Friday, October 13, 2017

Uzbekistan: Battle of the Bands

With an Embassy concert taking place later in the day, there was a certain buzz around campus.  Most people were looking forward to attending, but not my colleague, Apollo.

“That place is gonna be mobbed up with Uzbeks,” he told me, “and they are only going because they think there will be free alcohol.  You can count me out!”

This was my first such event at the Embassy, so despite Apollo’s warning, I went to the concert anyway.  After all, I was under no obligation to stay if I didn’t like it.

The concert, which was held at the Old Embassy compound in the Chilanzar district, was part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, a network of concerts held annually around the world to promote tolerance.  Daniel Pearl was a journalist killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

When I arrived to the venue, a number of Uzbeks were waiting in line to pass the security checkpoint.  I bypassed the queue and entered through the employees-only line.

The chairs facing the stage were about a third filled when I entered, and Embassy staff were making final arrangements for the show which would start in a few minutes.  RC Cola was sponsoring the event, and consistent with its tendency toward over-the-top American imagery (at least here in Uzbekistan), a woman in a red, white, and blue cheerleading outfit was behind a table distributing sodas.  Eitan was coming to the concert separately, so while I waited for him, I chatted with some colleagues and sipped my RC.  Around this time, someone randomly handed me a bag of popcorn.

The show kicked off with some speeches, and then the music commenced.  Up front were chart-topping artists Shahzoda, DJ Piligrim, and the big enchilada Yalla featuring Farrukh Zakirov.  Yalla has been a hit band for years, and its most famous track, "Uchkuduk," was the song of the decade in 1980s USSR.  Yalla performed a few songs, including "Uchkuduk," and the crowd went wild.  Then the program shifted to the amateur talent who had competed for slots in the show by sending in demo tapes.

The amateur acts were diverse.  There was a pint-sized girl belting out the Frozen anthem, “Let It Go,” a garage band from Tashkent’s Westminster University, a young woman billed as Uzbekistan’s first banjo player, and finally “Uzbek Bob Dylan.”

While some were better than others, the performers generally put on good shows.  Still, I was restless.  I didn’t feel like dancing at the foot of the stage, and I didn’t feel like sitting in a folding chair.  I ended up going with a third option: standing in the back and talking.

I was chatting with a colleague, and when he left in search of a bathroom, an Uzbek guy walked up.

“Do you work at the Embassy?” he asked me.

I confirmed his suspicion, which led to his ask.  The banjo lady was performing at the time, and this guy was cringing.

“This is pretty bad,” he told me, “but some whiskey would help.”

I felt bad for the lady actually.  Her corn-pone performance was fine for what it was, but I felt the Embassy organizers had done her a disservice by putting her in the show.  She fit in the lineup about as well as a didgeridoo player might.

“She’s not so bad,” I told the man, and then I pointed out the RC Cola station for all his refreshment needs.

“Come on, man,” he pleaded, “I need more than cola.”

“There’s a shop across the street,” he continued.  “Let’s go get a bottle.”

He needed my help because anything he might purchase would be confiscated at the security checkpoint.  My Embassy badge was his golden ticket for smuggling booze inside, or so he hoped. 

The booze store: so close, yet so far away.

I spent the next few minutes deflecting his requests and ultimately ditching him.

I can't speak for the other 500 Uzbeks at the concert, but Apollo certainly had this guy's number.


Unknown said...

Another great story Chris of a day in the life!! Thank you!! By "Old Embassy Compound" in Chilanzar, would that have been where the Embassy was in 1994? When I first visited the post (I covered it from Almaty in those days), the embassy was in an old building that used to have a club of sorts in the basement (where I did my work). I still miss that wonderful Plov!

PNGer said...

RC Cola! I grew up with RC in Seattle, but thought it went out with Squirt and Nehi!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Chris! I miss those Foreign Service days.

Betty Ulrich said...

Enjoyed the story. Is this your last year at this posting? What is next?