Underneath the elevated train track on the JMZ line, a dance cave with soft green, pink and purple lighting glows. Inside, the dance floor is jam packed, hitting dangerously hot temperatures as the crowd energetically sways to Arabic pop, Armenian dance music and electronic dance mixes. LayLit, one of the most eclectic and popular nights at Bushwick’s Mood Ring, is more than just hype.
After launching in summer of 2018, LayLit now boasts a devoted following of New Yorkers who come to hear Middle Eastern music projected onto the dance floor until 4am. The third installment of this self-described “lit Arab dance night,” on February 28, will focus on Turkish disco, Persian funk, and Assyrian/Kurdish dabkeh.
LayLit was founded by DJ duo Nadim Maghzal and Philippe Manasseh (aka Wake Island) and Saphe Shamoun, who also spins at the parties. Shamoun was born in Syria and moved to New York City five years ago to begin his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. He tried, but couldn’t find any venue in the city that played the music he knew so well from his childhood in Aleppo and young adult life.
“When I moved I wanted to dance to Arabic music and there was nothing,” says Shamoun. “Absolutely nothing in the city. Parts of Jersey has it but the scene there is very different. Arabic music is mostly played in restaurants which is great, but not what I was looking for.”
In the summer of 2018, he met up with Wake Island, known for mixing techno beats and ’90s pop and rock. Like Shamoun they felt the desire to incorporate Arabic songs into their mix in order to represent their Lebanese roots. But the three creators of LayLit have struggled to reconcile wanting to bring Arabic music to a New York City audience without feeding into preconceived notions.
“How can we play what we think is good, danceable Arabic music without making it exotic or orientalist?” says Shamoun. “We’re really careful with this because we want to promote Arabic music but we don’t want what is stereotypical about Arabic culture here.”
Educating listeners about Arabic music is the mission of Shamoun’s WNYU radio show, Unfortunately, It Was Paradise, the title of which was taken from a collection of poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. At LayLit, the music is meant for everyone — for those who know nothing about Arabic music and for those who are deeply familiar.
Shiyam Galyon, who met Saphe at a community organizing event, would love to see LayLit be a monthly event. “The first time, I went along figuring I would run into friends there,” says Galyon. “I showed up and the bar was packed. Friends from different parts of my life were there. The music was fantastic and vibe felt so authentic.”
For Nadim Atalla, the music offers an enticing alternative from the playlists one frequently hears in New York City bars. “Most parties play only pop. This is enough to drive any man crazy,” says Atalla. “The Arabic music, if nothing else, provides a respite from that. But on top of that, Laylit provides a place to meet with other Arab individuals who appreciate Arabic music in its many different forms. To me, that’s the most important.”
The community building is an aspect of the night Serena Kumalmaz appreciates, but she also believes the event can be enjoyed by anyone. “I don’t think LayLit’s appeal is confined to an Arab/Middle Eastern demographic. It’s a space where anyone can have a fun night out and dance all night.”
During LayLit’s next installment, Shamoun will for the first time spin Assyrian dabkeh music.
“Of course there is a nostalgic element,” says Shamoun. “But simply put, I like dancing to the music, I enjoy digging and discovering what music is being produced today.”
By the way, if you’re wondering what LayLit means: The word layl is Arabic for night, and lit, well… no definition needed.
Correction, Feb. 28: This post was revised to correct the nationality of the dabkeh music Shamoun will be playing for the first time.