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Turkmenistan: Niazov Playing Havoc Again

Music restriction is latest in a series of comical prohibitions.
By IWPR staff

Turkmenistan president Saparmurat Niazov has continued his incursions into the private lives of his citizens, by banning musicians from singing to pre-recorded music.


This latest prohibition forms part of a "Battle for True Values" - a kind of Turkmen Cultural Revolution, which began at the end of the 1990s with the banning of opera and ballet, art forms which Niazov deemed “un-Turkmen, foreign to an ancient people, and even incomprehensible for many".


The banning of beards and gold teeth followed in 2003 and last year female anchorwomen were forbidden to dye their hair or wear make up in front of the cameras.


“The era of independence has become the era of a genuine flourishing of national culture and art, so today as never before the true traditions of the Turkmen people, including musical and singing traditions, must be protected from alien western influences which have a negative effect on them,” said Niyazov, announcing the latest decree at a government session.


Comical though such measures may sound, they are no laughing matter to Turkmen citizens, not least because the whims of the self-dubbed Turkmenbashi or "Leader of the Turkmen" are so zealously enforced.


In a country with no real code of law, even a passing comment from Niazov can have far-reaching ramifications, as officials rush to transform his word into law - literally.


“The use of pre-recorded music is forbidden at state festivals, on television and at all events organised in public places or mass gatherings of citizens. Instead, artists and musicians will now have to perform live at family celebrations, including weddings," said an employee of the ministry of culture. "So far there has been no clarification about what form penalties will take - either fines or other punishment."


The president has placed responsibility for enforcement with the ministry of culture and the Ashgabat city council. These often impose the most stringent interpretations of such bans, as a way of covering themselves against possible accusations of laxity.


“If you tell our officials to take off their hats, they will take off their heads," said a cafe owner in Ashgabad, who has taken the precaution of removing the karaoke machine from his bar until “better times”. "I'm afraid that following this decree, singing karaoke songs will somehow be seen as illegal and I will have problems with the authorities."


He is not the only one. Karaoke has become something of a craze in Ashgabat, but most machines have disappeared from view as cafe owners are reluctant to provoke the ire of the authorities.


Weddings will also be directly affected. "Until now, we would prepare an evening of entertainment and for some of the numbers, my performers would use pre-recorded music or mime over other people's voices as part of the show," said Tahir, a professional master of ceremonies from Ashgabat. "Now we will have to complete review our entertainment schedule."


Other former Soviet states have introduced much more limited bans, with the aim of preserving orchestras and live performance. Azerbaijan has prohibited the use of pre-recorded music in Baku concert halls owned by the ministry of culture. A decree issued by the Belarus government states that with the exception of music to accompany plays and festivals, all musical programmes organised by the state concert department must be played live.


But as Niazov has already banned opera, ballet and disbanded the State Philharmonic Orchestra, his decree is less an attempt to protect live performance, than part of an all-out assault on any non-traditional music.


The ban will be felt keenly across the fledgling Turkmen pop scene. A number of professional recording studios have opened in recent years, where local bands have been producing western-style pop music, which has a popular following among young people.


“Our new albums sell out instantly among our listeners, who are mainly students and schoolchildren," one young performer told IWPR. "Young people like modern musical technology and songs with computer production. They hear me on the disc, but I can't sing in the same way on stage without pre-recorded arrangements. If people stop going to my concerts, then my discs will stop selling."


“Just imagine a song which people have heard many times on TV, with a studio recording and professional computer production of the voice and special effects. Then imagine the same song live - it would sound terrible. This is what will happen to our pop music,” said an employee of Turkmen television.


“Our Turkmen pop music will stop developing, young people will lose interest in modern Turkmen performers and end up listening to western music - just as in the 1960s, young people secretly listened to the Beatles who were banned by the communists,” said Aidyn, a long-standing organiser of the Ashgabat rock club.


Even traditional artists who have little time for pop music resent Niazov’s interference in the arts. "From little acorns, big trees grow - first our president stopped the development of serious music in this country by banning the State Philharmonic Orchestra, now he is targeting pop music," a popular and much-feted Turkmen artist told IWPR.


"Of course, it is hard to call what they do 'art', but if it is modern and young people like it, it has every right to exist. It's better for young people to be listening to music than to be out making trouble. Our president should have more important things to do with his time."


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