Issue 4, 2017. August-September

   

FORGET BERLIN, HERE IS TBILISI

Tbilisi's club scene is booming. With clubs in old and unused Communist-era buildings and a large community of creative and open-minded people, many like to say that Tbilisi is "the new Berlin." Just like in Berlin in the '90s, clubbing in Tbilisi is not just about music. "It's a movement."

Maarten de Boer

"When I saw this building for the first time, I just fell in love with it," Tamuna Axander, founder of the techno club Khidi, says. We slowly walk up a dark staircase in a building that is located inside the Vakhusti Bagrationi Bridge. "It is amazing to have a club in a bridge, with such a huge industrial space. You cannot imagine how big it is. There are even five tunnels that are each 200 meters long."

After years of involvement in the organization of festivals, Tamuna and her husband decided that it was time to invest in a permanent place for a club. "We really had to invest a lot of money to organize a quality event. When we needed a projector for 3D-mapping, we would have to rent it in Kyiv for 2000 euros. It got difficult, so we decided to find a place and settle."

Their story is an illustration of the development that Tbilisi is seeing: young creative people with a love for music who build up something new in places that were abandoned. Tamuna believes this is only the beginning. "You cannot distinguish clubs from museums anymore. It is a cultural movement. Before, clubbing was seen as something dangerous for young people. Now it's for everybody, there is no age to it anymore. It's a part of life."

The Rise of Tbilisi's Club Scene

Even though the Russo-Georgian war only lasted three days, its implications for economic and cultural life were tremendous. Though commercial festivals continued to be organized, underground initiatives-like the record store and DJ-school "Loud"-ceased to exist. But underneath, something was boiling. The turning point came around 2011/2012, first with the opening of "Gallery," a restaurant and nightclub that offered a space to both music lovers as well as members of the LGBT community, and later with the opening of the electronic music club Mtkvardze.

"There was no club with a good sound system yet. We wanted to pay more attention to the music quality and acoustics," Mtkvardze founder Keta Gabunia says. "My husband had been in the business for 12 years, organizing festivals sponsored by tobacco brands. We just wanted to experiment. When I saw this iconic building on the river Mtkvari, a former fish restaurant that closed ten years ago, I knew that it was the perfect venue for our experiment." What started with an experiment with a seven-thousand-dollar investment, led to an iconic club that has now already existed over five years.

Currently Tbilisi's club life is seeing momentum. "The combination of cheaper direct flights by companies like WizzAir-and young people who started to travel and opened their eyes-and of increased internet usage has had a strong influence on the young generation of Georgia. It is a great moment to live in this country," Gabunia says.

Social Movement

But clubs became more than places that just offer high-quality music. "What is interesting is that nightclubs in Tbilisi have become places of social change," Gabunia says. "We have become social activists that are involved in many movements-whether it is about supporting LGBT rights, improving the environment or about aiding vulnerable people that are in need of our support," he explains.

According to Tato Getia, Georgia's isolation due to several wars-and the many economic, political and social crises it has experienced-are important explanations for why Tbilisi is now seeing such development in its cultural life. Together with two partners, Getia founded the underground techno club Bassiani at the end of 2014. The club is literally underground, deeply hidden in a former swimming pool under the Dynamo Tbilisi stadium. Since it appeared, it has been frequently compared to Berghain, Berlin's most notorious club.

The founders have a clear vision. "Bassiani is known not only for entertainment, but also as [a place for] social movement and for its political context, which fights against inequality and oppression in society-such as against inhuman drug policy, homophobia and violence against women," Getia tells Investor.ge.

Big Business

The founders of these underground techno clubs have been able to establish a successful business. Forbes Georgia called Bassiani "a startup that has managed to create a world-class clubbing product." And the number of tourists visiting these clubs is significantly increasing. "About 20% of all the visitors of Mtvkardze are tourists," according to Gabunia. "We are realizing that we have become a business. Even the government has now decided to organize festivals and bring international DJs. They are trying to make this sphere more popular, because they see that tourists are traveling here to visit clubs like ours," Gabunia explains. Indeed, music has put Georgia on the map of tourism. This is also illustrated by the yearly organized GEM Fest (taking place in Anaklia from July to August), the longest festival in the world. A record number of music tourists are expected this year. "Everybody is talking about Georgia," Khidi founder Tamuna concludes. "There is something happening here. And Tbilisi is a welcoming place, the food is good and hospitality is in our DNA. Each artist that is playing here is saying what a great place this is. That's how many people find out about Georgia. Because of its techno scene."