“Street” Culture in the Caspian Region
Parkour, skateboarding and desert raves in a land “out of time?” Join Mark Elliott as he celebrates alternative athletes, artists, and culture throughout the region and, like the break-dancers of Kazakhstan, turns misconceptions on their head. Tell us what we missed - what are your alternative top spots? Who are your heroes on the margins?
Flying high in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Image: Mikhnyuk Galina/Shutterstock
For those who have never visited the region, there’s often a misperception that the Caspian countries exist in a different time warp: lands that live somewhere between grey Soviet desolation and heavy Islamic oppression. But, of course, as anyone that’s been to Baku, Tbilisi or Almaty will attest, the reality couldn’t be more different – or more diverse. From parkour free-runners and B-boys, via graffiti and sk8er crews, to desert raves and buzzing clubs, the region has a lot more youth culture than you might have imagined.
Back in 2013, Ryan Doyle’s remarkably choreographed Baku parkour video saw the Red Bull star leaping across rooftops, oil derricks and even sprinting up the side of the Heydar Aliyev Center. Somehow this, more than the Eurovision Song Contest held the year before in the Azerbaijani capital, really suggested that Baku was hitting a contemporary cultural wave.
Now, the Caspian region has its own small parkour scene. Azerbaijani members of the Gilavar Extreme Sports club joined Swiss athletes in a 2017 parkour display in front of Baku’s Maiden Tower in 2017. The city’s top climbing centre, with partly crowd-sourced equipment, is also a training ground for a handful of Bakuvian parkour students.
In Tbilisi, videos that look more genuinely ‘street’ include team jams on the urban slopes of Sololaki and grainy old footage of a youthful Givi Maghradze spinning and diving through un-glamorous cityscapes. Tbilisi’s most prominent crews include Giorgi Tsereteli’s GT and what was Tsotne Tskitishvili’s Delta Crew until Tskitishvili’s untimely death in 2017. His father is now planning a better organized 1500 square metre Parkour Park at Didi Digomi as a memorial to his son who drowned in the Tbilisi Sea.
Viral Red Bull clips show a pro-skater using the surreal curves of Baku’s Heydar Aliyev Centre and the carpet museum’s ‘rolled rug’ exterior as remarkable ramps. However, Baku has also had its own home-grown skateboarding scene for many, many years, as documented by this nostalgic video of stills. These days boards and rollerblades are widely stocked by mainstream sports outlets, and state-built skateparks are dotted all over the Absheron peninsula, from central Baku to Sumgayit. The situation is similar in most of the Caspian region’s bigger cities. For example, Tashkent sees skaters and BMX tricksters practise at a park near the Kosmonaut Metro station while Ethan Loy and his international crew used the Hotel Uzbekistan as the canvas for a striking video display. In Iran, several other foreign skateboarders have been greeted by largely bemused locals as they flipped and jumped around Tehran and Yazd, experiencing hospitality and meeting just a handful of local skaters.
B-Boys & Cypher
If you still think Kazakhstan has anything to do with Borat, watch this video. The B-boy star that breakdances his way through a range of the country’s most astonishing landscapes is Killa Kolya, Kazakhstan’s best-known breaker whose giant-killing prowess in the world of cypher contests is nothing short of mythical. For those unfamiliar with the genre and who might have thought that breakdancing died out in the mid-1980s, the recent BBC radio broadcast Breaking Through charts the art’s major 21st-century resurgence. Originally a youthful expression of hip hop through intensely physical ‘break’ moves – shoulder- and head-spins being the most eye-catching – it has now come so far as to be classed as an Olympic sport for the Paris games of 2024. Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and biggest city, is a cypher hotspot but by no means the only Caspian city that’s home to impressive young talent: Tbilisi, Astrakhan and Bishkek have all hosted impressive contests.
The Tigrohaud Crew, Kazakhstan’s best-known graffiti artists, have bona fide art college backgrounds but maintain much of the attitude of street artists. Their realistic portrait adornments of city block-end and decrepit concrete bridges have moved on from featuring 2-Pac and B-I-G and now focus more on characters from Kazakh history and culture.
Several thought-provoking Iranian graffiti gurus compete for the soubriquet of Persian Banksy, though most – including Icy & Sot and A1one – have since moved to exile abroad, developing into internationally renowned contemporary artists.
Clubbing the Caspian, Raving in Iran
Georgia is famed for its polyphonic singing, and it’s altogether likely that – while you’re sat at a multi-toasting supra (feast) – that your hosts might spontaneously reach for their panduris and start serenading you in multi-part harmonies. However, in recent years Tbilisi has also been enjoying a “techno-culture golden age,” with Gio Shingelia reckoned perhaps the most influential figure in Georgia’s booming electronic music scene. The BBC made a documentary about Georgia’s “Rave revolution,” and around the same time, a German documentary examined the political force behind Bassiani.
That’s a now-legendary Tbilisi club in a former swimming pool in the basement of a stadium. Noted for its transgressive cultural edginess as well as its vibrant techno music, a 2019 Guardian article by Chal Ravens went as far as to call it “one of the greatest nightclubs in the world.”
Rap in its various guises has retained a considerable following for many years across much of the region. However, in Dagestan, a proposed 2018 concert by Russian rapper Kreed was cancelled after a barrage of violent threats via social media claiming that traditional culture would be undermined by his appearance.
Tbilisi is also home to a very eclectic music scene, including what has been dubbed the Caucasus’ weirdest “psychedelic rap scene.”
Is We There Yet? by Luna999 featuring Accidboy is an archetype of Tbilisi’s eclectic psychedelic rap scene
Similarly, wide-ranging trends in electronic, DJ and techno-house music are audible across the region, and there’s a whole spectrum of rap styles. In Armenia, beatbox has mixed with rap in inventive combined sets and tag team performances. In a mellower mood, a mellifluous sunset set by German DJ Acid Pauli brought outdoor dancing to the plateau of the ancient Graeco-Roman temple at Garni in 2019. Baku was host to the 2014 finals of the Red Bull Thre3style international DJ contest. Many lesser-known artists of the genre from across the region have found an outlet online through Beatport, which – perhaps miraculously – has somehow flown under the censors’ radar in Iran.
Iran is a country where very conservative social norms apply, so for youth in Tehran, being rebellious requires the treading of a dangerous knife-edge path that nudges gently at the bounds of the country’s Islamic laws. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, and the morality police are charged with seeking out music that might be deemed blasphemous or antisocial. Although controls are less strict than in the 1980s, most of the country’s top DJs have sought sanctuary in the west and dancing remains strictly banned. Yet, very much in secret, there is a surprisingly cutting edge rave-party scene as documented in the 2016 film Raving Iran, albeit by necessity, the venues are usually in remote desert locations or in a big mansion belonging to someone with connections to the upper echelons of Iranian society – otherwise, almost certainly every guest would be arrested.