Monday, February 22, 2010

Subculture: Underground Rap Music in Turkmenistan

(The cover art for Zumer Chas' latest album, featuring RuDe. Image courtesy of the Darkroom Posse FaceBook fan club)

In American rap music you can often hear the rapper refer to their city, but you will be hard pressed to find a song entitled after a city and entirely about a city. In contrast, rappers from Turkmenabat, a city about 40 minutes south of my town take great pride on rapping about their city. I first heard the song "City Turkmenabat" at my student's birthday party and all of the guests were up and singing the song which left me the only one still sitting on the floor not knowing a single word in the lyrics. The rapper, Mano Faruh, is from Turkmenabat and raps entirely about the city and about how great it is to live there. One of my students has started recording his own rap songs and I asked him about why Turkmen rappers often rap about their hometowns or cities. He told me that in the underground Turkmen rap world, there are rivalries between different welayats, regions, (click for a map of Turkmenistan and the different welayats) and their regional capitals. He had me listen to a rap song from Mary Welayat that threw insults at the Lebap Welayat rappers and rap culture. The Lebap rappers were already busy with creating a rap song to toss back into their rivals' faces. It reminded me of the East Coast--West Coast hip hop rivalry in the United States.

Despite its isolation, in the past few years a unique Turkmen urban culture has materialized. Western rappers remain popular, but the rise of Turkmen artists has fed the youth subculture that didn't exist a short time ago. The Turkmen government has tried to control the spread of this new form of expression by prohibiting the use of swear words and banning Turkmen artists to leave the country for concerts. This has forced Hip Hop underground. Many aspiring Turkmen rap artists are students abroad and they listen to new songs and distribute their work through online Turkmen rap websites. began in 2005 and was the first music video portal in Ashgabat. They post hundreds of songs and music videos that anyone anywhere in the world can access. Illegal distribution and online downloading are the main ways that Turkmen rap and Hip Hop artists circulate their music because of a lack of record companies and official sponsors. Rap music holds connotations of violence and rebellion, but from what I have seen so far, Turkmen rap music is not nearly as violent as American rap. I offered to help my student write a rap song in English and when I asked him what he would like to sing about, he replied, "mothers." Okay. A rap song about mothers. This isn't exactly what comes to my mind when I think of rap music, but this disparity reflects the differences between the American and the Turkmen rap culture. Someone like AKON who has a past criminal record and who raps about murder and redemption can be idolized in America and around the world, but a Turkmen rapper must still tread carefully and remember that even harmless rap subculture in Turkmenistan can be seen as a threat to overall order by the authorities.

When asked about why rap is popular in Turkmenistan, Zumarchas, one of the most famous Turkmen Hip Hop artists, said:

My aim is to tell about my life and to share my experiences with the people. I think everyone has got a problem somewhere. The more you share those things the more life becomes easier, it helps to foster thinking. By singing about them, we [the rappers] are turning these life experiences into artwork. It’s a different feeling, it’s a kind of self-realization and boosting self-confidence. And the people have got interest in those real life experiences.

To listen to some Turkmen rap and to watch some Turkmen music videos, click on the following links:

City Turkmenabat by Mano Faruh
iStreet by RuDe featuring Arman (Darkroom Posse Music)
Palestine by Zumarchas and Syke (Note: This video contains graphic images of Palestine after bombings)

When speaking about how he created 'Palestine,' Zumarchas explained:

The ‘Palestine’ song came as it came and there was nothing planned about it. My band partner Nazar had sent me some beats to consider for our album ‘1 Galam 1 Deprek EP’ and suddenly dispute and struggle crossed my mind. It was the time when Palestine, a Muslim country, was being bombed. So, I began to write the [lyrics] with Syke.

There are two things about the song. First, Syke and I were not in a good relationship earlier. We were attacking each other with ‘disrespect’ songs publicly. But some time later we decided to give it up and became friends. There was a surprise reaction to ‘Palestine’ with the listeners [in which they asked] ‘What’s happening to these guys?’ when in fact we were trying to send out a message of peace, as I say at the end of the song, ‘with this song we are calling upon the people to peace.’ We intended to show to them the result of a fight in an intelligent way.

Secondly, with this song we wanted to contribute to the end to tribalism [among Turkmens] as people from Teke and Yomut and other tribes in chat forums are attacking each other. We did a lot of work on writing the lyrics of the song and out came a good result. Our listenership increased and we got a lot of attention from Turkmenistan.


I would like to say thank you to Muhammed from who commented on my original blog post and brought up some good points for me to consider further.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Short Story: A moment that lasted minutes, but left me thinking about it for days after

I slowed to a walk, breathless and sweaty under my layers of clothing. I turned around the corner to my small, paved street where my house sits second on the right, situated between a tiny, stucco house with long grapevines out front that swallow the building, and a massive two storey house that sits abandoned, only visited by the large colony of pigeons that nest in the tin roof. I took out one of my headphones and turned down the blasting music, my self-defense against the catcalls of the farmers along my running route. Squatting down, with his rear end hovering millimeters above the dirty street in a position that I know I will never be able to comfortably perch in, was one of my students. He was calmly talking to a young stray dog, trying to coax her over to him. At a young age, puppies learn not to trust humans, and they cower and run away with a slight raise of your arm. Very young puppies will look you in the eye and their tails wag as they scurry towards you. They are na├»ve and still trust that you won’t hurt them. When full grown, the dogs are either constantly terrified and scatter at any noise or quick movement, or are ferocious and want to attack anything that moves. My student understood that he had to be very gentle and calm for the puppy to come towards him. He continued to make little noises and saying “good dog,” but the puppy remained seated on her haunches and didn’t seem fooled. His back was facing me, so he didn’t know that I was watching him. Whenever he would stand up the dog would skitter backwards and he would squat down again, and the puppy would mirror him and sit back, too. I could tell that he didn’t know what to do next. I circled around and squatted down next to him, in my clumsy, wobbly squat that immediately gives away that I grew up in a culture that often uses chairs and couches. He looked over at me and said, “Annie teacher, can you help me get this dog because my dog died and I want to take this puppy home.” He stared up at me, his eyes, pleading eyes of a boy much younger than his age, looked at me searching for answers. His dirty, baggy black hat was much too big for him and it touched the top of the scar that runs along his cheekbone and up to his temple. From working along side his father in the fields, his skin is dark and tough. His tiny frame is consumed by the frayed and stained coat that has been rolled up at the sleeves but still occasionally slips down to cover his hands. I pat my hand against my shin, in my attempt to call the puppy over and she notices. He pulls back his coat sleeve and mimics my movement. In English I say, “come here girl” over and over in a singsong voice. Her ears perk up, her tail begins to wag, and shyly she starts to make her way over to me. She rolls onto her back to let us pet her soft, but dirty belly. I gently pick her up in my arms and she clings to me being so far from the ground suddenly. I tell him to hold his hands out, but instead he looks at me and says, “Annie teacher, I don’t know how to hold her. Can you take her for me?” I tell him that it isn’t hard and that he can try for a minute to hold her. “Meh,” is what I say next. There is no translation for this word, but it can mean something like here. “Meh,” I mumble again as I put her in his arms. He awkwardly holds her with two legs sticking out that he forgot to include. He looks down at the puppy and then looks up at me with a wide smile that makes his scar curve into a crescent shape. “Annie teacher, we did it!” he beams. I tell him to hold her tight until he gets home and I watch him as he walks slowly up the road a ways and then squats down to readjust his holding position. He takes a quick glance over his shoulder to check if I am still there and I wave back. He jiggles his head back and forth as he laughs, and continues on his way, leaning back to offset the weight of his new puppy.