Mariia Ustimenko highlights some of the artists making waves across the region.
This generalisation stems from the process of Russification that the Soviet Union imposed on all of its member states. It's not a straightforward thing to explain in English, but "Russian" can mean both nationality and ethnicity. The two are often used interchangeably, but not all ethnic Russians are Russian nationals and not all Russian nationals are ethnic Russians. Importantly, many of us living in the former USSR aren't Russian in any way, apart from varying percentage of genetic ancestry. Still, that's what a lot of us are being called. It's frustrating, to say the least, and maintains Russia's imperialist tendency, erasing 14 other nationalities and many more ethnicities and cultures.
The Baltic states, in particular, always saw the USSR as an illegal occupation. Often referred to as the "Soviet abroad," they eagerly fought off the Russification in the Singing Revolution as the Berlin Wall was just beginning to crumble. Even by the early '80s, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were trying to separate themselves, and became known for their visionary electronic music scenes due to the likes of Zodiac, Sven Grünberg and Argo. It was Riga where Western DJ culture leaked through the Iron Curtain in 1986 thanks to Westbam, a DJ who brought turntables from Germany on one of his regular trips. Before that, local artists learned how to mix on tape reels using the recordings from the radio because foreign records weren't easily available.
In Russia in the '80s, Edward Artemiev became the most prominent member of the Moscow Experimental Studio Of Electronic Music by composing film soundtracks, most notably for Solaris and Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. 40 years later, the Russian electronic music scene, though largely confined to Moscow and St.Petersburg, boasts a rich nightlife with many artists, labels and promoters, as well as the growing music media and intercity landscape. This is mirrored in two other so-called "brother nations," Ukraine and Belarus, where some initiatives existed and many have sprung up catalysed by the turmoil of the mid-2010s. Take radio station 20ft, queer party Veselka, online zine TIGHT in Kyiv and the promoters Bassota, Мечта and СИЯНИЕ in Minsk.
Close geographically but distant in every other way, Moldova is the least visited and the poorest country in Europe with a cultural connection to Romania and a separate Transnistria region, which resulted from the Russia-backed war in 1992. A commercial EDM festival has been taking place in Chisinau since 2016, but underground events are few and far between. The only country with fewer visible traces of electronic music is Turkmenistan, a country whose press censorship puts it in the same top three as North Korea.
Things are more hopeful in Uzbekistan, where the promoter Faculty organises "nomadic sound sessions" and Stihia festival, which adapts the Burning Man experience for curious locals. In 2016, Unsound visited the country on its Dislocation tour, as well as nearby Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A promoter in Bishkek, Zack, tells me that in recent years "a lot of work has been done to popularise electronic music" and adds, "it's still not like in Ukraine, Georgia or Russia, it's difficult for us to compete with the level of these countries, unfortunately, but we have our own community." As for Kazakhstan, it has benefited greatly from the local promoter and DJ Nazira, who Unsound hosted in Kraków in 2016 and was asked to co-organise the event in Almaty the following year. It's worth noting, though, that there were and still are other local groups, such as Bass Place, which used to count Nazira as a member, as well as the promoters Vzletnaya and Объект.
The scene in Azerbaijan has fond memories of the Unsound event in Baku. "It inspired a lot of artists to do experimental music,'' says Leo Hazree, a promoter, DJ and producer who you'll meet below. In 2012, the festival had visited Georgia, just before the Tbilisi techno scene boomed. Another location on Unsound's decade-plus tour was Armenia, which now hosts one of the most anticipated festivals in the region, Urvakan. It's organised by the people behind the Moscow festival Synthposium and co-curated by a few other key teams, mainly from Russia. One of them is Klammklang, which, when sharing the bill for SHAPE 2020, expressed a wish for "a similar association of the festivals in the Russian Federation and the neighbouring countries." They add: "but so far it sounds utopian.''
Back up north, a creative camp Baltic Trail, founded by the Latvian label Dirty Deal Audio in 2013, is a place where the Balts come together to share knowledge and put on a showcase. Their EU membership means that the nationals of other former USSR countries need a visa to visit, but the formation of the Commonwealth Of Independent States (CIS) in 1991 grants the freedom of movement within the remaining 12.
However, Russia's hostile policy towards what used to be called its "near abroad" can put this perspective in danger. Georgia and Ukraine opted out the CIS in 2008 and 2018, respectively. The latter also introduced what could be considered the simplified visa requirements for Russian citizens. This especially affects men who have to provide a notarized letter from the host stating the reason for travel and leave-by date, and can be subject to a more thorough questioning and need for other documents, familiar to anyone who's applied for a Schengen visa. In Tbilisi, the protests in the summer of 2019 resulted in Russia's ban on its national airlines flying to Georgia, a country whose food is sold on every corner in St. Petersburg. The idea of language as a unifying factor is also up for debate, seeing that Russian, while still deeply ingrained, is slowly being replaced by the local languages or English.
There's still some isolation from the West in the region, not least because it's been focused on rebuilding itself after perestroika. The artists on this list are not just musicians, they are promoters, visionaries and leaders. They redevelop the existing networks to make them functioning, facilitate cultural exchange and fine-tune communication. They nurture their local scenes and seek out the peculiar differences in others, not to crush, but to highlight them. They have the potential to facilitate diplomatic relations on their own terms and show genuine care by making more women, queer, disabled and otherwise marginalised people more visible. With the help of music, they aren't just envisioning the future, they are helping to create the one they want to see.
A promising newcomer, Aisha (AKA Rhythm Algorithm) is one of the DJs to come out of ZVUK's workshops, the open-to-all sessions Nazira organises twice a year. At the time of writing there's only one mix on her SoundCloud, but the choice of tracks, or rather the contrast between them and their dynamic transitions, show a wide range of influences. You want to keep listening to find out which road it takes.
The Russian queer zine O-zine has compared this Moldova-born and Russia-based artist to Charli XCX for her modern take on pop music and outspokenness in support of queer rights. As the site points out, there are plenty of artists who are "progressive, young and singing about free love, but [they] in every way ignore the LGBT community." CHLOЁ is one of those who isn't afraid to use her platform to speak up. She made a telling video for a track "Robots" after her friend got beaten in Moscow for the way he looks, and delivered a superb cover of a hit track "Don't Believe The Tears" by the Russian '90s gay icon Shura.
Jaroška first came to my attention with his EP Uncharted Territories on PPP, a label co-run by minimal.lt and Mantas T, two of the Lithuanian scene's key promoters. When I came across his abstract mix for Secret Thirteen, the balanced collision of punk and rave immediately made sense. Jaroška is also known as a club promoter, having organised a few womxn nights at Fantomas bar in Vilnius that have since inspired a party series in Manchester. In 2019, he began putting on HUNT and Lovetempo nights at the important Kablys and Opium clubs in collaboration with the label's crew.
A member of the Faculty group and cofounder of Stihia festival, Kebato, AKA Otabek Suleimanov, describes himself as a beginner DJ, but he's got a deep belief in music's ability to change lives. His latest set took place at a fruit and vegetable market in Tashkent and was described by the Faculty Facebook account as "DJ actionism," which refers to the form of performance art that has political reasoning behind it. Kebato and the team subtly introduce electronic music into the everyday life of the Uzbek people but aim for a revolution in their minds.
Most widely known as a cofounder of the Californian label and curatorial project Club Chai, Lara Sarkissian (AKA DJ FOOZOOL) is an Armenian artist and film score composer. Her productions, such as 2018 debut EP Disruption and 2019's Peninsula, draw from her heritage and integrate Armenian percussion, instruments and voices into the contemporary club and wider global music environment. In May 2020, Club Chai will co-curate Urvakan festival in Yerevan.
Sintetik Club cofounder Leo Hazree recently decided his crew had outgrown their basement in the centre of Baku, even though they've been operating with no signboard for three years. Now they specialise in throwing bigger events in different locations, similar in concept to СХЕМА in Ukraine. A DJ and producer too, he is dedicated to supporting local musicians, however few there are. Before releasing his own music, he remixes the work of others to promote as many artists at a time as possible, including those working in the visual realm.
Dushanbe-born pop artist Manizha moved to Moscow with her family in 1994 during the war in Tajikistan. Her work often deals with the social issues—for instance, the video for her track "Mother" portrays domestic violence, some forms of which are currently decriminalised in Russia. The name of her most recent single roughly translates as "Not Slavic Enough," and tells the story of her experience as an immigrant, feeling ashamed of her heritage and, eventually, coming to celebrate it.
In 2017, MNTHA released the Identity EP on the Latvian label Dirty Deal Audio. This past year, she graduated from the Baltic Trail camp organised by the label. The result of the five intense days is a 30-minute composition created in collaboration with three other artists. It's "totally different from any of our regular choices of genre," one of them says, which seems to be the point. MNTHA's voice manipulations shine through, though it's best to enjoy her in full as a singer, producer, performer and video editor.
The experimental flair of Natalie Beridze, who's widely considered to be the first female electronic musician from Georgia, had granted her collaborations with such international icons as AGF and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Together with fellow composer Nika Machaidze, she now teaches a music production and songwriting course at the Creative Education Studio in Tbilisi, paving the way for women who come after her. In 2019, she inaugurated CES Records with a compilation of tracks by their alumni who "have a bright future as female composers in Georgia."
A program manager at the intimate, 150-capacity Kauplus Aasia and a member of the now defunct Lekker crew, Nikolajev is one of the constants in Tallinn's club scene. He and Ragnar Rahuoja used to run the DIMA party series with an aim to bridge the disconnect between local Russians and Estonians. The project now lives on musically as Dima Disk. Since 2018, Nikolajev has co-run IDA Raadio with Natalie Mets and Ats Luik, and in 2019 he released the LEL EP on Anthony Naples' Incienso label.
Born in Turkmenistan and raised in Russia, Rozen found a permanent home in Bali. He's a resident at DESØNER, a Canggu electronic music community, and regularly plays in the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. He also performed at the events co-organised by the originally Kazakh promoter Vzletnaya that branched out and was welcomed by the scene in Bali two years ago. The chill vibes of this set are from one of these events in collaboration with RTS.FM, a Russian audio and video platform now streaming live sessions from all over the world.
Conceptualised by the vocalist Rusia, Shuma has a fluid membership, with various artists getting involved on vocals and sound design on the album-to-album basis. This project reimagines pagan songs by combining ethnic tradition with deep house and minimal techno. Their latest album came out on Ezhevika, a Minsk label most often supporting artists from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Similar to the acclaimed DakhaBrakha but with more electronic sound, the band's "national rave" aesthetic attempts to preserve a dying local heritage.
Cofounder of Luhansk Contemporary Diaspora, Tatamovich used to coordinate the R+N+D art cluster before they merged with Supovoy Nabor ("Soup Mix") in 2015. When the war erupted in Eastern Ukraine, many of the region's groups relocated to Kyiv, bringing with them the questions of home and identity post-war. LCD's previous projects include a Golden Coal zine about the underground culture of Donbas, which is available in English here. In 2018, they started operating as a party series VOSTOK ("East") organising events in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Severodonetsk, as well as releasing music solely by the artists from Eastern Ukraine.
Hailing from Maykop city in the Republic of Adygea, Nagoy is one of the leading stars of Ored Recordings, an ethnographic project that travels on expeditions in the Causcaus to discover folk music still preserved by the carriers of this region's culture. Nagoy performs song-stories and spoken-word ballads traditional to the Circassians, an ethnic group native to the republic. This particular recording is a spontaneous collaboration with the Nalchik band Jrpjej that took place at Moscow's club Mutabor during Fields festival in 2019.
One of the DJs who represented the local scene at Unsound Dislocation in Bishkek in 2016, Zack is a cofounder of Electronic Music Meet, a small but thriving community with a core audience of about 150 people. Their preferred approach remains "from the ground up," which means being patient, avoiding advertising and letting the right people encounter their parties organically. Palpably passionate about music and developing the local scene, Zack sees his role as communal, "helping young (and not so) people leave their bedrooms to party with others."
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