Grozny Live

As hoods go, Grozny definitely qualifies as one of the meanest. Growing up during the Chechen war, young rappers like 27-year-old Yusup Nakhmudov, have seen friends blown apart by bombs. Others disappeared into Russian detention camps, never to return. Nakhmudov's music is like his life--uncompromising, angry and full of the imagery of war and destruction.

Listen: "I come out onto a balcony which doesn't exist, I look at the playground in my courtyard, There's nothing left of it," Nakhmudov sings in staccato, rough-edged Chechen. Another song, "Train to Hell," evokes Stalin's mass deportation of the entire Chechen nation during World War II. "The message in my music is my tiredness, my total disappointment. We are fed up with war, with poverty, with our everyday routine in the ruins," says a friend and fellow rapper, Anzor Bisayev, 28, who taught himself to play a broken guitar his parents gave him at 18. "No new day brings us anything new."

And yet, the tiny club where Grozny's rockers gather is itself a symbol of hope. It's a dim, tiny room in one of the few buildings still standing on its street, where young people gather to play and listen to rap, rock and reggae. The walls are papered with Metallica posters; its sound system is a pair of battered amps and patched-up mikes.

The five young musicians who make up the house band spent much of their lives in bomb shelters and basements. "We and our music and grew up together--literally underground," jokes the club's founder, 46-year-old Uzman Guchikov. The neighborhood kids who come to the gigs tend to be poor and devout. Most can't afford to pay for admission--and don't drink or smoke. Islam gives them a way to make sense of their world, and music a way to channel their anger--to express their deep alienation and, sometimes, hope. "I'm not sure anybody can actually understand. Once we start telling the horrible things we saw, people just shake their heads," says Bisayev. "I'm like Kurt Cobain. He let out his depression through his music, voice, his lyrics."

None of the Bridge Club's regular groups--Yurt-Da, a rap group, and rock groups Nokh-Cho and Danger Block--got to play in Chechnya's first post-war rock festival, organized by Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov in Gudermes last year. Instead, top Moscow bands were flown in (with heavy security) and only one Chechen group was allowed onstage. Nakhmudov believes that Chechnya's Islamist government disapproves of Yurt-Da and Nokh-Cho's "foreign" music. But that doesn't stop him: rap seems the most appropriate medium to describe the grim reality he sees all around him. "We used to live in a civilized city one day, which had theaters, concert halls and jazz bands," he reminisces. Now they don't. But this new Grozny has its own music nonetheless.