Club Chai Founders FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA talk community-building, storytelling, and politics

FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA (Photo: Balraj Samrai)

Club Chai occupies several spaces. Since their first meeting two years ago, its founders, FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA, have steadily nurtured a network of like-minded producers, dancers, and artists, expanding Club Chai from a night in Oakland to encompass a radio show, a series of workshops, and now a record label, the latter of which released one of our favorite releases of the year. Their aim: to “[centre] diasporic narratives, women and trans artists, DJs, and producers.”

I met FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA in the midst of their second UK tour. Happily, I felt like a passenger to the conversation FOOZOOL and 8ULENTINA have been having with each other and with their community for the past several years. It’s a conversation struck through with warmth, care, and a deep sense of responsibility for what they’ve built. We touched on the importance of locality and intentionality, the necessity of storytelling, and the relationships between politics and sound.

Where does Club Chai come from?

FOOZOOL: 8ULENTINA and I first started collaborating with a mix. At the time, we were craving a space — a physical space — that we could have friends perform at; where we could DJ; and where we could have an open-format type of night of mixing different genres and combining Middle Eastern music with dance music.

8ULENTINA: Yeah, and then the name comes from the ritual of drinking tea in Middle Eastern and non-Western cultures, and thinking about that space as a communal space and as a place where different people come together to discuss different issues. We both feel that the club works in a similar way — it’s a space for ritual and it’s spiritual and it’s also, for us, a really political space. So we thought “Oh, Club Chai is like the club version of that action.”

F: Yeah and the work, the art that everyone we know creates is a dialogue, so when we get together in those spaces that’s what it ends up feeling like. It’s not forced, it’s in the work.

8: And conceptually, the idea is to bring a bunch of different local crews or people together and have a conversation through sound — one that can be different every night, or every time we do it — while having this idea remain present, so that people know that it will be there every time.

And the idea is what, that sort of dialogue?

8: Yeah, or just knowing that you’re going to hear non-Western music and multiple genres at the same time, and I think for us, that was something that we weren’t hearing in a lot of spaces.

That leads me neatly to thinking about space. Firstly, how do you approach the space? When you’re performing, how do you go about creating, or cultivating, that space? What goes into that thought process?

8: Well it’s different every time depending on which venue we’re working with.

F: We’ve been moving around a lot.

8: And it used to be something that was more under our control because we were working with more DIY spaces, but we’ve had limited access to those kinds of spaces. So, we’ve had to figure out how to navigate all the factors of a large club that you can’t really control in the same way as a DIY space, where you have more control over decor, or who’s at the door, or who’s running the bar. We used to be in control of most things, but we can’t really do that anymore. So, now it’s a question of: how do you create a space that feels the same, that isn’t a totally uncontrolled environment? And I don’t think we really believe in bars or clubs as a safe space. We’re just interested in creating a space where people feel comfortable, but with alcohol and bars in general, it doesn’t allow for a safe space. Most people are assaulted because someone is drunk, or there’s something going on in that space that is altering your perception of what’s good or bad.

F: And also most of the time we don’t know who the owner of the venue is, we don’t know who runs the bar.

8: Or who’s working the bar every night. So, it’s really hard to control or cultivate a space that we really want every time, but I think we’re always trying to learn how we can communicate with the people that we’re working with so that they feel comfortable, and learning how we can communicate with the people that come to our parties frequently so that they feel comfortable. But also knowing that we can’t control everything, you know?

I’m interested in thinking about the extent to which the club is a space for escapism, but also thinking about how the outside world persists in the club.

8: Oh totally, and I think sometimes you do want to escape and have this spiritual experience in the club. But I think the escapism that, for example, white bros get from the club is very different from the escapism that trans people of color or Middle Eastern people or non-Western people in general get to access.

F: It’s just a lot harder to navigate if you’re a person of color, to be allowed to even escape from your reality.

8: So I think it’s more of a spiritual space, or a space for release than it is a space of escape necessarily.

What is the relation between the Club Chai space and the outside world? How do they relate?

F: Everything and all identities present at Club Chai — they’re all real and…

8: I don’t think you can separate them. You can’t, but at the same time people definitely create fantasies out of that space and I think that’s really important too — making a fantasy a part of your real everyday life, and not thinking about it as something that’s unattainable. So it’s creating something that’s, somewhat of a fantasy, although fantasy has this connotation of something that isn’t real, so I think, it’s more along the lines of people exploring the possibilities of their identities, without having to be walking down the street, or in their home, for example. There’s something about performing and creating a space with a crowd.

F: It makes your ideas feel more valid and real when you have people feeding off your energy.

8: Yeah.

And what kind of spaces do you think the internet enables? Does it enable spaces to come into existence? How can it bring people together?

F: Well, most of the following we have from London [who came to Club Chai’s night], was from connecting online. And in terms of understanding what Club Chai is about, the crowd that we had here reflected the crowd that we have in the Bay. And I think that was really important for us to see and get that affirmation. The internet can definitely enable and allow you to create and share spaces with people who have similar ideologies yet are geographically distant. And it can bring you together even if it’s just for that moment. It’s still so impactful and important.

8: I think the internet is important to anyone who’s dealing with any sort of struggle. You find the internet as a way to connect with people across borders, based on those struggles. But I think a lot of people rely a little bit too much on the internet.

F: Yeah.

8: And if we only exist online, we wouldn’t have any relationship of trust with our community. We really built Club Chai as something local before we tried to create an online identity.

F: Exactly. It’s important to do that.

8: And then we were like, “Oh we’re releasing this compilation, maybe we should make a Twitter.” And we realized that we didn’t do those things until later because it wasn’t our first priority, and the people who wanted to hear those things gravitated towards it because they found it on SoundCloud or through the internet. And that’s super valid and important, and I developed a lot of the ideas and passions that I have around trying to tell stories that aren’t Western through the things that I found on the internet. And the people that I found on the internet. But I also realized that, until I had those real life relationships, those ideas weren’t going to be as strong.

F: And I also think a lot of people have this misconception, that just because we have these tools, like being able to instantly upload and share work online, that you can just put it out there and you’ll make it and that that’s the only way we are gaining a following. And you know for some people it’s easier. For men, it could be way easier, but for us, it’s important and valuable to be able to meet people, create physical spaces, and actually connect with local peers and do the in-person work. We have to work a lot harder than bros who put stuff up on SoundCloud and just get clicks. It doesn’t work that way.

8: Yeah [Laughs]. There are also so many people who have interacted with us locally because of the internet, but also because of the physical space, where they knew they could actually interact with us. So maybe they encountered something online and they were like, “Oh I didn’t even know this existed in the Bay Area,” and they’re just really into experimental shit but don’t go out a lot. And those people emerged initially because of the internet, but I don’t think we would have gotten to know them as people if we didn’t meet them at our parties, and now a lot of those people are our close friends. And it’s just nice to know that it [the internet] can be a facilitator and a tool, especially for an international network of a community.

F: Definitely.

8: But I think that sometimes you have to remember the real work that you have to do within your scene.

F: Exactly. If you don’t have that base, then what do you return to?

8: And I think ultimately, if you have that base, it makes your relationship to the international community that you have on the internet stronger, because when you go to another local scene, you know better how to interact in an intentional way, to the best of your ability. And you learn from local people in that scene how they operate. So I feel that we’re using the internet as a tool to learn from other creative people, and to learn how other people operate their nights. It’s also a really nice space to communicate different frustrations we’ve dealt with, for example, and to find commonalities with different people. So that’s really huge. And just having a place where people can be like, “Oh, I found this and it was influential to me” — I think that’s really important. But, we also get frustrated when we haven’t done a party in months, and everything exists online, even though we know Club Chai is still a local thing that exists physically. I think we always crave going back to that.

How has gentrification in Oakland affected the spaces that you can get access to, or the ways that they work?

F: Venues getting shut down from high rent or noise complaints from neighbors who are moving in next door. Promoters and venue owners who are gatekeepers and reject certain types of events, crowds, or genres they allow for their nights…

8: Tech money coming into a city, which doesn’t value art and culture. And the government’s leaning more into giving privileges to these companies, instead of understanding the value of the music and culture that comes out of the Bay, which is a lot of the reason why these corporate entities end up moving there in the first place. They’re just capitalising off this “goofy, cool, San Francisco identity,” but they don’t really care about the people. It’s really complicated because creative people have also taken part in gentrification — artists take part in gentrification. We have privileges that people who aren’t creatives in the city and are just trying to survive don’t have. So it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that a lot of people, who are also people of color, are a part of gentrification. So you have to ask yourself, “Do you have a relationship to your community? Are you talking to your neighbors? Do you care about who’s running the venues you’re a part of?” And it’s not always that simple when there’s really limited access to venues — sometimes you have to work with people who you don’t always agree with, and then it becomes important to make sure that people who are entering that space don’t feel exploited. It’s a balance, and I think that we’re always navigating the privileges we have, and the privileges that people in our community have, while also acknowledging privileges that we don’t have. I think it’s really naive when artists act like they’re not a part of gentrification.

F: And venue owners are a part of gentrification too. Venue owners or promoters who aren’t down to book POC, femme, and queer artists for their nights. Or raising the house fees on them when organizing a night. And picking and choosing who they card less or more. It’s all part of that. It’s all intentional.

8: Or how, similar to in the UK [the racialized Form 696 that’s used to shut down grime shows], rappers have a really hard time booking nights, with the police shutting down their shit before it even happens.

F: Or in the Bay, making them buy an extra license for performing at a venue that already has one.

8: Just to do a night. And a lot of people who are doing this weird club shit don’t really have to think about that stuff. We’re still getting fucked over, but we still need to think about it — there’s levels to this. The weird thing we’re doing distracts a little bit from what those people have to deal with. We’re just trying to acknowledge that and be intentional, but also understand that we’re not perfect, that everyone makes mistakes, and learn how to be a better person in your scene and be open to feedback.

F: And we’re still learning. We haven’t figured it all out.

8: Yeah. Forever. I feel that about everything — DJ production, doing parties, being a friend [laughs], being a person. You’re never done learning, and I think that if you come forward knowing that you don’t know everything, or that you’re naive about certain things, and you’re willing to learn, I think that’s probably the best thing you can do.

F: Yeah.

8: I think a lot of people come into cities that have intense histories and amazing culture, with a lot of like — “I know it all.” And really, you have a lot to learn. And I’ve learned a lot from the Bay Area. Just being someone who wasn’t a performer for years, and someone who was a supporter of other people’s nights, and wasn’t DJing. So I think if I didn’t have years of doing that, I wouldn’t know how to do a party.

F: Yeah, and we were just talking about this the other day. Instead of approaching something and thinking that you know the answer, rather ask people around you, “How can we best help you?”

That leads on to my next few questions, which are on the process of building a community. I was thinking about this interview with Gayatri Spivak, wherein she’s talking about her teaching in West Bengal and tells her students, “I’m your enemy. I’m good and my parents were good but two generations do not undo thousands of years.” And I know this is something you’ve talked about - the process of building a community, and making connections between people whose histories are at odds with each other.

8: I’m Turkish, FOOZOOL’s Armenian — that’s a history of denial, genocide, and violence towards Armenians, and we talk very openly about that in our friendship. But we also try not to fixate on it, because fixating on it isn’t really our goal. It’s more about having an open dialogue about denial and the way that culture gets valued in some ways, and dismissed or erased. We talk a lot about acknowledging the privileges we have, and those that we don’t, and we just ask people, “What do you need? How can we support you?” I think that’s a really important way of acknowledging histories of oppression too. If you’ve been historically oppressed, then I have a responsibility to figure out a way to help you thrive. And then maybe that person might be economically more privileged than me. There’s so many levels to it, especially in contemporary society.

But also Middle Eastern people have been a part of the Transatlantic slave trade. There’s a whole history of brown people oppressing black people, and being a part of anti-blackness. Acknowledging that just because you’re a person of color and you’re part of this community, that doesn’t mean that you’re not an oppressor.

We just try to have, like you [FOOZOOL] said, open dialogues with our friends and our community, whenever we feel like something went wrong, or someone’s taking up too much space, or someone is doing something that feels oppressive in our party. Open dialogue is the best way [to build and maintain communities]. And being willing to be wrong.

You talked about storytelling previously; what is the importance of narrative and storytelling now, especially when thinking about how the overarching narratives that we’ve lived with in the West — progress, enlightenment, etc. — are crumbling?

F: Narratives from diasporic and non-normative identities generally get lost, or are not valued or taken seriously in Western society. It’s important for us to be the ones in control of creating and documenting our own narratives. I personally don’t know too many Armenian artists that do similar work to what I do with Club Chai or that’s similar in terms of sound. A lot of the Armenian musicians or producers I know fixate on trying to recreate traditional Armenian music or playing in bands with traditional instruments, but-

8: Like a nostalgia thing.

F: Yeah, sticking to a very nostalgic past. Which I appreciate and think it’s important to do that, for me, the way that I sample Armenian references in my productions are mostly in non-traditional or experimental ways, or the way that I mix in my work, even if it’s not always Armenian music or influences all the time, as an Armenian artist, it’s still archiving, it’s still creating work as an Armenian person living in America. For me that’s important, especially when Armenian identities and people have always been on the verge of erasure, for hundreds of years. It’s important for me to archive in that way, and make my mark, like “This is me, an Armenian-American artist doing this, and you could do it too.” And that there isn’t one type of ‘Armenian-ness’.

8: Or one narrative.

And how about for you, 8ULENTINA?

8: I became really interested in storytelling through my art. When I started with my visual art, I was doing a lot of video art and sculpture, and thinking a lot about the creative work that I make as an extension of my body. Thinking about it as a prosthetic — this thing that is an extension of me. Then I started making more videos that were about music and I was like, “OK I’m just going to make music, because I’m pretty much making art about music.” [Laughs] And I’ll always be a very material, visual person, but I think my interest in those things came from an interest in personal archiving and storytelling, and a lot of that came through my relationship with diasporic stuff that I would encounter on the internet. And I developed a lot of my relationship to Turkish and Middle Eastern music through the internet because of my distance from my family — I didn’t grow up around my Turkish family. I was creating this personal relationship between me and the computer, and I got really frustrated with just interacting with the screen, and I just had to have a dialogue with other people. And I think doing music and actually performing is that release for me, where I can finally be like, “OK, this story isn’t just something that is internalized, it’s actually something that other people can relate to.”

On that, FOOZOOL, there was an interview in Reorient magazine, where you talked about how it feels like you’re navigating four different worlds in the diaspora. What kinds of worlds do you think your music makes, and what kinds of worlds does it gesture towards?

F: I grew up in the Armenian community in San Francisco, went to an Armenian school, and at that time I felt very much that that was my life. And even now I do Armenian community work — I volunteer for an org and work a lot. And lately I’ve noticed how the work and organizing that I do there and the organizing I do with Club Chai have really become parallel, it’s so similar. My mom does community arts and cultural org work too and I’m like, “Wow, we do the same type of work in our own ways.” But I think a couple of years ago it felt harder for me because I would wonder to myself why I was separating these two things.

8: Sometimes it’s more of a separation of spaces than a separation of worlds.

In the same interview, FOOZOOL, you talk about blogs that will find obscure Armenian music, and this kind of fetishism that arises because of the internet. And, on the other hand, you have these kinds of hyperlocal music, like Gqom from Durban or Kuduro from Lisbon. What have your experiences been of navigating that dynamic, where a niche thing can now reach a global audience because of the internet, but only through particular channels. As a consumer, a producer, and now as people who run a label, how have you found navigating those shifts?

8: Especially with dance music that’s coming out of non-Western places, if I become really interested in it, I really try to reach out to the artists.

F: Exactly.

8: Like, “Hey I play your music all the time on radio and in the clubs, do you want to share some of it with me? Here’s what I do.” And I try to introduce myself to them, and not just take from them, because I think a lot of people on the internet just suck things up. And they’re like, “I’m acknowledging it.” But just because you’re not white does not mean you’re acknowledging shit. You really have to reach out to people and do the work. For example, with Illumination Boiz from South Africa.

F: They reached out wanting us to put out their music.

8: Because they heard us DJing Gqom and they were like, “Oh this is sick, you DJ this.”

F: And we’re not going to randomly put something out, we’d been in conversation with them already. Usually it’s like that.

8: DJ Lag randomly DM’d me five tracks the other week and I was like, “Oh my god this is amazing! I love you!” And I think it was because he acknowledged that I was playing that genre a lot, and also not just playing it with Western music. I think that’s important. Similarly with FDM [flex dance music] — last year I was playing a lot of that music right when it was coming out and I reached out to Epic B and Hitmakerchinx and Unanimese and all these people. And I was just like, “Hey I play your shit all the time, I have a huge respect for what you guys are doing, it’s really inspiring,” and they all sent me folders of tracks. And I was like, “This is amazing, this is the kind of relationship it should be.” And then they were talking about wanting to play our party, etc. I used to be really scared of reaching out to people in that way, because you’re nervous and you respect people, but when you do it, you realize how important it is, because that’s a part of respect. With label stuff, we’re still trying to figure that out.

Talking about the label, I was listening to the Thoom EP, and it reminded me sonically of a few other things that I’ve been hearing over the last few years, music that’s really heavy and aggressive, for want of a better word. And often that music — I’m thinking about people like Ziúr, Kablam, and Bonaventure — has an overt political component, or at least a political intention. What do you see as the relationship between sonics and politics? How do they go together?

8: I think they’re not really separate; you can’t really separate sound and politics. But I also think that sometimes people just want to make something to release. They don’t always want to make something that fixates on their oppression or their political situation. I think sometimes that is political in itself.

F: And with Thoom’s EP, she produced something that reflects the landscape around her. She created that environment in sound. And I don’t think there’s a difference between making it in sound and making it visually, or in language even.

8: And just talking about the construction and reconstruction of Beirut as violence, and as violence that triggers the sounds of war, and these things that people in that landscape have been dealing with for a long time — that’s really political too. Acknowledging that sometimes the rebuilding process is almost harder than the war itself, or more confusing and disorienting. She thinks a lot about big and little ideas, she talked a lot about the feeling when you stub your toe.

F: Yeah.

8: And she was like, “this EP is about toeness.”

F: [Laughs] Yes! I loved that.

8: And I was obsessed with that, because I think it makes so much sense — that feeling when you hit something [smacks palm], or you hit your funny bone…

F: And fixating on it.

8: Or she was really into action movie soundtracks. When you hear that, you’re like, “Oh someone like you making that is political to me!” [Laughs]. Like even her idea of what an action movie would sound like. Things like that can be really political. Just giving people room to have weird ideas that don’t have to be so explicitly about sitting on a soapbox.

F: Yeah. That whole EP to me, I don’t see it only as a music project. It’s visual, a score, music, everything in one. A whole environment.

8: But I still feel like a lot of those tracks go off in the club.

F: Oh yeah! Definitely.

8: In the middle of a set, as this emotional moment. And she’s very interested in the dancefloor and the club. And I think people often want to put that kind of sound away from the club.

F: Yeah.

8: Or make it seem like it’s “deconstructed.” But it’s actually influenced by club music, but the structure’s been exploded a little bit.

I want to finish off by talking about futures. Firstly, what future do you see for the label, at this point?

8: More artist EPs, more local stuff from the Bay Area.

F: More workshops, hopefully. Also music releases from our international, extended family. That’s a way of supporting them if we can’t fly them out for a show.

8: Volume 2, Volume 2!

F: Yeah, Club Chai Volume 2 compilation. Applying for grants, funding — we need that money [laughs].

8: More art stuff — we curated our first art show this year, that was really cool.

F: Just more interdisciplinary stuff. Film screenings, we want to do it all.

Are there particular people’s visions of the future that you’re drawn to at the moment?

8: Hmm, not really.

F: [Laughs].

Is it pointless even thinking about the future?

8: Kind of. I’ve started living day by day,

F: Yeah, same.

8: I feel like aspiring too much towards some sort of future goal can be really capitalist and weird. But that’s also the reality, I have to survive, I live in capitalism. So I definitely set goals but, I think we’ve learned a lot from letting our project grow organically, and just seeing what things came our way.

F: Yeah.

8: So we definitely set intentions and set goals of what we want to see happen, but we also are really excited by random, unknown things that could happen. And I think that we wouldn’t be anything without our collaborators and our friends that we exist with locally.

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