Kazakhstan: How to Pop Out on the Kazakh Pop Stage.

Arailym Ashirbekova, Graduate of the University of Warwick Gender Studies Department, talks to the author about the development of underground music in Kazakhstan and her own experience as a singer of the L-Air band.

While her career goal and main academic interest are related to gender equality and women empowerment in Kazakhstan, Arailym has staged musical performances as the soloist of the L-Air band. “I sing. I do it for pleasure. Never have I ever thought of singing for money. I mean, there were times, when I tried to become involved professionally in singing. I would attend vocal classes and participate in song contests, TV shows.  But it was not more than curiosity.”

Arailym has not performed professionally due to a large number of biases related to women involved into show business in Kazakhstan and Central Asia in general. Young people in Kazakhstan may get involved into arts and performance while obtaining their bachelor’s degrees; however, only a small number continue to sing professionally. “At the university, I was an active member of music society and sang at all events. I remember being a vocal tutor or “music producer” if you like, preparing younger students for the concerts. There were very talented singers indeed. However, none of them became professional singers (at least those I know).” One has to have sufficient amount of money and overcome nepotism, which in case of women becomes a greater problem. Participants of Superstar.kz and X-Factor note difficulties that female singers experienced. Traditional roles of women in Central Asia still prevent many from involving into their favorite types of jobs, especially if those are stage performance jobs.

Subdividing the music in Kazakhstan into two main categories of “mainstream” or “underground”, one can see a precise difference in the type, quality of the music and attitude of the listeners. “If we look at the development of music in Kazakhstan, we can see the mushrooming of singers/bands. There is a tendency of reviving national songs in modern covers (which is good). However, there is a lack of high quality music. I think that music has become more of a business but not an art.” What the newly established bands do is copy successful styles and attempt to reach popularity based on the experience of others. Thus, many mainstream singers do not have a distinct singing style and the quality of their music suffers. “L-Air” was one of the “underground” bands comprised of 10-15 musicians with about 50 permanent followers. The unifying idea was the non-acceptance of mainstream music but the creation or re-creation of true music with emphasis on words, feelings and melodies. By and large, the repertoire of the band was comprised of own songs, covers or classic rock and some of the alternative rock music, jazz and blues as well.  The band performed at various charity concerts, played in pubs devoted to Viktor Tsoy (Pub “KINO”) and held their multiple rehearsals in the rented halls. In 2012, the band was offered to stage permanent performances in one of the lounge bars of Almaty. Although the work was well-paid, some of the musicians gave up playing because the place and music were too mainstream.

Joining mainstream direction of the pop art in Kazakhstan means finding a producer, renting bigger halls and earning money, which also includes giving up on alternative style of singing and writing songs. Due to the unwillingness to become one of the mainstream bands, the “L-Air” collapsed after four years of existence. In addition, the critical moment for the band was the death of male vocalist in late 2012 which triggered the collapse. “Everyone has made their life choices. Music remains a hobby for all of us.” Arailym joined the rock band at Warwick as well. “I even signed up for X-Factor UK, but didn’t go because of assignments. Music has also connecting power. I have made some of my good friends (in the UK) thanks to the music. There is an interesting observation I’ve made: you find ‘likeminded’ people through music. One of my good friends organized a music flash-mob singing on the ruins after the protest on Taksim square in Istanbul last year. Participants expressed their feelings and thoughts through the song, but the video was banned on YouTube.”

Anything underground or alternative dooms its participants to struggle for survival and for proving that the project is worth listening. While mainstream artistic community demonstrates obstacles and downsides of participation in the artistic activities, the underground bands play an important role in communicating ideas and thoughts of separate groups of people who follow the ideology transmitted through their works. Underground art movements do not only demonstrate a distinct taste for art, but also symbolize alternative ways of thinking and perceiving the reality. Although underground art reaches only a small number of people, it is a strong tool to communicate and make voices heard.

The band at the Charity Concert
The band at the Charity Concert
Aray singing
Arailym singing
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