The night began as Jewish celebrations often do — with the traditional dancing of the Hora.
"Let's get a circle going!" Edwin Tabrikian, known as
The 34-year-old Iranian DJ clutched his microphone and jumped up and down on the stage. He adjusted his black suit jacket and sprinted down a small flight of stairs to the dance floor.
Guests swarmed the temple-turned-banquet-hall and helped lift Benjamin, the bar mitzvah boy, into the air almost high enough for him to reach the chandeliers that drape from the ceiling. Then people began to gher, which in Persian means to twirl one's hips, to the popular Iranian pop song "Soosan Khanoom" (Lady Soosan) by Barobax.
Almost everyone knew the words. Even a young girl in a blue flowered dress timidly twirled around on the edge of the dance floor, her curly hair bouncing to the beat of the song. If guests shied away, Tabrikian pulled them out of their seats by serenading them on his microphone, table by table.
"Welcome to Benjamin's bar mitzvah," Tabrikian said. He then switched to Persian — "Salam khanoomhah vah aghayoon." (Hello, ladies and gentlemen.)
Benjamin, who was raised in the Los Angeles area, not only knows these Iranian songs but likes them enough to have them played at his birthday. The bar mitzvah boy and his guests of all ages dominated the dance floor — jumping up and down, screaming and singing along to songs by artists who included American electronic duo LMFAO and Iranian pop artist Arash.
In mixing musical genres and languages, a small but well-known group of Iranian DJs has helped bridge generational gaps within the community — one gher at a time.
DJ Babak Bagha, known as Bob, owner of the record store Street Sounds on Melrose Avenue, said this wasn't always the case at Iranian gatherings.
When the 52-year-old began his music career in 1979, he said he was one of the few Iranian DJs in the area.
In 1983, the Tehran native said he would spend Wednesday nights playing at the Iranian restaurant Cabaret Tehran in Encino, which boasts on its website that it was the "first place outside of Iran to promote and support Iranian music and singers."
"People didn't appreciate the Iranian DJs," said Bagha, who now teaches students how to spin records at his own academy.
Even Bagha's family struggled to accept his musical aspirations. "Being a DJ was a taboo," he said. Now, it's considered more part of the Iranian culture.
"Iranian Americans grew up with the DJ culture rather than the artist culture," he said. "To them, they are used to a party atmosphere that includes a DJ ... which has influenced the older generation, such as myself."
Persian DJs are so popular now that Iran's biggest pop stars write songs about them. The 2012 dance hit "DJ" by Andy and Shani is an homage to Iranian DJs, with lyrics in Persian and English: "No standing when you hear the beat your hips flow, your body follows, let's sway DJ."
Iranian DJ Omead Hashemi, 34, said his services are in high demand in Los Angeles because of the overwhelming number of events held not only by Iranians but by members of the broader Middle Eastern community.
"There's always a lot of different excuses for Middle Easterners to have a party," he said.
Hashemi, who is DJ and director of events at entertainment planning company Dashing Events, said Iranian and Middle Eastern DJs are known to play diverse music that makes an event more interesting.
"It's very common for us to be mixing Persian, Arabic, Latin and other genres of music," he said. "Generally ethnic groups are more open to other types of ethnic music."
But in some parts of the community, there is an allegiance to Iranian DJs, who often pick music they know will appeal to Iranians of all ages and religions.
Mariam Bina, who runs an Iranian party planning service called Party Bravo, said her daughter came back from her high school homecoming disappointed in the non-Iranian DJ's "vulgar" music taste.
"She told me her friends had said, 'We wish we had the DJ here from your birthday party,'" Bina said. "My daughter doesn't even speak Farsi, and there's not a lot of Persian in her ... but she likes Persian DJs and the music they play."
Some DJs, such as Orange County's Mehrbod Mohammadi, suggest that Persian music has evolved. This is one reason it's starting to appeal to wider audiences.
For example, Mohammadi, 33, said many Persian songs now have trance or dub step, which is also popular in European and American music.
"It's up to us [as DJs] to take older songs and mash them up into something that's for the newer generation," he said. "At the same time, new Persian artists are also influenced by Western culture and use electronic music in their stuff."
This has paved the path for generations of Iranians to share music, both in Persian and English.
"All of a sudden, people will like the same song that, say, my mom used to love 20 years ago," he said. "Or my mom and dad, who are in their 50s, hear a new version of a song and love it too."
Mohammadi, a producer and host of a show on Iranian online radio station Bia2.com, also said it's not necessarily about what language the song is in but the type of music played.
"If something sounds good, it sounds good to everyone," he said.
Ali Tamar, known as "Deejay Al," expressed similar thoughts on the evolution of Iranian music.
"Middle Eastern sounds are coming into mainstream music as well," he said. "It's something that is different.... People haven't really heard it before but are now getting introduced to it. It keeps growing."
Tamar, 24, co-hosts a San Diego local radio show and DJs at clubs. Although he said he does play a lot of Top 40 hits, he also plays Iranian songs or mixes the two.
"There are some Persian DJs who only play Persian music ... and I respect them for doing that," he said. "But many of us [now] bridge the gap between Persian and American music and do both."
Back at Benjamin's bar mitzvah, Tabrikian had set up two laptops, with playlists at his fingertips. His microphone — a DJ's go-to item at events — and a turntable rested between the computers. He had also set up light fixtures around the banquet hall, which projected flower-like shapes in different colors along the walls. One special light fixture flashed Benjamin's name in cursive above the stage.
For Tabrikian, every event he entertains at is unique. He said he has deejayed for all age groups, ranging from 10- to 70-year-olds.
"For me, it's just important to get energy from people," he said.
It's not always easy energizing the crowd with mixed genres and languages. For example, some nights the older crowd isn't as responsive to American songs, he said.
But at Benjamin's bar mitzvah, the younger generation seemed more than happy with Iranian tunes, as demonstrated by the lip-syncing and dance moves.
To keep people engaged, Tabrikian said he tries to play different genres and languages. This way, even if people aren't invested in one type of genre or language, they will continue to dance because they like the other songs played.
By 9:30 p.m., some of Benjamin's guests retired to their seats while others followed the beat of the music back to the floor. Kabob dinner was about to be served — but first, the bar mitzvah boy prepared to light the candles as part of his ceremony, thanking family and friends for partaking in his celebration.
For a brief moment, the DJ put down his microphone and looked out to the dance floor and smiled.