TravelPhoto Essay

Building bridges in Cape Town

For an internationally celebrated DJ and producer, a transformative trip to South Africa reignited a commitment to a global community.

Photograph by Ian Glass
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From Lion’s Head looking across the valley toward Table Mountain at sunset, Downtown Cape Town sprawls out to the left and to the right, the affluent suburb of Camp’s Bay kisses its namesake’s pristine waters.

Photograph by Ian Glass

To Ali Shirazinia, identity has more to do with spirit than ethnicity or geography. Known the world over as Dubfire, Ali brings a global perspective to his work as a celebrated, award-winning musician, house and techno DJ and producer. After immigrating to the United States from Iran as a small child, Ali learned how to make personal and cultural connections through the universal language of music.

Today, as he performs an average of 140 shows every year, he balances a passion for work with a desire to get out and explore every city he visits. On a recent trip to Cape Town, South Africa, his excursion to Langa Township created an enduring sense of kinship through both music and art.

Here is his story.

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Between tour dates, Ali Shirazinia, aka DJ Dubfire, enjoys a rare moment of reflective downtime in his home studio.

Connecting Through Music

When my family immigrated from Iran to Washington, D.C., we were refugees from a revolution and had to leave everything and everyone we knew behind. On my first day of school, I was only seven or eight years old, didn't speak the language, and had arrived in the middle of the year. I felt really awkward and foreign; the teacher didn't know what to make of me. We weren't able to communicate so she just handed me some markers and paper, and we realized that I had a gift for drawing. So that’s how I expressed myself in those early years.

Like most Persians, my family hoped I’d become a doctor or an engineer, but I always felt drawn to the creative kids—the photographers, the art students, and the budding musicians playing in bands. Even though I was initially interested in art, I felt more of a connection to music. It really is a global language that crosses all barriers of race, ethnicity, and geography. It opened up a whole world to me, and it opened me up to the world.

Because I travel so much, I not only feel like a citizen of the world, but also like a part of a global family. That’s why I love staying at Park Hyatt hotels whenever I can. I love the friendly vibe of each staff member and the personal welcome from the General Manager when I’m checking in. Every Park Hyatt I’ve been to is designed beautifully, and there are special signature touches, like the Blaise Mautin room scents at Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme, or the daily delivery of various Japanese fruit and sweets at Park Hyatt Tokyo, and the elegant courtyard of Palacio Duhau - Park Hyatt Buenos Aires. I always feel so fortunate to stay there.

Clouds pour over the edge of Table Mountain as seen from Lion’s Head.
Video by Ian Glass

What drives me now is gratitude and a desire to give something back. So I was really excited when I met Valentino Barrioseta, a fellow musician who is recruiting people from all areas of the music industry to mentor kids in Langa Township, South Africa. I was happy to re-connect with him when I traveled to Cape Town for the Ultra Music Festival last February.

Communing with Nature

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A zebra has been rehabilitated at the Cornell Skop farm outside of Cape Town.

I’d been to South Africa before and loved it but had never experienced such a deep connection as I did on this trip. On a sensory level, Cape Town is just amazing. There is nothing like the view from the top of Table Mountain; the vineyards are beautiful, the wines are delicious, and the food is great. As someone who spends way too much time in airports and nightclubs, I'm always trying to connect to nature as often as I can. The natural landscape around Cape Town is not only breathtaking, it’s also right there, easily accessible.

This trip, I went on a private safari tour at a place called Cornell Skop. It's a sort of refuge farm for wild animals where you can get in very close proximity to animals with the owner, Luke Cornell, a real Crocodile Dundee kind of character. That was unforgettable.

But what really sticks with me was my trip to Langa Township. It’s only about 30 minutes from the center of Cape Town but such a stark contrast in terms of wealth, living conditions, and culture. It’s not only another side of the city; it’s like another world.

Street performers play xylophones on a typically sunny day in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square.

Video by Ian Glass

Building Bridges

The Bridges for Music Academy was still under construction when I was there, and that was part of the excitement for me. I felt like I could be part of the process of building this really amazing, transformative place. Beyond music classes, the school will educate township kids on the technical aspects of the industry, on production, and the business of music. You never know who gravitates toward the more artistic, creative side of the music industry and who is more of a budding entrepreneur. They want to offer a broad and solid foundation as well as a global perspective.

I’ll turn 48 soon, but, in some sense, I still feel like that 7-year-old refugee. I relate to those kids in Langa and can see how the academy might open up the world of music to them, and, in turn, music might open up the world for them in the way it did for me.

Everyone in the township was so kind and so welcoming that I felt truly humbled. Seeing that kind of impoverishment made me deeply appreciate every experience. But what really struck me, beyond how little these people had, materially, was their dignity. They were rich in that. Honestly, after about an hour or so, I didn’t even see the poverty. I saw richness in spirit, in humanity, and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to support this community through the school.

A Piece of South Africa In Spain

That night, there was a fundraiser and a silent auction where I bought a sculpture of a horse by a South African artist named Janko de Beer. I was drawn to the raw power of it. It was made using found objects, so it’s directly connected to Africa. Most meaningfully, purchasing it helped me to further support the community there. I’m now moving into my new home in Spain where it will always take me back to Bridges and to the people of Langa.

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