The early 1990’s in Europe: Raves were a burgeoning trend consuming suburbs and undisclosed roadside destinations every weekend; Techno and House music had found a vigorous youthful audience; and everywhere artists and DJs were abandoning stoic musical traditions in what was to be one of the sonically richest eras for electronic music in living memory. It’s an ear most of us today are only able to live through archives and the recorded music of the time, but for an entire generation of 20-somethings in Tbilisi in Georgia, the 90’s has only just started. “We kind of skipped the ’90s the first time,” says Zviad Gelbakhiani to Resident Advisor in a feature interview from last year. One of the founders of Bassiani, a club in the Georgian capital, Gelbakhiani might have exaggerating slightly, but as Bassiani has become the name on every avid music fan’s ips over the last few years there’s definitely something to explore further in that statement.
“I’ve read some books on the history of what happened in Berlin when the wall fell, and for me there is a lot of similarity between happened there 20 years ago and what’s happening in Tbilisi now”, says Hector Oaks. Héctor is the Madrid via Berlin DJ and producer famed for his OAKS imprint and as Cadency he is also the newest edition to Bassiani’s resident roster. Héctor Oaks is in a very fortuitous position of an objective view of what’s happening in Tbilisi now. Selling records out of the Record Loft in Berlin and producing uncompromising Techno music, almost exclusively for his OAKS imprint, Héctor is a prominent figure at the current epicentre of this music in Berlin, but even he is taken aback by what Bassiani has achieved in such a short time. “They are doing it at a level that not that many cities in Europe even have” he says in his unmistakeable Spanish accent. Bassiani’s rise to prominence is a story that borders on club fantasy, the story of Tato Getia and Zviad Gelbakhiani who went from throwing parties on a whim and a prayer in 2012 to creating one of the most established clubs in the world in a matter of a few years – and all before they’d turned 25. “In the late 2000’s deep house scene was too repetitive and empty of context in Tbilisi, and clubbing was deeply perceived just as entertainment, thus the scene was stuck”, explains Tato Geita. The time was ripe for a new club to exist and “people were ready and eager for changes”, and Bassiani was born.
The visitor enters Bassiani through cavernous concrete subterranean maze of the Dinamo Football arena in Tbilisi before s/he is spat out into an olympic size empty pool that’s been reborn as a dance floor. A setting so perfectly suited for its new function it had to have been kismet that brought Geita and Gelbakhiani to the future venue when the lease on a temporary venue had gotten too expensive. The new premises fitted like a glove, tailored perfectly for their tastes and their booking profile and they quickly became one of the leading lights in Europe’s clubland, and all in spite of the political pressures they face.
In the current political landscape in Georgia where homophobia is rampant and drug policies target the individual rather than the infrastructure with some pretty harsh punishment it’s nothing short of a miracle that Bassiani can and does survive. “Everybody is surprised that the club stays open” says Gigi Jikia, who is better known as Bassiani resident and DJ/producer HVL. It’s a “tough and weird” political landscape for Gigi, who is often stopped and searched without any probable cause (other than being a clubgoer) for the suspicion that he might be in the possession of illicit substances. Gigi, who “doesn’t do drugs”, believes the “police is abusing its authority” for profitable gain. A person can face up to eight years in jail and acquire a hefty fine for carrying as little as a milligram of MDMA on them. “The drug users are the only criminals they (the police) are able to catch” according to Gigi who also believes “the police are using more resources on arresting drug users than fighting violence or organised crime” in Tbilisi. They’ll even go as far lie in wait outside Bassiani to “stop you for no reason”, but “somehow the Bassiani guys are managing to keep the out of the club”, which means for Gigi, and other clubgoers in Georgia that Bassiani has become a “safe space”.
Coming into their own in this political landscape Bassiani defies all odds to exist and remain that safe haven, and together with their residents they’ve set a new standard for clubbing, one that even exceeds many of its more established European neighbours. “Five years ago there were only two small clubs and after Bassiani the landscape totally changed, says (Tornike) Kvanchi, the longest serving resident at Bassiani today. Tornike started out working for the label when Bassiani opened and when they established the second Horoom, he became its de facto resident. I’m on a video call with him from a new venue in the heart of Tbilisi when Gigi is about to go on stage with his new ambient project, Masterknot. The nature of the performance as ambient live act and the venue is perhaps an indication of how prevalent attitudes towards clubbing and club music might be changing after Bassiani. Tornike is of the opinion “it’s changed people’s views about music and the party”, which today in Georgia has become a critical component of the social infrastructure of the country. “It’s not just about dancing or hanging out, it’s more of a political thing now”, explains Tornike.
Dogged by a volatile political landscape throughout modern history, Georgia went from being a part of the soviet union to gaining independence; immediately plunging into a civil war; teetering on an edge of war with internal regional disputes; gaining some stability after a Rose Revolution; before engaging in a war with Russia in 2008. Marred by these political unrests since gaining independence in the 90’s, it’s only in recent years that Georgia has enjoyed some stability, but it’s still not without its problems. As is the “case with most post-soviet countries” homophobia is common among “80% of the people” according to Tornike, but it has become an issue Bassiani is facing head on. The gay club night Horoom (from which Bassiani’s second room also takes its name) was established in direct response to homophobia as a club night that would be “open to everyone” regardless of your sexual preference and looked to encourage a liberal attitude to gender.
As an outsider looking in Héctor Oaks is of the opinion that “people there are more oppressed than in the rest of Europe”, but while that might be true, they are certainly not assuming a passive position in regards to the situation. While the Horoom nights unequivocally condemn homophobia, by openly hosting gay events, Bassiani is also involved with White Noise, an organisation that is fighting to get drug legislation changed, with the club itself hosting talks on the subject and encouraging a dialogue amongst its punters. When I asked Hector, Tornike and Gigi, if they’ve noticed a change in the attitudes of people outside of the club I get a resounding yes. “They are doing a great job informing people about this issue” says Gigi and Tornike has seen “some action against homophobia and drug policy taken to the streets” in the years succeeding Bassiani.
Both DJs are very perceptive to the issues that surround club culture as much as the music and Gigi even poses his own questions about the Norwegian clubbing landscape and the problems that mar weekends in Oslo. Encouraging the political motivations of DJs like Gigi and Bassiani is the music of course, as it is with any similar institution, but unlike the apathetic escapism that we see across the rest of Europe’s club culture, in Georgia the two elements have become intrinsically intertwined. Bassiani might be a nightclub like any other, one with a vested interest in these political issues in order to survive and capitalize, but talking to the residents and some of the people behind the scenes, it’s clear that it’s a passion for the music and not business that motivates them. Bassiani didn’t spring into existence out of nothing and they do come off the back of a small but healthy underground scene in Tbilisi, but with Bassiani did come a musical objective that Tbilisi had not really seen before. It was twofold: firstly to bring international club acts to Georgia and secondly to promote and encourage new Georgian artists and DJs. When I talk to Tornike, he had just finished a set opening up for Roman Flügel, and talks of the experience with some reverence. “He is the one and only” says Tornike and I think back to my own experiences of Flügel’s last set in Jæger’s basement. The German DJ’s set was expansive and eclectic, perfectly suited for our cosy basement, and I wonder how the chameleon DJ might have adapted it for the stark brutalist caverns of the Dinamo Arena’s subterranean venue.
“The space is made for that industrial sound” suggests Héctor Oaks when I ask him about his first impressions of the club. Pictures of Bassiani’s main room show barren concrete pillars illuminated by modest white stage lights suspended from the ceiling by chains. It’s the perfect space for the brutal kind European Techno proliferated by the likes of Shed, Innigo Kennedy and Function, but Bassiani I learn from its residents is far more diverse than the sum of these parts. “Normally I play Horoom”, says Héctor, “and that’s the place where I’m the most free to do whatever I want.” Tornike is of a similar opinion who feels that as Kvanchi he is able to “play raw music” at Horoom, offering a contrast to the functionalism of Bassiani’s main room. “It’s refreshing for the people” he goes on saying and suggests it’s much like what Panorama bar is to Berghain; “House orientated, with some Disco and more soulful music.”
Héctor who often plays 12 hour vinyl sets in Horoom, digs through his extensive collection that can go from Nu-Beat, Electro, Synthpop and EBM to House, showcasing his broad tastes cultivated through the Record Loft. He can’t be sure if it’s him or if the people “just trust the place”, but when Bassiani closes at 10-11 in the morning Horoom carries on “and that’s when the party really starts”. Øyvind Morken, who had just come back from playing a set at Horoom while I’m writing this explains it’s “like a “smaller version of Panorama bar” with a “really enthusiastic crowd”
That enthusiasm is exactly the crucial ingredient to Horoom and Bassiani’s success. Although there might have been “some parties in the early nineties” in Tbilisi according to Gigi, electronic music was “not as big or as popular” as it is today. While that early generation might have “had an impact” on the scene there, Gigi’s generation wasn’t “even aware of it” and it was more likely the “foreign stuff” that introduced he and his peers to electronic music and motivated them. Through the internet they’d been made aware of what was happening outside Georgia and this is where Bassiani became trailblazers, booking internationally acclaimed DJs to the capital to a very receptive audience. ”Before Bassiani, I had only heard a handful of big artists”, says Gigi who enjoys the “huge pleasure” of hearing so many artists every weekend now. “The bottom line is to go for what we love in dance music”, elucidates Tato on the booking policy of the club. “Of course, there are moments we have to take into consideration the characteristics of the scene and the city but the line-up is very essential part of Bassiani and stakes are very high, it must always be equally interesting and fascinating for everybody involved in the culture, based in Tbilisi or any other part of the world.”
That modus operandi also extends to the label, which marks four releases today. Combining music from visiting producers like Varg and Voiski with music from their own homegrown talent, the compilation series showcases the diversity and dynamism of the club in the recorded format. “Our strength lies in the variety” says Tornike, the DJ behind the daily operations of the label. Sticking close to the club’s booking policy, the label’s “motivation is to be different” and refrain from being pigeonholed with “one particular sound”. It’s gone some way in inspiring the musical community around the club too, suggests both Tornike and Gigi and ultimately it has cemented the legacy of Bassiani beyond Georgia too.
“Bassiani’s definitely had an impact on people working within club orientated music” says Gigi, but crucially “it’s also affecting people outside of club” and on more than one level. What Bassiani is doing as a club is by no means revolutionary and Tresor, Fabric, Panorama Bar and Robert Johnson have set standards that Bassiani have mimicked, but none of them can quite boast to have had so much influence in such a short period and to be so culturally/socially significant.
Whether they’re fighting for their political freedoms or providing the highest level of club entertainment to a few eager dancers, Bassiani’s influence can be felt through the very social structure of Tbilisi, and in that they are innovators even in the shadow of their more established counterparts. Bassiani is effectively the first to actualise the true intentions of a club; a space for escapism through music that can also affect social change beyond its doors. Politics might have no place on the dance floor, but the dance floor and the music can certainly provide a place and language for a conversation to begin and perhaps that is what lies behind the success of Bassiani.
* HVL, Kvanchi and Cadency plays Jæger during Oslo World Music Festival.