Techno scene in Belarus faces a youth tempted by emigration, pricey vinyls and the KGB lurking in the shadows. But the nights in Minsk are still something truly remarkable.
MINSK — There are two men outside the "Re:publik" Club. They were there last night too, soon after midnight. and again at about 4 a.m. If this weren't Minsk, you would be forgiven for thinking that they just want to sell their stash of ecstasy. But no one deals in front of clubs here because even simple marijuana possession could get you five years in prison. No, those two guys are mostly likely with the intelligence services. The KGB probably.
While these would-be KGB guys look on, two girls try to get into the club without their ID but do not stand a chance. No one wants trouble with the authorities here.
Techno and electronic music do not have it easy in Minsk. Pavel Ambiont, organizer of the "Mental Force" Festival, says "you have to have good connections if you want to organize any larger party." Techno and its rough, dark and straightforward or broken rhythms are a perfect match for the surreal concrete landscapes of Minsk, Moscow and Kiev. The formerly utopian behind-the-iron-curtain architecture now has a distinctly dystopian feel to it with its large, dilapidated plants and warehouses, featuring wide windows and broad staircases.
Igor, aka DJ "Radiokoala", and Masha, a photographer, are standing outside the club, not far from the KGB guys. Masha, who grew up in Minsk but lived in New York for the last few years, says that most of her classmates have left Belarus to seek their fortune elsewhere. Igor seems to regret that he stayed: "We are on the periphery of everything, no one knows Belarus, never mind Minsk."
More improvised than Berlin or Moscow.
"We usually do not have any trouble at techno parties that would require police intervention, unlike at punk or hardcore events, " he continues. "With electronic music, the trouble is rather getting the permit in time to have them in the first place. Many of the raves are held illegally in venues in the suburbs or in forests."
Although Belarus only has a population of 9.5 million, the techno scene is surprisingly lively and spread out. Even in towns such as Gomel in the south or Grodno in the western part of the country, which only have a few hundred thousand inhabitants, you will find at least 600 people at a rave. There are even sub-cultures within the electronic music scene, ranging from live performances, such as Igor's electronic collective "Grave Board Clan," to classic DJs like Morgotika and ambient labels like Ezhevika.
Everything is a bit more improvised than in Berlin, where techno locales has been part of the tourist itinerary for a while. The "Mental Force" Festival is a huge event for people like Igor because the organizers fly in international stars like Atom TM and Ben Frost. "I rehearsed for 20 hours for my gig at the festival," says Igor. "The sun set in the window right behind me during the last set I played yesterday evening, and it felt as if someone was putting on a light show, just for me."
Ben Frost is standing splay-legged on stage, bending over his equipment, his long hair shadowing his face. He looks like a tattooed version of the God of Thunder and his sounds really do sound like Thor were spinning the discs. In contrast to his Belarusian colleagues, the Australian apparently does know what a performance needs to be successful. When he hosts an event in Berlin, you will find men in their early thirties, who have stayed young at heart and have 250 vinyls at home, listening attentively to the tunes while stroking their beards in concentration. No one in Minsk can afford to buy vinyls, but the girls in their early twenties, who are occupying the front row, are waving their arms in an ecstatic fashion while he plays.
Pavel Miliakov, aka "Buttechno," has just arrived from Moscow, where he manages the "Nii" Club together with a few friends. "Nii" stands for "nauka I iskusstvo" (science and art) and it is the only club in Moscow that is not just interested in making money but whose managers actually care about the music that is played in their club. Pavel tells a visitor from Poland that "sometimes, when we book someone to play jazz at the club, we only have 11 people on the dance floor."
Pasha Dankov, aka "Morgotika," is one of maybe three people in Minsk who can actually make a living off producing electronic music. "It is doable but I also have a collection of 800 vinyls," he says. Pasha organizes parties such as "Mechta," meaning "dream," one of the largest raves in the country. Danka notes one difference with rave scenes elsewhere: "Here, people only drink, which is why the parties do not last as long as they would in Berlin or Moscow where people take drugs."
Meanwhile, in the wee hours of the morning, a slender young woman named Xosar is now spinning the records. While strobes flash like a lightning storm, she plays the hardest beats of the night and the crowd is heaving. The girls in the front row are keeping up, wearing concentrated expressions on their faces while doing so.
When it finally is Pasha's turn to man the tables, the sun has risen above the concrete landscape, with its meadows and trodden paths, weaving between the old warehouses. When Pasha ends his set with "Maze" by "Actress' the couples kissing outside have vanished. Even the guys from the KGB have finally gone home.