ON THE floor of a jagged, pine-covered gorge in the mountains overlooking the city of Alma Ata in Kazakhstan, sits the vast Medeo ice skating rink. During the Soviet era it was the city's architectural pride. In independence, it is still its chief entertainment facility. Every Sunday through the winter, scores of battered Lvov buses chug the winding 16km ascent in a diesel vapour trail to deposit Alma Ata's citizenry for a day out, with their picnics of horsemeat, vodka, and acorn-flavoured Hungarian chocolate.
In the last two years, a new summer attraction has filled Medeo for a week each August. In the Voice of Asia Song Contest, the ghost of Genghis Khan meets the spirit of Terry Wogan in a Las Vegas-style jamboree.
Arriving to cover this year's event, I assented, bleary from an overnight flight, to two unexpected proposals on the tarmac of Alma Ata airport; to jump in a helicopter for a horse-race on the steppes; and to become a member of the Voice of Asia jury. The first involved five hours of merciless feasting, drinking and speech-making, against a backdrop of tanned Asian faces and wiry chestnut steeds. The second consisted of five days of the same, with a good deal of music in lieu of the ponies.
Sunday morning, day one of the contest, I met my fellow jurors around a long table in Alma Ata's 1930s City Hall. At the head sat Mayor Zamanbek Nurkadilov, built like a concrete Party HQ and draped in the first of a succession of Palermo-chic double-breasted suits. In spite of his protestations of musical ignorance, Mayor Nurkadilov was clearly enthralled with showbiz. His second wife is the colourful folk star Makpal Zhunusova who, coincidentally, featured prominently among the Voice of Asia guest artistes. The mayor's support also ran to arranging the attendance of the country's president and prime minister.
The other 13 jurors were as eclectic as the contest itself; Hasan Ali Araibi, president of the Libyan Composers Union; the youthful Mongolian delegate, Gana, a singer and president of the Mongolian Pop Song Association, who responded to the endless calls for dinner table speeches by singing plaintive steppes ballads before draining his glass 'to the bottom' in the statutory manner. No pair of jurors better illustrated the range than two distinguished radio executives, Saed Bagheri and Judy Massa, heads of music respectively of the Broadcasting Union of Iran, Teheran, and Voice of America, Washington. Mr Bagheri was part of a ground-breaking delegation personally authorised by Iran's President Rafsanjani, after considerable reflection. It contained an Iranian pop singer, no less - the contestant Abbas Bahadori. Mr Bagheri, a bear-like poet, kept Satan at arm's length, dining separately with his interpreter when vodka and champanski were at large on the jury table, that is, almost always. Ms Massa, for her part, was the soul of diplomacy, avoiding getting into lifts with Mr Bagheri on the grounds of a rumour that he mustn't be embarrassed by physical contact with women.
The contest was simple, if drawn out. Each of four competition nights featured songs from the 25 contestants, plus entertainment from half-a- dozen non-competing guest stars. A gala concert with prize-giving concluded the week's celebrations. The contestants, pre-selected from 200 applicants, were erratically multinational - from China to Madagascar - but featured a majority from the bewildering array of new nations emerging fram the debris of Soviet Central Asia; Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia.
On Sunday evening, for the opening night, the jury seated itself in its roofed-in box. On stage, banks of television monitors, neon sponsors' signs ('Get your Visa card from the Alembank') and swathes of flowers vied for the eye with a huge felt camel.
Kazakhs take their pop music seriously, however - a concomitant of the bad old days when the libertarian power of rock was feared and repressed by the Communists - and jury duty was no laughing matter. Lots of pomp and bowing to the audience, nothing but Fanta and tea in the jury box while all around the 30,000 strong crowd swigged beer, champanski and vodka.
If an austere concentration reigned in the jury box, the stage was a riot of kitsch. 'What were the main stylistic references?' I asked the chief producer, Alexander 'Sasha' Ponomaryev. 'Eurovision and San Remo,' he replied. Teams of dancers in spangled helmets and lame boots succeeded retinues of stiletto-heeled models bearing soft toys. And this was only the opening sequence.
The performances varied greatly, and required a substantial suspension of disbelief from the Western viewer. Almost all were rendered as 'playbacks' - that is, mimed to a backing tape. Confusingly, in view of the contest's stated 'national music' criterion, contestants covered the gamut from total authenticity to slavish Westernism. At the authentic end came the Pakistani singer Arif Lohar and the Iranian Bahadori. Lohar gave us bouncy pop-qawwals, the old Muslim devotional texts whipped expertly to a modern froth with bass guitar and a souped-up beat. Bahadori, the revelation of the contest, in plain dark suit and white shirt, unveiled for the first time outside Iran a new genre of popular music recently emerged from Teheran television and radio studios - poetic texts praising the beauty of nature, Persian melodies, soberly modern arrangements.
In extreme opposition was the young Filipina Dessa, expertly versed in every nuance of American showbiz practice, to the rigorous exclusion of any national element. And somewhere in between were artists such as the Chinese Ai Jing, who breathed a new identity into Western structured songs via force of personality, melodic shading, or simply the expressive sound of their own language.
Those regions with a strong wedding band tradition and / or Arab and Persian orientation, seemed best placed generally. Russian-swamped Kazakhstan itself, in spite of a powerful nationalist revival, seemed too ready to accept token synthesiser embellishments and idealised national costumes. Half-minute solos on the dombra - a two-string lute - proliferated. In addition, certain specific cultural disjunctions seemed to arise. The boi-oi-oi-oing of a Kazakh mouth-harp is not 'sad' as one Alma Ata commentator puzzlingly told me, but broadly comical.
In the stadium's VIP dining suite, where the jury repaired for long working dinners at midnight, debate sprouted in the margins of the gruelling system of speeches and vodka toasts imposed by the mayor. In spite of much pious talk of world union through music, a schism developed. On the second evening, juror Bahadori had turned to me during some impeccable Prince routine from a Malaysian disco dance troupe, and commented with raised eyebrow, 'This is the voice of Asia?'
In the event, the accumulated points vote elected a compromise candidate, the Mongolian entry, as winner of the 'Big Golden Prize' and dollars 10,000. Sara, a former art student, combined a mature, attractive voice with just enough local melodic feel to placate the authentic school among the jurors. She had a nice outfit, too, home-made, and based on a frock Genghis Khan's mum wore in a recent film. A host of lesser prizes - cars, televisions, watches, microphones, the odd felt camel - were distributed briskly by mayor Nurkadilov and ensured that no one went home empty handed.
But the biggest winners were the punters. Night after night, at times in the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people danced in lines, waved arms or stared enraptured, above all at the performances of visiting idols such as Boney M and Gloria Gaynor. Theirs was the true voice of Asia, and they knew what they liked.
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