Meanwhile: Music (Second Movement)

On a far lower level of musicality, my vague scratchings at the doors of Baku’s bars and clubs in search of a DJ gig have started to show some results.  The first moment of truth took place at Le Mirage on Friday the eighth of June.  Long-standing readers with good memories may recollect that one of the few good dancing nights I reported last year took place in Le Mirage and it was with that memory in mind that I was more than happy to meet the owner, Maria, and discuss the possibility of playing there.

Maria is obviously a very canny businesswoman or she would not be able to run a successful bar/club in Baku but to do so while combining the looks of Morticia Addams and Elvira must take something special.  One thing is for sure: if she does not like the look of something she attends to it quick sharp.  I learned that the hard way.

After our introductory chat I agreed to go and get my discs and play that night; I only lived a brief walk away after all.  The house DJ was a very friendly fellow, we compared notes and after listening to his mix for an hour or so while watching what the dance-floor was up to I felt I was ready to give it a go.  With a commercial combination of R&B and electro-ish house to fit into I chose a similarly pop-orientated track to start with (Goldfrapp, “Strict Machine” for those who care) and things appeared to be going well.  Mixing into the second track (Jakatta ft. Seal, “My Vision”) looked good too but Maria obviously thought otherwise as I was ordered to step aside for the house DJ before I could consider fading up a third track.

As the R&B banged out once more Maria took me aside and spoke to me in a near-maternal manner about how I should pay sharp attention to the dance-floor and play people what they want so that they keep dancing.  I explained to her how I had taken note of the perceived musical requirements and added that if she wanted a DJ to play music like Europa Plus (a local radio station from Russia, comparable to Capital in London) then I simply did not have the music with which to do that.  We agreed that I would come back again for a second try.

A couple of weekends later I went back for the second go, on a Saturday night this time to see if the crowd might be a little different (it was a Saturday night that I had enjoyed so much that time).  I was asked to go on early (personally I would have waited for the clientele to get a few more drinks inside them first) and I decided to go for break-beats this time around, leaning towards the R&B theme.  Track two had been running for thirty seconds or so when the house DJ was ordered to take over again.  Maria and I had a perfectly civilised conversation afterwards and she even bought me a drink but I knew I was on a losing wicket: I am not going back a third time.

Meanwhile, one evening during the same period I was and listening to the radio in a BP bus while waiting to go home (Europa Plus of course) when one of life’s chance encounters took place.  A young woman stepped on board and asked me if I could identify the tune that was playing; it was a remix of The Police’s “Message in a Bottle” and I said as much.  This precipitated introductions (she is Elnara) and an animated conversation about dance music during which Elnara spoke about knowing two of Baku’s most prominent DJ’s  (Rem and Nemo) and offered to arrange a meeting with Rem.  While wary of having received several empty promises couched in similar terms in the past I accepted the invitation and waited to see what might come of it.

A week later I was sitting on a café terrace with Elnara, Rem and an other DJ – Miss Flame – chatting about club nights, radio shows and various trainspotter-ish DJ things and feeling very positive about the whole affair.  Communications promptly tailed off for a couple of weeks after that and I was left wondering until out of the blue I received a ‘phone call asking if I would like to play at the Key Club/Infiniti on the thirteenth of July alongside a DJ from Kazakhstan.  It meant curtailing my planned visit to England by a few days but the answer was yes.

The Advertising vs. The Reality…

Earlier this year I wrote about going to a drum ‘n’ bass night and a trance night at the Key Club’s new Infiniti room: it struck me as being a very good venue.  Having seen the posters going up around the city with my name double-top alongside DJ Alex from Kazakhstan, having been told to bring my vinyl from London and having been told I would be playing at midnight, I was a mixture of enthusiasm and nerves when I arrived at the venue around half past ten.  Discovering that one of the two turntables had been removed added to the nerves somewhat.  Apparently it was in a radio studio for a show and would be back in the venue by two o’clock.  I agreed to the change in schedule (nobody else seemed worried) and I took the extra time to relax a bit (while thinking that it might be time to transfer my record box to CD).

Two o’clock rolled round, the turntable had indeed arrived in the nick of time and it was busily installed at the same time as I was asked to cue up my first record.  It was not my smoothest hand-over but I got away with it and cobbling the next couple of records together seemed to work too.  Just as I was starting to feel I had some control over the situation the front-of-house speakers went dead and seconds later someone grabbed the volume knob for the monitor speaker behind my head and cranked it up to deafening.  What action there was on the dance-floor faded away unsurprisingly save for a small group of chaps up front who were close enough to hear the monitor and were loving it.  I kept doing all I could for them while various people looked at connections, amps and what-have-you in an attempt to fix the problem.

After what felt like an eternity the front-of-house speakers sprung back into life, fortuitously during the crescendo of a particularly good tune that made the group up front cheer very loudly.  I then mixed in the next track before having to hand over to Rem and Miss Flame for their B2B set: my hour was up.

Imperfect as my ‘proper’ DJ debut in Baku may have been I enjoyed it and I think a few other people did too.  The technical hitches were disappointing but they do occur sometimes; let’s call them part of the fun.  A second gig is not confirmed yet but now that I am finally speaking to the right people there should be a way to get more playing done.  Stay tuned…

DJ Alex at work and the dance-floor in action

Meanwhile: Music (First Movement)

Half a week in Russia and it takes me the best part of two months to write about it; not one of my better efforts.  Mitigating circumstances are minimal as ever so I will refrain from boring you with them.  What is required is some sort of coherent recap of the last few weeks’ events and as the usual diary-style progression is going to be pretty meaningless this late on, I will proceed by theme, starting with music.

The Baku International Jazz Festival happened again the week after I got back in the country and it is without doubt the biggest musical event of the year here.  Some readers may recall my attending three recommended gigs at the last festival, the ‘biggest’ of which being that of a certain Herbie Hancock.  This time around the principal flag-bearers from abroad were Billy Cobham and Hiram Bullock, either or both of whom would have been interesting to see in action had I had the opportunity.  As it was there was only one ‘main’ gig I could catch: that of Denise Jannah.

Born in Surinam but resident in the Netherlands for most of her life, Denise is a singer who combines a rich, expressive voice with a very warm and spirited stage presence.  She started almost and hour late in a less than half full Philharmonic, apologised sweetly for the delay and went on swing the ass off “Favourite Things” in a most un-Julie Andrews-like manner.  The audience was hers and the blend of original pieces, freshly-interpreted standards and moments of stronger Surinamese influence came across very well.  It was just a shame the sound engineer took most of the set to get the levels balanced correctly so that we could hear the instruments properly behind her.

A couple of nights later I was further impressed when I saw Denise perform at the festival’s ensemble closing night.  There was no such event last year and I do not know why exactly but it might have been because the venue was closed for refurbishment at the time.  Said venue is the Green Theatre: a handsome open-air space modelled on the old Greek style with the raked rows of seating set into a hillside overlooking the bay.  On an early summer’s evening it made the perfect setting for an night of good music.  Alas, aside from Denise there was little that I or my companions could really call good music for much of the evening (the list of artists was not published so we attended as a bit of a gamble) but the final, ‘surprise’ act of the night was certainly worth seeing: Aziza Mustafa Zadeh.

Not being born and raised in this country I am unable to fully articulate the level of kudos accorded to this woman by local music aficionados.  Her mother (now also her manager) is a classically trained singer from Georgia; her father; Vagif Mustafa Zadeh; became internationally famous as a pianist/composer when he fused jazz with the traditional mugam style of Azerbaijan.  With such roots it is no surprise that Aziza became a pianist/composer herself and she has made an international success of doing so.  It is worth noting that her father died young many years ago and I get the impression that people see Aziza not just following in his footsteps but in some ways picking up where he left off.  I can not think of a suitable comparison in European or American terms; Frank and Nancy Sinatra for example don’t even come close.  Aziza has lived abroad for many years and her attendance at this year’s festival could be viewed as the welcome return of the prodigal daughter.

After Denise Jannah’s performance at the Philharmonic I met a couple who had seen Aziza’s gig a few night’s previously at the Opera Ballet Theatre (sold out – up to 100 Manats per ticket).  Apparently she was superb and played at least a dozen encores as the audience would not let her go.  Had I paid the full century to see Aziza perform I too might have been loathe to let her go but for different reasons (tickets for the finale at the Green Theatre were only five Manats in comparison).  To put it bluntly: she is not a great jazz musician.  Her technical accomplishment as a pianist is unquestionable and her voice has moments that sound utterly compelling but throughout the performance I could feel classical training and experience stepping to the fore in each composition.  Perhaps where her father melded mugam with jazz Aziza is melding it with ‘classical’ style instead but I do not know enough to substantiate the suggestion further.  In the light of that evening’s performance I can best try to describe her music by comparing it to that of artists like Kate Bush and Tori Amos – not easy.  I walked away with the utmost respect for Aziza as a musician but felt also that both she and I had been given a bad deal by her being put at the top of a national jazz festival bill.

This year’s programme booklet for the festival bears as a frontispiece a large colour photograph of Herbie Hancock meeting President Aliyev, both seated in soft chairs around a coffee table in a very well appointed room.  The caption – writ large – is a quote attributed to Hancock reading “Your President is a very nice guy !”  I wonder if Aziza will be photographed in the same room for next year’s programme and if so what the caption might say for her.

An Englishman in Saint Petersburg, Part Two

After a short night’s sleep and a breakfast memorable only for its brutally loud soundtrack we set out to see the great tourist attraction of Saint Petersburg that is not actually Saint Petersburg.  Peterhof is around half an hour away by hydrofoil and was probably conceived as some sort of island paradise for aristocrats.  While the weather is never likely to be as consistently warm and sunny at Peterhof as it would be on a tropical island, what you do get is an impossibly ornate palace set in many acres of gardens with a large collection of fountains to admire and play with.  It was a beautifully warm and sunny day – definitely weather for a turn around the gardens.

The trip out to Peterhof started with a very visual reminder of how industrial life developed between then and now.  For the first five minutes our course towards open water was bounded on both sides by old shipyards, floating dry docks and wharfs, their rusting grey tonnage of angular metal a stark contrast to the softer stone curves of the older city.  As we headed out into the gulf the theme was continued by the freighters and other unglamorous vessels that constituted the majority of the visible traffic.  The gaggle of hydrofoils clustered around the pier on the shores of a low and tree-covered island made our destination clear.

Approaching Peterhof

Paths through the trees on either side of a long straight canal form the approach to the main house.  As you near the building the ranks of firs are joined by one each side of fountains in circular marble dishes with their overflows arcing gracefully into the canal.  By the time you clear the trees you have seen enough sunlight glinting off water plumes and gold to give an idea of what to expect but the full view is still a feast for the eye.  At the head of the canal is a near life-size fountain in gold of Samson fighting the lion; behind that a three-stepped cascade before the grotto with its collection of small golden fountains.  Left and right of the grotto are two cascades about twenty feet tall, both lined with statues of Greco-Roman deities in gold.  Above the rainbow-dappled spray rises the house itself: an immaculately presented confection in mustard and white that anyone who knows anything about architecture could speak volumes about.  It too has an intricately designed wing to one end and a private chapel to other both roofed with lavish amounts of gold.

A gold-lover’s paradise…

Some readers may have spotted a theme developing here: has anyone noticed the gold yet?  There are ridiculous amounts of it everywhere.  I have heard it said that Peterhof was conceived to go one better than the palace at Versailles and if that is so it is easy to see how the creators went about it.  Having not entered either building I can not comment on interior appointments but from the outside Versailles is the greater, more imposing edifice with commensurately larger gardens and fountains while Peterhof makes up for relative lack of bulk by being coloured, embellished and detailed to a higher degree.  When working on such a grand scale the idea of competitive comparison is virtually rendered irrelevant.

Having enjoyed a thoroughly scenic turn around the gardens for the day we headed back to the mainland for dinner, check-out and a final stroll back to the railway station.  Our overnight cabin back to Moscow was again impeccably prepared but minus the snacks (apparently our outbound train was the famous Red Arrow: hence inflated ticket price and complimentary nibbles).  A glass of tea in the old-fashioned way made a suitable end to the night after which it was heads down for Moscow.

Englishman Aboard: tea on the train (picture courtesy of Leyla Alakbarova)

Early morning in Moscow was promising an other scorcher as we Metro’d our way back to our hosts’ apartment for a farewell breakfast.  They had taken us into their home and looked after us both as if we were close family and it was with heartfelt gratitude and warm hugs that I said goodbye.

Arrived at Domodedovo my glow diminished somewhat when it transpired that the Azal agency had moved Leyla’s flight but not mine and there was not a seat on the ‘plane for me.  After an hour or so shuttling between the check-in desk, the Azal desk, some sort of official near to the check-in desk and the Azal agency via ‘phone, a seat was miraculously created at the last minute and major dispute was averted.

The one final challenge was immigration.  My freshly bought but not so freshly published (2001) Russian phrasebook made it clear that any foreign person staying in the country for longer than three days was required to register with the government and obtain a suitable stamp on her/his exit visa.  As the trip to Saint Petersburg took us beyond that limit I had planned to sort out the registration with the hotel there but they insisted emphatically that it was no longer a requirement.  I took their word for it at the time but nonetheless approached the man in the booth with a degree of trepidation.  Thankfully neither hand-cuffs nor deportation was forthcoming and the formalities were over almost as quickly as they would have been leaving London.  Duty Free and a swift pint of Budvar later we were in the air heading south.

Returning to Baku I felt very satisfied by the experiences of the preceding few days.  Admittedly I had barely scratched the surface of either city – let alone Russia as a country – but I had dispelled some myths (both from childhood and from various Baku-based acquaintances) and I learned a lot, enjoying myself throughout.  A second visit is required.

An Englishman in Saint Petersburg, Part One

Eight hours later we drew into a Moskovskiy Station that thankfully seemed to be as bleary-eyed and unhurried as I was.  As we had not had time to book a hotel in advance, getting a room arranged for the night was a high priority and usefully we discovered an agency with a very pleasant person behind the desk before we even left the station buildings.  With reservation details and map in hand we set forth into mid-morning in Saint Petersburg.

The weather in these more northerly latitudes was noticeably cooler and cloudier than that in Moscow but with twenty-odd degrees on the thermometer and rays of sun never long absent the summer feeling was still very much present from an English perspective.  Certainly after a half hour’s stroll we arrived at the Asteria Hotel in a suitable condition to appreciate their air-conditioning and the quality of their showers and linens but not so suitable as to overlook wishing them many happy returns of their first birthday and enjoying a complimentary chocolate or two during check-in.  With batteries recharged and bags swapped for keys it was time to explore.

Trying to liken Saint Petersburg to any other city I know requires more than one comparison.  With the majority of the architecture being similar to that of Old Moscow, I could walk up long, straight main roads like Nevskiy Avenue and imagine myself being on a Boulevard in Paris.  Some of the curving streets that cross these main roads like wheel-rims round spokes are very reminiscent of Amsterdam as they have broad canals down their centres.  Standing on the banks of the Neva and looking north across several hundred yards of water to the islands on the other side reminded me of the views from the periphery of Venice, especially when looking towards Peter and Paul’s Fortress.  As with Moscow, all three comparisons feel like they have been put under a magnifying glass: everything seems to have gained a size or two during Russian translation.

The Hermitage and Alexander’s Column

Saint Petersburg gives the impression of having lived a very rich and varied life, which in many ways I believe it has.  Clearly built to be grand showpiece with little expense spared up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the city then experienced the Bolshevik revolution, Nazi occupation and the end of the Soviet Union before reaching the beginning of the twenty-first.  Walking from area to area, sometimes from street to street, almost feels like walking between periods of that century.  Reaching the top of the bustling Nevskiy Avenue and looking right towards The Hermitage/Winter Palace and the vast Dvortsovaya Square, it is easy to see the time and money that has been spent restoring/maintaining this prime tourist route.  Looking left towards The Admiralty – an equally imposing sight – it is clear that the paintbrush hasn’t reached this far yet and not down nearby Gorkhovaya Street either.

Work is in progress though, no doubt about it.  Within the walls of Peter and Paul’s Fortress there is scaffolding all around as restoration crews do their stuff.  A charming little maze of streets between the Fontanka canal and the University of Economics and Finance looks very much like a market area coming back to life: on some streets the freshly refurbished shop units stand facing each other empty and ready for boutique businesses to move in while on others yet to be renovated the street stalls overflow with cheap wares imported from the orient.  Dotted around the city centre are various cafés, bars and restaurants offering everything from French-style duck (accompanied by a better and cheaper pint of 1664 than I ever found in Paris) to sushi (not such a great idea in summer – took a week to recover from that one).

One place we visited gave me a distinct feeling of shared ground between Saint Petersburg and Moscow: a church named Saviour on the Blood.  Almost everybody in ‘the west’ who has heard of Russia has probably seen a picture of Saint Basil’s and I imagine many like me thought the architecture to be unique.  Not so.  Saviour on the Blood (so named for allegedly being built on the death site of a murdered king) clearly shares some cues with its famous Moscow relative, the most obvious of which being some equally colourful domes.

Saviour on the Blood. Look familiar?

To me Saint Petersburg felt a little more welcoming and relaxed than Moscow did on first acquaintance.  The easy comparisons with familiar cities of western Europe may have helped as may have the slightly smaller scale of the place (Moscow always felt big on the inside, regardless of the difficulty I had spotting it from the air) but I know I am not alone in feeling the difference.  Partly it may also be due to ‘the twenty-four hour feeling’.  Admittedly it was not quite the peak of White Nights season during our visit but there was still some light in the sky at three in the morning and I would have expected there to be fair amount of life in the city to reflect this.  In reality much of our walk back to the hotel during the wee hours was along streets devoid of both cars and pedestrians, imbuing an eerie sense of almost rural calm compared to the seemingly constant buzz around central Moscow.

An Englishman in Moscow, Part Three

Monday. Bright sunlight and high temperatures once more and I have yet to see Moscow any different. Who’s a lucky boy then?

Sunday evening had included a lengthy discussion with our hosts about what to do next. It was suggested strongly that Leyla and I should take a little extra time to visit Saint Petersburg; not just because we were relatively close to the city but because we were at the beginning of the White Nights – the period during summer when its northerly location means the sun never fully sets. We succumbed to the suggestion, secured permission from our respective bosses to extend our leaves by a couple of days and started making plans.

First stop Monday morning was the travel agents. Nigar came down to the main road with us and did the taxi trick again (hole in one this time) and we soon found ourselves at the door to the official Azal agency in Moscow. Moving the return flights back a couple of days was a straightforward exercise; booking travel to and from Saint Petersburg should have been as well but became a little more of a challenge.

We had elected to take the overnight train and usefully it transpired that the Azal agency had a counter for booking train tickets too. The prices we were quoted exceeded what we had been lead to expect by quite a margin (whether it was a genuine difference or a ‘foreigner rate’ is hard to say) so we took a little while settling on timings, type of cabin and so on before striking a happy balance.

Once the details were agreed I went to the ATM that was also very usefully situated inside the premises to withdraw the required cash (cards are not yet widely accepted in Moscow it appears). The machine refused to give me any amount of cash whatsoever.

At this point the woman serving us started getting a little brusque. We obtained directions to the nearest exterior ATM and it was just across the road. I dashed out and dutifully crossed the six lanes of Schumacher wannabes (using a nearby subway – I am not quite that stupid) and dashed back within minutes to find that the woman was just about to cancel our entire booking. Thankfully an other customer had interceded and stopped her (not all Muscovites are as unfriendly as the reputation says – official) so I gave her the cash and she almost grudgingly gave me the tickets.

Next stop was a ten minute trolley bus ride up the road to Victory Square. One thing I had noticed almost immediately about Moscow was the proliferation of overhead cabling in the streets; it made getting a clear line of sight for photographs near impossible. The cables are nearly all for the trolley bus system. Some of the vehicles look like they are one step away from the grave while others are obviously quite fresh out of the factory; all seem to run very frequently on all the major roads of the city.

Victory Square felt similar in size to Red Square but lacked the rich historical architecture at its borders and tried to make up for it with a series of fountains up the middle instead. Several monuments to the side commemorate military successes in numerous theatres of war and there is also an attractive church, a flower clock and a large arch nearby. We frequently passed groups of half-naked, bottle-swigging men wearing military-looking caps and observed simultaneously that all the local drinks stalls had locked up their beer ‘fridges. A stall-holder explained that it was the national day of border guards and that the government had forbidden sale of alcohol on the square that day. All became clear; we moved on.

What better way to enjoy Moscow in high summer than by river? Where London has The Thames and Paris The Seine, Moscow has, well, The Moscow. Like the Thames its course follows some majestic, looping meanders through the central city, like the Seine it is reputed to smell awful but I did not detect any particular aroma in either case. A fleet of healthy looking vessels run a frequent bus/sightseeing service with stops at various places. We boarded near Kievskaya Station and followed the large central loop round to The Kremlin.

Déjà vu: just as when arriving at Domodedovo I could not help but notice the immense amount of greenery and space. On the map this loop of the river could be compared with London’s Isle of Dogs in terms of positioning and apparent size but there the similarities end. One city’s crowded, industrial, dockland heart of a once thriving international port trade is the other’s country park with a few nods to the Olympic Games. Within acres of trees there is barely a soul or a building to be seen aside from a stadium on the north bank and a chair-lift on the south.

Drawing closer to The Kremlin and back into the cityscape, we passed an amusement park (including a large mock-up of the U.S. Space Shuttle for some reason) before coming to the Peter The Great Monument.  Apparently opinion is divided on the merits of this monument and to some extent I can see why. The design is based very clearly on proud square-rigger ships and the large figure of a man (I assume Peter) standing to the fore strikes a suitably dynamic pose. The effect is diminished though by the soft edges to the detailing that give the whole composition (especially the large-hipped man) a slightly effeminate look. Plus on a simpler note, the very dark brown material used to construct this tall, slim creation makes look a bit like a giant gothic totem pole. My jury is still out.

Passing the Kremlin we exchanged a forest of trees for one of golden domes as we glided past numerous old churches and cathedrals. Here in an other pocket of ‘Old Moscow’ the surrounding non-religious buildings looked similar to those we saw in Old Arbat. Squint and it could easily have been Paris with a lick of colour, many of the buildings being painted in a bright but tasteful hue. Alighting near the Kremlin wall we back past Saint Basil’s and into the streets behind Red Square where the almost-Paris theme continued. After visiting the bookshop we had been searching for (Jamie Oliver translated into Russian looked incongruous stacked next to the cashier desk), we bid farewell to the old streets and headed back underground for the Metro.

Dinner, as served at an impressive German restaurant, was a plate of seven different sausages washed down by a bottle of rare Bavarian beer. Every detail appeared to have been matched for a perfect German dining experience save for the un-Teutonically slow service. The resultant delay had us standing on the kerb several miles away from Kievsky Railway Station hailing a ‘cab’ with only twenty minutes left before our train departed.

Dima grabbed a car and sorted things out with the driver before piling Leyla, me and our bags into it. After rapid and heart-felt farewells we were off. The driver was a good-humoured fellow who seemed most amused by our last-minute rush and his car was an old-style Lada (Жигули). Before we knew it he had stoked the little tin box up to 130 km/h and we were streaking along the city streets at a thoroughly indecent pace. No police and no accidents later (praise be) we rushed into Leningradsky Station with five minutes to go.

Thankfully there were no barriers or ticket checks to pass and our rush to the platform was unhindered. We found our coach, identified our cabin and then collapsed onto our bunks just as the train started to move.

This was to be my first journey on an overnight train and initial impressions were very favourable. The cabin was immaculate, the linen fresh, toothbrush and toothpaste were supplied and there were even little boxes of food and drink to serve as midnight snacks and/or breakfast as required. Most importantly there was air-conditioning and aside from a brief period of malfunction it did an admirable job of reducing the humid, high-twenties heat to something more tolerable. I stretched out on my bunk and waited for Saint Petersburg to arrive.

English Summer?

More apologies for being slow to write: the mad rush before leaving Baku has been replaced by the usual mad rush trying to see lots of people while in England. The fight is as ever a losing one but after a thousand miles of driving, an art exhibition, a wedding and some restorative amounts of British ale I am starting to feel like I have covered a bit of ground; if only time was not running so short.

What is going on with this weather though? June 2006 was warm, blue skies and sunshine; July 2007 the island is awash and I feared I might have to trade in the car for a boat to reach Yorkshire yesterday. Leyla came across a quote of Horace Walpole that seems most apposite: “The way to ensure summer in England is to have it framed and glazed in a comfortable room.”

Keep warm and keep dry all. I will keep moving and keep trying to catch up with the writing in the meantime. Moscow Part Three follows shortly…