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To Chechen Music Fans, Russia Rocks Despite Conflict

The Nation

November 08, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GUDERMES, Russia — The mosh pit wore camouflage. For that matter, so did many in the crowd.

During the first major rock concert in Chechnya since the wars began in 1994, uniformed security forces outnumbered concertgoers for much of Monday's event. Sound systems were crippled by massive police radio jamming while some of the top bands in Russia performed and strutted in a republic almost none had dared visit before.

"I'd like to thank all parties for their courage," Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov said as the Phoenix Rock Festival got underway, "and for their understanding that we must together revive peace in our land."

Putting together an outdoor rock festival in Chechnya, shattered by more than a decade of warfare between separatists and the government in Moscow, is a little like scheduling a marshmallow roast in a blizzard. Many concertgoers' minds were on not only the music but the possibility of getting blown across the far stands by a militant's bomb.

The show in Gudermes was postponed this summer when the Federal Security Service called it an invitation to trouble in a republic where roadside bombs, ambushes and suicide attacks are everyday occurrences.

Yet the presence of 3,000 security personnel lining the streets and forming a locked-arm checkerboard grid across the soccer stadium dispelled most fears. Half a dozen chart-topping bands from Moscow spent six hours playing to a smiling but subdued crowd that eventually grew to 6,000, including police.

"Your faces are full of life, youth, beauty. I wish you peace and happiness," said Alexander Kutikov, bass guitarist and singer for the band Mashina Zremeny, or Time Machine, a fixture in the lives of Russian adolescents since the 1970s.

Kutikov performed without his band. Many musicians apparently were either afraid to perform or unwilling to be part of an event organized by the Kremlin-backed Chechen authorities, who are leading an often-brutal crackdown on the insurgency.

A parliamentary election will take place this month, and Kadyrov and the ruling United Russia party are expected to easily cement a majority. The balloting is the next step in a process aimed at ending the guerrilla war and guaranteeing Chechnya's place as a permanent part of Russia.

"My performance here is an endorsement of any policy that helps resolve these military problems that have turned this land inside out for more than a decade," Kutikov said.

As it happened, the day was more musical than political. Kadyrov sat in the stands for only an hour before walking out briskly with his stern-faced detail. Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov, a key organizer of the event who at 33 seemed to be enjoying himself too much for the leader of a republic, smiled and tapped his foot in the VIP reviewing stand.

Bands such as B-2, Yuta, Myortvy Delfiny (the Dead Dolphins) and Nuance, known to every slacker worth his or her salt in Moscow, joined the Chechen-native garage-band-turned-recording artists the Presidents on a massive stage hauled in from Moscow and assembled in a city ravaged by war.

Students, most of whom had never been to a rock concert, basked in the thumping rhythms, photographing the stage with their cellphones. Boys playfully wrestled at the feet of security officers, whose sheer numbers in the early hours gave the concert a surreal sense of a serenade to the police.

Concertgoers continued to filter in as the day wore on, bused in from all over Chechnya and offered free tickets by schools and town officials. By the time the fireworks began at nightfall, the stadium was half full.

Tomish Akhmadova, a 50-year-old retiree, marched away from the stadium with her hands over both ears. "But of course a concert like this helps," she said, "because our people haven't seen anything. All they've seen is bombings. Now, at least they are getting a little fun."

"In my opinion, it would have been better if they had spent the money on schools," said Tana Kimayeva, who nevertheless attended with her teenage son and daughter. But it was not a day for curmudgeons.

"Good morning, Gudermes!" rocker Sergei Gelanin shouted from the stage, and the crowd roared back.

"We love all of them," said a 25-year-old Chechen policeman who would identify himself only by his first name, Muslim, as he listened from the sidelines.

Artur Atsalamov, a 29-year-old Chechen who is the lead singer for Myortvy Delfiny, was undaunted by police radio-jamming equipment that rendered the wireless components of the stage sound system inoperable.

"Seventy percent of all the beautiful sound I worked so hard on and entered into our computer system, all was for nothing," he said before the program. "But none of us are despairing. We are going to play it dry.

"As so often happens, we start out playing badly and singing badly, and the result is a kind of Chechen-Russian ... magic, and we sing like demi-angels!"

Afterward, three teenage girls half-walked and half-danced out of the venue. "It's the first time I've been to a concert like this," said Markhat Arsunukayeva, 14, her long braids swinging. "I'd say that these people came from Russia, they came to Chechnya, and they showed us how to make an excellent show!"

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