It’s Thursday night at the Soviet-era House of Culture in Agudzera, a village outside Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway region of Abkhazia, and three Abkhaz rock bands are setting up for a concert. The lighting and sound system is professional and right out of the box, but guitarist Alexander Tsamruk of the band Ferumage must adjust the levels because there is no soundman.
“I can’t hear myself,” shouts a guitarist on the stage. “Don’t worry,” Tsamruk replies. “It’s normal.”
The 15-year economic blockade on Abkhazia has all but snuffed out opportunities for local musicians to perform publicly. Most bars and nightclubs disappeared after the separatist region’s 1992-93 war with Georgia, while the most talented musicians – like opera singer Hibla Gerzmava – emigrated. Even Russia’s decision to recognize Abkhazia’s independence from Georgia in late 2008 brought no relief for local rockers.
But Abkhaz youth have proven that the spirit of rock is resilient amid post-war hardships. “Slowly the city (Sukhumi) is waking up, becoming more alive in the music sense,” said Tsamruk, who won the title of “Best Guitarist in Krasnodar” at a battle of the guitars in the Russian city several years ago.
Last year, Gena Berulara opened up a music shop in the Abkhaz capital so that locals would no longer have to travel to Sochi or Moscow to buy instruments. A competitor opened a smaller music shop one block away.
“We have lots of talented kids here, playing sax, guitar and piano,” Berulara said. “Instead of spending 1,000 - 2,000 rubles (about $36 to $73) to travel to Sochi and back, they can make up the savings and buy here,” he adds.
The ranks of Abkhaz rock aficionados are not restricted by age or profession. Before his diplomatic career began, Abkhazia’s English-speaking de facto foreign minister, 35-year-old Maxim Gundjia, was a signer in a local band.
While instruments are relatively easy to obtain these days, fresh ideas and inspiration can be hard to come by for local musicians. As Berulara explains, the embargo limits the ability of Abkhaz to establish cultural links with the outside world, as well as hinders people from traveling.
The main problem musicians now face in Abkhazia, however, is a lack of places to perform. Unlike Tbilisi, which has a thriving live music scene, Sukhumi has no pub culture and only one club, the Olimpia, which infrequently hosts rock shows. Not even the resort towns of Gagra and Pitsunda have live music venues.
Consequently, rockers must organize their own events – as best they can. A lack of money prevented an annual rock festival from happening last summer. The Thursday night show in Agudzera happened because guitarist Tsamruk knew the culture house director, who is also a rock fan.
“Unfortunately, we’re not able to organize more of these kinds of concerts. That’s why sometimes we have to go to Russia, but we want to play here,” said guitarist Alexander Nidogreyev.
Having no local music scene means doing weddings and corporate events, which aren’t popular gigs for rockers. That’s because play lists tend to be dictated by guest or sponsor preferences.
Music and video producer Artur Lakerba has plugged his pop diva, Hibla Mukba, into this audience. Mukba songs like “All Mothers Are Good, But Mine Is the Best of All” prove much more popular at Abkhaz weddings than Metallica’s “Bleeding Me.” Moreover, she sings exclusively in Abkhaz, which, to Lakerba, is tantamount to genius. “Abkhaz rockers. What have they written themselves? Who are they trying to copy? American music? Am I right?” he scoffed.
While Abkhaz bands like Ferumage, KA-50 and Mayak cover songs by American favorites like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Chuck Berry, they also write their own music. Rock-folk-fusion band Ashxardatz performs original songs in Abkhaz.
The bands insist they have a growing following and that kids want to hear more rock, yet the 30 to 40 people who paid 100 rubles (about $3.60) to attend the Agudzera show represented all ages.
KA-50 guitarist Rustan Khartsyzov gave Tsamaruk a run for his money when he ripped out – twice, to thunderous applause -- a version of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” immortalized by Quentin Tarrantino’s film, “Pulp Fiction.”
After his post-performance adrenaline had subsided, Kharstov, who works as a technician for Abkhaz State TV, dismissed the problems of playing rock in Abkhazia.
“We have no places to play, but that’s not critical. We can fight it, change it,” he said in English. But he laughed at the question of playing professionally.
“For money? Nobody plays guitar in Abkhazia for money. This is just our life.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, where he leads The Natural Born Lovers blues band.