Tbilisi: A Regional Hub for Alternative Music in the South Caucasus?

Young Georgian Lolitaz (Georgia), Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian
Having moved from the UK to Armenia in 1998 to work for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) it was only natural that I started to take an interest in an alternative music scene that, while not really existing, was emerging at the time. From 2001 onwards the situation started to change, and bands such as Gyumri’s The Bambir really grabbed my attention. By the mid-2000s other bands started to emerge and those that had been dormant  during the electricity shortages of the 1990s began to re-surface.

By the mid-2000s, Tbilisi-based bands such as The Young Georgian Lolitaz started to perform at the some of the festivals occasionally staged in Yerevan although audiences in general remained small. Nevertheless, for a while at least, local rock promoters said the Armenian capital boasted more potential venues than in Georgia. There were also some interesting bands materializing in Azerbaijan and so I would naturally cover those too, albeit from afar. Incidentally, the now defunct Unformal particularly showed promise.

In a sense, the alternative music scene in transitional countries offered a window into the lives of those youth forming what could be described as a small but growing progressive segment of society. Interestingly, Azerbaijan in particular offered a dynamic politically charged rap scene with many rappers speaking out about the situation in the country. Shirband, in particular, articulated political messages , a tradition now continued by Jamal Ali albeit in exile from Germany.

Ahmedowsky Trio (Azerbaijan), Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian 2017

Fast forward to today. Not only am I now based in Tbilisi, but the Georgian alternative music scene has grown significantly and probably boasts more bands and venues than either Yerevan or Baku. There remain problems with local groups finding adequate venues to perform their music in, of course, but the situation is better. More noticeably, however, there have been more bands from Azerbaijan performing here. Last year, for example, saw DiHaj play at Tbilisi’s Backstage 76 and there’s also been DedeBaba and the Ahmedowsky Trio at the same venue alone.

It’s not a lot in the scheme of things, but it is a start and also a glimpse of what could be, The fact that such bands have started to consider Tbilisi worth performing in has highlighted not only its importance as a regional hub, but likely position it as the centre of alternative music in the South Caucasus. Festivals such as the Tbilisi Jam! Fest, and One Caucasus Festival have anyway offered musicians from all three South Caucasus a mutual stage for some years. In the case of the latter, bands from Armenia and Azerbaijan often jam together. 

Given the still unresolved conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, this musical form of communication and cooperation is particularly vital.

Apart from that, however, there hasn’t been many bands from Armenia performing in Georgia. Yes, The Bambir had performed here in the 2000s, but so many more haven’t. Encouragingly, however, in the past six weeks that might also be set to change. Yerevan’s LSD and Vanadzor’s An Gordonach! have performed at Backstage 76, one of the few bars with a decent light and sound system, and I can only hope more will follow. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s hoping for more of the same in the coming weeks, months, and years.

What I’d definitely like to see is not only more alternative bands from Armenia and Azerbaijan performing in Tbilisi, but them sharing the same stage with their Georgian equivalents. 

Goth Night, Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian

An Gordonach! (Armenia), Tbilisi, Georgia © Onnik James Krikorian

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