As in any dictatorship, culture in Belarus is divided between “ours” and “yours” -- that which is independent and that which is supported by the state. In Belarus, popular music is a key component of independent culture and is a battleground of the “culture wars” between the democratic opposition and regime. Alternative music is not only an independent expression of freedom of thought, but also a statement of Belarusian national consciousness in a russified country still dominated by a homo sovieticus mentality. It is an inseparable part of the country’s national and democratic movement. As such, there is a “right” music, highly regulated and controlled by the Lukashenka regime, and a “wrong” music, officially blacklisted but thriving underground. Despite all the restrictions and repression, alternative music remains one of the most dynamic segments of the Belarusian democratic movement. In the fight for the hearts and minds of the country’s youth, the regime often considers rock stars to be more dangerous than political leaders. And if we compare the size of their audiences and popularity of their messages, the regime is right to worry and act. No doubt about it, music is politics in Belarus.
Blacklisted bands are not an urban legend in Belarus. While nobody has seen the official documents, a number of rockers – those who played a concert protesting the 10th year anniversary of Lukashenka’s presidency – have not been allowed to perform in state-run concert halls or appear on state radio and TV since 2004. Unlike in Soviet times, when lists of forbidden foreign and dissident performers were carefully compiled by Party leaders and distributed to local Communist Youth branches, those banned in Belarus are not official proscribed. But an alleged list of a few has expanded to include almost all independent bands, even those which appeared much later than the infamous 2004 concert.
Ironically, at the same time the Ministry of Information decreed that 75 percent of the music played by FM stations must be by Belarusian performers. A “recommended” list came along with the January 2005 regulation. Radio stations which ignored the new rule received official warnings that could lead to closure from the Ministry. Interestingly enough, those stations which obeyed saw a dramatic drop in their ratings in just a few months. Audiences clearly didn’t like the imitation Russian-language popular music being performed by the regime’s “acceptable” singers, who couldn’t compete with authentic Russian popsa and didn’t have to contend with popular Belarusian bands forbidden from performing.
In a country where the regime tries to control practically every aspect of youth life, the performance ban is just one of many measures adopted by the authorities to keep young people quiet. This past year, government authorities cancelled the country’s oldest rock festival, “Rock Kola” (Circle of Rock), which had take place since 1990. The Polatsk City Council declared that “Festivals like ‘Rock Kola’ are alien to the historical and Orthodox heritage of Polatsk. We recommend the officials responsible for the spiritual upbringing of young people to abstain from organizing such events.” Several popular night clubs were also closed down under different pretexts over the last couple of years, and especially after a notorious raid by city officials and police on Minsk clubs during one August night in 2006. Special investigators proved to be less interested in security and other operational issues than on the music repertoire of the clubs.
Denied access to airplay, concert halls and clubs, independent musicians have been forced to find new ways to reach out to their audiences. Technology is playing an ever greater role. Although it is almost impossible to see posters advertising concerts by blacklisted bands on Minsk’s streets, information about performers’ concerts, new albums, foreign tours, and fan clubs is readily found in the Belarusian blogosphere. Independent musicians and fans have created an alternative musical scene, part of the Belarusian underground. Concerts regularly take place in a small number of underground clubs usually run by fans and promoters, not businessmen. Most of the clubs are located on the outskirts of Minsk and finding them is not easy. Even more challenging is to get in, given that most concerts are sold out far in advance of the performances. To obtain a ticket, one must reserve it in advance by calling a cell phone number and pick it up at an appointed place somewhere in the city on a certain day or at the club on the night of the concert. The doors will only open for those who are on a list. Of course such elaborate secrecy rituals, necessary due to safety concerns and a limited number of seats, only adds to the popularity of the clubs and bands playing there.
Appearing in 1999, the “Graffiti” Club in Minsk is one of the legends of the Belarusian alternative music scene (http://www.graffiti.by/). On the grounds of the “Kalinin” machinery factory, the club located in the corridor of an old administrative building (about 50 m²) that has been transformed into an artistic café cum concert hall. With half a dozen tiny tables and no more than 20 seats, it holds concerts for as many as 70 people. The club even serves hot dishes of student party-style food at unbelievably low prices. The atmosphere is like a family gathering, with people sitting on each other’s laps, cheerful waiters, and close contact with the performers. On the walls, there are posters and autographed pictures of bands which have played there over the last couple of years, including NRM, Troitsa, Krama, Krambambulia, Neuro Dubel and others. Many independent artists use “Graffiti” to drop their new albums or celebrate anniversaries and other special occasions.
The “New Sound Land” Club (known as “NSL”), one of the country’s coolest “do-it-yourself” clubs, is located in the small, out-of-the-way city of Baranavichy. In the two and a half years it has been open, all of Belarus’ major stars have played here, from NRM to IQ48. Back in 2004, the space was an abandoned gym in a vocational high school. A group of enthusiasts kicked in their own savings, borrowed some more cash, cleaned up the trash, and remodeled the building. The very first concert played there was by “Bez Bileta” (“No Ticket”), then a new band but now big stars in Belarus, who have returned twice to play at NSL since that inaugural performance. Not only do people from Minsk and other cities regularly come to Baranavichy’s hottest club, but a number of cool foreign groups are also often guests here. Dzima Sku, the heart and brains of NSL, is constantly searching for interesting bands. The Swedish group “I Love You Baby” played first in Baranavichy and only a year later in Minsk. In 2007, the Australian-based band “Curse ov Dialect” added Baranavichy to its European tour at Dzima’s invitation. He found this unusual international band with Macedonian, Indian, Pakistani, Mallorcan and Maltese members while surfing the Net. For Belarusians, who have little opportunity to see Western bands live, such concerts are a real experience and a window on other cultures.
While Baranavichy’s NSL is a great example of cultural entrepreneurship, it tends to be the exception. Overall, Belarus’ regions suffer from a lack of independent culture and stricter control over any kind of activities by local authorities who are trying hard to prove their loyalty to the central government. Neither impediment, however, prevents pro-democratic cultural activists from being creative and finding ways to communicate with people. With local concert halls closed to independent artists, they organize their performances in libraries and schools. With no other equipment, but acoustic guitars and voices, they bring freedom of thought, democratic ideas and the Belarusian-language to local audiences. Only last year, the World Association of Belarusians “Batskaushczyna” (Homeland) organized over one hundred poetry meetings and concerts of folk singers (known as “bards”) in 54 Belarusian towns and villages. More than 5,500 people attended the events, with youth making up to 80 percent of the concert audiences.
For many citizens, such events are their first introduction to a rich but scare Belarusian natural culture and an entree to the democratic movement. Bards have been one of the key components of the country’s national and democratic movement since the 1980s. Several generations of activists were raised on the ballads of Andrus Melnikau, Zmicier Bartosik and Viktar Shaklievich, and learned about Belarusian history and independent thinking from their lyrics. Their art is highly individualistic and very personal, yet these singers have been very successful in networking and self-organizing. An independent folk festival, for example, takes place every summer in Gomel. One of the leaders of the movement, Andrus Melnikau, explains: “To me, singing is a tool for communicating with people, a tool to help unite people who think alike” (http://www.melnikaw.nm.ru). It is exactly the content and unifying force of their songs that make bards so inspiring to people and so dangerous for the regime. No wonder the authorities in Gomel banned the bard concert last year, fined its organizers, and drafted the youngest, the well-known youth activist Zmicier Zhaleznichenka, into the army. But repression cannot stop people from thinking, writing, singing and coming together in private places to share their story songs. Belarus’ singing revolution continues.
Despite the romanticism of their underground existence, alternative performers still want their music to be known and wanted by the public. This is not always easy in Belarus, where almost everything is controlled by the state. Vital Supranovich is one of the few producers working with independent Belarusian musicians. He has debuted dozens of bands, but prefers to remain backstage himself. With some friends, he founded the Belarusian Music Alternative Group (BMA) in 1996 because he loved Belarusian rock and wanted to promote it. Since then BMA has released almost a hundred albums and organized hundreds of concerts.
Over the last decade, musicians and fans have come and gone, but Vital says that a core group of pro-democratic rockers has remained. Organizing a concert in Belarus is difficult, expensive and risky. A dozen special permits must be obtained from various state agencies and even if all the papers are in order, the authorities still can shut down a concert at the last moment without any explanation, apology or compensation for expenses. For Vital, Belarusian independent music is not just a business, but a passion and way of life. This is what makes him successful even in extremely unfavorable conditions.
Before artists began being banned from performing in Belarus, BMA mostly released the albums of and organized concerts for those bands. After the authorities cracked down, Vital had to start from scratch in finding and promoting new names, as well as coming up with new forms of activities for those on the black list. In 2006, BMA assembled and released “Songs of Freedom” an independent compact disc produced in cooperation with the “For Freedom” civic campaign, which became the best selling album of the year; it was followed by two more successful editions (http://music.fromby.net/sliberty). A concert which Vital put together in December to celebrate the tenth anniversary of one of his most successful, and Belarus’ most famous albums, “Narodny Albom” (The People’s Album), sold out and became the cultural event of 2007 (http://www.democraticbelarus.eu/node/3149).
Despite the efforts of fans like Vital, the biggest independent music events still must be organized outside of the country. The oldest Belarusian rock festival, Basoviszcza (“BAS gathering” -- the name originates from the acronym of the Belarusian Association of Students, BAS, in Poland), has been held in Haradok (near Bialystok, Poland) every summer since 1990. Basoviszcza is a two-day concert and contest for young bands (http://www.basowiszcza.org/). Legendary groups like Mroja, ULIS, Palac, Krama, Znich and NRM, as well as famous singers such as Ales Kamocki, Siarzhuk Sokalau-Vojush, Andrus Melnikau, Viktar Shalkievich and Kasia Kamockaya played the early festivals. Basoviszcza jump-started the careers of many young bands which later became very popular in Belarus. Over the years, future chart toppers such as as Zet, Ban Zhvirba, IQ48, Indiga and Mauzer have won the festival’s contest for new performers.
After the infamous 2004 ban, festivals and concerts organized abroad became the only opportunity for lots of Belarusian musicians and thousands of their fans to meet in big fields and on free concert stages. Concerts of solidarity with Belarus organized by the Polish NGO “Free Belarus” have taken place for the last three years in Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square) in Warsaw, Poland (http://wolnabialorus.pl/main.php). The first such concert was organized in September 2006, a week before Belarus’ presidential elections. A year later, Belarusian bands performed Bob Marley’s political protest songs in Belarusian on March 25th, the 89th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic. In March 2008, the concert in Plac Zamkovy, held under the slogan “the Belarusian language is the language of the Belarusian people,” was broadcast live on the Polish television channel TVP Info and via the Belarusian satellite television channel BelSat.
In August 2007, a music festival promoting closer ties between Belarusians and Europe was organized for the first time in Lithuania, literally 100 meters from the two countries’ common border. Unlike Basoviszcza, with its focus on presenting and promoting new Belarusian music, the Be2Gether festival was designed as an international music festival with several stages and international headliners (http://www.b2g.lt/2008/en). While still focused on promoting European-Belarusian solidarity, the 2008 edition of Be2Gether doubled the number and scope of its bands, according to the organizers, and featured transatlantic stars like Tricky, Groove Armada, Fishbone, Infected Mushroom, and Girls Against Boys. Only three bands from Belarus – N.R.M., Mauzer and Osimira – performed this year. In September 2007 another foreign festival, the “Right to Be Free,” was organized by Belarusian Music Alternative and StudFarmat in Lutsk (Ukarine). In August 2008, the second edition of this festival, “Be Free,” was held in Lviv (Ukraine), presented mainly Belarusian and some foreign performers (see the European Radio for Belarus’ August coverage of the event, including http://www.euroradio.fm/en/581/reports/22730. Following the regime’s cancellation of the “Rock Kola” concert this past year, the rocker and director of the festival, Siarhej Anishchanka, is planning to organize next year’s edition in Smolensk (Russia).
Despite the fact that they bring together thousands of listeners and popularize Belarusian independent culture abroad while making a political statement as well, these events have been praised by some and criticized by others. Critics say that these events mainly target foreigners rather than Belarusian society itself. Some claim that these festivals, which are quite expensive to organize, attract only the same narrow circle of Belarusian musicians and fans and do not broaden the audience for independent culture or bring new people into the democratic movement. Finally, many raise concerns about the effectiveness of the Polish and Lithuanian festivals, given the problems with obtaining Schengen visas by Belarusian participants, which have prevented many, including both musicians and fans, from attending Basoviszcza and Be2Gether, despite all the special measures undertaken by the embassies of the two countries to assist those who sought to attend.
But Belarusians are voting with their feet, showing that they wants and needs these events. Despite uncertain visas, high costs, long journeys and some bad weather, thousands of young Belarusian visited one or all three of these festivals this past summer. According to the estimates of Lviv’s authorities, more than 12,000 people attended the 2008 “Be Free” festival and 70 percent were from Belarus. Ukrainian fans say that they are interested in getting to know Belarusian music and gladly will come to such concerts. Belarusian fans admit that such open air festivals are simply impossible to organize in Belarus, so for them they are a chance to hear their favorite bands live. Vital Supranovich, one of the initiators and organizers of the “Be Free” festival believes that such “open airs create the atmosphere of freedom, demanded but absent in Belarus.” Vital also thinks that some of the up and coming bands, especially those playing heavy metal and hard rock, such as Mauzer, B:N: or Indiga, have a real chance to become popular in the West, if they can reach foreign publics. Concerts, festivals, theater performances and exhibitions, taking place abroad, definitely help to introduce modern, independent Belarusian music and art to foreign public, making it part of European culture.
The Belarusian authorities recognize the impact and significance of such festivals. Last year, busses bringing Belarusian fans to the “Right to Be Free” festival in Lutsk were stopped at the border by police and escorted back to Minsk, while the bus carrying the musicians set to perform was detained on the border for seven hours. This harassment only delayed the beginning of the concert by a few hours and allowed hundreds more of dedicated fans to get to Lutsk by alternative routes, including buses, trains and hitch-hiking. On October 2, 2008, the state newspaper Zviazda published a list of “extremist” materials as determined by a Hrodna court, which included, among other items, a video of the 2006 Warsaw “Solidarity with Belarus” concert.
Lukashenka’s approach to independent culture is similar to his relations with Europe. He doesn’t like or understand it but cannot ignore it. Since the regime can’t repress it entirely, it is attempting to control it as much as possible. In November 2007, the head of the Presidential Administration invited leading independent musicians for a meeting. He announced that bands like N.R.M., Neuro Dubel, ZET, Krywi and some others would be allowed to perform live and have their music played on the air, if they promised not to appear at opposition events. This news caused one of the hottest public debates in the country in recent history, with some fans throwing away compact discs of the musicians who attended the meeting, while others celebrated the beginning of a “thaw” in Belarus. But one year later it’s obvious that not much has really changed either on the political or cultural scene.
Belarus’ state supported popular culture is playing an important role in serving the regime. One of the best-known examples was prior to the 2006 presidential election, when Lukashenka’s favorite band, Siabry, performed its odious song “Slushaj Batsku” (Listen to Big Daddy) at the final concert of the regime’s “For Belarus” campaign:
He is well built
He will not teach you anything wrong
He keeps everything under control
He is the coolest guy
He is reliable and calm
He will solve all the problems
Everybody knows who the master of our house is
Listen to Batska morning, noon and night
If things are bad, listen to Batska
If everything is alright, listen to Batska
Free concerts in support of Lukashenka, staged in main squares on the eve of important political events or state holidays, as well as concerts of the President’s favorite pop stars, for which tickets are distributed via pro-governmental organizations and attendance is obligatory for members, play an important role in the state propaganda machine. As in many dictatorships, low quality but cheap popular culture has proven to be an effective means of mobilizing the masses and cultivating pseudo patriotism, based on loyalty to the current ruler.
The popular continental song competition “Eurovision” is one of the regime’s chief cultural priorities. This year, for the first time, the Belarusian public was allowed to participate in selecting Belarus’ representative in the contest, but only in the first stage of the process. The final decision was left to a special commission, appointed at the highest state level and headed by former Soviet pop star and current cultural apparatchik Alexander Tihanovich. Belarus’ best result at “Eurovision” was a sixth place finish in 2007, but this year the state propaganda presented rising pop star Ruslan Alehno as a favorite. When Alehno who, like most Belarusian pop singers, is not used to perform live, didn’t even make it past the semifinals in Sarajevo, the regime blamed the organizers of “Eurovision” and the European public, voting by text message, for having a political bias against Belarus.
Lukashenka is especially proud of his own music festival the “Slavianski Bazar” (“Slavic Bazaar”), taking place for the last seventeen years in Vitebsk (http://festival.vitebsk.by). This festival is the main cultural platform for promoting the President as a great Slavic leader and unifier. Staged as a grandiose, week-long music marathon and presented as a biggest entertainment event in the Slavic world, it reminds Soviet-style song contests with the headliners like Alla Pugacheva and is barely known outside former USSR.
Despite some dire predictions following the meeting of leading rockers with the regime’s main ideologist, none of the blacklisted bands appeared at the “Slavianski Bazar” or other special concerts organized by the regime past summer in Jurmala (Latvia), Vilnius (Lithuania) or Sochi (Russia). The concerts featured the same lineup of “For Belarus” performers, including Irina Dorofejevia, Siabry and Alesia, singing in praise of Belarusian stability.
A couple of independent musicians did make appearances in a few lower-level concerts that were later broadcast on Belarusian state TV around New Year’s Eve. As before, the reaction of the pro-democratic public was mixed. There were no real grounds for excitement or anger, since state television decided not to continue such experiments any more. The only positive change visible during the last year has been the number of sanctioned concerts in state-run concert halls and big private clubs in Minsk and regional centers by well-known and younger independent performers, including N.R.M, Zmicier Vajchiushkievich (http://www.todar.net/), Krambambulia (http://www.krambambulya.com/), Dzhambibum, Neuro Dubel (http://www.neurodubel.com/) and a few others.
It is unlikely, however, that big independent concerts will return to Belarus any time soon. The 2008 “Regulation on Concerts and Concert Tour Activities” has a number of new rules that make the work of music producers even more complicated. As well, the text of the regulation is very vague, which allows bureaucrats to interpret it any way they want and unlikely in favor of independent musicians. Departments of Culture at all state levels are now required to establish special commissions to oversee preliminary auditions of programs for all concerts. Moreover, in order to organize any kind of musical event one must obtain a permit for a concert-related activity, even if it’s a school dance or graduation ball. Even if a candidate running in an election wanted to invite a musician to play for prospective voters, he or she also must obtain a permit.
Given the recent court decision defining a recording of the “Solidarity with Belarus” concert as “extremist,” the cancellation of the country’s oldest rock festival, and new policies regulating cultural activities, it is hard to see a “musical warming” in Belarus any time soon. It is also clear that independent musicians didn’t make a deal with the devil since they continue performing at festivals and concerts organized abroad in support of Belarusian freedom and democracy. At the same time, there haven’t been any significant opposition demonstrations in Belarus during the last year that would test whether independent musicians would agree to play at them or not.
While politics continues to be an important factor, many musicians doubt whether it is possible to be successful in Belarus because of the underdeveloped show business industry and absence of a free market. Many performers on both sides of the political spectrum have elected to try their luck in Russia and Ukraine -- taking advantage of their huge territories, common past, cultural similarities and booming entertainment industries -- but only few have actually succeeded in becoming popular abroad. Liapis Trubetskoy (http://www.lyapis.com/) has beat the odds; it is a cultural phenomenon at home and the best known Belarusian band in Russia. Created in 1990, the group had been more scandalously provocative than political. But in 1998, the band began achieving success in Russia while preserving its connections with Belarus. Financial success, tremendous popularity and Russian legitimacy provided the band with access to the largest concert halls in Belarus and allowed it to be more independent and unrestrained. Over the years the group’s songs have evolved from absurdist parodies on Soviet hits to sharp social satire of its recent albums.
During a May 2008 concert in the Minsk Sports Palace, the band made a number of humorous but very political statements. Lead singer Siarhei Mihalok spoke out against Lukashenka’s plan to develop nuclear power: “I’ve heard that some energy vampires want to build a nuclear power plant in our country. Nobody, of course, asks what we think about the idea. But just in case, the guys and I are against it! There are plenty of other cheap sources of alternative energy, such as batteries, for example. Let’s make a second Vietnam! Let’s all go biking.” The band chose to launch its new album, “The Manifesto,” in Vitebsk, on the stage that hosts the “Slavianski Bazar.” Two songs on this album are in Belarusian, including one titled “Belarus Freedom.” In a recent press release informing the public that “The Manifesto” is available for free downloading on the Internet (http://afisha.tut.by/manifest.php), Mihalok described Belarus as a wonderful country which is lacking a climate of real freedom: “Many people, who visit our country, admire how clean it is. They are so happy. They like our parks and gardens and even give interviews about it all… But somehow nobody wants to stay here. This is what ‘Belarusian Freedom’ is about. Everything looks good, but the air is so stuffy in Belarus that nobody can stand it for more than ten days.”
A relatively new but already popular in Belarus band is J:Mors (http://jmors.by/). While members of the band have played together since they were students in the 1990s, J:Mors was founded in 2000. As it has become more popular, the group has avoided any direct links with the democratic opposition, thus preserving access to state-run concert halls, television and radio. While many accuse J:Mors of conformism, it is also clear that the band doesn’t participate in the regime’s propaganda concerts. The band is reaching out to thousands of young people and promotes high-quality rock music. Moreover, in fall 2007, J:Mors released “Adlehlasc” (Distance), its first album completely in Belarusian. The compact disc also contains a unique video of the band traveling to abandoned Belarusian historical monuments in forgotten places around the country. While criticizing J;Mors for some of its choices, Vital Supranovich nevertheless praises it for helping to make Belarusian heard on practically all of the country’s FM stations.
As long as Belarus remains a dictatorship, independent music will remain an important political statement here. The debate between those who claim that music shouldn’t be politicized and those who believe that it’s impossible to remain neutral in our authoritarian country will continue. There will always be supporters and opponents of organizing Belarusian concerts and events abroad, fans and critics of modern Belarusian music. Perhaps most importantly, despite all the obstacles of our “political stability” and “economic miracle,” new musicians are developing and great songs with real messages are being written. New technologies are also providing new opportunities for the music not favored by the regime to be made, disseminated and heard. Samizdat albums and bootleg tapes have been replaced by downloadable MP3s, Internet radio and podcasts. Belarusian alternative music is easily accessible online, from the European Radio for Belarus (http://www.belradio.fm/) to NETradio.by and MySpace. Video clips of independent bands are on the BelSat satellite television channel (www.belsat.eu) and YouTube. Over the last decade, musicians and fans have come and gone, but a core group of pro-democratic rockers continues to make a difference. More importantly, crowds of fans are still standing tall and screaming “Long Live Belarus” at concerts, unafraid of being arrested for openly displaying their desire to rock in a free and independent Belarus.