Nazira on her time in Australia & the rewards & challenges of building community

Kazakhstan’s NAZIRA (Nazira Kassenova) is an electrifying DJ, blending incessant techno thumpers with a diverse range of material, from Princess Nokia‘s ‘Brujas’, to propulsive electro, to frenetic breaks. Listening to her sets, there’s a distinct sense of craft and polish as she deftly layers some of the best contemporary dance music out there.

Making her European debut at Unsound Kraków in 2016, Nazira was quickly frequenting clubs and warehouses from Poland to London and back again. Rather than moving West, however, Nazira decided to come home to Almaty and establish ZVUK, an ambitious crew pushing the envelope (at great risk) in a culturally isolated and politically conservative country. ZVUK parties are some of the only, if not the only, low-cost and inclusive events accessible. Nazira and her community are pushing for a radical kind of freedom not often seen in post-Soviet countries, but almost always localised to small groups of committed young people.

Nazira recently graced Australia to play two shows, one in Melbourne with Club D’Érange and Vibe Positive, and in Sydney with newly-launched crew Unsung. We sat down to talk about her time in Australia, ZVUK, her many club and radio residencies, and throughout it all, the challenges and rewards of working tirelessly to build community.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. How’s your time been so far in Australia? 

So great. For me, it’s still kind of crazy that I get to travel everywhere, and with Australia it’s so far away! It’s even better than I imagined. Honestly, I’m figuring out how can I come next time.

How do you feel about the party you played last night?

It was amazing! The vibe was great, technically too. The lights were sick. Sometimes when you go to play in other places there’s no sense of community, but here it feels like it’s there. Not that everyone knows everyone, but it’s super friendly. There’s a sense that people are really present and caring. It’s feels meaningful, special to you.

I think that feeling of specialness is quite central to a lot of Sydney parties, because they’re relatively rare. Not in the sense that they don’t happen very often, but in comparison to say, Melbourne, there’s so much less going on because of how the lockout laws have really gutted things. There’s that air of specialness because you’re worried it might not happen again! I was reading that one of your first big clubbing experiences was while studying in the UK, for instance at Sub Club in Glasgow. Was there something in particular about those experiences that was formative?

Yeah, that was one of the defining moments. I started going out in Almaty at age 17, and the scene there isn’t that exciting. There was one club throwing okay parties, but then it got shut down. My real first experiences going out and getting involved was in the UK. It wasn’t only the UK sound that was influential—it was also this sense of freedom and unity in the community. The whole experience! I wanted to do something, but I was super intimidated because everyone was so cool, DJs are so cool!

They’re so not!

Yeah, I know that now. I started throwing parties with friends in the city I was studying in, and started to DJ in secret, because I didn’t want anyone to know. I got a controller from my friend and started to do it in my bedroom. I was like “No one can know!” The thing is, there wasn’t a time that I was like “I’m doing it”, because it all started very naturally. I really started to pay more attention and be more serious about it when I got back home to Almaty. I got back home and there was nothing, and so I had to start something. Even with my sound, you can hear that the UK had an influence, but when I started playing, I used to play a lot more Berghain techno.

It’s interesting that you focus on the freedom and that unity that comes out of the early rave scene in the UK—this idea that these spaces were created very specifically for people to go and have those experiences. I really appreciate how you returned to Almaty and your first thought was “Rather than recreate that here, let’s just create space here and see what happens with ZVUK.” 

Yeah, exactly. What really got me into raves was the freedom. My idea when I got back to Almaty was that I wanted people to experience that. I really didn’t want to copy, because Kazakhstan is so different! How can you copy?

It doesn’t really make sense if you’re trying to foster a local scene, to try and recreate someone else’s, right? In Australia, for instance, as nice as it is to bring someone over from Germany, there’s dance music being made here that’s as good, if not better and fresher. Enderie, for instance, who played before you last night. How is it in Kazakhstan?

In Almaty, there are not that many good artists and DJs. Not that many people produce. Even DJing is very difficult because you don’t have access to CDJs. So, scene development is very slow. Partially it’s because there’s not enough promoters who care about what they do, but also there’s not that many artists making stuff. I think it’s just that maybe the musical tradition we come from, people are a bit lazy to explore stuff sometimes, and when you don’t have equipment it’s harder to get started in music.

Obviously, gear is one thing, but even getting people to have a go can be so difficult. What are some of the other challenges with that?

I mean, the financial side obviously is difficult. We’re so isolated! Bringing someone from Europe is super expensive, but also the level of income in Kazakhstan is pretty low, and we can’t charge that much. The most expensive I would make the ticket, even for an international act, is five euros [$10AUD]. You have to rent the space, the sound system, you have to bring things for people to sit on… Portable toilets, too. Also, and it’s getting better now, but in the beginning a huge challenge for me was explaining to people how we’re different from shitty tech house parties.

So you brought Giant Swan over for a ZVUK show?

Yeah, in November [2018]. They were insane. We usually try to bring artists over for a few days, so they get to spend time in the community.

Fly-in, fly-out when you’re going to Kazakhstan doesn’t quite work…

In a place like Kazakhstan you feel like you’re making a change, and it’s always nice for artists to feel that. People in Kazakhstan have literally never heard that kind of music before!

So, you’re currently a resident at Room 4 Resistance (R4R) in Berlin, which recently moved from ://about blank to Trauma Bar. How’s that going?

The new place is super clean, with such a nice Funktion-One sound system. It’s rare for Berlin to have a purpose-built club, rather than a warehouse or something. The residency’s been going for more than two years now. After playing Unsound Kraków, another Polish festival booked me, and then I found a gig at R4R around that. I remember it was a garden party, and they put me on to close for two hours. And while I was playing, the people who run R4R came up to me to say they wanted me to be their new resident. I was like “What the fuck? You know I live in Kazakhstan, right?”

It’s such a great thing to be involved with them—the list of other residents is amazing, like rRoxymore, and Deena Abdelwahed. The party has real meaning, and the programming is great, with exciting artists that wouldn’t normally get booked elsewhere. And now we get to do showcases, and I travel around to play them and do workshops.

In terms of the residency, do you approach that differently to say, how you’d play a ZVUK show in Almaty?

I don’t change myself too much from one place to another. In Almaty, people are less knowledgeable about electronic music than people in Berlin or Europe in general, but I’m not going to play easier stuff just because of that! When you have a residency, because you play more often, it’s good to bring freshness to it each time. I think my style in general is pretty varied. Obviously, it’s pretty full on in terms of how banging it is, but every time I’m trying to switch it up, with something new, trying things out. I wouldn’t say though that I change myself too much based on the place. You have to be sensible, though. For example, I played Berghain for the first time recently, and felt this big pressure to play just straight up dystopian techno, thinking that I couldn’t really play electro or anything, I should just bang it out for four hours. But then I thought “fuck it.” I just did a Berghain-appropriate Nazira set, which was still me at its core.

It’s heartening to hear you’re not coddling people. You’re not saying “well, here’s some easy techno to start off and we’ll see in 5 years what you can handle.”

No way!

That’s not how you get a vibrant scene going. You have to push it.

That’s exactly it. In the beginning with ZVUK, even if I had started with really straight-up techno, that would have been new to people.

May as well start off weird, then.

Yeah! The first gig we did we had a guy play drone music, people were like “what the fuck is that?” Then I brought Via App through to play, as well. The next day people were like “were those fucking pterodactyl noises or something? In this smoky ass warehouse?”

Good to get that reaction!

I wasn’t like “I’m going to change things up to please people.” If they want to come, they will come.

That’s where a good scene comes from, I think. That shared experience of going out together regardless of the popularity of the artist or the clout of whoever’s putting it on.

In Kazakhstan, people come to the party and you don’t even need a warm-up. People just go straight to dancing like crazy.

You recently finished up at Radar Radio, and are currently on Radio Comème. On Radar Radio your show was called “The New East”, and you showcased a lot of post-Soviet artists. How was that?

It was really good! I started doing that pretty early, just when I started to play Europe. For me, it was mind-blowing that I got to travel, and then also have a radio show with all of these legit DJs around me, and on a UK radio program too! I get to play my own music and talk shit? Amazing. When you’re from a post-Soviet country, it’s more difficult to get out. It comes from a lot of things—the scene is very Western-centric, it’s more difficult to bring us over, more expensive…so a lot of people don’t even bother. Kazakhstan doesn’t have a strong scene, but Ukraine, Russia, Georgia…they have really strong scenes, and it’s boss in terms of musicians and parties. The Western world just doesn’t know it. It’s really important for me to showcase artists from those countries.

As far as I can tell, in the five years there’s been such a rise in non-Western crews, like SVBKVLT in Shanghai, Hakuna Kulala in Kampala, a lot of Eastern European crews. I feel like we’re slowly shifting away from this idea of Berlin and London as the centres of the electronic music world, with these fusional styles that are really ambitious. Do you feel like that shift away from the West is happening fast enough?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shift. I think the geography of electronic music is expanding, compared to before when there was nothing apart from American and Europe. People are paying attention more, but there’s not enough connections. I wouldn’t say that there’s such a big change for those smaller scenes, though. The interest is high, but it’s more on paper, in the media. If we’re talking about an average DJ from the West, they would go and travel to those countries, so they still benefit more from expanding their geography.

That’s a really good point! It needs to go both ways in terms of exposure.

Words by MICHAEL STRATFORD HUTCH

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About:

One-time cellist, ballroom dance champion, youth cult leader, Cocteau Twins superfan, and karate kid, now bringing you the best in new Australian music (at least until I get into clown school).