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“Go Against National Mentality.” Why Uzbek Artists Are Leaving Abroad?

The conservative regulating organisation, Uzbekkoncert, of Uzbekistan is being accused of the outflow of young talented people abroad in search of an independent scene.

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For two years of work, the state institution Uzbekkoncert established in 2017 on the basis of the previous state censor in the field of culture and arts, Uzbeknavo, by order of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has developed the reputation of the “inquisitor of art”. During this period, dozens of artists had their performance licenses revoked under vague pretexts. In fact, Uzbekkoncert maintained the punitive policy against modern creation and self-expression that was launched in the times of the first head of state, Islam Karimov.

The organisation has the arts council composed of unknown persons, which decides whose songs and videos fit the national traditions of Uzbekistan. Until recently, there was no clear code of behaviour of artists. In 2018, Uzbekkoncert issued a checklist containing all taboo topics, symbols and ethical standards.

In particular, national symbols may not be misused in videos, luxury may not be displayed, revealing clothes and tattoos may not be demonstrated, singing when lying down is not allowed.

A musician should have high morals

According to the checklist, videos and commercial performances of musicians must not contain anything that “go against national mentality and common human values.” For example, men may not appear in public in women’s clothing or wear jewellery. Also, women are prohibited to wear revealing clothes. Song lyrics must not contain sedition. Only after a song and a video are approved by the arts council of Uzbekkoncert, they can be shown on TV and published on the internet. This was said by the head of the organisation, Odilzhon Abdukakhorov, by results of 2017.

Odilzhon Abdukakhorov, director of Uzbekkoncert. Photo: Uzbekkoncert account on Facebook

He explained that the performance of artists should not cause embarrassment and shame, and he actually assumed responsibility for what should be listened and watched by 30 million Uzbekistanis.

In 2019, Uzbekkoncert went even further and started developing standards for celebrations. The arts council said it was making up a list of songs acceptable for weddings and other mass events according to national traditions.

What national traditions does the censor speak about if Uzbekistan is a country that brings together 140 ethnic groups, each of which maintains its identity and has its own musical preferences? Is it a violation if sirtaki is performed at a Greek wedding, or Verka Serdyuchka is played at a Ukrainian wedding? Unfortunately, Uzbekkoncert keeps silent about it and ignores the requests of CABAR.asia journalists. Therefore, we have to keep to the formal data available on the website of the state censor.

Thus, to get a license to perform at celebrations and earn money for the same, one has to submit copies of personal documents, two photos, repertoire certificate and pay one minimum salary – 223 thousand sum (24 dollars).

The requirements for licensing are clear enough but the mechanism of performance assessment. Who makes final decision and by which criteria remains unclear. Compliance with national traditions is a vague wording, which can be used in any case. 

The heritage of totalitarianism

The latest scandal with Uzbekkoncert was the revocation of license of singer Dzhakhangir Atadzhanov on October 14 this year. The arts council didn’t like that the singer was poured with money at a private event.

It’s interesting that it is one of the national traditions of Uzbekistan. Money is poured during weddings and sunnat-tuy (celebration of the child’s circumcision – author’s note) to bring luck and success to the man of the hour.

Moreover, the country’s constitution guarantees the freedoms, including the freedom of expression. It also emphasises that only state ideology is official (article 12 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan).

After Atadzhanov was supported by the community and a range of high ranking officials (including the head of the Agency for Information and Mass Communications, Komilzhon Allamzhonov, who is also the direct supervisor of the president’s daughter, Saida Mirziyoyeva), and was given his license back. Uzbekkoncert explained it by the fact that the singer allegedly promised to be better and “work for the sake of people.”

It turns out that the arts council composed of officials of the ministry of culture analyses the performance of artist based on their subjective opinions and does not even share its thoughts with the public. Moreover, a range of artists said to CABAR.asia, on condition of anonymity, that high-ranking officials of the ministry of culture force some artists to perform at some events, including private ones, for free. If they don’t agree to perform, they can be put on the so-called “black list” of the organisation.

None of artists has officially complained about such actions because of fear of consequences that may follow.

Public figure Aziza Umarova thinks Uzbekkoncert has become a direct heritage of the totalitarian past:

Do some people think it’s normal that some official can ruin the life of a singer in the 21st century just because of his quirks and twists? This organisation is a direct heritage of the totalitarian rule in the USSR. There are no equivalents to it in the modern world. I suggest that this organisation should be eliminated and it should be up to people to choose the singers they like. People should make their own choice.

Censorship is an enemy to alternative music

Poet and lead singer of the Tashkent-based rock group Krylya Origami [The wings of origami], Ashot Danielyan, thinks that censorship kills creativity.

Krylya Origami band. Ashot Danielyan, to the right. Photo from the personal account on Facebook

“To be honest, I still don’t understand why this body exists, what it is for and who founded it? Isn’t the ministry of culture enough? Why there should be someone to regulate no matter what? In fact, it is an anti-constitutional organisation because the Constitution reads that every citizen of the country has a right to freedom of expression,” Danielyan said.

According to him, the policy pursued by Uzbekkoncert has led to the mass outflow of young talents. For example, there’s almost no alternative music left in the country. The bands are not motivated to develop their creativity, while music colleges provide education to people without ambitions, who want to be wedding musicians and earn by playing during banquets.

However, this was not always the case. In early 90s, the rock festival “Deti tsvetov” [children of flowers] held in Tashkent brought 30 bands together, while the number of applications was three times as many. Now, for comparison, there are only five rock bands that keep performing in Tashkent.

He couldn’t be living a worthy life here on the money he earned by his music.

“Artem Tildikov, bass guitarist of Domino band, was rehearsing just behind the wall at the Gulshan community centre. Now he’s playing with such musicians as Zemfira, A-Studio, Yolka. He did the right thing when he left. He couldn’t be living a worthy life here on the money he earned by his music,” Danielyan said.

He thinks that alternative music is almost beyond the law in the country. Musicians should either be to the musical taste of the heads of Uzbekkoncert, or should go to deep underground (artistic direction that is opposed to the mass culture – editor’s note).

Showman Roman, who worked abroad, shares the same opinion. According to him, foreign stage is free from censorship and doesn’t lead to the degradation of creativity. Moreover, artists must obtain licenses and work legally.

Young musicians from Uzbekistan go abroad to realise their creative potential.

“There they can earn and unlock their creative potential,” the showman said.

According to him, the level of the national singers will remain the same for years to come due to the current policy pursued by Uzbekkoncert.

Pros and cons

Artists criticise censorship and especially the management of Uzbekkoncert behind the scenes. However, during public performances, they say they are glad to cooperate with this organisation and understand their performance is not just for fun, but also for educational purposes, so they need a robust censorship.

However, not all artists agreed to discuss inappropriate decisions made by the organisation. It is the evidence that even prominent musicians and singers fear personal revenge for the criticism of Uzbekkoncert.

In fact, the organisation maintains the repressive policy of its predecessor, Uzbeknavo, by revoking licenses of favourite artists at a whim of the officials of the ministry of culture, or by order from above. During the rule of Karimov, singers Yulduz Usmanova, Sevara Nazarkhan, comedian Obid Asomov, Yalla band and others were banned from performing at large-scale events.

San Zhai. Photo from the oficial account on Facebook

Now there is an on-going story between Uzbekkoncert and singer San Zhai. He couldn’t get a license for a long time because of his beard (one of informal bans in the country). After the conflict was disclosed, he finally was licensed to hold concerts as there were no legal obstacles to his license. However, he cannot start performing because of bureaucratic acrimony. His public video message to the president didn’t help either.

Young musicians surveyed on condition of anonymity divided into two camps. Some say there should be no censorship at all. The audience will make their own choice, and successful singers will lead the chats, while outcasts will be at the bottom of the chart (a list of the most popular media products – editor’s note).

Others say it would be vice versa. If all restrictions and limits are eliminated, the society will be covered by the uncontrolled wave of ignorant, immoral musical content, and subsequently the general degradation of values.

While such disputes are taking place, the Uzbek young people become fans of tattooed artists of the Russian label Black Star, Jason Derulo, Olga Buzova and other celebrities that have no problems with holding concerts in Uzbekistan, despite their revealing clothes, poor vocabulary, and lyrics that don’t comply with the national traditions.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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