The story of Tbilisi’s Bassiani nightclub reveals the complex relationship between the country’s police, drug laws, music scene, and LGTBQ+ youth
From his vantage point in the DJ booth, HVL could tell that something was amiss.
In most clubs, dancers are picked out from beneath, eerily up-lit as they check texts or scroll through Instagram feeds, while the room pulses as phone flashes capture blurred photos. But in Bassiani, the labyrinthine club of poured concrete that squats beneath Dinamo Stadium in Tblisi, the Georgian capital, taking photos is forbidden. Burly security guards, dressed head-to-toe in black, emerge from the shadows and politely (read: firmly) intercept those who forget this policy. The only lights that pick out the dancers tend to come from above, from light cannons and laser beams. Hanging low on cables that snake up into the rafters high above the dancefloor are parallel rows of yellow spot-lights. At times, the dancefloor is completely dark, the only light the soft glow of the DJ booth and a single spotlight picking out a single dancer, one body in motion amongst hundreds.
“At first, I thought that someone was taking a video, but it lasted too long,” recalls HVL. Real name Gigi Jikia, HVL is an electronic producer and one of Bassiani’s resident DJs. We’re meeting over coffee in a trendy restaurant a stone’s throw away from Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main drag. “Then I saw more lights, criss-crossing the dancefloor. That’s when I knew it was different.”
A few moments later, he spotted the first policeman. The lights were coming from their rifles, and the club was suddenly swarming with officers in riot gear. HVL stepped down from the booth, leaving the music running. The police forced him, along with all the other ravers, to line up against a wall. The lights came on at some point, and for a few minutes the police circulated around the now-empty dancefloor, their movements staccato with the big-room techno still playing all around them. They pointed their guns at the corners and up at the ceiling, impotently – they couldn’t make the music stop.
Bassiani’s main room is an empty 50m Olympic sized swimming pool, a Soviet relic that had previously lain abandoned for the best part of a decade. The club’s three co-founders, Tato Getia, Zviad Gelbakhiani, and Naja Orashvili, opened the venue in 2012 after their previous warehouse space became too expensive to keep running parties. Key people from Dinamo had been at their clubnights before, and suggested that the Bassiani crew should take a look at the cavernous space underneath the stadium. With the lights on, you can see the tiles of the swimming pool and the gentle gradient of the sloping floor. The DJ plays from the deep end.
It was here that HVL stood, opposite the police, and snapped a photo. The police shut down Bassiani and kicked the partygoers out, but they couldn’t make them disperse. The ravers stood at the entrance and protested as the police rounded up suspects and arrested the club owners, as well as members of the White Noise, a local NGO dedicated to liberalising the country’s draconian drug laws. The police also raided Café Gallery, a club that had been the first to openly welcome the city’s LGBTQ+ community through its doors.
The police said these were drug raids. In the previous month, five people had died in Tbilisi from drug overdoses; they had returned home from nights out, fallen asleep, and never woken up. The raid, however, seemed to be about far more than tackling drugs in the city. In total, they arrested only eight dealers, seizing drugs with a street value totalling just 2,000 Georgian Lari, the equivalent of €800. In the days that followed the raid, the government was humiliated when it transpired that none of those arrests had even been made in the clubs – the dealers, almost all in their early 20s, had been picked up earlier in the day.
As news spread of the raids, people from across the city congregated outside of Bassiani to show support. Other clubs stopped their parties in mid-swing and marshalled their audiences to go and support the growing crowd at the venue, a sign of the collegiality of the club scene in the city.
“At first, I thought that someone was taking a video... Then I saw more lights, criss-crossing the dancefloor. That’s when I knew it was different” – HVL, Bassiani resident DJ
What followed next is well known. The crowd outside Bassiani marched to Rustaveli Avenue and set up shop outside the parliament building. Named after Shota Rustaveli, Georgia’s most famous poet, the street is the main artery of the city – it was here that Georgians shelled fellow Georgians in the Hundred Metres War, when, just after gaining independence from the USSR, opposing forces fought each other from opposite sides of the street in the early 90s; it also saw the jubilant, and mercifully peaceful, triumph of Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution. Carotid, young people coursed along this street from their homes until there were tens of thousands of people in the heart of Tbilisi.
Police posted up, creating a ring around the youth of the city, while outside the cordon, neo-Nazi groups and reactionary agitators circulated – some, it was rumoured, brandishing knives and other weapons. Someone set up a DJ rig among the protestors, and the Giegling crew, who’d been scheduled to perform at Bassiani the night of the raids, started playing to the crowd. “We dance together, we fight together,” became the slogan of the day. It was a message that resonated throughout the international dance community as clubs and DJs around the world voiced their support. The party on Rustaveli went on for two days before it finally petered out.
While any discussion of Tbilisi nightlife is now inextricable from the May raids and the rave on Rustaveli, that isn’t why I visited the city. I wanted to understand the backstory. How was it that Tbilisi – a city of less than one million people in a country buffeted by war, where the average monthly salary only just peaks above $400, where vegan restaurants get targeted by sausage-throwing ultra-conservative hooligans, where LGBTQ+ lives are severely marginalised – was a place where electronic music had become so integral to the lives of some young people that they were willing to risk neo-Nazis and baton-wielding police to demand their right to it?
My friend Gia put it in perspective over dinner one night: “20 years ago we barely had electricity. Now, we have the most interesting electronic music scene in the world.”
Bassiani is more than just a club. It’s a vortex, whose inextricable gravity has drawn in the progressive social movements of the city, connecting and binding them together. The women’s rights movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, and the drug reform movement are all, in their own way, heavily indebted to and consecrated by Bassiani. The club (whose name, relevantly, comes from an existential battle fought between Georgia and the Sultanate of Rum in the 13th century; it literally translates as ‘one with the bass’) runs monthly ‘Horoom’ nights, legendary LGBTQ+ parties that you can only buy a single ticket for after undergoing a social media vetting process by the local NGO Equality Movement. White Noise has also centred itself around Bassiani and found vocal support from the club’s founders, who regularly speak at their events and in the media in favour of drug reform.
“It’s not about the right to use drugs,” says Tato Getia, co-founder of Bassiani, in the sparse office he keeps in a storefront at Dinamo Stadium. “It’s about basic human rights. It’s about not having to spend your life in prison for a tiny amount of drugs when the penalty for rape is lower than that for possession of narcotics. Our drug policies are from the stone age.”
In Georgia, the penalty for being caught with a high dose of drugs can be years in prison. Anything over 1g is considered a very high dose, and can result in eight to 20 years. There is nothing below a ‘high dose’ of drugs, which is why one person is currently serving prison time for having 0.009 milligrams of heroin in a syringe. Kote Japaridze, a resident DJ at Bassiani’s Horoom nights, was caught in 2016 buying 2g of MDMA; it was only after White Noise publicised his case that he managed to negotiate his eight-year sentence down to one, which he served. He still paid a fine of 45,000 lari (£15,000); over triple the average annual salary for Georgia. When I met him for a coffee, he told me he still has three years left on his parole.
“It’s not about the right to use drugs. It’s about basic human rights” – Tato Getia, co-founder of Bassiani
Getia’s younger brother was also hassled by the police. He had a “single puff” of hashish on him, according to Getia, when he was randomly stopped-and-searched in the city centre. “They held him in the street for 10 hours,” he says. “There were five cars with two policemen in them. What a waste of time.” As Getia (and White Noise more generally) see it, law enforcement is the largest branch of government in Georgia, and for them, going after minor drug offenses allows them to justify their bloated budgets and the sheer number of people they employ. That Bassiani was at the centre of a reform movement seeking to undermine the police’s institutional power made the club an obvious target.
Getia’s office features little in the way of ornaments, and he sits with his back to a white wall. We meet in the late afternoon, with the soft orange glow of the setting sun seeping through the closed shutters, casting horizontal shadows across his face like prison bars. He physically underlines the points he is making by drawing dots and lines on the page. By the end of our conversation, the page is full of circles, arrows, and intersecting lines. It looks like the drawings of a tactician, as if he’s mapping out plans for a battle to come.
Some of the things Getia underlines as he speaks: that more than one out of every third person in prison in Georgia is held for drugs charges, that nearly two hundred police were deployed for the May club raids, armed with machine guns, that Bassiani was forced to pay over 45,000 lari (roughly £15,000) as a fine, and that the investigation has now stalled, which means he will never see the money returned. He is, rightly, furious. As we speak, he stabs at the page more violently and becomes more and more agitated. “These clubs should be a source of pride!” he almost shouts. “Before… no one knew Tbilisi, no one had any idea what was happening in Georgia. Now, the world is aware of us and people come from all over to these clubs. And they still hit us here! Why?”
Clubs, and clubbing, are a recent development in Georgia. While a fledgling electronic music scene has existed in the city since the late 90s, and an early generation of venues, such as the long-shuttered Berlin and Adjara Music Hall, brought club culture to Tbilisi, it was only in the late 2000s that the scene matured and developed, and the roots of what exists now began to take hold. Today, Georgian DJs are being booked internationally. Bassiani is doing showcases worldwide, with regular takeovers of Berghain and sold out shows in places as far afield as Mexico. It just pulled off a massive showcase in nearby Armenia which shows the power that clubbing is having in drawing progressive kids to dancefloors throughout the Caucasus. Bassiani also has a label, and its releases regularly sell out and get multiple represses. In fact, it’s this idea – that one day the music itself will be able to stand on its own, separate from the politics that undergird it – that most of the people I interviewed pinned their hopes.
Why electronic music, and particularly techno, took off in the city is something of a mystery. Japaridze, the DJ on parole, puts it one way. “It speaks to you,” he says. I asked the question to everyone I interviewed, and most of them posited that it was a combination of the music not being rooted in a particular language, like rock, or a place, like hip hop’s connection to the USA; that it could be produced cheaply in bedroom studios; and that this particular scene was the most organised and quickest to develop.
“We really have to look to the clubs here as an example of what is possible in the city,” says Sergi Gvarjaladze, head of the Night Tbilisi Development Concept, which seeks to boost Tbilisi’s night economy and turn the city into a modern 24/7 metropolis. “They started from scratch and organised themselves and built this incredible momentum.”
Before taking on his current role, Gvarjaladze was a radio host, a TV producer, and a musician (his song “Artificial Love” was a hit in 90s Georgia). His current job had been made somewhat more difficult in the wake of the club raids. “It’s difficult for me,” he admits with a beleaguered look as we sit on a bench in Vake park. He takes a drag from his cigarette and motions over at the modern, glass-fronted building which he now calls his office, the Mediatek Tbilisi Media Centre. “I’m part of the government now – well, at the very least, the city government – but I immediately called out the raids and said I thought they were a mistake. Raids happen all over the world, but the momentum wasn’t right...” He shrugs. “For Georgian police, and for wider society, these clubs are a new thing. A lot of people think it’s a bad thing.”
“We really have to look to the clubs here as an example of what is possible in the city” – Sergi Gvarjaladze, head of Night Tbilisi Development Concept
Raids do happen everywhere. In China – where I’ve lived, on and off, for the last five years – police have started parking buses across the entrance of clubs, marching the clubbers out and whisking them to the nearest police station, and then making them do urine tests. Foreigners caught positive are deported, while Chinese citizens face huge fines or jail time. In London, the 90s raves that gave birth to some of the most popular genres of dance music today were regularly shut down by police under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which also created the first ever legal definition for a genre of music, stipulating that police have the right to break up groups of people listening to amplified sounds “wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. But even in China, the police don’t arrive in riot gear pointing machine guns at ravers.
For an older generation of Georgians, who have no experience of ever going clubbing, these spaces can be easily stigmatised. While British and American politicians have to bury stories of their sordid pasts, there are few Georgian politicians who even had the opportunity to visit a club. When they were in their teens, their country was either still part of the Soviet Union, or it was a crumbling post-Soviet republic struggling with a single hour of electricity a day. As such, the dark spaces that have started rumbling under their cities are, in their imagination, the dark and seedy underbelly of a society that is moving too fast for them to keep up.
The other problem for this generation is that the clubs have, historically, been a major motivating force for social change in the city. “No one has ever managed to get thousands of people out on the streets to advocate for policies in the way we have managed to numerous times,” notes Bassiani’s Tato Getia. White Noise, in particular, have made huge strides in pushing for drug reform: they’ve succeeded in negotiating down the sentences of a number of people arrested, and they were also instrumental in pushing for the decriminalisation of marijuana, which most prominent politicians have stated support for over the past few years, albeit without taking any substantiative measures towards enacting it. The bill finally passed on July 30, no doubt in large part as a result of the continued pressure from groups like White Noise and international outcry in the wake of the raids on the clubs.
The city’s clubs have also been the beating heart of the LGBTQ+ community. “For many in the scene, they literally have nowhere to go,” notes Ana Subeliani, an activist in Tblisi. “A lot of people get ostracised and cut off from their families when they come out. They find new families in the clubs.” We’re meeting in Café Gallery, a club with strong connections to the city’s LGBTQ+ community that was also hit during the raids. Bassiani’s Horoom nights built on the momentum that Café Gallery helped establish, and both have been instrumental in expanding tolerance and normalising the LGBTQ+ community in the city.
The change in the city’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ community has been clear over the last five years. On May 17, 2013 – the International Day Against Homophobia – a gathering of 50 LGBTQ+ activists was mobbed by a group of over 10,000 right wing thugs, led by priests in full vestments who paraded under banners declaring ‘No to Mental Genocide’ and ‘No to Gays’. The ensuing violence was such that the police had to snatch up members of the LGBTQ+ community, throw them on a bus, and drive them out of the city to an undisclosed location before gradually bringing them back, one by one. “I saw 10,000 people who wanted to kill me,” Magda Kalandadze, a 30-year-old activist told a reporter from Harper’s at the time.
The ‘pogrom’, as it came to be known, cast a long shadow over Tbilisi. While things have improved somewhat in the subsequent years, it’s been clear that the rainbow road is not without its potholes; in 2016 there were 30 violent attacks against members of the LGBTQ+ community, including the deadly stabbing of a trans woman. That same year, Tbilisi hosted the World Council of Families, a congress of right-wing, anti-gay activists who meet to lament the rise of ‘queer totalitarianism’ and the apparent excesses of liberalism globally. The Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the de facto leader of the three million Orthodox believers of Georgia, spoke at the gathering, and on May 17, three years to the day of the pogrom, led a march through the city and declared it “Family Strength and Honour of Parents Day”. This year, according to Subeliani, five trans women have been murdered.
Still, things have changed a lot. “In 2013, thousands of people came out to beat those people up,” Getia tells me, “but now in my club, we have a thousand people or more every month coming to our LGBT party. And you know what, they can’t do anything about it. At the start, we had guys come and try to cause trouble, but then our security came out, and they saw that we were thousands and they were just a handful of people… they’ve never returned. The tide has turned already. We outnumber them.”
“A lot of people get ostracised and cut off from their families when they come out. They find new families in the clubs” – Ana Subeliani, activist
In 2011, a survey found that almost nine in 10 Georgians believed that homosexuality could never be justified. By 2017, the first openly gay candidate was able to stand for a council seat in Tbilisi, although she didn’t win. The clubs still very much represent a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, and importantly they help normalise the community by exposing them in a permissive environment to mainstream heterosexual club goers. This interaction has helped change people’s minds and perceptions in the city. While there is a long way to go, it’s clear that the road thus travelled has been trodden to a techno soundtrack.
The success that the clubs have had with drug reform and with expanding tolerance for the LGBTQ+ community mark them out and are part of the reason why they are so special for people in the city. For Anna Zedginidze, who runs a nightlife start-up called MoonLife in the city, “it’s like going back home”. Even if you aren’t into the music, the clubs are a space exclusively carved out for the youth of the city, where people from different backgrounds that trace an entire spectrum of identities can connect. For Georgia, a country that is 84% practicing Orthodox Christian and pulled between the competing spheres of influence of the west and from Russia (which presently occupies 20% of Georgia via the breakaway region of South Ossetia), they represent the ultimate hope for a whole generation of progressive kids who want to live without restrictions.
That’s why clubbing in Tblisi is inherently political. Even where clubs don’t state an explicit politics, though some do, their very existence, given the wider political environment, makes them political.
“We don’t compromise,” Tato Getia tells me as he gets up from his desk and leads me towards the door. The sun has dropped low by now and the shadows on the wall behind him have coalesced. We walk out into the amber evening and he motions towards the entrance to the club where I’ll see him later. He is, all things considered, hopeful. As he notes, the people who came out on the streets to defend his club are also the people who in a decade will be in positions of power in the country. Their movement, we agreed, was less a protest against the government and more a protest for a way of life. This means that for him, the future is written. “It’s clear where we are headed,” he tells me, “there is no way that tomorrow we will wake up and the mindset will be completely different.”