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Flashy Boy Band Roils Some As It Tours Kazakhstan

KAZAKHSTAN -- Kazakh K-Pop band Ninety One
KAZAKHSTAN -- Kazakh K-Pop band Ninety One

It's not easy being a boy band in conservative pockets of Kazakhstan.

Just ask the musical act Ninety One. The band, so named because all five of its fashionable young members were born after 1991, is Kazakhstan's biggest Korean Pop (K-Pop) group and already has a devoted fan base in Almaty and Astana, the country's biggest cities.

But since it began a tour last month to some of the more remote areas of that Central Asian country of 18 million people, it has had plenty of trouble.

The band's members, who say they won't speak publicly about their experiences until their first national tour ends in early November, have a look that any teenager in South Korea or many other places in Asia or around the world might instantly recognize. Mixing brightly dyed hair, mascara-ringed eyes, lipstick, necklaces, and high-energy songs, K-Pop began in South Korea in the early 1990s and has since spawned a devoted worldwide subculture thanks to video clips shared widely on social networks.

But since creating Kazakhstan's first ever K-Pop group in 2014, in addition to attracting fans, Ninety One has elicited a strong reaction from critics of the band's flamboyant look.

The toughest part of the tour may have come on October 20, when Ninety One tried to play Qyzylorda, a socially conservative area of southern Kazakhstan. In addition to local fans -- teen girls prominent among them -- clusters of young men in their mid-20s turned out to demand that organizers cancel a planned show in a local restaurant.

The protesters argued that the band, which sings exclusively in Kazakh, was too "gay" in its appearance to represent Kazakh men. They also said they objected to Ninety One's name because 1991 is the year Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union.

The band and dozens of its supporters then walked around the center of Qyzylorda, a town of some 200,000 people, in hopes of finding a restaurant that would let them perform. But when no restaurant owner volunteered to help, and even the band gave up and went back to its hotel, there was nothing for the die-hard fans to do but sing Ninety One's songs out in the street until police finally urged them to go home.

Qyzylorda mirrored experiences in several other cities where Ninety One has tried to play in recent weeks.

In Shymkent, along the border with Uzbekistan, young toughs describing themselves to local media as "youth activists" organized an action via social media to cow concert organizers into canceling a Ninety One show. The protesters said the band's appearance went against Kazakh traditions and offended the country's ancestors.

In Zhezqazghan, in central Kazakhstan, protesters did not even have to rally outside the concert venue to block the band. There, city officials claimed to be preempting trouble by banning the group after what they said were "numerous demands" from local residents.

And in Aqtobe, in northwestern Kazakhstan, it's still not clear who was behind the sudden appearance of a group of thugs who blocked organizers from setting up the sound system for Ninety One's scheduled appearance.

"We brought in two trucks of sophisticated audio equipment from Russia, all with a big down payment," one of the organizers, who identified himself only as Almaz Zharaskanovich, his first name and patronymic, told the Kazakh website Karavan on October 4. "But more than a dozen people prevented the technicians from entering the hall and not a single official was there [to stop them]."

He said that some of his partners also received repeated threatening phone calls until they decided to call off the show.

The string of forced cancellations has left a trail of YouTube postings in which disappointed fans pour out their anger and anguish over being stymied by the self-appointed guardians of Kazakh values.

"It took me hours to persuade my mom to let me come, and now what?" says one girl in the central city of Qaraghandy before bursting into tears.

The only consolation fans have for now is Ninety One's repeated urgings to fans not to give up. Amid the string of closures, band members have reportedly told fans they will come back to all the places where they have been unable to play.

The band was able to perform in many other places in Kazakhstan, including the large northeastern cities of Semei and Oskemen.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service's Almaty bureau, with contributions from Merhat Sharipzhan in Prague. Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague
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