Young Belarusians flock to Poland's Basowiszcza festival to hear music groups banned at home


The name Basowiszcza was coined in 1989 from the abbreviation containing the first letters of the organiser, the Belarusian Association of Students (BAS) which gathers young Belarusians born in Poland. Over its 17-year history the festival has been invariably held near the little village of Haradok in the Podlaskie province along the eastern borders of Poland, the home of the most numerous Belarusian minority groups living in Poland.

This summer, the festival was attended by a few thousand people most of whom came directly from Belarus. In Belarus such a festival cannot happen because the authorities believe that rock bands are dangerous enemies, carrying messages of freedom and support for the Belarusian identity. Quite unimaginably for many Europeans, in the country governed by controversial president Alexander Lukashenka the native culture of the nation, as well as the Belarusian language, are being pushed to the margin and replayed by the Russian as in the soviet days. Rock music defends Belarusian values. This is why it is so unwelcome for the Belarusian authorities.

Volha, a student from one of the Minsk universities who came to Basowiszcza for the first time this year says she cannot imagine such an event in her homeland. She is particularly glad to see so many national Belarusian flags which are banned back home. She says it is the first time for her to see so many people holding Belarusian flags and nobody ends in jail for what in Belarus is a bold act.

'It's great, it feels good and positive. It's just amazing. I've never seen such a huge festival and it's just impossible to imagine that an event like this could happen in Belarus. There is no opportunity in my country to hear so much Belarusian music, all in one place.'

This year around 20 bands from Belarus took part in the concerts and 6 of them fought for the main prize: 40 hours of recording in one of the Polish studios plus a cash prize. Basowiszcza is the first big stage for young bands but it actually makes them popular: after performing here they can record albums, play concerts and give out autographs.

This was the case with the young band called B:N. Its members come from a small town of Biaroza in Western Belarus. For B:N musicians Basowiszcza was the first event in their careers when they played here in 2003. Today they have recorded two albums and played at major rock festivals, winning recognition among young Belarusians. During this summer B:N played the material from their new album called 'Long live rock 'n' roll!'

The band called Tavarish Mauzer, hardly known in Belarus two years ago, except perhaps for the garage where they held rehearsals, now makes a star performance at Basowiszcza. The band's guitarist talks about their path to popularity and the situation of rock music in Belarus.

"Basowiszcza is a way for bands to gain a name. A young band must work to earn a name for itself. Once the band has achieved something, then it is the name that works for the band. I would say that Basowiszcza works to give musicians a name. Belarusian rock has always been hard to swallow for the government because it has always been, and still is, the music of rebellion. Whatever a musician feels is reflected in his or her music. In Belarus there are cases where musicians play kind-of-rock concerts in support of the president. In my opinion, they do not play for the music's sake, they play for the money. But this means they are no longer musicians. And when it comes to politics, there is only one person in our country who engages in politics: our president. And this situation will continue until he stays in his place."

Basowiszcza attracts Belarusians not just from Belarus but from many corners of Europe where they study, work or live in exile after breaking free from president Lukashenka's regime.

Ludmila, now a student in Warsaw, was expelled from Minsk University earlier this year when she was about to complete her 4th year of studies. The reason was that she had participated in demonstrations during the presidential elections.

"We hitchhiked all the way from Warsaw and came at night. This place is great. I'm not thirsty, hungry or sleepy because this place bursts with an atmosphere of student life and good mood. I didn't sleep for a minute last night; I feel like talking to those people, I want to love this forest, that music and that unity which I find here."

In Belarus the Belarusian bands can sell their records but it does not mean they can hope for change soon. Freedom of expression in Belarus is non-existent, and it is likely to stay that way for a long time to come.