Spaces Between the Beats is a series spotlighting music and cultural communities around the world, exploring their stories as they build resilience and find meaning and hope in connection.
“There's no record stores. There's no club culture. There isn’t a single nightclub in a city of 20 million people,” says Zee. “But we are bringing the party to Pakistan.”
Living in the capital city of Karachi, Zee had a wake up call a few years ago “I was a corporate slave,” says the 33 year-old. “Working in sales and marketing for a huge multinational but it wasn't feeding my creative energy so I took a break.” He volunteered at dance music festivals in Europe and Africa, fell in love with “the feeling of community and like-mindedness” and came back with an energised desire to create something.
The family of his then partner Jalal had a farmhouse about an hour and a half outside Karachi. “We threw a party for friends,” Zee says. “We were into techno and drum and bass, which at that time was very unconventional for Pakistani audiences, so we had huge doubts people would drive this far to a farmhouse for a techno party with no proper toilet situation.”
However, come midnight as the sound of beats clattered into the night sky and the dance floor swelled with bodies and collective whoops, the makeshift car park was overflowing as friends and their friends arrived in their hundreds. “We had to turn people away,” recalls Zee. “But from that point on I was like: I can turn this into a professional thing.”
In 2020 Groove Into the Void was born; a nod to the film by Gaspar Noé as well as an accurate description of the party. “When you drive towards the farm, it's like a void,” Zee says. “It's not easy to find. You have to manoeuvre your way through seedy streets and broken roads into the middle of nowhere.” However, this name evolved and now, under the sole control of Zee, the parties go under the equally suitable moniker of Controlled Chaos.
The name perfectly encapsulates the chaos of trying to throw raves and parties in Pakistan. “There's a number of societal challenges and constraints,” Zee says. “We are a highly religious society and the music is haram, so to do a party is a big no-no. Dancing at a wedding function is completely fine but when you talk about a dance party it has a different perception. Dance parties equal alcohol, drugs, hookers, and all those bad stigmas.”
The farmhouse parties of the early days soon turned into something special. “When there are restrictions in any society and then suddenly there's an outlet to let off steam and be yourself with no judgement, then people tend to go wild,” Zee says. “We were not bound by any limitations. We had total freedom.”
The parties also quickly became rooted in shifting societal conventions and promoting progressive politics. “We have robust safe space policies,” says Zee. “Nightlife here has predominantly been male dominated while girls and women have faced restrictions on their freedom to venture out late due to the absence of safe spaces. Our community is actively advocating for this transformation. We are injecting the city with a creative spirit and strong commitment to diversity.”
The parties have moved on from the farmhouse and into the city, but throwing them remains difficult and secretive. “Most people tend to be very religious so nobody rents their space for a thing like this,” says Zee. “We literally have two or three spaces in the whole city that people are willing to rent for endeavours like ours.”
Zee obtains a government-issued certificate to legally host such parties under the guise of being concerts or cultural events, while locations are kept secret until the day of the event and attendees have to apply for tickets, with Zee personally vetting every individual. “Not anyone and everyone can come to our parties,” he says. “Things can get bad really quickly in this society if you get unwanted attention towards your event. We can't afford that.”
Keeping things compact, sweaty and genre-fluid in basement spaces around the 150 capacity mark, they’ve even been flying in guest DJs for their covert operations. “When we started no one would have imagined we could invite an artist like Radical Softness,” Zee says, of the Berlin-based queer DJ Lea Rose. “The party was so beautiful,” says Rose. “People were so receptive and there was such a feeling of freedom with everyone dancing like crazy.”
These raves frequented by young people desperate for release have created an appetite for music on the harder end of the spectrum. “I have observed a very interesting change of music taste in the younger generation,” says Zee. “They've started asking for more techno parties, more drum and bass, jungle and generally more hard-hitting music. Before us, the party circle was dominated by progressive house or melodic techno but recently it feels like there's a new wave coming in – the curiosity and interest from younger people has grown tremendously since we started.”
On top of industrial techno, heavy drum and bass and jungle, there’s even a growing love for the hard house sub-genre donk. In October, a party that was held in collaboration with Bristol label Pineapple Records, brought over the thumping high bpm DJ Sam Binga. As the events evolve, they become more rooted in exploration and a sense of unpredictability than a narrow or prescribed sound. “We don’t like to get bogged down in genres and are open to anything that sounds authentic and underground,” Zee says. “It’s important to show diversity in everything from the music to cultures, to genders and traditions.”
However, such are the difficulties involved in keeping this underground ecosystem alive and sustained, that the secret venue to host the Sam Binga donk party got cold feet and pulled the plug last minute. “It threw me into a frantic quest on the day of the show,” recalls Zee. “Me and my girlfriend were literally going around looking for the venues while hundreds of people were messaging me about the location.” They secured another venue, which fell through again. “Ultimately I had to move the party into a friend's backyard,” says Zee. “It was a rollercoaster of excitement and adversity that truly tested my mettle but I am glad that I managed to put the show on in the end despite all the challenges.”
Although challenging, it means the highs experienced when things come together are unparalleled. And while Zee’s parents have often questioned his decision to give up a good salary and company car to run a not-for-profit secret rave collective, it’s been life-changing for him. “It’s very emotional for me,” he says. “There’s no money, recognition, ecosystem or support for something like this in our society. But I have built up a community of likeminded people and it's a joy to be able to do this.”
Zee also feels that Controlled chaos has the potential to be more than just a party. “I firmly believe that music, like any art form, has the power to transcend cultural barriers and connect people on a universal level,” he says. “That is the reason why our events are not just about music; they are about fostering a sense of community, promoting diversity, and providing a safe and inclusive platform for individuals to express themselves freely. It’s about making an impact in a society which needs change the most.”
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