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Rockin’ in Tajikistan and breaking all the rules, except for drugs and alcohol

- - Friday, November 9, 2012

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The poorest of the former Soviet Central Asian states and arguably the most culturally conservative, Tajikistan is home to a small but growing rock-music scene in spite of the social pressures to conform and the difficulties finding a working guitar.

"Society doesn't like the music that we play," said Jack Rock, the stage name of the leader singer of Al Azif, Tajikistan's only "thrash metal" band. "Everybody always says that we are wasting time and we need to play softly and slowly."

Tajikistan is a Muslim country with traditional values where a group of intellectuals recently called for creation of "morality police" to control Tajik behavior and dress.

The city's young rockers are going against the grain, forming mixed-gender bands, shocking the older generation with their outlandish outfits — while also promoting the ideals of hard work and urging Tajik youths to avoid drugs and alcohol.

"Rock music has great strength to divert young people from the streets, from drugs and crime," Mr. Rock said.

"Despite the stereotype that rock musicians are antisocial, this is not the case. We never use drugs or alcohol. Music is hard work, and there is no place for junkies."

Dressed in chains and studded leather, Al Azif band members sing in English and Russian and are seen by many as flaunting the worst of Western cultural influences. They struggle to get jobs.

"There are only a small number of venues where you can play your music. It's hard to get instruments and hard to record songs," Mr. Rock said. "We play wherever we can — in discotheques, bars, restaurants, cinemas."

The long-haired musicians are determined to do their own thing, and a small but growing number of fans in the capital are egging them on.

"Now in the Dushanbe, there are about five rock bands," said local music producer Kirill Kuzmin. "In the remote regions of the country, rock musicians are almost nonexistent. People there are much more traditional than in the capital."

One Dushanbe band, Red Planet, is perhaps even more unorthodox than Al Azif. Taking to the stage in a rhinestone-encrusted T-shirt, 19-year-old Umida Fazilova gives a nod to her identical twin sister, Khursheda, sitting behind the drums and launches into a set of high-energy and emotionally charged metal.

"When I started playing rock music, everyone was laughing at me during our concerts," Khursheda Fazilova said. "They think drums are not for women."

According to the human rights watchdog Amnesty International, up to half of all women in Tajikistan suffer from domestic violence and many do not complete high school. As a result, local women say it is hard to move out of traditional female roles.

Nevertheless, the Fazilova twins say they are not afraid of causing a stir, even if they struggle to find an audience in a country where imported pop music from America and Russia rules the airwaves.

"Older people don't understand this music," said Red Planet guitarist Olim Karimov. "We have young people between 15 and 30 years old and a lot of foreigners at our concerts."

The members of Red Planet met at a university and bonded over their love of Western heavy-metal bands such as Linkin Park. Although the Western influences in the Tajik rock scene are strong, the local style has an Eastern slant all of its own.

"Sure, we're influenced by Western hard rock, punk, hard-core and even pop, but our roots are from the East," Mr. Rock said. "We have songs with specific beats with Oriental melodies."

With official figures putting unemployment at 20 percent and the economy heavily dependent on money sent home by Tajiks working abroad, these musicians have little hope of making a living from their art. But far from dreaming of wealth and stardom, they say they are happy to make sacrifices just to be able to play.

"We all work several jobs," Mr. Rock said. "To save money, we often skip meals and walk to and from rehearsals."