The existence of any kind of underground or electronic music scene in Kazakhstan is a relatively recent development. One person who has contributed to this sea-change is DJ and promoter Nazira Kassenova, who is at the forefront of a small but growing DIY clubbing scene in Almaty. Her party series ZVUK was one of the first nights dedicated to underground sound in the city. Since recording a mixtape for us earlier this year, Nazira has experienced many other firsts: she helped realise Poland’s Unsound festival on Kazakh soil, became the resident DJ of Room 4 Resistance in Berlin and started her own show for Radar Radio, New East with Nazira. The energy she puts into building a musical community in her hometown is inspiring and contagious but it hasn’t all been an easy feat. Here she talks about ZVUK and reveals which Kazakh electronic artists should be on our radar.
How did you get involved with electronic music?
My involvement with electronic music was first as a fan, then as a music journalist. On the whole I’ve had really strong interest in music for a long time: it started with playing Kazakh national instruments. I remember singing along to Soviet TV show theme songs as a kid. However I was always too afraid to get involved as an artist, especially in Kazakhstan, where you don’t have anything like an electronic music scene. At some point I was like, to hell with it, I’m going to try it and started to play, which was four or five years ago. A year or two after I started playing, I decided to put on my own events because I alway felt and still feel that in Almaty there is a huge gap waiting to be filled. The scene here really depends on a few people, on the individual effort to do something. I decided to take the initiative and organise parties with friends. Slightly over a year ago I started ZVUK, which is my biggest achievement in helping building an electronic music scene in Almaty.
How did your stint as a music journalist come about?
I was writing for a small British magazine. I studied in the UK as part of an exchange and lived in Scotland, in St Andrews. I don’t think I’m very good at expressing myself with words but it was a good way to get involved in music. Maybe in St Andrews it was just as isolated as in Kazakhstan. Still, the way of living in Scotland was a different to Kazakhstan. There were parties even in St Andrews! I was travelling regularly to London to see some artists I would never have had the chance to see in Kazakhstan.
Was it an easy decision to follow a creative career?
No it wasn’t. It was a very difficult decision and something I struggle with a lot. My family doesn’t understand it fully. They are pretty conservative: not in a religious way but because they have lived through the Soviet Union. They want me to get married, have a house and a career. The path I chose is very far away from that. It’s difficult to explain to my family that I’m not a DJ who plays to a crowd of drunk 18-year-old boys trying to get a girl — it’s an art and all the musicians who are involved are artists. They just don’t understand the concept. At one point I stopped speaking to them about it so they don’t know that I organised Unsound Almaty and they really don’t support it. It was a difficult decision. However, even if my family nor society couldn’t accept my passion, I wouldn’t have done it any differently.
Were there any venues or nights for electronic music before ZVUK?
Electronic music is an umbrella term for one name but a vast scope of music. They were always clubs catering to commercial house or EDM. EDM still a big thing in Kazakhstan. There’s a difference between the techno that you’d play in a leather chair club in Almaty and something more “underground”. It was difficult to convince people that there is more to electronic music — that there are different sounds. When I first started organising parties there was a sea-change, people were starting to be open to new music. I’d say we still struggle with attracting crowds and making people differentiate between us and other commercial clubs. It’s changing but there’s still a long way to go.
What role did Unsound Almaty play, not only for you but for the city?
Unsound in Almaty was a big success. We attracted 1,300 people, which for Kazakhstan is amazing. Events which I usually put on attract 250 people at most. You could feel how hungry people were for this music. It was the first event of that calibre and featured a lot of artists people would never have heard before. We didn’t want to go too experimental but we wanted to present a good range. The most important thing was that people were really open to it. I made the biggest effort to push as many local artists on the lineup as possible so they had a chance to play with big name artists. This was so local DJs could see that, yes, they are in Kazakhstan with limited resources but there’s no worse than them. After Unsound there’s now a bigger interest in this kind of music, so the festival played a big role in moving the scene forward.
Apart from Unsound Almaty, what are some of the other events you’ve been involved with this year?
This year has been a good one for me. I was involved with Unsound Kraków again, though this time not as a DJ like in 2016. I took part in a panel discussion on the New East music scene, alongside other promoters from Cxema in Kiev in Ukraine and Mental Force in Minsk, Belarus.. I played in Kiev, Moscow, Leipzig, Dresden and the Tauron Nowa Muzyka festival in Katowice, Poland. I also played in Berlin for the first time and am now a resident of Room 4 Resistance, a Berlin-based queer femme-forward collective focused on community-building and creating safer space & visibility for underrepresented artists in dance music. R4R runs parties, hosts radio shows and curates panels to explore the political dimensions of the dance floor, to promote women, gender queers, non-binaries, trans, black and POC artists and to create bridges between different communities. They are taking me back to play in November and December. I also started my own show New East with Nazira for Radar Radio, using it as a platform to promote Kazakh and other artists from the region, as I still feel that, even in Russia and Ukraine, there are many musicians still overlooked.
What are some of the Kazakh electronic music artists we should be listening to?
The2vvo are the brightest representation of the Kazakh experiemental scene. They are a couple, consisting of Eldar Tagi and Lena Pozdnyakova, and their sound ranges from ambient and drone to noise and techno. They really stuck to the experimental stuff, which not a lot of people appreciate or understand. Their performances are also quite interesting with a strong visual element. Arys Arenov, aka Aresibo, is a very talented producer and graphic designer, who works with Central Asian themes and is interested in the Soviet aesthetics of Almaty. His music can be described as disco in a Central Asian market with an experimental twist. Akkord I On is an electroacoustic duo consisting of Roman Bliznetsov and Konstantin Timoshenko. Both are classically trained musicians. They always incorporate the accordion into their sound and they manipulate their music in interesting, intricate ways. Marty Crown is synthpop singer who recently released an EP influenced by nomadic themes. She’s the most interesting pop artist out there, some people call her the Kazakh FKA Twigs.
As for DJs, Konstantin Bazhanov has enjoyed a decade-long career in Almaty and is still going strong. Konstantin has a vast collection of vinyl with everything from jazz and house to techno and leftfield. His immaculate taste and knowledge of the crowd has played important role in shaping Almaty’s nightlife. He is currently the resident of Almaty’s NE.FM radio. George is an another legendary Almaty DJ, known for his parties where he plays the best disco tracks. However, disco is not his main interest — he is also infamous for knowing best when it comes to electro, wave and synth. He’s a very old school DJ so you’d be hard pressed to find his sets online — all the more reason to come to Almaty and see him play.
The2vvo and Marty Crown currently live in LA. It’s a big problem when local musicians feel they need to move out of Kazakhstan to make it in the industry. It’s not like in the States, when one person moves in and another person moves out, and no one notices. They are representative of our experimental scene and when they move out, a big part of the scene is gone.
What motivates you to continue organising events in Almaty?
I think Kazakhstan today is a very interesting place. I was born in the USSR but I didn’t grow up there which is the case for a lot of young people. Living in a Central Asian country we’re constantly told to behave a certain way. The existence of events like ZVUK, though I wouldn’t call them a revolution, is a way to show that, yes, we had our past but we are ready to move forward. We’re not going to listen to what people think, we know what we want to do and we want to express ourselves freely, which can be quite difficult even in Kazakhstan, which is considered a free country. This step forward is the biggest motivation to keep doing what you do.
What can we expect from yourself and ZVUK?
There are a few exciting project in the works I can’t yet reveal anything about. As for ZVUK, I’m happy to say that we’ve found our own space, which is an old warehouse we are renting out. From now we are moving towards having ZVUK nights in Almaty more often.