Rock in Uzbekistan: A Voice of Diversity

It’s a Saturday night in the center of Tashkent. An unmarked door with a $1 entry fee leads you upstairs into a dark, smoke-filled bar. Onstage, musicians thrash their instruments, creating a raucous sound. Surrounding the stage, dozens of teens mosh their heads, knocking back shots of vodka and tankards of beer. This is the last rock bar in Uzbekistan. And these are the scene’s stubborn survivors.

This populous Central Asian state has experienced massive changes since the death of former President Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1991 to 2016. Now, the country is poised to change course under President Mirziyoyev, swapping Tashkent’s reclusive politics for something more open. But rock music continues to play from the shadows.

Next door to the country’s last rock bar is the headquarters of the State Security Service, the ruthless successor to the Soviet-era KGB. The youngsters fearlessly, and the police seem to have lost all interest in them. This was not always the case, and rock-n-roll has had a long and dynamic history here.

The Virus Has Spread

It started on April 26, 1966. That day, a disastrous earthquake ripped apart the old clay structures of provincial Tashkent. It would also bring profound demographic changes. To mitigate the disaster, an army of construction workers was dispatched from across the Soviet Union to refashion the capital of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic: Out with the clay, and in with the concrete.

Soon, streets with names like Moskovskaya, Belorusskaya, and Kievskaya began to spring up, named after the birthplaces of the new labourers. The influx of workers from across the country also remade the culture, with dance halls and modern restaurants bringing a cosmopolitan flair to the heart of Soviet Central Asia.

Rock and roll also came thundering across the steppe. A forbidden fruit in the self-satirised sexless USSR, this rebellious new genre was shaking up youth culture in the Union’s major metropolises like Moscow in the form of smuggled vinyl records.

In Tashkent, teenagers began to imitate western rock legends such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Among the first of these were Kibergi and Sinkhron, who began performing in 1976. Starting out as cover bands, a host of Uzbek rockers began to craft a unique soundscape of their own. But these were not counterculture stars challenging the status quo. It would be decades before the region would have its own Grebenshikovs or Tsois calling for political freedom.

The Uzbek rock scene was quite distinct from its peers. Introduced in recreational dance halls, it was quietly coopted by the political establishment. Musicians were allowed to rehearse in schools and universities and often held elaborate concerts. And to motivate workers during the annual cotton harvests, student bands were rolled out across the country.

The Communist Party was well aware of the new genre’s potential, harnessing rock stars to promote their initiatives. The model band in this regard were the 1980s Uzbek favourites Yalla, whose hit song “Uchkuduk” rocketed its way up the Soviet music charts. The song’s title, in a nod to the regime’s economic policies, took its name from a new town built in the Uzbek desert for uranium miners. To drive youth out to this remote, frontier town to work the mines, Soviet planners had harnessed the mobilising power of rock and roll.

A Voice of Diversity

While Victor Tsoi was singing “Khochu Peremen!” (I want change!) across the Soviet Union — and even performed in Tashkent a few months before his tragic death in the 1990s — Uzbek rockers remained curiously muted on the subject of politics.

Nevertheless, it maintained its popularity, and a number of large rock festivals continued to be held in major cultural centers like Tashkent and Samarkand. Hunger for new music began to grow, satiated by a factory in Tashkent that specialised in producing pirated records. This would survive the Soviet collapse, and in the early 1990s, fake Nirvana and Metallica albums would flood the country’s bazaars.

The Uzbek rock movement was large and rambunctious, spanning punk rock to thrash metal. Young fans would flock to a pedestrian street nicknamed “Broadway” in the Uzbek capital to trade records and exchange gossip about their favourite rock bands. While it was never a movement of protest, rock provided a valve through which the country’s youth could breathe their first gasps of freedom.

These days, Uzbek rock (“Z-Bek”) is even commanding the attention of American producers. Bands have flown to tour the United States, played in line-ups with legends such as Ozzy Osborne, and produced a number of slick records; but with little commercial success.

Uzbek rock was always far from the mainstream. Singing in Russian and English, the country’s bands had little appeal among the country’s Uzbek speaking majority. And as Russians continue to leave the region, their audience continues to shrink. Though it was on the margins, Uzbek rock was a diverse movement, and more importantly, an essential channel for minorities to find self-expression.

Satanists and Survivors

Today, it seems hard to imagine that a rock festival in Tashkent could ever have brought more than 50 bands to the region. But that’s exactly what the popular “Children of Flowers” festival — 1998-2001 — achieved. Now, you would be hard-pressed to find any band willing to perform a live set in the city.

In retrospect, the massive “Creating the Legends” festivals in 2005 and 2006 were the last gasps of a dying scene. Following the Andijan Massacre in 2005, and the subsequent U.S. sanctions on Uzbekistan, Western culture began to be viewed by the authorities with suspicion. While the repression was never overt and severe, open air rock festivals were no longer tolerated.

As the years went by, the movement continued to shrink, with only the occasional bar performance to remind Uzbeks that it wasn’t quite dead. Desperate for funds and concert venues, bands began to disappear one by one. A large — but not final — nail was driven into the coffin in 2009. That year, the country’s secret police raided a rock show and detained fans and musicians alike. It wasn’t a big surprise in an atmosphere of anti-Western paranoia. And it would only go from bad, to worse.

In 2011, state media declared that rock music was “Satanic,” heralding the beginning of a government-led propaganda assault on the genre. Nevertheless, an underground scene continued to headbang in the shadows. One such venue was the Ilkhom Theater, the first Soviet independent theater, established in 1976. Tragically, the theatre’s founder Mark Weil was stabbed to death by religious fanatics in 2007.

As the government tightened the screws, plainclothes police would become a staple in the country’s rock venues. Always at the front of the venue, they would sit jotting down every band’s lyrics. Later, the musicians found out that the Uzbek security-services even had a ranking of groups they considered to be a threat to national security. From 2012, the authorities demanded that all bands receive an official license to perform. At a colossal $2000 USD per year, youth bands were priced out of the genre. Other stringent new laws would require lyrics to be submitted to a special committee for approval.

In this tense environment, only a few musicians continued to rock on until 2016, when Karimov’s reign came to an abrupt end. Despite ongoing reforms though, the genre is still gasping for breath. Today, there are just 10 bands in the capital, a mere fraction of the hundreds that performed in the city in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the rock scene has been snuffed out entirely in Samarkand and Ferghana. Beaten by government repression and a rapidly-shrinking Russian-speaking audience, Uzbek rock is in dire straits.

But the lack of official confrontation gives some much-needed hope to the country’s rockstars. A small indie scene has emerged, with enthusiasts trying to maintain the diversity and passion that once commanded so much power for the genre. Cynicism is the order of the day however.

While Tsoi had commanded the attention of Soviet youth singing for change, Uzbekistan’s new stars seem less confident. The band “Electrooko” released a new single this February. It was called “Nothing will change.”