Revolutionary impact: How ZVUK built dance music as a culture in Kazakhstan
Almaty club night ZVUK has changed attitudes and helped transform Kazakhstan's music scene
Functions is our interview series profiling crucial parties from across the world. This week: Almaty's ZVUK
Kazakhstan’s premier club night ZVUK launched in August 2016, taking over a disused World War II bunker in Almaty and scaring off the 50 assembled dancers with a ferocious live noise set at the peak time of 2:AM. Since then it’s helped transform the face of Kazakhstan’s dance music scene, inspiring an increasing interest towards experimental sounds among the country’s young population and helping to develop clubbing as a culture.
“I started ZVUK because I wanted to hear and play more adventurous dance music in Almaty. You couldn’t really find that here at the time. I also wanted to create a dancefloor that promoted values of freedom and acceptance, not just one for Friday night entertainment — which was the only one that was available in Almaty at the time,” explains founder and DJ Nazira, whose reputation has surged over the past few years, earning her multiple bookings at Berghain, a set on BBC Radio 1 and a profile in the New York Times, among many other significant accomplishments.
“To this day, I do believe that the dancefloor can be an incredibly powerful place,” she continues. “The dancefloor is where I found my freedom and closeness with others, and I wanted other people in Almaty to experience that too. It seemed that a few other party collectives we had here at the time were not occupied with that idea back then.”
Six years deep, ZVUK is now a six-person strong collective headed up by Nazira, joined by her right hand and resident DJ Yelnur Toleukhan, art director and resident DJ Mariya El, operations manager Yermek Utemissov, copywriter Gera Rymbala and photographer and videographer Damir Mukhametov. Its revolutionary impact is hard to overstate: cultivating an underground scene by shaping tastes, bringing through a new generation of artists and forming connections overseas.
ZVUK, which translates as “sound”, is celebrating its sixth anniversary on July 22, inviting Cashu from Brazilian collective Mamba Negra to perform alongside its six resident DJs in Almaty. And the party has big plans to keep growing in the future, with a focus on uplifting artists from Kazakhstan and Central Asia to international prominence. We caught up with Nazira to find out more.
How has the Kazakhstan dance music scene changed since you started ZVUK?
It changed drastically - there are more DJs, more venues to play and a bigger audience. It also got more adventurous - sounds really vary and you can hear a variety of genres and experiments! There’s also more creativity about the whole thing - more electronic music collectives with different messages and sounds, more DJs with defined tastes. There’s more quality in the whole thing too - when there’s more healthy competition, one has to keep developing and becoming more creative, which definitely makes the scene more interesting and diverse.
When I started ZVUK we struggled to find DJs to play at the party, because there was a very small pool and most of them played quite boring sets. So I’d just end up booking the same ones and some of them did not even fit the ZVUK vision much. Now there are so many great DJs that you can really throw any party with and it will be great. It’s been four or five years since that Mixmag article about Kazakhstan's underground being on the map came out. Since then we had our first ever Boiler Room in Almaty, more artists started to go international, and the future of the Kazakhstani scene looks brighter than ever.
Read this next: The New East: Kazakhstan's underground is on the map
What are some of the biggest highlights you’ve achieved in six years of throwing ZVUK parties?
I think assembling the ZVUK team is the biggest achievement and highlight. Most of the team has been at ZVUK for years now. We went from having no budget and having to do everything by ourselves - stuff like cleaning the entire venue before and after the party, working the bar and cloakroom - to us now having people work for us. For the longest time we earned no money from this. With some of the parties, we even lost money. Everyone was working for free - just because they believed in the idea and the values of ZVUK. And today, we’re still here, working together.
This whole year was probably one big highlight for us — we did have a two year pandemic-induced break so when we had an opportunity to restart we just went all in — organized the first ever Boiler Room in Kazakhstan, had a NYE party with Philip Gorbachev in a historical mansion that was closed to public for 30 years, organised Herrensauna and Bassiani showcases. With the showcases, we didn’t simply bring the DJs, but educated the local audience about their values and messages. With Bassiani, we talked a lot about how the dancefloor is a place where people unite for freedom, and with Herrensauna, we talked a lot about how important freedom of expression is. We try to keep it light - we do social media posts and keep them informative but also easy to understand. With Bassiani we went a bit further — we organized a lecture and a panel discussion. Being able to do those big projects, not just events, is huge, taking into account where we started from.
Parties have often taken place in ‘non-traditional locations’ - what are some of your favourite spots?
The spot for Boiler Room was my favourite probably - we did it in the main hallway of the State Theatre. It’s a very beautiful and historic place which plays an important role in Kazakhstani culture. That place is very pleasing visually but there also was a symbolic meaning to choosing this location. Electronic music and the culture that surrounds it was not considered a part of modern culture of Kazakhstan for a long time. It used to really piss me off and one of the things I wanted to change was for electronic music scene to be taken seriously. I think ZVUK succeeded in that. Having Boiler Room in State Theatre was kind of sending the message that we are part of the culture and we are here to stay.
My other favourite spots include a basement of the functioning cinema, a Soviet bunker, a strip club, and all the industrial spots we used - factories, warehouses. Almaty used to be an industrial powerhouse but a lot of factories closed down and the spaces were left empty. Some of them are used for storage now, some are not. We discovered quite a lot of those and did parties there. Main inspiration behind those locations was definitely history of Detroit and Berlin. Another notable location is a toikhana, we did the event with Bassiani residents there recently. Toikhana is a traditional Kazakh celebration hall which is full of conservative traditions. We wanted to bring rave with its values of freedom and acceptance into this conservative space and just show that it’s not all these traditions and conservatism that separate us but it’s things that unite us - just having fun and dancing - that can and should be the true purpose and meaning of toikhana.
Are there bookings or sets that have been particularly memorable?
Our most recent party with Herrensauna was very special. It was a true rave in one of the Almaty warehouses - sweaty, sexy, with amazing music. Nicolas (MCMLXXXV) and Cem brought the house down. Giant Swan booking in 2018 was amazing too. They played their crazy energy live set and it was just insane. Philip Gorbachev for NYE this year and Bassiani residents Ninasupsa and NDRX. But honestly every artist we bring is pretty special to us, because we choose them carefully and end up becoming friends with them by the time they leave.
When we’ve spoken previously, you’ve said that DJing and dance music were not taken seriously in Kazakhstan. Have attitudes started to shift?
For sure. Attitudes have changed completely. There are more well-organised events, more collaborations with art and culture community, more artistic output from dance music scene. So when something so exciting happens you can’t keep taking it lightly. I knew it was bound to happen, I think even when we spoke last time I said that in five years things would change. And they did.
Read this next: Nazira, the DJ who swapped molecular biology for techno
Has the political landscape in Kazakhstan had an impact on the music scene?
The dancefloor cannot be separated from society. And society is influenced by politics so the dancefloor is influenced by them as well. However, I would not say that ZVUK, for example, has a big political agenda. I’ve always said that ZVUK is about music and society. It is about creating that perfect utopia with the ideas of society we’d love to live in - where everyone respects each other, where the rights of everyone are valued and acceptance and freedom rule the world. Obviously in Kazakhstan we are still very far away from it. Things seem to get better though. Or maybe I am just being delusional. Only time will tell!
There are six residents of ZVUK - can you tell us about them and how they got involved in the party?
Two of us - E.T. and me - have been residents for a while. E.T. means ‘meat’ in Kazakh and it is actually very descriptive of his sound. It’s banging but also very sexy and fun, lots of rhythm and broken techno. Last year I had an idea of expanding ZVUK’s creative output so we invited more residents to join us. They are Edige, Kokonja, Mariya El and Tangbosh. Edige was my student at the DJ school I have in Almaty and since day one I knew that he had a huge potential. His sound just really caught me - he uses a lot of Eastern motifs and broken rhythms in techno. Mariya El has been a part of ZVUK for a long time - she is our art director, last year she finally learned DJing at my school too and became a resident. Tangbosh is a very important figure in Kazakhstani electronic music scene - he runs the label Mobile Suburb together with E.T. He also leans toward harsher sounds and deconstructed club. Kokonja is a very talented artist and musician, she makes experimental music and also does visual art. I came across her playing in one of the clubs here - Bult - and knew instantly that I wanted her to become a part of ZVUK.
All of our residents are very talented musicians and artists. They all have different sounds which still does make sense in one collective. They represent ZVUK sonically whenever they play.
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How are you noticing music tastes change in artists and audiences as more young DJs come through?
Music taste has definitely expanded. You can hear different sounds from kuduro and ghetto tech to house and techno. Techno really took over the city though. There’re a lot of techno DJs but it’s a good thing. You can now hear all the different shades of techno music, not just dry dystopian techno or minimal like before. The audience became more open-minded and grew in size too. It was quite a rare occasion to hear dance music in a bar before but now it kind of became the norm because people want to hear it.
What have you got planned for the sixth anniversary party of ZVUK this month?
We are bringing over Cashu from São Paulo's Mamba Negra collective. She is a big music crush of mine and Mamba Negra seems close to us in spirit. Also all six ZVUK residents will be playing. We just want to have this big celebration with all of our friends and everyone who’s danced with us for six years! We are planning to look back and see how far we’ve come and how great today is!
How does it feel to be getting back out there and throwing parties after the pandemic-induced pause?
It is a bit weird but we did not feel pandemic-induced pause that strongly in Almaty. We still had parties (run half-illegally) throughout the pandemic. But ZVUK made a decision to not do any parties due to COVID and we practically had a two-year break. Our first event after the pandemic was Boiler Room Almaty. But the pandemic actually gave us time to reassess where ZVUK was going and we came back stronger and more inspired than ever. Since we re-started doing parties we brought Herrensauna and Bassiani showcases here, did an educational program around the Bassiani event, threw sick raves and more than doubled the usual number of our party attendees!
Read this next: How the pandemic connected China's club scene
Are there any future goals that you would like to achieve with the party?
I want to grow ZVUK as a platform. Signing six residents was only the beginning. It was quite difficult for me to establish myself internationally and I want to help other talented artists from Kazakhstan and maybe even Central Asia to get out there. Work has already started on that front - some of our residents have already played outside of Kazakhstan, we are doing our first international ZVUK showcase at WHOLE festival in August, and one of our residents is preparing a set and a playlist for an NTS Radio campaign. But there’s much more work to be done here. I am also thinking about launching a label showcasing Central Asian musicians, maybe not as part of ZVUK but definitely influenced by it. Because that’s how it all started - here, with ZVUK, six years ago.
Follow ZVUK on Instagram and tickets to the six years party here
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Editor, follow him on Twitter