first thing she said to me was that for a big city, the nights in Toronto end pretty early. Compared to European cities, where there are solid industries based on the nightlife, Toronto tires out at what feels like a second past midnight. DJing for a few years in Brussels, Dziri was used to playing till dawn. (“People tend to go harder and last longer in European venues,” she adds, “but that has a lot to do with the policy differences.”)
Born to a Belgian mother and Tunisian father, mixing Arab and electronic music was a way to connect different facets of her identity. First, she grew up listening to Arab music as a kid. Next, she began to produce music as a teenager. By the time she was a sociology student in university, she took up DJing. It was then when she went by the name of DJ Dziri. As her fascination with both Arab and electronic music flourished, she decided to experiment with blending the two together.
“I always think of art as a translation of yourself. Music helps challenge those boundaries that prevent identity to become complex,” said Dziri.
Making Arab house also gave Dziri’s peers a window into an aspect of Arab culture that doesn’t get much attention. As she “threw parties here and there, played events,” all around Belgium, she would test out Arab house tunes at different venues, sparking the interest of attendees. Only in Toronto was when she would hold regular events for her, and other artists’, music.
It was also in Brussels that Dziri noticed that bigger producers across Europe were picking up on the blend of Arab and house. Not wanting to see Arab music as a phase, but a movement, Dziri decided to create her own Arab electronic music party concept, Souk Sessions. “I’d like to— together with other like-minded artists— bring Arab-influenced music into the classic techno/house scene on a consistent basis,” she tells me.
By then, she decided to go by the name of Sadziky, which according to her website, “is a combination of her real name, Sara Dziri, which means ‘Sara the Algerian’, and the Mediterranean dish tzatziki.” It’s a witty moniker that, as she also states, allows her to combine the North African Arab and European aspects of herself.
While building a fan base in Brussels, Dziri also had plans to move out and travel, to explore her identity as an artist. The question was where exactly to do this: New York, or Montreal? Going on the advice of a friend, she found a happy medium by taking a working holiday in Toronto. It’s close to New York, even closer to Montreal, and the dance scene here has been slowly revealing itself to those who prefer to bed at sunrise.
Toronto felt like a match, and she’s stayed here and finished her first EP. After launching Souk Sessions, she also co-founded Souq Records. Most recently, she has released “Arabs in Space,” a podcast that seems right for this sharp winter.
Initially a small event, Souk Sessions has been on a steady growth as a nightlife concept. Dziri has very quickly found herself an artist, DJ, producer, visual artist, as well as the promoter and manager of a growing collective. In the long run, Dziri wants to help the Arab electronic genre establish a stronger ground, to give it more attention, and to outlast itself beyond being a trend. Montreal is set as the next place to bring Souk Sessions, and later this year, she will be going back to Europe for a short period to do shows.
At the moment, Arab techno night happens once every couple of months in Toronto, but Dziri hopes to throw parties on a regular basis. She also hopes that Toronto will soon have more party-friendly policies to become a music city again.
Holding her fort in the DIY culture of Toronto, Dziri has enjoyed the feedback that she’s been getting from other women in the electronic music scene. “A lot of women would reach out to me, and [ask] to collaborate, despite the general idea of women competing against each other.” While this response wasn’t a specific goal of hers, it’s something she was very pleased with. “I notice that in Toronto, women doing electronic music are starting to work together and gain more and more visibility.” At the end of the day, she wants her music to empower folks, and is always looking for more people to join the collective. Above all, she just wants “good music, and good times,” for those who go to her parties.
When I went to the latest Souk Sessions night, in the fall of 2016, my friends and I were one of the first groups in the venue. Hours later, the night passed its last call, and the room was getting crowded by each set. The subway line was closed, but the dance floor wasn’t.
The next edition of Souk Sessions takes place February 3rd.