Inside Uzbekistan's burgeoning electronic music scene

Inside Uzbekistan's burgeoning electronic music scene

In a country with an extensive history of censorship, a new generation of artists are building community and fighting for the freedom of expression.

Spaces Between the Beats is a series spotlighting music and cultural communities around the world, exploring their stories as they build resilience and find meaning and hope in connection.

Inside the Solar Institute in Parkent, a sleepy industrial town outside Uzbekistan's capital, rhythmic bass thumps through the building’s metal structure. Lights flicker from red to blue. The air swells with anticipation. Then, the tightly-packed crowd surrounding DJ Sabine shrieks as the first few notes of the next song ring out. It’s a rendition of "Borsan" by pop group Setora, a 2000 song only an Uzbek audience would recognise and belt out with abandon. At this moment, worlds collide; a 23-year-old classic, often heard in the backs of taxis and late-night restaurants, is ending a techno set in a historic Soviet industrial building. For many Uzbeks who have long craved a space to express a blend of their complex identities and experiences, these few minutes mark the start of something new.

Put together by the Sublimation collective on 19 March, the party marked the Central Asian country’s first ever Boiler Room event. Since 2021, Sublimation has added significantly to Uzbekistan's sparse live electronic music landscape by putting on parties and showcasing local and international talent.

On the busy Solar Institute dancefloor, you’d be forgiven for forgetting Uzbekistan’s extensive history of artistic censorship, which has stifled the country's cultural output for decades: This has led to artists being told they can't rap, make 'meaningless music' and create 'inappropriate' music videos. Inevitably, artists felt forced to move to other countries. However, since 2018, underground collectives have started holding events, a techno festival has emerged in the dried-up swathes of the Aral Sea, and overall, the creative scene has been flourishing. Some may attribute this to the government reforms made a year prior, which swore they would break decades of censorship, but speaking to event producers and promoters in Tashkent, they say it is also 'the people' who have forged these new artistic spaces and fought for the freedom of expression.

Despite gradual censorship reforms, restrictive attitudes have not disappeared completely. Entertainers have always needed mandatory licences to perform, which are regulated by the state body Uzbekkonsert. In 2018, the body told Uzbek singers they couldn't have tattoos, show off expensive cars or sing in a bedroom in music videos, while men were told they couldn't dress like women or wear garish jewellery. The state seems to sing a different tune when it comes to electronic music however, as its tourism agency actively supports Stihia Festival, which, year on year, has become a hotspot for techno fans in Central Asia and beyond. Projects like Stihia are creating opportunities for tourism and economic development in Uzbekistan’s poorer regions.

Sublimation's collaboration with Boiler Room was a natural step forward for Uzbekistan's already developing electronic music scene. The Boiler Room event included performances from Josef Tumari, Kebato, Mari Breslavets, Sabinē and Xyarim. The artists played electronic music, focusing heavily on various subgenres of techno and trance, with exceptions for makom (a traditional genre) and Uzbek pop anthems.

Tumari, a 24-year-old from Tashkent, opens with a set of live electronic music, fusing the sounds of traditional string and wind instruments with spoken word and dark, pulsating drum lines. The producer, sound designer and musician describes his work as a “symbiosis of inverted nostalgia, built on the sound of analog lo-fi and modular rhythms with the use of atmospheric textures.“

His set is followed by Otabek Suleimanov, who goes by Kebato and selects a variety of tracks ranging from ambient trance to melodic and deep techno. A lawyer by day, the 43-year-old from Samarkand moonlights as a DJ and founded Stihia – an electronic music, arts and science festival held in the once-bustling port town of Moynaq. One of the country’s poorest regions, Moynaq has suffered from the effects of the climate crisis and the decimation of the Aral Sea. Wanting to contribute to redevelopment efforts in the area, Suleimanov and his team set up the Stihia Generation project – a two-week hyper-intensive programme for teenagers. “Last year we focused on computer design. In May, we will do it on computer coding; in the Autumn, it will be on chemistry," Suleimanov laughs as he recalls the time the headteacher of one school told him she hates the festival but loves what the team is doing for the local economy.

There is still a need for exposure and education of contemporary modes of art and music in wider society, which Suleimanov has made a part of his mission. "If you go to clubs, it's mainly industrial techno. I want to diversify the music that's played," he says. Event organisers are learning that if you play the music, the scene will form. "The festival articulated to DJs and producers that there are, and could be, excellent platforms to showcase their art.” The Sublimation event with Boiler Room is another recent case in point.

"It marks the fact that there's an already existing scene here," says 24-year-old Arslan Tajibaev. The software engineer from Tashkent says he first got his taste for electronic music when he ended up at Fragment – one of the first events to appear in the capital – five years ago. Now performing under the moniker Xyarim, he closes out the event with high-tempo hard techno.

Uzbekistan's electronic music scene is still in the early stages of development, and as a result, musicians are hardly getting paid for what they do. "There is no such thing as artists making money, so everyone has to have a primary job," says Mari Breslavets, who raises the tempo of the evening with a set of fast-paced acid and psychedelic trance. She tells me she moved back from Kyiv six years ago and spent a year playing music in the soul-crushing corporate sphere in Uzbekistan before co-founding Fragment and the experimental art/rave community frumos group. "After the lockdowns, young people realised there was nowhere to entertain themselves,” she explains. “Eventually any person capable of doing anything brought a skill or contact to the table and helped develop the creative community." The role of women within this project is striking, too, especially for a country where women's rights have long been a struggle.

"We wanted to show all parts of the music community in Uzbekistan."

Sabina Inoyatova, Sublimation Co-Founder

Sublimation co-founder Sabina Inoyatova, aka Sabinē, is the penultimate DJ to perform. Based in Riga, Latvia, she is also a producer and promoter who loves “dirty kicks, fat rhythmics, raw percussions and pretty melodies.” Exploring different facets of techno, Sabinē holds the crowd in a euphoric state from start to finish. "Creating the line-up, we wanted to showcase the fact Josef Tumari plays live,” she says of pulling the event together. “Kebato's vinyl set was important as he founded Uzbekistan's first electronic music festival, Mari is from Fragment, the first underground music community, and Xyarim is one of our youngest talents. We wanted to show all parts of the music community in Uzbekistan."

When the music finally stops, no one wants to leave. Classic end-of-night scenes ensue: there are cries for an encore, people are gently ushered out. Reflecting on the experience, the organisers and artists thought it was euphoric. "I was so stressed [with organising] the event because the location wasn't easy to get to, and the Solar Institute structure is a strategic government object,” Inoyatova says. "But when I saw the crowd, the efforts they went to dress up, their smiles, I was instantly soothed. I've gotten hundreds of messages of people telling me how special the event was and how it was the event of the year."

Her working partner, Sublimation co-founder Madina Ishmuradova, adds that she felt huge pride in her country. "Not in a patriotic way, but in a way where I was thinking about our musical ancestors and how some of the contemporary music we're making here has evolved from that. It was just an incredible experience."

The artists each have their own honourable ambitions. For Arslan, it's about the creation of safe spaces. "Young people want to be at parties where they feel safe. The electronic music scene is known for being far more accepting. Here, we want to create a space for everyone, especially marginalised groups." While Breslavets and the others want to push the local scene forward. "There are lots of people who want to play but are struggling to start because there aren't the venues and platforms to play," she says.

"The people who have worked on this project are doing it because we all want to realise a dream."

Madina Ishmuradova, Sublimation Co-Founder

The future is bright too. Just recently, Sublimation released its own label and is currently working on releasing an EP for Josef Tumari. "Finally, young producers in Uzbekistan can release their tracks here, because I know how hard it is to get your music heard", says Inoyatova. Sublimation also has ambitions of opening a summer camp for music and video producers as well as DJs. More events and talks of another Boiler Room event are on the horizon – this time with a bigger crowd capacity. Some even wonder if Uzbekistan's electronic music scene will follow a similar trajectory to Georgia’s.

Ultimately, though, at the core of Sublimation – and the wider electronic music scene – is friendship. "I'm fortunate to have this with Sabina and other people within this community; we understand each other's jokes; everyone is there for each other in the more difficult times," says Ishmuradova. "There's a saying that money is something you can count, and there are some things you can't count, like care and love. The people who have worked on this project are doing it because we all want to realise a dream."

Photographers: Feruz Rustamov, Kamila Rustambekova and Rakhim Kalibaev.

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