In an extract from his new book ‘Pop Grenade’, Matthew Collin recalls the most bizarre gig he’s ever seen - Boney M on the frontline of an ex-Soviet state on the brink of war.
Yellow dust billowed up from the rocky track, mingling with the exhaled fumes of dozens of cheap cigarettes and the leaded vapours belching from the exhaust pipes: a low-hanging cloud of pungent, airborne grime…
We’re going to a disco.
Our scruffy little convoy huffed and chuntered its foul-smelling way up the hill, past the troops with their guns, standing vigil by the roadside, then downwards into some of the most inhospitable territory in this volatile region.
Downwards into South Ossetia, a breakaway province of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a place where violence has often been the preferred method of ‘conflict resolution’. Where villages had been divided for years by checkpoints and militiamen. Where Kalashnikovs spat fire as soon as night fell. Where ethnic cleansing was a time-honoured way of seizing power.
We’re going to a disco on the frontline.
We’re going to dance to Boney M.
The seventies pop veterans had been booked to play a government-sponsored concert in South Ossetia - a propaganda rave in the middle of a conflict zone for the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, an idiosyncratic character known to everyone as ‘Misha’. Around the time of the show in October 2007, he was staging a new campaign to reassert Georgia’s rule over the renegade province, much of which had not been under the government’s control since a civil war in the early nineties. The gig was part of his soft-power offensive to show the recalcitrant Ossetians what they could have if they returned to Georgian rule - how life could be more peaceful, more prosperous and probably more funky with Misha at the controls.
It was due to take place on a makeshift stage outside a little cinema in Tamarasheni, a government-controlled village just a couple of kilometres from the Ossetian rebels’ stronghold on the other side of the frontline. It did not start promisingly: as Georgian snipers gazed down watchfully from the cinema roof cinema and the band took to the stage, it soon became apparent that this was not the ‘real’ Boney M, but a splinter group fronted by one of the original seventies members, Marcia Barrett.
Barrett had obviously decided that because this was a conflict zone, it would be appropriate to reprise one of the band’s more misguided attempts at social commentary, the excruciating Belfast, with its naïve lyrics about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Admittedly, one of its lines - something about “the hate you have for one another’s past” - did sound slightly relevant in a place where history has often been manipulated for political advantage, but the crowd hadn’t come to be lectured about the need for forgiveness and peaceful reconciliation by a bunch of foreign pop stars. They had come to dance, and they only really started to respond when the band launched into escapist classics like Rasputin and Sunny.
Then suddenly, as the pre-recorded strings began to vamp out the deathless riff from Daddy Cool, there was a stir of excitement in the crowd. “Misha’s here! Misha’s here!” my photographer friend Alex Klimchuk shouted. The Georgian president had arrived stage-front to savour his cultural triumph over the rebels.
As Saakashvili grinned gleefully and worked his body to the beat, I managed to negotiate my way past his minders and ask him the only question I could think of which seemed to make any kind of sense: what did he hope to achieve by bringing a bunch of old crooners to this remote, volatile, war-ravaged place?
“Well, you know, this is a kind of disco approach to conflict resolution,” Saakashvili shouted back, trying to make himself heard above the hammering rhythm.
“By doing this, we hope that we’ll lure out people from their trenches, force them to drop their Kalashnikovs and come here and dance with the others, and understand that nothing is as nice as peace, nothing is as nice as reconciliation,” he said.
Then the Funky President nodded his head, shuffled his brown suede shoes, and got right back into the groove.
Saakashvili had a prodigious talent for dropping memorable soundbites, and this one was possibly his best. But what did a “disco approach to conflict resolution” really mean? Certainly, a day of pop hedonism had to be better than another night of gunfire in South Ossetia. But was it really likely that the Russian-backed militiamen would throw down their weapons and come grooving across the divide to join hands in peace and loving harmony?
In the end, they did come, but not to party. Ten months after the Boney M concert, Saakashvili lost patience with the rebels’ mortar attacks and dispatched his army to try to seize back South Ossetia by force. Russia responded by sending in its own troops to ensure that its Ossetian power base remained intact.
As the Georgian army retreated from the Russian onslaught, the village where the gig had taken place, Tamarasheni, was looted and torched by marauding Ossetian militias, and the Georgians who lived there were driven out in a savage frenzy of revenge. Tamarasheni effectively ceased to exist.
During this brief but brutal war, the photographer Alex Klimchuk, whose images of the Boney M gig accompanied an article I wrote about the event for a British newspaper, was shot dead by the rebels at a checkpoint not very far from where the seventies veterans had played and where we had laughed together just months earlier, enjoying the absurdity of that moment.
The ‘disco approach to conflict resolution’ was over, and the old ways had prevailed: ethnic cleansing and murder.
‘Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot - Dispatches from Musical Frontlines’ by Matthew Collin is published by Zero Books.