Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exploring Almaty's Underground Art Scene


I am so thrilled to be back in Almaty -- the smells, sounds, and the pulse of daily life. There is a certain rhythm of life here -- a sort of pulse -- that is unique to the city and its inhabitants. I guess it is a combination of the Soviet infrastructure, the burgeoning middle class and younger generation (which is quite evident in the city) and the smell of samsas, tea and cigarettes in underground walking passages.

I flew in early Wednesday morning and was picked up at the airport and brought to my apartment. I am renting a one-bedroom, Soviet-era apartment at the intersection of Gogolya and Baitursinova. It is comparable to other apartments I've lived in. I found the apartment through a friend who lives in Almaty and had the same landlords. I could live anywhere in the city, I just wanted a nice and responsible landlord. And I must say, the landlords -- an older Russian couple named Oleg and Tatiana -- are absolutely charming. 

(note Oleg and Tatiana are not their real names, but pseudonyms for the purpose of the blog)

When Oleg and Tatiana came over on Thursday night to bring me a microwave, Oleg inspected the apartment to make sure everything was working. He noticed a nail sticking up in the floor, took a tea spoon from the kitchen, and used the end as a screw driver to push the nail back down. He then smiled,  held up the spoon and proudly commented "A screw driver in Soviet style." When they were leaving, Oleg asked me why I brought rain boots. I told him I am like a pioneer (a Soviet youth organization) -- "Budt' gotov, vsegda gotov" (Be prepared, always prepared). They laughed, as I knew they would. I find that any Soviet era joke is a sure way to make friends. 

I have spent my time meeting with my affiliations and doing some prep work before I head into the bazaar.  I have an office at one of my affiliations, KIMEP, which is absolutely awesome. Granted KIMEP is about an hour's walk from my house, but it is nice to have a place to organize interviews, print documents and focus. I've never had an office before, so this is truly fantastic.

Saturday night was really fascinating! I met up with Anton, my friend from Summer 2011, and we went to an underground theatre, Art Shock. Art shock is one of Kazakhstan’s first independent, non-government affiliated theaters. It is this hipster type of theatre where you pay a flat 2,000 T for unlimited tea/coffee. There are no assigned seats, but rather there is an open area and a small stage where the featured performance occurs. There were probably no more than 10 to 15 of us in the audience.

We chatted with one of the bar tender’s who interestingly enough was born in Almaty, returned to his family’s native town of Yaroslavl in the 1990s, and is now living in Almaty. We asked originally where he was from and he said “Yaroslavl” and then when we asked why he was here he said “well it’s home.” It’s interesting to see how people self-identify based on ethnicity and place of birth.  This is not uncommon as a taxi driver who I befriended was Turkish. He explained his family is Turkish but he himself (in his 40s) was born and raised in Almaty. 

But back to the performance! The rapper, Takejan, at first glance, is a typical, Kazakh male, around age 40s. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. But don't let appearances fool you, as his work was fascinating and he was a truly powerful performer. Takejan rapped about time he spent time in a prison in Termez. He sang about revolution, AIDS and the need to not impose social stereotypes on others. He said everyone should be as they want, dance as they like and really be true to themselves. While this is a "kumbaya" message, the rap medium and underground atmosphere modified the message to appear more genuine rather than corny. Plus, Kazakhstan, particularly Almaty, has a growing "nouveau riche" class. Takejan's message is really important as Kazakhstan continues to develop. As a political scientist and historian, it is fascinating to witness first hand the development of the underground culture. Takejan is not singing about anything evil, bad or anti-establishment. He is simply using artform as a mechanism for expressing his political opinions and promoting social and political plurality.

I read about how bands like DDT and Akvarium started in basements and local performance halls with small audiences in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, which parallel's Takejan's performance in Art Shock. Kazakhstan is a young state and to witness the development of different classes and the evolution of culture, art and the intelligentsia, is quite remarkable.

Art Shock Theatre

Takejan on stage accompanied by a trumpet player

Takejan and his son on stage

Well, that is the highlight for now. This weekend is a holiday, Eid, so everything is closed Sunday through Tuesday, which gives me some time to catch up on work and overcome jetlag. Thanks for reading!

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