A New Generation of Musicians is Changing Baku’s Music Scene
Friends first noticed Altun Zeynalov's talent when he was nine.
The boy's ability to hum, in tune, the soundtracks of the films The Mask of Zorro and Titanic was impressive. But despite those early signs of musical ability, his family was still surprised when he became a professional singer in his 20s.
Born in 1990 in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, today Zeynalov represents a new generation of musicians in the country.
His success – and the success of dozens of other young musicians – reflects recent shifts in Baku’s music scene.
This generation of musicians defines itself as the "underground" – not because the venues or music are illegal, but because their music is so radically different from the established music industry in the country.
The trend started about five years ago, in mid-2014, in Baku, when young people's quest for a safe place to relax in the evenings coincided with a growing number of young musicians looking for a place to perform.
The musicians began playing in bars, pubs and small night clubs – anywhere they could find a space that passed as a stage. As they played, their audience grew. Today the movement has gotten so strong that it has succeeded in changing how people perceive the nightlife in Baku.
Instead of being limited to expensive nightclubs that only catered to men and escorts, now a growing number of clubs, bars and pubs offer a safe place for young women to relax and socialize.
"In the city center, the number of pubs where average Azerbaijani young people go has increased in recent years, especially since 2015," noted Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a gender activist.
"There are also many young women going to these places. They are very convenient, especially for women who smoke and do not want to do so publicly."
Gulnara Mehdiyeva also noted that the trend has had a positive impact on the number of female musicians who are performing in public.
For instance, Albina Pyaksheva regularly performs live shows at Baku's underground venues.
Pyaksheva was born in 1992 in Chechnya but moved to Azerbaijan as a child.
“My entire house was a stage for me when I was a child; I was using a comb as a microphone in the bathroom, then a TV remote control in the living room, etc. Singing was my game as a child," she said.
But she was not supported at home. "My nanny was telling me my voice was disturbing and I could not be a real singer. And I do not like the words "not" and "impossible". My first audience was my toys and my microphone was a comb,” she said.
For Pyaksheva, the Baku underground music scene has been a pathway to professional success. She leveraged an appearance in a local music competition, "Voice of Azerbaijan" to start singing at the underground live venues. Last year she placed 3rd at the prestigious Baku Jazz Festival.
Firudin Allahverdi, a music composer, said these young artists have already achieved one victory: they have successfully circumvented the established music industry.
"They found a space to be in touch with their audience. This relationship will help the musicians grow professionally," he said.
When asked if this new generation of musicians will have a wider impact on Azerbaijani society, Allahverdi was cautious.
"I’m not sure those venues and live concerts have a major impact on society, since they all are situated in one neighborhood in the capital. If it were spread throughout the country, then its impact would be real,” he said.
Today, however, there are already signs that Baku's music scene is attracting musicians from other Azerbaijani cities.
Le Château Music Bar, Kotti Bar, Old Room, Etud café-bar, Old school cafe, Zion Rooftop and other alternative venues in the city center provide a platform for musicians to perform and form bands.
For Ramil Bayov, the live shows at Le Château Music Bar provided a way to improve his music.
“I learned how to play the drums at Le Château Music Bar. There were good drummers playing here, so I learned from them by watching and analyzing,” said 26-year-old Bayov.
Ramil is a bass guitarist and drummer from Sumgait city, about 31 kilometers from the capital.
In 2013, he formed his first band, Mozalan. Despite the group's subsequent collapse, his passion to music continued. Soon he launched a new band, Snails. The new band is popular enough that he is now earning money by playing live shows.
The new music scene is also expanding into techno music. Although not traditionally popular in Baku, techno and rave music are quickly catching on. IN Club, a techno venue that opened in 2012, is considered the heart of the local techno movement.
IN Club is located in an abandoned factory and an industrial atmosphere reigns inside. There is a spacious dance floor and a tunnel leads from the entrance to the club. On the way to the dance floor, there is a bar and smoking room assembled from the metal waste found in the factory when the club took over.
There is also a small courtyard where a railway carriage functions as a food court and even provides vegetarian dishes. The club operates from midnight till 10 am and has become a favorite for techno lovers from all over Europe.
Despite its European techno club look, the venue is serious about decorum: queues are orderly and club management takes a dim view to its female patrons being harassed.
It promotes club couture, and the idea of being freaky but not fancy – a slogan that has already started to chip away at the stereotype that Azerbaijani youth dress up when they go out.
One of the club's DJs – Islam Abbasov (known as DJ Ooma) – graduated with an engineering degree but has dedicated his life to making music, not buildings. Born in Baku in 1992, he has come of age with the new generation of musicians.
“I love sharing my energy with people," he says.
"I believe music brings out all our inner emotions and I like it.”