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Signs of life: does a music festival in a desert offer hope for cultural reform in Uzbekistan?

Signs of life: does a music festival in a desert offer hope for cultural reform in Uzbekistan?
Set in the beautiful but bleak Aral Sea region, Stihia Festival promises a mix of visual art, ambient electronic music and environmental awareness

Uzbekistan has suffered from political and cultural repression for decades, and progress in these areas is slow. Now a new electronic music festival in the desert of the former Aral Sea is offering fresh signs of green shoots in the country’s tentative artistic revival

30 August 2018

Strewn with the skeletons of abandoned ships, the shores of what was once Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea have now become a desert. Back in the 1960s, when the Soviet authorities began to divert water from the rivers that filled the lake into the country’s fields, they hoped to boost Uzbek cotton production. For years, it seemed they had succeeded. Only later did the truth come out: with the rivers diverted into irrigation systems, the sea itself had began to disappear. Once, the Aral Sea was one of the four largest lakes in the world, stretching across 68,000 square kilometres. Now, less than 10 percent of the water is left.

Local villages dried up with the water. Busy harbours are now ship graveyards. The salt left on the old seafloor is whipped up into storms that block out the sun and devastate local crops. Toxic dust left over from old water pollution is sparking an endemic of respiratory and kidney problems. Former fishermen rely on the dregs of disaster tourism, guiding travellers who want to see the area’s own breathtaking desolation for themselves.

Otabek Suleimanov wants to bring tourists here too. But he has a different vision. For one night only, he wants to transform the dried-up sea bed into Uzbekistan’s own version of Burning Man.

Set to take over the small town of Moynaq in mid-September, the Stihia (“Elements”) Festival plans to be the first of its kind in Central Asia, pumping out abstract electronic music into the desert. But it also wants to leave a lasting impact in the area: employing local people and boosting the local economy by bringing tourists to a little-visited part of the world. A heady dose of Uzbek culture and eco-awareness is spread throughout the festival programme. After arriving, visitors will be served a traditional plov dinner before being taken on a tour of the ship graveyard and salt quarries, with a stop at the local museum.

Later, the aural expedition begins: mixing the cosmic rhythms of electro with the dense and resonant beats of techno. Organisers describe it as a non-stop, ten-hour musical, set beneath the stars and traditional Uzbek yurts.

“This isn’t a glamourous rave,” Suleimanov says. “It’s a place to be compassionate, to feel what it is to be there. It’s not going to be a case of just arrive and leave. We want this to be an art installation rather than just a festival. We want this to be a beacon.”

“This isn’t a glamourous rave. It’s a place to be compassionate, to feel what it is to be there. We want this to be a beacon”

Despite this charitable mission, Suleimanov and the team behind Stihia didn’t expect widespread support in a country where electronic music exists on the fringes. All-important government support seemed unlikely. Traditionally, Uzbek officials have backed only a select group of musicians and singers: usually those producing suitably conservative chansons. Uzbekkonsert, the state body that regulates the country’s music industry and gives entertainers the mandatory licences they need to perform, has strict rules for pop stars to follow. Guidelines published earlier this year outline how pop videos are required to “follow Uzbekistan’s culture and traditions”, promote patriotism, and avoid “revealing” outfits. In 2013, Uzbek singer Jasur Umarov reportedly had his licence revoked after declining to take part in the government’s annual cotton-picking drive, where many local people are required to help gather in the harvest.

Foreign artists have faced similar problems. When Pink Floyd reached out to the Uzbek government with hopes to film a music video against the barren shores of Aral Sea, the culture ministry refused the band visas. The group filmed in neighbouring Kazakhstan instead.

But this time was different. Officials didn’t just allow the festival to go ahead; they actively backed it. Stihia has the support of both the Uzbek tourism agency and the UN. A dedicated festival aircraft is being chartered to bring partygoers from Tashkent and free shuttle buses are ready to be deployed. The plans were even looked over by the Uzbek prime minister himself, says Suleimanov.

“We thought the tourism agency would just say, ‘what the hell is this?’ It’s a completely novel thing: our community is not used to electronic music. But then they turned round and said, ‘well, why not?’”

Pop videos are required by law to ‘follow Uzbekistan’s culture and traditions’, promote patriotism, and avoid ‘revealing’ outfits

The death of former president Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 25 years following the fall of communism, has brought a degree of reform to Uzbekistan. The new government, led since 2016 by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has released more than 30 political prisoners and courts have begun to acknowledge state-backed torture for the first time. More independent media outlets are beginning to appear. Just as the Aral Sea is slowly coming back to life, Uzbekistan’s arid cultural landscape is starting to stir. Many are cautiously starting to hope that such reforms could mark a new openness in Uzbek culture.

Steve Swerdlow, a human rights researcher and attorney for Human Rights Watch in Europe and Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan repeatedly both before and after Karimov’s death. He says the atmosphere in the country compared to several years ago is as “different as night and day”.

As an example he raises the case of documentary filmmaker and photographer Umida Akhmedova, who was prosecuted in 2010 for “insulting the Uzbek people” with her work Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk, which documented everyday life in the country. Government lawyers, meanwhile, accused her of casting the nation in a deliberately poor light, outraged by the thought that foreigners would look at the work and conclude Uzbekistan was “a country where people live in the Middle Ages.” Only since Karimov’s death have Akhmedova and her husband been able to exhibit their work in Tashkent once more. While this may only be in small, independent spaces rather than larger galleries, it still represents a huge step forward, argues Swerdlow. “There’s that feeling of hope,” he says.

“Electronic music is undeveloped because people don’t know how it really sounds. No one has shown them an alternative”

As the presence of Stihia indicates, music is another area where change is brewing; as optimism grows, more new sounds are hitting the Uzbek mainstream. Police traditionally kept a strict eye on the handful of clubs in Tashkent, which pushed people to party at home. Now, the EDM festival Dance Music Fest recently held its second edition in the heart of the capital, the kind of event that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. One-off festivals like Stihia hope for a future where they can build a genuine Tashkent nightlife. The team is already planning to hold their own Faculty of Acoustics club nights throughout the city, taking advantage of a more relaxed cultural scene to showcase a new kind of music. “Electronic music is undeveloped because people don’t know how it really sounds,” says Suleimanov. “They think of club music and they don’t want that, but no one has shown them an alternative. Club culture is still growing, but we have the right soil now.”

But while some see the current thaw as a turning point for Uzbek culture, others remain wary. The government still requires musicians and performers to hold state licences — permission slips that can be withdrawn on a whim. Erasing the country’s culture of self-censorship will take even longer, says Swedlow. “I wouldn’t say it’s quite a renaissance. There’s still fear and a lot of pressure on these people. Perhaps more disturbingly, the Karimov system fostered conformity and an almost Orwellian collective sense of paranoia about being different.”

There are also growing concerns that one form of censorship could be swapped for another. The Karimov government took a hardline stance on religion, oppressing spiritual leaders. As reforms have been rolled out, this stance has softened, leading to a growing religious movement that’s beginning to make itself heard. Earlier this year, an Uzbek TV channel was forced to pull a Turkish soap from the air over complaints it was “un-Islamic.” Another campaign led to three people losing their jobs at Uzbek’s privately-owned Sevimli TV when an uncensored version of American comedian Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty made it onto the screen — complete with a scene which showed the actress cuddling a male character in bed. Such footage is usually cut before broadcast for Uzbek audiences.

“There’s been an assertion of traditional values,” says Swerdlow. “That affects culture because it relates to this conformism. Tashkent has a long history of the avant garde that should be protected and cherished. I’m really concerned by this morality censorship.”

For now, however, Uzbekistan’s youth are continuing to look to the future. “People are talking about things they aren’t supposed to talk about. People are more open minded; they want reform,” says Sulimanov. “The president finally told the nation that we should not be building the future; we have to make our lives better right now. People now realise that they can live a better life, but to do that they need speak up. Electronic music is a futuristic statement. And that’s what I really like.”

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