This article originally appeared on THUMP Netherlands.
Much like Berlin, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is a city shaped by its recent war history. Georgia has been involved in several wars over the last 25 years, which has caused poverty to run rampant. It seems like the youth of Tbilisi want to forget these events through dancing and fully losing themselves in local clubs, which is fueling the growth of the city's underground dance scene.
Clubs like KHIDI and Mtkvarze opened in Tbilisi a few years ago, and there's the gay-friendly hangout Cafe Gallery. But it's Bassiani, an industrial club erected under a football stadium, that's recently put the city on the map. After Nina Kraviz, Speedy J, John Talabot, and other famous DJs passed through its doors, the club started to garner recognition in the global house and techno scene.
Bassiani was founded in 2014 by Tato Getia, Zviad Gelbakhiani and Naja Orashvili as a club with a political and activist element. Its primary aim is to stand against Georgia's extremely strict drug policies, and combat homophobia through free queer parties.
"There's a zero tolerance policy on drugs in Georgia," Getia explained during our Skype interview. "It's very simple: Legally, it doesn't matter if you're carrying one milligram of MDMA or a kilo of heroin. All drugs and all quantities fall under the same category. Recently, a friend of ours was arrested because he was carrying four grams of MDMA, which means he can now [get up to 20 years in prison]."
Gelbakhiani tells me that citizens in Tbilisi use drugs as means of coping with the horrors of the country's political system. "Even though almost every club-goer knows someone in prison, [yet] people go continue to find ways to get drugs," he adds.
According to Bassiani's owners, it's just as expensive as it is difficult to find drugs in Georgia. "You can't find cocaine or GHB here. Only MDMA, XTC, hash, and weed can be found in Tbilisi," Getia explains. According to him, the prices for one gram of MDMA vary between 110€ and 120€; a single pill costs about 50€; and one gram of hash or weed costs between 60€ and 70€. The three owners also stressed that they're properly conducting legal drug searches at the door.
When I asked Getia about the reasons behind Bassiani's increasing popularity, he said that many of their visitors come from abroad, especially from central Europe and Russia. "For Russians, nightlife here is comparable to European nightlife in Berlin, Amsterdam, or London, and Tbilisi is relatively [close to] Russia," he said.
Gelbakhiani said that what makes nightlife in Tbilisi so extraordinary is that it isn't stuck to a specific routine. "[Speaking from my own] experience, I know that in other European cities like London and Berlin, it's been like this for years," he said. "While here, it's something new. DJs respond to [sets at Bassiani] really positively because they can feel the energy and enthusiasm of the audience."
Vincent Theunissen, 26, is a club fanatic from Amsterdam who frequently visits Trouw, Cruquiusgilde, About Blank, De School, and Berghain. While living in Berlin in 2014, Theunissen met several people from Georgia who told him all about Tbilisi's nightlife scene. When he decided to visit these new friends later, his friends in Berlin were astonished. "Most of them couldn't understand why I would visit a place like that," he recalls.
"I went to Bassiani—also called the Berghain of Tbilisi—for two weekends," he continued. "The superb lineup amazed me. On my first night there, [Giegling DJ/producer] Konstantin played an ambient set. At one point, he dropped "Ave Maria," and the audience completely lost it."
"It seemed like they were praying on the dancefloor, like the younger generation had created a new religion," Theunissen noted.
Theunissen's Georgian friends told him that the contrast between daily life and nightlife in Tbilisi is enormous. "Ninety percent of the population is Christian, traditional, and very conservative," he explains, adding that people make the sign of the cross whenever they walk past a church, and stare at you like you're from another planet as you exit the club.
"It surprised me that people [in Tbilisi] keep partying until early morning—probably without drugs, because drugs would cause gigantic problems if you get caught with them there," he remarked. "A friend of a friend of mine was in prison for that reason, and sometimes people are forced to do a urine test."
In addition to its strict drug policy, widespread homophobia is still rampant in Georgia. But while Getia agrees that serious homophobic incidents happen here, he says the situation "isn't that dramatic."
"[Members of the LGBTQ community] don't have to hide, but there's still a long way left to go when it comes to emancipation and acceptance of the group," he says. Getia explains that because of Georgia's Soviet past, the country is years behind Western Europe, especially on the subjects of human rights and homosexuality. "Fortunately, our generation realizes that it's time for change," he adds. "We actively try to involve the LGBTQ scene in our club."
Bassiani's free and private queer parties are an example of that inclusivity. The invite-only nature of these events ensures the safety of attendees, and on regular club nights, Bassiani also uses a registration system for the same purpose.
Gelbakhiani explains that you can only purchase tickets if you're registered as a member. "We have this system to filter the audience, which creates a good atmosphere in the club. Without door policies, you're going to get annoying or drunk people who might start harassing others once inside."
The second night that Theunissen, who is gay, went to Bassiani, there was an LGBTQ evening called Horoom. "I couldn't imagine that a queer party could even take place in traditional Tbilisi. I had to register with a copy of my passport in advance, but it guaranteed [my] safety in the club," he says. "I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and the mixed audience, which consisted of transgender people, gay people, people in drag, and so on. Everyone wore a beautiful outfit, and it felt very free. There was a sexual energy I'd normally only felt in Berlin."
Getia, Gelbakhiani, and Orashvili hope that Bassiani's future queer parties won't have to be private anymore. When I ask them what else they'd like to achieve going forward, they say it's currently very complicated for DJs and club-goers alike to come to Tbilisi.
"[People] often have to wait for a transferring flight in Istanbul, which can take up to eight hours, and the flights are expensive. Fortunately, they're currently building a new terminal at the [Tbilisi] airport," says Gelbakhiani. With more foreign attention, they're hopeful that the drug laws in Georgia will ease up. In the meantime, they'll keep fighting their fight against the country's strict drug policies and homophobic mindsets by dancing in Tbilisi into the early morning.