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The SWMC is Russia’s equivalent of the Miami Music Conference, set in the town of Sochi on the shores of the Black Sea. With the club scene in Russia exploding, we flew in to check it out and meet Nina Kraviz, the country’s undisputed star DJ.
Words: Duncan Dick
Photo: Kate Bellm
Nina Kraviz is nervous. It’s not that tonight’s gig is especially huge; compared to the main room at Fabric, or even the Mixmag Night And Day Party she played last summer in London, this set, for a few hundred people in the appealingly kitsch Abba Bar in the resort town of Sochi, is on a smaller scale than the venues Russia’s breakthrough DJ star is fast becoming used to.
No, it’s not the size of the gig that’s worrying Nina. It’s the crowd. Tonight is part of the Sochi Winter Music Conference, the Russian equivalent of Miami and a chance to showcase the country’s burgeoning dance scene and bring the key players together for seminars, partying and a not insignificant amount of vodka. “I’m always frightened playing in Russia now, I can’t relax,” confides Nina, sitting in the empty conference hall that has just played host to the biggest of the seminars, panels and presentations, and shivering slightly as a squad of workmen start to dismantle the stage and stack the chairs away. “I feel that now people have ten times more expectation of me; I turn up and it’s like, ‘What’s so fucking special about you?’”
If the question is understandable given the hype around Nina in Sochi and beyond – her presence and name seems to come up in every panel and every overheard conversation – it’s also pretty easy to answer. As well as being an electrifying house and techno DJ, as comfortable rocking the hell out of a mid-sized bar with a mischievous set that puts a new spin on classics old and new as she is thrashing Fabric with a barrage of hard-edged techno that led her agent to describe her as playing like ‘Jeff Mills in a skirt’, Kraviz is also a producer of superb dancefloor-focused tunes like ‘I’m Week’ and ‘I’m Gonna Get You’ for labels like Rekids, and her self-titled album is a superb slice of moody introspection. Articulate, passionate and very pretty, she really is a dance music ‘perfect storm’.
The town of Sochi sits at one edge of the vast Russian empire, pressed up against the ‘Independent Republic’ of Abkhazia – territory claimed by neighbouring Georgia as subject to Russian occupation – on the ‘far’ (from a European perspective) shore of the Black Sea. Inland, between Sochi, the Caspian Sea 600km to the East (and Central Asia beyond) looms Europe’s highest mountain range, the Caucasus. While Sochi is the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics and is buzzing with construction (locals hint that the authorities seem so encouraging of investment that they won’t look too closely into the cleanliness or otherwise of the money spent), the action will take place in the mountains – the town itself is known as having one of the mildest winters of anywhere in Russia. Given that on the day of the conference, capital city Moscow, 1600km due north, has temperatures of -20, the light dusting of snow and chilly evenings seem positively tropical in comparison.
If you ignore the Cyrillic signage, the many Ladas on the road and the freezing temperatures, it’s not unlike many a European seaside town: white apartment blocks and hotels, conference centres and casinos – think Playa d’En Bossa off-season. But every so often you’re reminded that you’re in Russia, and things are done a bit differently. The hotel that hosts much of the conference has a glass box outside in which three tragic-looking monkeys shiver around a light fitting. Go out to the car park and you’ll find the hotel has its own strip club attached, down a flight of stairs in the basement.
The seventh year of the SWMC finds the Russian dance music scene ready to explode. From huge festivals like Fort Dance in Kronstadt and drum ’n’ bass mega-raves like Pirate Station in St Petersburg to Moscow’s famously hedonistic clubs, just as in the US there is an appetite for dance music like never before. The people involved tend to be young, motivated and well aware of the potential. Observers of Russian dance music, though, say that feuds and intrigue have traditionally sabotaged the growth of the scene. While the organisers of the SWMC (the same people behind Fort Dance) don’t spell it out, getting most of the main players in the same place for a weekend can only help get everyone pulling in the same direction.
The parties at the SWMC centre around a handful of venues. The biggest is Circus Club, a white, ‘summer house’ themed venue with a big raised stage and upstairs gallery, approachable only on foot through its own little park. This weekend Circus is playing host to performances by big international acts such as Booka Shade and X-Press 2. Nearer to the conference centre is the Freebar, the name of which causes some initial excitement among the assembled journalists. This is the venue for the more commercial end of the DJs present – electro-house events like Garage Sound System and Radio Record. The ‘Secret Place’, reputedly a Romanian restaurant for the rest of the year, is a big cellar venue with an island bar, chocolate-coloured daybeds and a VIP area behind the decks which houses a huge brass Buddha. It hosts underground parties like showcases from LA’s Culprit Records and top Moscow club Arma 17.
A short taxi ride away is Abba Bar, the venue for Nina’s set and a masterpiece in knowing kitsch. Upstairs, the ski lodge-style cafe is dominated by a huge sculpted phonograph trumpet that covers the bar. Beneath a giant photo of Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Bjorn and Benny, stairs lead down to the club proper, where the ceiling is lit by a sea of lightbulbs that pulse and flow in time with the music and Nina Kraviz, immaculate in leather sheath dress and heels and flanked on either side of the booth by paramilitary- style bouncers, is unleashing a party set, mixing up her own driving productions and the freshest in house with a few old-skool acapellas. The crowd is striking in its variety. At a time when London clubs seem full of cloned urban lumberjacks and identikit girls in hot pants, the range of fashions and tastes is refreshing. Everyone seems to have their own distinct style, from stunning blonde Amazons in designer dresses who tower over their boyfriends, to the guy in a cape, the Eurotrash in gold-printed tees and stonewash jeans and the hipsters in woolly jumpers and beanie hats. The atmosphere, like every club in Russia, is sting-the-eyes smoky – no ban here – and while there’s no evidence of stimulants stronger than alcohol going around (especially popular are the flaming B52 shooters), people are dancing with real abandon.
It’s tricky to reconcile the scene with Nina’s self-titled album, released last month. A pensive, understated collection that sounds to these ears like a break-up album (Nina won’t be drawn on this, only saying that she was going through a ‘very intense emotional time’), its vulnerability is a direct contrast with her muscular, playful DJ groove. Nina says she recorded most of the lyrics late at night at home; “You have to try it; lying alone in total darkness when you are at the edge of exhaustion… put your headphones on and get a mic, maybe turn on the reverb so that when you speak or sing you can listen to your voice melt away into infinity.”
Nina is originally from Irkutsk in Siberia, on the shores of Lake Baikal and to the north of Mongolia. She made the 5000km trip west to Moscow when she was 19 to study dentistry, and still lives in the Russian capital, though she spends an increasing amount of time on the road. While she no longer has a residency in the city’s famous Propaganda club she loves her adopted home town. “In Europe things are all tiny and pretty; Moscow is like ‘yeah!’” she says, flexing her biceps like a bodybuilder. “It’s got terrible traffic, people don’t smile, it suffers a lot – but you can’t ignore it.”
Engaging, funny and enthusiastic, Kraviz only shows frustration when she’s asked if the traditionally macho Russia is accepting of a female DJ. “I’ve had really mean comments from all over Europe,” she says; “people asking who I slept with to get where I am, or saying that a man must be doing all the work for me! There’s an attitude still in the Eastern Bloc that women are good for the bedroom and the kitchen but not much else – so when a women gets successful there’s a bit of a debate.” But here in Sochi, there doesn’t seem much debate about the star of the conference. Russia is fast becoming a dance music force to be reckoned with – and Nina Kraviz is one of the reasons why.
Nina Kraviz’s debut album ‘Nina Kraviz’ is out now on Rekids