Bishkek Rock Festival

It’s necessary to set the scene with this music, a clip from the movie “From Dusk til Dawn.”

The details of my night are a bit different from the movie. I walked into the Russian Drama Theater with my husband and members of his band. We’re late, having not known this event existed until it had already started, and we could hear music from the lobby. I have never seen the movie, so hearing the song didn’t trigger an expectation about what I was about to walk into. From the hallway, I could see the whole theater briefly light up, then darken, light up and darken again. My immediate thought was this festival, advertised as an “International Rock Festival” and featuring bands from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (not very international, in my opinion), was amateur. These guys can’t even get the lighting right.

I was focusing too much on showing my ticket to the usher guarding the entrance to the theater to notice a dancer heaving something on her shoulders as she twirled around onstage. I made my way to a seat in the dark auditorium, the dancer still spinning around in circles. She looked like a Las Vegas showgirl, wearing a blue, sequined bikini (high-waisted bottoms and all) and large patches of silver glitter makeup ringing her eyes. She swung her hips as she flirted with the audience, returning to center stage in time for two-meter flames to start pulsing from a set of pyrotechnic devices set up in an arc in front of her.

Now I could see more clearly in the briefly illuminated room; The dancer, imitating the movie scene, had a giant python in her arms. Is that real? How do you find a python like that in Kyrgyzstan? No, it’s not real, this is so lame. I told myself these things and pulled back from the edge of my seat, appreciating the brief warmth that the pyrotechnics provided in the unheated stone building. The dancer paused from flinging the stuffed snake around to execute some rhythmic hand gestures. In response to the break, the snake, positioned like a feather boa around her neck, curled its dangling tail up around its head. Nope, I corrected myself again; it’s definitely real.

A short intermission followed the snake charmer. We had arrived too late for half of the bands, but just in time for the special guest of the night; Stein Mach, a Rammstein cover band. Considering the degrees of separation between them and a real performance by Rammstein, it didn’t surprise me that they weren’t actually that good. They had no stage presence, their equipment kept falling down, and a stage-sized video screen behind them played stock footage from WWII (isn’t that kind of awkward?) and nude men practicing javelin tossing. My friends and I sat between two groups of German women who seemed to compete with each other for how loudly they could express their support for the band. Eventually they abandoned their seats to stand in front of the stage and headband (dangerously close to the pyrotechnics).

The festival seemed less like a celebration of a specific rock genre than a gathering for anybody who considered themselves included under the wide banner of “rock”. The host wore a velvet blouse that leaned toward 1970s; the video screen rotated through rainbow-colored visualizations with a hippie, jam-band vibe; one enthusiastic attendee (whom I nicknamed “Wolf” for a shirt that resembled this classic) spent the night waving his shoulder-length curly hair and pumping his fists with metal horns; other attendees included a punk rocker with a mohawk, black leather jacket decorated with pins, a couple goths, twin girls in a ska band, and an indie-rock/pop-punk band from Kazakhstan, whose lead singer wailed lazily like the Walkmen and wore skinny jeans and a flannel shirt (bestill my hipster heart).

The band that performed after Stein Mach was a local band, whose lead singer wore tight black clothes, combat boots and a giant silver belt buckle that I could see from the back of the auditorium. He had shoulder-length carrot-red hair that he flipped around every once in a while. He wore a silver gauntlet, just on one hand, that he would slowly raise up over his head when he reached the songs’ climax, which had a goth-rock/mystical vibe to them. At the start of every song they played, a new group of people in the audience seemed to decide, “OK, it was fun for a while, but this band blows.”

There was an unspoken agreement among my friends that we wouldn’t leave just because a band sucked; we were there for the experience and kitsch factor. Then the last band of the night came on stage and that agreement was broken; no more metal, we said. We didn’t even have to listen to them play to make this judgement about them. The band members all had hair down to their lower backs. The first piece of equipment they carried out was a Flying-V, then an Ibanez 7-string, and lastly, a Warlock. “Definitely metal, let’s get out of here.” We retreated to the theater’s bar and were introduced to twin sisters who have their own band in Bishkek. Our conversations focused on the girls’ perception of a lack of creativity in Bishkek’s music scene. “We don’t have real rock and roll here,” one of the sisters said. But you have this, I said, this night, this realization, this ambition. It’s a start, right?

This is how my nights end up sometimes in Bishkek, showing up unplanned to events like this, unfortunately this time I didn’t have my camera with me. You’ll just have to take my word for it; it was kitschy and awesome, a good effort, but trying too hard, and there was fire, headbanging, and a giant python.

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