Near East, Issue 1, Spring/Summer, 2014
Your label has released records by bands from some rather unlikely places, like Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan – music scenes that are unfamiliar to most people who live in the so-called West. Have you visited all the countries that your label has put out releases from?
Most of them. I do a lot of travelling. I love meeting people, discovering new music and new art forms from different countries. It’s my main hobby – where I put my savings.
Out of all the countries that you have visited, what was your most exciting scouting trip?
For different reasons there are a few. I loved Uzbekistan. The underground bands in Tashkent had some interesting styles of music and attitudes in a country that is very closed, and where income is extremely low. I was very happy to meet them, listen to their music, and proud to help them put out their record. The same for Tajikistan and maybe to a lesser extent Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Iran was also a blast. There were so many bands, it was completely underground and they were really struggling, so I was absolutely pleased to release the Iranian LP. Styles are extremely diverse there. It’s not your straightforward punk for most of the bands, but for me the record is a brilliant reflection of the scene at the time (2003). I also liked the compilation that I did last year with bands from Morocco, and the split between Lebanese bands as well as the Syrian band, Mazhott. For me this was an important milestone for the development of alternative Rock and Roll cultures in the Arab world. Of course, there is also my release for Sound of Ruby, from Saudi Arabia – which, as far as I know, is the only punk band in the country. It’s one of a kind because the underground in Saudia Arabia mostly concentrates on metal.
Was it difficult to gain access to these underground scenes as a foreigner? How do you go about finding the punks of Tashkent?
Nowadays, in most countries the internet is very helpful. You can do a Google search and with a bit of patience come up with some information and contacts. Even Facebook can give you a few hints. Before the internet, or in countries where the internet is not very developed because it is expensive and the bands are struggling, it was a little bit different. This was the case in 2004 in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. No bands were online. They didn’t even have email accounts. Before going to Uzbekistan I sourced a contact through one of my Latvian friends who had – I don’t know how – managed to get the address of a guy there. When I arrived I looked him up and he introduced me to the other bands.
I used to work in Tajikistan, so obviously I asked around quite a bit and one of my first contacts was with a metal band in Dushanbe. When I asked them about Punk they dismissed it offhand. But I insisted and at one point they said “okay, we have a guy at our university – do you want to meet him?”. We met and I asked if he played music. He said “Of course, we have a punk band!” – and that was it.
Before the internet it would usually be like this, through friends of friends. But when I visited South Korea in the 1990s I had absolutely no connections. I went to a shop and bought a local rock magazine on the first day. Their office phone number was printed so I rang to request an appointment. I met them and they told me where to go to find punk bands. When I was in Istanbul in 1989 I checked in the musical instrument shops and they said “if you want punks you can go to Taksim square in front of McDonalds where they sell bootleg tapes”. I took a walk and there they were! But it is not always easy. In some countries I wasn’t successful at all. When I visited Tunisia in 1991 and Libya in 1996 I didn’t find anything interesting.
I went for the second time to Iran came after the internet explosion. I managed to find a website called Tehranavenue.com which was running an online competition between rock bands – online because, obviously, organizing a concert is extremely difficult if not impossible there. Through it I found contacts for all kinds of bands. I selected a few that I liked and we hooked up. It was pretty straightforward.
In the course of your explorations have you ever ended up in an uncomfortable situation?
I’ve been to some concerts that were very heavy with police presence, like in Saigon in 1994. At one the audience was sitting (it was in a kind of theatre) and any time someone got up to cheer the cops would run over and tell them to sit down and keep quiet. I went to quite a few gigs in East Germany before the fall of the wall and at the time it was likely that the police would intervene. But I’ve never had any problems with the law. I guess I’ve been lucky.
Do you think the spread of punk music to places like Iran and countries that have been less integrated into the global entertainment economy is down to the internet?
Iran had a rock scene before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, then modern and Western music were banned altogether. Most people stopped playing rock music and it went really underground. But they never threw away their vinyl records of the Beatles or the Stones and after 1979 continued listening to them, along with cassettes of Hard Rock and Metal smuggled in from Dubai or the US.
I think what happened is that when the internet came to Iran people had to catch up with what had been going on in the outside musical world, and they quickly integrated new trends and musical styles together with what they knew. This process gave Iran a very interesting explosion of bands whose sounds dug into the late 1960s early 1970s rock tradition, into the Iranian music tradition, while also integrating new styles – putting on distortion, accelerating tempo and so on. It has made for some absolutely fascinating sounds. Iran is one of the outstanding countries for underground music.
How do you apply the term punk to the music you come across? Of course there is a historical understanding that punk emerged in New York and London in the late 1970s. What criteria do you use in judging whether a band is punk or not?
Obviously, the first criteria is that the band has to call itself and their music Punk. I have a masters degree in Anthropology, and on this side of things I use the anthropological approach. I look at what people are doing, what they’re playing, and if they call their music punk I accept it as such. Who would I be to say “you’re saying you’re playing punk but you’re not playing punk”? That’s why the music that TAM89 puts out is so diverse. Punk is an open definition; it’s a kind of ideal that musicians want to reach – it’s rebellion, freedom and going against the mainstream; doing something completely different from what has been done before. On some of my records you will find bands that sound acoustic, or a fusion of different things. This is the exciting part.
At the beginning punk was not a set of rules or a well-defined musical style. When you look at global punk the sounds are extremely diverse. This is exactly what I’m looking for: bands with original music, often using their own traditions and language to create something new while also fitting into a world underground perspective. Narrow-minded people – and those who are not used to listening to different kinds of music – buy my records expecting US style punk and are disappointed. Some ask me “why do you release this?”. Well, I don’t believe you can say there is only one way - one sound that woud be legitimate.
When I first went to Thailand in 1988 very few people had heard punk music. The punks that I met there had huge Mohawks and incredible outlooks but had never come across Punk Rock before! They were listening to anything that was coming by – both the traditional rebel music of Thailand, a kind of country or folk music style like the band Carabao, and Michael Jackson! That was really fascinating to me. It was a real small group, a kind of punk subculture but without punk music. They were playing, singing and chanting folksy acoustic music together on whatever instruments they could find. I managed to release a few of their songs on some compilations. But that was back then. By the late 1990s Punk Rock appeared and nowadays punk in Thailand is more or less as varied as everywhere else in the world.
I guess you would dispute the suggestion that the spread of punk worldwide indicates Western values encroaching upon more traditional or local cultural ecologies.
Of course it partly is, but not entirely. Nowadays cultures are spreading globally in all directions. You have French bands playing music in the Ethiopian style; Malaysian bands playing Death Metal. Everything is possible. There is no culture in the world that you have to preserve in an ice-cube to keep it pure. It has never been the case anyway. There was always human exchange of ideas, information, music, style and so on. All cultures are developing in different directions; all cultures are enriching themselves off each other. Rock & Roll came from the Blues, which came from an African heritage, and then in the early 1960s African bands were in their turn playing Cuban music and jazz… Now some African bands are playing Rap… and Rock, Punk, etc – which is like closing the circle. You have bands from Greenland playing Reggae! For me it’s a wealth of culture and music; it’s fascinating because it is extremely dynamic, ever-changing and evolving. I think it would be absurd to say that in Thailand they have to play traditional Thai music, and that it is bad if they start to play Rock & Roll, Reggae, Ska, African music or whatever. It’s the way the world works. You can’t stop human beings being creative and influencing one another.
What’s next for Tam89?
Last year I visited quite a few countries and met some very interesting bands. I gathered archive recordings of the first Punk band ever in the Maldives, called Velu Ilmu. They disbanded but I’ll release a historical record of their songs. I also visited East Timor and discovered a great band with songs in Tetum, the local language. I want also to release an archival recording of the first Vietnamese post-punk group, called Giao Chi. Other projects include a compilation featuring bands from Angola, and another compilation from Cambodia. I still have a release for a Turkmen band called Rvanyye Parusa in the pipeline. They disbanded but were absolutely brilliant. I’m currently living in Egypt and am also looking for the right band to release from here.