Popular hits are often associated with a specific moment in time, and the concept of vintage, or retro, music has become—thanks to social media—a culture of its own. This is also true for the Soviet musical heritage, and to find out more about its fans, I spoke to Hamdam Zakirov, a DJ from the city of Ferghana in Uzbekistan, who now lives in Finland where he runs his own music YouTube channel, DJ Hem—Soviet Grooves from Helsinki.
The interview was edited for brevity and style.
Filip Noubel (FN): How did you become a DJ of Soviet music and what’s the reason for moving from your native Uzbekistan to Finland?
Hamdam Zakirov (HZ): In 1994, I left Uzbekistan and moved to Moscow where I lived for eight years. Later, I ended up in Finland with my wife, a Muscovite with Finnish roots. I’ve been living in Finland since 2001 but started collecting vinyls only five years ago. About 10 years ago, a Finnish colleague asked what I knew about Soviet funk. Hearing in my mind the music of James Brown, I answered that there was no such thing. I told him back then that funk was a sexual form of music that could not possibly exist in the asexual Soviet Union (as one participant in a tele-bridge between Moscow and New York once said in a legendary sentence: “There is no sex in the USSR”). My colleague disagreed, and I promised to enquire. And I did find something! Of course nothing similar to the energy and style of James Brown, but, indeed, very interesting jazz-funk, disco-funk and elements of funk in musical arrangements. I recalled that story when I started to collect vinyls. I listened carefully to discs by Soviet artists that came my way, in order to find an answer to my colleague’s question. In the end, when I had the opportunity to play my first DJ set, I already had a solid playlist.
FN: Where do you play Soviet music? And for whom?
HZ: My first sets were performed at home for a small circle of close friends. But in January 2016, I met the committee in charge of organizing the Tusovka festival, which has been taking place in Helsinki since 1999. This festival merges musicians from Finland and from former Soviet countries over shared platforms. That same year I played my first set. And since 2016, I have been their guest DJ, which is a great honor. I’ve played several times in an Uzbek restaurant, and once at a wedding. My audience are former Soviet citizens, but also Finns interested in the many places eastwards of their borders.
FN: You also promote Uzbek music from the Soviet period. Why?
HZ: I have about 50 discs of Uzbek artists in my collection. Early this year I decided to select a program of Uzbek music from pieces I had noticed, then went deeper into the texts, the history of each performance, the authors of the songs, and decided the best thing to do would be a podcast. For now, I have uploaded two parts of my podcast that you can find on my YouTube channel. When the COVID-19 quarantine started this year—on the same date as Nowruz, the Central Asian New Year—I played my first online DJ set made mostly of Uzbek pop music. It got over 2,000 views!
My favorite artists: I found online a few songs by Batyr Zakirov, and suddenly realized that these were the first songs I ever remembered, in the sense that at the age of four or five was when I was paying attention to lyrics for the first time. I can probably state that Zakirov’s songs “Седая любовь” [Gray Love] and “Песня о счастье” [Song of Happiness] shaped my poetic worldview. During the years I attended school, I heard and fell in love with the band “Оригинал” [Original]. I would also like to mention that I have added Nasiba Abdullayeva among my favorite Uzbek artists. Her first two discs from the 1980s are unique, avant-garde musical adaptations in the context of Uzbek pop music.
Here is a playlist focusing on other big names of Soviet Uzbek music, including Batyr Zakirov:
FN: How do you find your vinyls?
HZ: I have about 6,000 discs in my collection now. In the beginning, I used to collect everything I had heard at different periods of my life. Over time, I started spending less time in flea markets, and now I look for very specific discs and songs. I buy new releases from the producers or large e-shops. As for older discs, there are several global online platforms for that. And while there are more and more disc labels, and albums released, both old and new, discs often come out in ridiculously small prints. Sometimes 200 to 300, or even 100 copies. And that’s not even the smallest figure: I have a few exclusive prints that were released in 50 or even 30 copies.
FN: I noticed in your YouTube videos you mention the beauty of the music of the Soviet era but insist this has nothing to do with any nostalgia for the Soviet system. Can you explain?
HZ: Very often my listeners who are middle-aged or older start to feel nostalgic. I often get comments saying that during Soviet times, artists played and sang wonderful music and songs. But the point is that in my sets and remixes I use the best of the best. All the songs that I select, and use in my remixes, sets and podcasts are either lyrics that are unusual and free from Soviet ideology, or are astonishing musical arrangements in which musicians managed to show the best of their talent, their knowledge about contemporary and Western pop music. All their experiences and experiments that I discover 40 and 50 years later in old vinyls, and spread amongst my listeners, can be described as heroic. The musicians of the time, like war partisans, overcame a great number of obstacles standing in their way to perform the kind of music they wanted to play. One can say I am paying tribute to their heroic efforts.
In this regard, the way the Uzbek part of my audience relates to the songs of the Soviet period is very interesting. I was told several times that I use too many songs in Russian. This is a sign of the conflicted relationship contemporary Uzbek society maintains towards its Soviet heritage. But for me, the language of the song is irrelevant. When I prepare my program, I pay attention primarily to the refined and rare combination of depth and professionalism, the art of performance, the creativity of the musical arrangements, and as a result, the sum of all those elements have to trigger a sort of response, not just for an Uzbek listener, or a person who lives or has lived in Uzbekistan, but for anyone from anywhere.
But I will let my listeners be the judge of whether I have succeeded or not!
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Photo credit: on iStock