Discostan: Los Angeles DJ heads to Pakistan for Sufi sounds

Amitis Motevalli, an Iranian artist, dances during a Discostan party. (Photo credit: Farah Sosa)
Amitis Motevalli, an Iranian artist, dances during a Discostan party. (Photo credit: Farah Sosa)


Aruna Irani is an established DJ in Los Angeles’ underground scene. She’s reputed for the original sounds she brings to her parties. Recently, Irani travelled to far-flung regions in Pakistan to record religious songs and chants in Sufi shrines that are regularly attacked by jihadist groups. She now includes the sounds in her party mixes.

DJ Aruna Irani, whose real name is Arshia Fatima Haq, explained why she decided to embark on this trip.

“I wanted to record the Sufi religious songs that I heard and loved so much as a child”

During my parties in Los Angeles, I play a global mix with music from everywhere -- from Beirut to Bangkok to Bombay. I often use music from South Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. I love music from Iraq, Syria and Pakistan-- all of which are countries plagued by war and insecurity. All different people come to my parties-- many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants. I think some of them are able to connect to their heritage through the music I play; I know I do. I explore my cultural and religious heritage through my music. Through it, I find both freedom and spirituality.

Haq mixes at a Discostan party. Photo: Zachary David Klein

I was born in India. When I was five, I came to the United States with my family. We are Muslim and, when I was a child, we followed the strict rules of an orthodox form of Islam. I wanted to find different ways of exploring my spirituality. My father introduced me to Ghazals, which are poetic songs inspired by Islamic mysticism. He used to listen to them in the car.

The fact that I became a DJ and I founded Discostan isn’t by chance. My father has shelves and shelves full of cassette tapes of religious Sufi music. Now I have my own collection of hundreds of records. I also keep all of the recordings that I make on my travels.

You can follow DJ Aruna Irani on Soundcloud

"I travelled across Pakistan with my camera and my recorder”

I got a master’s degree in experimental cinema and I’ve always dreamed of filming the Sufi religious songs that I had heard and loved as a child. In 2014, I went to Pakistan for the first time. I travelled across Punjab and Sindh with my camera and recorder, looking for Sufi holy sites and shrines. It was such an incredible experience that I returned two years later in 2016.

I visited the shrine by the 14th century tomb of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, which is one of the most important holy sites in Pakistan. Every Thursday night between the evening prayer and the morning prayer, men and women gather for the Dhikr, the invocation of God.


Arshia Fatima Haq records Sufi religious songs. (Photos from her personal archives)

"Women go into a trance. It’s a powerful physical and emotional experience”

I remember the nights I spent listening to them. First came the sound of the tabla-- the drums. Then came the voices of people singing the devotional songs known as the Qawwali. Sometimes these songs are in Urdu, while other times they are in the local language.

The music inhabits your body and it starts moving. Women go into a trance. It’s a powerful physical and emotional experience. This celebration of love and eternal beauty is a sacred love-- to me, it’s music that cleanses your heart.

Yet this shrine was targeted in a suicide attack. It was a shock for me. [Editor’s note: The Islamic State organisation claimed the deadly attack on February 16, 2017. Eighty-eight people were killed.] 


During my trips, I also filmed and recorded the songs sung during festivals as well as the music made by worshippers on pilgrimages to tombs of Sufi saints. For me, these are spaces where people manage to exist and express themselves as individuals. At these events, you find a surprising mix of people: men and women-- often from low socio-economic backgrounds, transgender individuals and prostitutes.

I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend these events. Access is a special gift only possible because I am a woman, I come from this region and I speak Urdu. It wasn’t always easy. This one time, there was a woman in a trance-- she was possessed by spirits. She came towards me and screamed that the spirits were going to break the camera if I didn’t stop filming. I turned off the camera.


Excerpt from Haq’s experimental film.

"Now, it’s possible to listen to my recordings on Spotify”

When I returned to Los Angeles, I played my recordings for the label Sublime Frequencies, and now you can listen to them on Spotify.

It’s important for me to share this experience of Islam, which allows for a total engagement of your body and spirit and a feeling of truly being free.


You can listen to the album on Spotify