Modern Subcultures Evolve in Great Steppe

By Kamila Zhumabayeva

Audience outdoor at Astana Rock ClubThis writer used to wear bracelets and outfits that supposedly expressed being a hard rock or heavy metal fan. Owning a heavy ironman’s belt showed tribute and admiration of hard rock music and culture that once seemed so daring and cool.

My genuine love of rock, alternative and indie rock music started with the American band Breaking Benjamin on My Space. Then it was Kings of Leon, Linkin Park and The Fray. That was about five years ago. Awesome Tom York, Muse, Florence and the Machine, alt-J and The xx are still enjoyable, while at times my dress is hippie-like.

What is going on in the capital’s trend to establish modern subcultures? Astana Rock Club, the city’s first and only official club, stood at the origins of its underground development. It is the city’s unique place where the spirit of freedom and creativity soars. The main goal is organising, developing and supporting the rock movement and other alternative music areas in Astana, as well as integrating and creatively nurturing the capital’s youth.

Astana Rock Club head, organiser and rock music fan Evgeniy Abramov spoke recently with EdgeKz at the club’s studio, located in a remote and industrial district of the city.

“Some sort of a new wave among the young population to show themselves and self-realise is emerging. Something like a youthful maximalism (a person, usually 14-20 years old, who perceives himself or herself as overly important or capable of changing the world,” he said.

Evgeniy Abramov2

Astana Rock Club head, organiser and rock music fan Evgeniy Abramov

While the subculture of rockers and rock music has been emerging in the West for a long time, it is not at all evolved in Kazakhstan. Abramov’s friend, Astana Rock Club founder Andrei Yevseyev, has been arranging local events, finding musicians and holding rock concerts and festivals for more than 10 years.

“No one helped or was helping until now; he was doing it on his own. Gradually, rock music began to exist in Astana and new musicians and more and more talents began to emerge from year to year, namely people ‘off the beaten track.’ We have something to show people, something to be really proud of. This is a very new wave, very essential over here. We already know and have heard many different cultures; we want to give people what wasn’t there before. This is what we do,” said Abramov.

He has been arranging events, rock concerts and festivals at Astana Rock Club for about seven years, booking local groups and those from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and the U.K. From 14-15 year olds to 45-50 year old parents, the rock club has solid fans and those who are just getting to know the music and its culture. The club arranges different events for both audiences.

As a rock fan, Abramov began to attend concerts at 16; he is now 31. First merely a fan, he later began arranging events, meeting musicians and promoting and pushing them for audiences to see and reach a level where Kazakhstan not only has ethnic music, but rock music, too.

“It is very cool when there is rock music in Kazakhstan and also in the Kazakh language. There are very few bands alike, but they are there. We got used to hearing dombra and all the national instruments in Kazakh music and it is in fact awesome when there are guitars, drums and Kazakh vocals,” he noted.

Rock fans socialise with bands either before or after a concert. Unlike those in other countries he has visited, Abramov finds Kazakh fans to be mannerly.

“They never throw themselves or cling to a singer, but ask for permission if they want to take a photo and get an autograph. There is no such thing as clamouring, going crazy and tearing things into pieces. We have civilised audiences and like events,” he stressed.

Visitors of Astana Rock Club

It is not just men who are part Astana’s Rock subculture

Joining in a friendly atmosphere, musicians, fans, creative types, photographers, artists and those who just read poems gather at Astana Rock Club to discuss, share opinions and interests or simply have tea, socialise about life and music or show auteur and feature films. There are also guitar and drum lessons.

“People come, look, train, ‘feel things around.’ We don’t try to close or hide something; everything is always open for new acquaintances,” he said.

Everyone looks different. Some don rock-style clothes, some wear normal outfits and some are dressed in suits, but all are interested in rock music. Audiences self-express whatever way they can and want and no one forbids them to do so. It is a place to be yourself without being afraid someone will scold you for ‘improper clothing or walking,’” noted Abramov.

“Apart from music, youth development and self-expression are first of all for young people to realise, occupy themselves with something, socialise, meet new people and learn to be friends if it is hard to make it somewhere outside. Such people surround us here and rock music unites them all,” he added.

Abramov suggested freedom of speech and self-expression are the reason, inspiration and motivation people choose to be devoted to rock culture. They are among a team that hears, supports and advises them, be it about music or a life situation.

Some people say Kazakhs are not up to being part of modern subcultures and self-expression because they are too busy earning money. Abramov finds that regrettable.

Audience at one of Astana Rock Club's concert

An enthusiastic crowd at the Astana Rock Club

“Sometimes it is necessary to be down to earth, be interested in what is going on at the city’s cultural scene and events. After all, we rejoice when we see Kazakh, Russian and different ethnic and cultural events somewhere. We perceive it as quite normal. Showing how people dance, play and sing is kind of a subculture, too. It is the same over here, only there is no nationality; all stereotypes and boundaries are erased,” he said.

The rock club tries to introduce a healthy lifestyle by having alcohol-free parties.

“Guys, drink somewhere else for God’s sake. We listen to rock music, break away, dance, have fun, sing and that’s it. This is actually what we try to sell people, that you better come and do this, too,” added Abramov with a laugh.

He is convinced that in Kazakhstan and the capital, it is quite difficult for this particular subculture to survive, make people believe, explain and not label them as bad and irrelevant.

“When you go to arrange some activities or events, you always get ‘rock music?’ No thanks, guys, not interested.’ You stand and argue that it is culture and there nothing bad or scary about it. Convey to people that it is essential and interesting because it is culture! It has a right to exist and develop,” argued Abramov.

Officials are distant from it, too, as no one lets rock event and concert promoters on the Akimat’s (city administration’s) doorstep unless it has a specific Kazakh ethnic theme. In Almaty, however, the audience is far more developed and interested in the genre.

InteriorHe suggested goths in Kazakhstan are people who simply love to wear a “mask” to show off, but don’t really know what they are actually trying to express.

“I went through this on my own – iron chains, patches. It seemed the cooler your chain hangs, the cooler you look or maybe that you are cocky. This all goes and maybe a couple of chains will remain for memory,” said Abramov, which allowed the author to remember his own obsession with the whole image thing.

Some people’s negative stereotypes about rock musicians may be broken when they learn who is composing the songs. Poem writer, guitar player, PhD student, President’s stipend winner and wife Narkes Orazbayeva was so busy due to her dissertation defence she could only share a few sentences.

“This movement does not get beyond any borders for some reason. I am very happy that there are at least coffee shops and cafes that offer poets to organise their evening and invite other people over. They announce, but people just don’t see it,” she said.

Astana Rock Club bands and musicians write, rehearse and play their own music. Many are from the capital and in addition to touring the country, have recently been invited to play in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Abramov hopes everyone will love the arts and not fear rock music, but try to read, listen and evaluate.

“I want to wish for artistic young people to develop, not be afraid to show and self-realise, always come to Astana Rock Club if it doesn’t turn out at home or shyness comes into their way. Learn from experienced musicians, show your creativity and make your own product. Astana has a lot of talents,” he said.

The “hipster” phenomenon has become popular among society, although it is more correct to call it a subculture. A regular hipster never admits he is one.

“In my view, ‘hipsters’ are people who outrun time with several steps ahead. Their influence goes with music. The indie music genre, divided into indie pop, indie rock, synth-pop, electronics, or indie tronic, are commonly popular genres among hipsters,” said student and music fan Abay Kali.

He noted many young people have come under hipsters’ influence, which became extremely popular about two or three years ago. Most often, they try to stand out from the crowd by listening to unusual music, wearing thick rim eyeglasses and rolling up their pants.

“Previously, they stared at you with a strange gaze and a question ‘what garbage are you listening to?’ After a while, they listened to the entirely same thing themselves. Such people just try staying in trend and certainly don’t care about what’s happening around; they just adjust and do what everyone else does,” he said.

Most importantly, Kali values kindness and sincerity in people, but a person’s musical taste is not insignificant to him.

“You don’t necessarily have to listen to the same music I do. By taste, I mean any genre from classics to post-hardcore or rap. The main thing is listening to what you like and not something forced on you by society as a trend. Have your own opinion and taste concerning what you listen to,” he said.

Hipster clothing is modest. Most often you see them wearing Top Siders, Vans or New Balances, like almost every third passer-by wears this days. Next come jeans in thin fabrics and rolled up at the ankles, a neat lumberjack shirt buttoned up to the neck and sometimes even a bow tie.

A casual option is a sweet-shot jacket with a band print like Foals, Arctic Monkeys or Oasis. Some also let their beards down. Trendy round glasses are mandatory for the typical hipster.

In addition to image and music style, hipsters are fond of art house movies.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of such a film genre and do not really understand what the gist of those films is. Maybe I am not sufficiently enlightened for it [smile]. However, it is hotly debated among hipsters,” said Kali.

Many people see a hipster as someone who bluntly goes to coffee shops, takes pictures of new clothes on an iPhone and puts them on Instagram.

“For me, they are just people with good music taste and dressing style, people who set the trend for the rest of the crowd. They are always one step ahead, but of course all this is temporary,” he said.

When the popularity of hipsters gradually goes away, a brand new subculture will take its place to set the style.

“People always want something new and they will be making use of this till it becomes obsolete, just like it was with goths and emo in the 2000s,” noted Kali.

Hipsters are still trendy in Kazakhstan and people are only starting to join the subculture.

“At the very least I have not heard negative opinions about it while in the west, many speak of them negatively. I cannot give a definite answer on such criticism, but this is most likely the very essence of hipsters,” he said.

Hipsters try to distinguish themselves from others in every way, either by listening to another kind of music or wearing clothes that are not like everyone else’s. The more they do it, however, the more they become alike, which completely contradicts their philosophy.

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