In conservative, authoritarian Almaty, a small techno event aims to create a safe space for activists and the LGBT community.
It is a rainy spring night in Almaty, and in a small back-alley club a young DJ is playing dark British techno while wearing a T-shirt that could easily land him in jail. I’m in a crowd of about 200 at ZVUK, which for the past three years has been a remarkable outlier on the limited clubbing scene of Kazakhstan’s deeply conservative commercial capital.
My visit to the city coincided with rare political ructions in a country where little dissent had been tolerated during 30 years of autocratic rule by President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His sudden resignation in March and stage-managed elections in June had led to two protesters being jailed for 15 days for holding up a banner at the Almaty marathon that read: “You cannot run away from the truth.” Days later another man was arrested for holding a banner bearing a line from the constitution: “The only source of state power is the people.” Protests, which reignited after Nazarbayev’s chosen successor was “elected” in June, have been met with more violence and arrests by the security forces.
ZVUK is the only party collective in Almaty with a political-activism element, and the night I attended all of its members wore T-shirts bearing the slogan, “You cannot run away from the truth.” As a friend of the collective put it, “in Europe, people like us can express themselves and stand against the government in safety. Here we can be jailed for it.”
ZVUK is the brainchild of Nazira Kassenova, an upbeat, intelligent and humorous 28-year-old DJ originally from the small southern city of Taraz. These days she splits her time between Almaty and Berlin, where she is a resident at Room 4 Resistance and a host on Radio Cómeme. She has played at De School in Amsterdam and Berghain in Berlin – arguably Europe’s two best clubs – and in January reached another milestone by contributing to Resident Advisor’s podcast series. The mix is a great primer for her sound: tough, angular, clattering techno and bass music with a constant, addictive groove.
Part of what made this unlikely journey possible was four scholarship-funded years at university in St Andrews. During that time she made frequent trips to the Sub Club in Glasgow, which she cites as a defining influence. She returned to Almaty galvanised and ready to do her own thing. “There are three other crews in Almaty doing moderately good stuff,” she says, “but none of them do anything musically, politically or socially challenging. I think that’s fine in places that already have liberal laws and values, but not here.”
Since starting ZVUK, Kassenova has brought in two other DJs – Aisha, who mainly plays acid and electro, and ET, who loves “rhythmic, brutal deconstructed club music” – as well as four non-DJ members. It is clear that for all six recruits, as well as the party’s devotees, ZVUK is a life-changing sanctuary. “ZVUK inspired me to pursue my dreams and live my life the way I want, and now I’m a full-time writer able to support myself and my family,” Gera Nogaibayeva, the collective’s operations manager, tells me.
“I am a part of the LGBT+ community,” she says, “and we are in often life-threatening danger in our country. To be a part of something that openly celebrates my community and strives to provide a safer space to be yourself is a huge deal.”
The fact that much remains to be done regarding LGBT rights had been vividly demonstrated to me earlier that week at a party organised in support of the two jailed activists. The vibe was like that of a bohemian, artistic, politically engaged gathering, but a conversation with Kassenova led to an eye-opening moment.
“Almost the whole country is homophobic,” she said, “even some of the people at this party.” She then collared the first person who happened to be passing, a party-hearty, vodka-swilling sculptor in his 30s. “What do you think of gay people?” she asked. He replied without hesitation: “I think they should go and do that in some other country. We don’t want that in Kazakhstan.”
The ZVUK party I attended was excellent by any city’s standards, with tight, challenging sets and a deeply engaged and passionate crowd, all in the perfectly sized club Object, the only such independent clubbing space in the city. One of Kassenova’s masterstrokes in building ZVUK has been to inject new perspectives via knowledgeable, thought-provoking international guests, among them Giant Swan, Via App and Don’t DJ. In May the French/Northern Irish producer Zoë Mc Pherson flew in to play, and, like many previous guests, also held a production workshop for a rapt audience a couple of days before the party.
Mc Pherson spent 10 days in Kazakhstan and offered interesting takes on the experience as we walked around Almaty’s top brutalist hotspots. “I met a 17-year-old boy on a hike in the mountains,” she said. “We became friends and he came to the workshop with his mother, and the whole family came to the club night. It was the first time he had been to a club, and his mother told me I had opened her ears to a new world of listening.”
She was similarly effusive on the crowd at ZVUK who were mesmerised by her hypnotic electronics-and-vocals set. “I have never had a crowd dance together as one like that. Rhythmically, my stuff can seem experimental and awkward and many crowds get confused, but at ZVUK they knew how to rave very naturally to it.”
With Kassenova’s DJ career taking off thousands of miles away, she is determined that ZVUK will continue to be a driver of change in Kazakhstan. “For a long time I lost money running ZVUK, and even now we just break even on most parties,” she says. “But for me compromise has always been the number one thing to avoid and it will always be that way. I could easily start flying more straightforward, commercial techno acts in, move to a bigger venue and turn ZVUK into a business. But that wouldn’t help change anything, so fuck that.”
Published by “The Guardian“