Bards vs. Boulevards

I met Oleg my first week in Baku while roaming around the central shopping district taking photos. The entire area is under construction, with the sidewalks being transformed from potholes to fresh concrete or from perfectly good concrete to tile, and so on.

There is definitely a building boom in Baku. Central locations and government buildings are constantly getting a face lift, providing many jobs for people who have no connection to the country’s oil and wealth.

The ancient maiden tower in front of the Flame Towers under construction (left)

But Oleg was completely out-of-place with all this. He was singing Russia war songs from Afghanistan, alternating with grim, soviet love songs that never end happily. He had those pre-ripped jeans and wore sunglasses long after the sun set, but his two gold teeth and weathered face showed his age.

I talked with him briefly and we made plans to meet again. He said I could always find him in this same spot, every night from eight to ten. So I tried two days later – no luck, but maybe I just missed him? So I tried again a week later, nothing. And so on, until every time I was out around sunset, I’d alter my route to pass the Targovnaya Street and look for Oleg, to no avail.

I finally saw him two days ago, playing all the way across town and we drank watered down beers at one of Baku’s ubiquitous, but strangely invisible cafes, where local men smoke, drink tea and play cards. These are inexpensive, unadorned and unwelcoming, but Oleg and I were trying to lose the drunks that hang around him toward the end of the night, so we turned a few corners and wound up there. The beer was mercifully cheap, so we talked for a long time.

It turns out the police had chased him off his perch in the center and now he was further out of the way, but he was happy to have avoided jail. Turns out Oleg spent a total of 18 years in jail for one thing after another: he referred to some robberies or maybe muggings from what I could tell - didn't seem polite to ask for details. He doesn’t seem a violent man now, if he was ever violent, but as he explains, “I’ve mellowed with age, if the police tell me to leave, I leave. I don’t fight, I don’t want to get locked up again.”

He learned his songs before jail though, in his boyhood courtyard. He begged his mother for a guitar so he could learn the songs that were always being played there. He clicked his false teeth and got very happy describing it with a sentence I often hear from middle age Baku residents.

“It was an international city then,” he said, echoing maybe a dozen conversations I’ve had with taxi drivers, teachers, and older artists. “We had everyone here: Moldovians, Russians, Kazaks” and so on. Baku may have more buildings today, and more museums and concert halls, but despite what I read in the tourist brochures, its cultural heyday may be behind it.

“I get angry – no, not angry, just unhappy – when I see the music that’s played on the television. Everyone used to play songs on guitar and now no one is interested,” he said.

I asked Oleg about other artists and musicians in the city. He said there was maybe half a dozen musicians he can think of that play on the street, but they also get harassed by the police and struggle.

It isn’t money exactly that Oleg misses. He said it’s hard to support his family – a wife, two daughters, and his wife’s parents, one of whom is sick – but it’s what he called “clean” relations. “I don’t really have friends anymore,” he said, “Many left, some drank themselves out of my life, but really I try not to get close to anyone nowadays, they all want something from me.”

“To be clear,” he added, “I don’t relate to people my own age, to their problems, their worries. I spent almost all of my youth, my best years, in jail. I feel like a young man, or I think like one, and I don’t see that in them.”

As we drank another round, he paused and explained that while he feels like a young man, he is not. “My profession, the way I made money for many years was a welder, so now I wear glasses all the time. I know it’s rude but no one sees me without these sunglasses,” he said and took them off. His small eyes got smaller and even in the dim light of the café, he put them on quickly and said it made his head hurt to have his eyes exposed.

He’s been playing on the streets of Baku for about three years now with what seems to be an endless catalog of songs and I watched the crowd he draws. A few people throw some money into his guitar case and some young guys even linger for a verse or two, but only a few men, usually drunk, linger long enough to hear an entire song.

On a recent night I was on the Caspian shoreline walking for some relief in the summer heat and I saw a few young guys playing some songs in Azeri on guitar. They weren't collecting money, but they had a crowd of maybe thirty around them. It was a welcome sight, but hard to hear because of the boom of speakers from a fountain further down the boulevard.

I walked to see the source: a state-of-the-art laser light show, complete with mist and fire-spewing fountains was entertaining maybe a hundred people, most of whom held their cell phones in the air.