Academic journal article Current Musicology

The 1990s "Kutaisi Wave": Music and Youth Movement in a Postindustrial Periphery

Academic journal article Current Musicology

The 1990s "Kutaisi Wave": Music and Youth Movement in a Postindustrial Periphery

Article excerpt

In the summer of 2001, long before I became an ethnomusicologist, I first traveled to Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, to intern in the now-defunct State Ministry of Property Management. One of my assignments was to accompany a German energy engineer to Kutaisi, a former industrial center in the western region of Imereti and Georgia's second-largest city, to assess the condition of three local hydroelectric plants. More than the obvious signs of neglect and resultant decay in Kutaisi, I was struck by the plurality of layers of history visible on the city skyline. There were ancient cave dwellings carved in the cliffs of the surrounding Greater Caucasus foothills and, dating from the period in which Georgia was first unified politically, dramatic architectural monuments like the ruins of Bagrat'i Cathedral (constructed 1003 CE) and the exquisitely preserved monastery-academy complex at Gelati (1120-30 CE). Beneath these were the swollen dams, giant, corroded pipes, and mildewed skeletons of former industrial command centers once powered by the waters of the mighty Rioni River. The workers at one plant, I was told, had to jump into the river to check the chemical levels since they had no instruments to do the work for them. Still, they were considered lucky to have a job. In the shady park adjacent to the city's central square, dreary-looking men sat or milled about throughout the afternoon, halfheartedly hawking their wares and services to passersby. My hosts told me that the local unemployment rate had soared to seventy percent. Hyperbole or not, that figure spoke to residents' lived experience of acute economic decline and attendant social crisis in the first decade of post-Soviet Georgian independence.

Aside from functioning as a hub for the production of hydroelectric energy in the Soviet era, Kutaisi also developed into a prosperous manufacturing center. There were truck and tractor factories, rubber factories, and lighter industrial works for producing glassware and paint. There was even a confectionery. In Tbilisi today, however, Kutaisi is commonly perceived as backward and caricatured as a "big village." The practice of jumping into the river to test levels instead of using modern tools, for example, is the sort of anecdotal material that commentators engaging in the dominant discourse draw on to construct an image of the city as primitive and unsophisticated. As I would observe over the course of many ensuing visits to Georgia and interactions with Georgian migrants in the United States, attitudes and discourses provincializing Kutaisi proliferate among outsiders to the city. In the post-Soviet period in particular, Tbilisi-based elites have applied the pejorative stereotype mat'rabazi--braggart or fraud--to Kutaisi natives to imply that they bear false pretenses of sophistication, worldliness, and even Westernness.

In this paper I treat popular music as a lens for exploring the intersections of place and postsocialist youth identity in Kutaisi in the early-mid 1990s, bearing in mind throughout the noticeable cultural rivalry between Kutaisi and Georgia's political capital. Kutaisi-based musicians maintain that Georgia's rock and alternative music industry began in their hometown in the final years of socialism and spread from there to Tbilisi. After the civil war that spoiled the initial euphoria of independence in 1991, a dynamic Kutaisi-based popular movement mobilized locally produced rock, punk rock, and related genres to publicly articulate disaffection with the conditions of postsocialism. While the dominant discourse on Kutaisi dismisses this movement as inconsequential or even a national disgrace, those who were involved consider it the first and only post-Soviet manifestation in a long genealogy of forms of liberal, cosmopolitan consciousness to emerge from Kutaisi. (1) The latter also maintain that it marked an instance of antiestablishment grassroots social organizing, which is relatively rare in modern Georgian memory. …

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