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Ariel Zetina at Unsound 2022
Photography Colectivo Multipolar

On Cyclorama, Ariel Zetina explores theatre and the trans experience

The Chicago artist’s debut album features nine club-ready tracks and collaborations with Bored Lord, Violet and more

The term cyclorama refers to the large curtain placed on the back wall of a stage during a theatre production. On her debut, Chicago DJ and producer Ariel Zetina draws on her experiences as a playwright to tease out the symbolism of the cyclorama, which is often used to represent the sky, and imagine a dancefloor production with its shifting moods and characters. “I imagine all the tracks on this as the lights and action projected onto the cyclorama,” she tells me. We’re speaking in a hotel lobby in Krakow, where she’s about to perform at Unsound festival. “The whole album is like the cyc, a representation of the sky. Or an imagined sky. An imagined dancefloor. An imagined theatrical production.”

A resident DJ at Chicago’s iconic Smartbar, and a long-standing Discwoman, Zetina, a Belizean-American trans woman, is a regular behind the decks at some of the city’s most prestigious nights, blending together heady house and techno with Belizean genres like punta and brukdown. With her regular Diamond Formation party, she focuses on creating visibility for herself and her peers in the LGBTQ+ community.

Storytelling is at the heart of Zetina’s work and Cyclorama unpacks ideas surrounding Ariel’s journey as a trans woman of colour across three vocal tracks. On “Have You Ever”, she hones in on the fear that cis men who are attacted to trans women feel, asking “How you ever been with a girl like me before?” while “Gemstone” urges trans women to take their time transitioning and not compare themselves to other women. The most visceral of the three, “Slab of Meat” sees Zetina compare herself to a piece of meat forgotten in the freezer, as she proclaims: “Throw me on the counter and pound me with a cleaver.

Below, we catch up with Zetina ahead of her performance at Unsound festival.

Where did the name Cyclorama come from?

Ariel Zetina: It actually came from me doing theatre for my whole life. I feel like I started hearing that word, usually abbreviated to ‘cyc‘, probably since middle school. It’s basically the white screen that’s used in the back of a lot of theatrical productions. It’s usually used to represent the sky. I had this long list of possible track titles and I made the track “Cyclorama” first and felt it was giving me an overture of the album. [The album is like] everything projected onto a cyclorama, the things on it and the way it transforms throughout. 

So, would you say your approach to music is visually led?

Ariel Zetina: For me, it’s really hard for me to start making something if it’s just the sounds. I usually feel like I have to have something conceptual around it. Something to visualise or feel so I can think of something with a beginning, middle and end, as opposed to just random sounds on Ableton.

How has growing up around theatre influenced the music you make today?

Ariel Zetina: In so many ways! I mostly do playwriting now. A lot of why I started making music was for performance and making things that would be the perfect thing to go with a performance. I think the biggest thing for me is the idea of actually creating drama. While I’m not necessarily trying to create conflict with my music, having this time-based quality and having a beginning, middle and end is really important for me. 

How else would you describe your musical background? What kind of music did you listen to growing up?

Ariel Zetina: For ages, I thought only Mariah Carey and Gloria Estefan existed because that’s all my mom listened to. My mom was super into disco. I come to look at a lot of the stuff that isn’t trans but it was sort of manufactured and made and lead to trans compilations. 90s dance music was something that was really big for me. I got into musicals really early, and then I got into a lot of 2000s R&B. It’s a lot of different things, not a lot of techno and house but definitely stuff that was adjacent. I think dance music for me was always vocal and it was a little longer before I realised it‘s instrumental too.

What are some of the biggest inspirations behind the album?

Ariel Zetina: I have a long list of vocalists that I always wanted to work with. Two vocal collaborations that came out of this were with two different trans women that I’ve been friends with for almost a decade. They’re two girls that have been working in the scene and are doing music but we hadn’t collaborated in that way before. A lot of what we ended up talking about was what the album ended up being about; the ways that trans women are treated.

When we made “Have You Ever” we were having this conversation and one of the things I have never thought about is the phrase: “have you ever been with a girl like me before?” It’s very universal in a lot of ways. But also it’s a question that puts the power back into this world where it almost feels like I only can be someone’s dirty little secret. With the rest of the tracks, I think they’re really exploring these narratives that trans women have to fight. “Chasers” for me really came from being in the club and having different “tranny chasers” coming to me and having to avoid them and this that ballet ends up happening. With “Gemstone”, which is the track I did with Mia, she talked a lot about this idea that you have to do everything so quickly when you transition. It’s actually a very slow process and not necessarily a linear or finite one.

Going back to “Slab of Meat”, it’s such an evocative track. Could you tell me some of the ideas behind it?

Ariel Zetina: I literally wrote it on Instagram [laughs]. I really liked the image of someone preparing a slab of meat, [it almost has a] 50s housewife quality to it. I was [also] thinking about the idea of being left on the backburner. I did want it to be a sexual trap, but it actually came from what it means to be emotionally put in the freezer, and the idea of there being a fresh piece of meat that’s always available to you, but not using it.

What attracts you to theatrical sounds in general? 

Ariel Zetina: I’m not very interested in subtlety. I’m very interested in being loud and bombastic. I think it comes from feeling like the only way of being heard is to be as bombastic as possible. When I went to school a lot of what I studied was this idea of everyday performance – thinking about how grand a wedding is, for example, and the steps you have to go through for that. 

I think about how Greek theatre started and how it was all about worship; also African oral storytelling, and most of the theatrical practices from Asia. They’re all connected to some original religious thing. I’m definitely not trying to give people a religious experience, but putting things in theatricality places you in another space, and I’m interested in just working in that space and having it be a break from reality somewhat – or a rethinking a new reality altogether.

Cyclorama is out now. Take a look at exclusive images of Zetina in the gallery above