Why 'Yalla' is liberating MENA's music scene one party at a time

Yalla is decolonising MENA's music scene one party at a time
9 min read
06 April, 2023

With a Libyan mother and Syrian father, DJ, music producer, and filmmaker Bader Shashit spent his youth between Benghazi and Damascus. Immersed in these two rich cultures, he grew up “listening to tagaza and majrouda Bedouin rhythms from the East of Libya and Syrian classical music.”

When he arrived in Belgium as a refugee he noticed that most people had misconceptions about everything from the Middle East.

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“They mostly knew falafel and hummus and when it came to music only Dabke — the Levantine folk music,” Bader tells The New Arab.

He also realised that talents from his region were almost absent in the electronic music scene.

"It’s about time we took back our music... Yalla does what we are all supposed to do, participate in creating a scene that is safe, loving and supportive"

To change that he created Yalla, a new platform that sheds light on the diversity and richness of MENA music and its artists which are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

The 28-year-old launched the initiative in August 2022 in the Flemish city of Ghent in collaboration with his colleague Lennart Thienpont (DJ Acid Ponch).

Since then they have been unstoppable, with a series of parties in Belgium and abroad, talks, and a radio show on Paris-based Radio Flouka which spotlights Arab artists.

Bader’s passion for music has also led him to document recently the emerging underground nightlife of Amman, with plans to film and host some parties in Tunis and Beirut in May.

Yalla decolonises MENA's music scene one party at a time
Yalla is creating an inclusive, free and innovative space for MENA's rising stars [Tarek Al Khattab]

'When it comes to culture, there is still this vibe of colonisation'

Since he was a child Bader was passionate about art, but he had no opportunity to fully express himself in Libya or Syria.

“In these countries, you have a lot of great and futuristic artists but the place or the infrastructure to express this stuff doesn't exist,” he says.

Back home he had a good life. His father was a businessman and they lived between the two countries.

The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the consequent uprisings in Syria and Libya led to Bader’s decision to flee to Belgium four years later.

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For the artist, the war and starting from scratch in another country were a shock. He lived through the early stages of the Syrian conflict before moving to Libya, but his memories of these events are blurry as he hasn't been back since he left.

Once in Belgium, he says art was his refuge. He pursued photography and videography until he was offered a job to create video storytelling and content at Voem, a non-profit supported by Flanders and the municipality of Ghent which connects people and organisations through culture and social engagement.

While exploring Voem's initiatives he came across Yalla Dabke, a more traditional project focused on Levantine folk music.

As Bader’s focus at the time was on art and documentaries, the MENA music scene was new to him. Doing research he noticed that many big “flashy/hummus” names in the electronic scene were not from the Arab region, yet they were gaining significant exposure globally.

“I was always intrigued by the colonisation of culture. If the Middle East was colonised by big powers in the past when it comes to culture and music, you still have this vibe of colonisation,” he points out.

"We don't want to work with those who have a history with Orientalism or just abuse the ideas of someone else"

He found it disappointing to see ‘Habibi’ themed events popping up everywhere in Europe but the founders were not Arabs.

“You just dig in the story to know more about the event and then you don't see someone from the region and that's why it sucks. It also makes the culture really suck.”

A music project with no Orientalist vibes

This lack of representation and understanding of the culture frustrated him. When his Belgian colleague in charge of the music project left, he jumped at the opportunity to take it over and bring more attention to the MENA music scene.

Shashit renamed the project just Yalla, “because everyone uses this word.”

It is a common Arabic word for ‘Let’s go’, ‘Hurry up’ or ‘Come on’. Bader says that as this term is often misused and characterised by foreigners he chose it “as a way of resistance against the predominant orientalist's views”.

Yalla decolonises MENA's music scene one party at a time
With shows throughout Europe and MENA, Yalla is on its way up [Tarek Al Khattab]

“It’s about time we took back our music,” Syrian-born Dj Noise Diva tells The New Arab. “Yalla does what we are all supposed to do, participate in creating a scene that is safe, loving and supportive”.

The platform hosted its debut party last summer in Ghent’s Funke Club and made its mark by bringing Belgian Moroccan Cheb Runner and Kamel Badarneh aka SAWT from Palestine.

Kamel, who uses analogue machines, field recordings and sound design techniques, created a sound where techno, ambient and experimental music met in harmony.

“People came to the club thinking they were going to a Dabke party and then they went inside and saw it was different,” Bader remembers.


A post shared by Yalla (@yalla.nightlife)

Since its successful debut, Yalla has been in high demand for collaborations. However, the collective is selective about who they work with, avoiding those who exploit or appropriate Arab culture.

“We don't want to work with those who have a history with Orientalism or just abuse the ideas of someone else,” Bader says.

They collaborate with other collectives across Europe who share similar ideas about using nightlife as a social movement to bridge political divides.

Electronic music fused with elements inspired by the Middle East

Numerous artists have performed until now through Yalla, fusing electronic music with elements inspired by Oriental tunes.

Genres like house, juke, breakbeat and techno easily mix with Egyptian Shaabi and electro Mahraganat, Algerian Rai and Moroccan Gnawa influences expressing the artists’ frustration with the cultural divide between the East and West.

"We don't work in the term safe space. Now everyone wants to be hip and cool so they drop this safe space slogan but it's just a marketing gimmick. We prefer to call it a free space"

3PHAZ, a Cairo-based musician, impressed the crowds with his deconstruction of the Shaabi, a popular Egyptian genre.

Toumba from Amman showed off how he deconstructs Levantine and Jordanian music while Bakisa from Beirut focused on revisiting the past through modern music.

Other artists included Renata and Hadi Zeidan from Beirut, Asifeh & 00970 from Ramallah and Belgian Moroccan Cheb Runner.

“I make music that carries elements from my past, from my identity. It is music you hear when you are in Egypt in the taxi or Beirut,” Amsterdam-based DJ Noise Diva, who performed recently at one of Yalla's events in Belgium, says.

“I miss that noise in the streets, it is like magic, like a huge high, yeah it is happiness.”

Her sets pair Moroccan trap with Egyptian R&B, French drill, dancehall, and UK garage.

When people listen to Noise Diva perform there’s always an element of surprise. “My music comes naturally, I don't like to force my mixes and transitions, I just play things that feel natural and homey,” she says. 


A post shared by Yara Said (@noisediva)

Electronic music to connect and educate people about the Middle East

Yalla's unique blend of electronic music with Middle Eastern elements has piqued the younger generation's interest in the region and its culture.

“The youngsters love electronic music. They know the base of the music is acid, techno, and breakbeat, but when they come to Yalla parties and listen to the Middle Eastern elements above that basis, it's interesting for them and so they want to know more about our region, and start to read about it”.

Bader thinks the people in Ghent are very open to appreciating Middle Eastern culture as they have grown up in a multicultural environment for the past decades.

In the past immigrants were bombarded with insensitive questions: ‘How did you come here? Do you have a computer? You know these weird questions. It's from my own experience,” Bader points out.

According to him, electronic music has the power to connect people. “As the music we promote has no language and only rhythm, we are making kind of a bridge.”

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A ‘free’ space to enjoy the music

This bridge is evident at the parties whose audience comprises all kinds. Despite the common misconception that it is a traditional Dabke party, it attracts a diverse crowd of  “Belgian students, veiled women, LGBT community members and people from various countries who come only to enjoy the music.”

The collective claims to be a free space rather than a safe space where people can be themselves regardless of social-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds or sexual orientation.

“We don't work in the term safe space. Now everyone wants to be hip and cool so they drop this safe space slogan but it's just a marketing gimmick. We prefer to call it a free space.”

“The idea is that everything is possible: being Muslim and party, being gay, Muslim and party. Together with atheists and people from different faiths,” Shashit adds. “No kind of discrimination is tolerated on the dance floor.”

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Respecting the origins and giving back to the community

In a nightlife culture that is often focused on profit, Yalla parties are usually free, and any proceeds from ticket sales go back to the artists or are used to support underprivileged individuals and families through sustainable projects in the Middle East.

In the past, they have supported Space NGO in the Shatila camp in Lebanon. “One of the initiatives included an electronic music production workshop in the camp, so maybe one of the kids will be the next star,” Bader says.

At their last event at the De Centrale club in Ghent, Yalla collaborated with Radio Flouka and Karama Solidarity to collect funds for the earthquake survivors of Syria and Turkey.

Yalla believes that music and nightlife can be powerful tools for social change.

They will continue to “respect their origins by giving back to the community and the region where it all started.”

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a journalist and translator with a focus on the Middle East. After having studied Arabic Literature, she collaborated with the United Nations and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait for more than 10 years