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The Good Man Baymurat

29/04/2009 1 comment

[Last summer, an unlikely star appeared on the Internet – a poorly dressed Tajik gastarbeiter who brilliantly performed the song ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja’ from the Hindi film ‘Disco Dancer’ with such verve that he was a hit on YouTube. Soon his fame spread into the world at large, and Roman Gruzov located him in Kolomna, a little town in the Moscow region. Roman found out that the Tajik was not a Tajik, and, wholly unexpectedly, ended up helping the singer along his career in show-business.

Roman Gruzov wrote up the story in the online journal Big Town (Bolshoi Gorod), and I have loosely translated his tale here. In case you’re wondering, this is the story of the man who appeared in that video I posted a few days ago. [Via Neeka]]

Jimmy first appeared on the Internet on 4 June 2008, when a user called Kurmultuk uploaded onto YouTube a three-minute long video taken on a cameraphone. In the somewhat jerky film, a middle-aged man, surrounded by various shelves and tools, sang and skilfully drummed on cartons. He wore a baseball cap, a white woollen sweater and unlaced boots, and sang with equal ease and amazing range both male and female parts of the song. He appeared content with life, grinningly hugely, drumming merrily, making guitar riffs with his mouth, and dancing in the Indian manner. With his amazing rendition of the song of Mithun Chakravorty, what was revealed was not so much his undeniable talent, but his surprising joie de vivre that was in such stark contrast to the grittiness of gastarbeiter life. The video ended with the appearance of a uniformed individual, who spoke sternly to the singer: “Get dressed, and go to work.”

The little film was posted with the title ‘A performance of Indian songs by a Tajik guest worker’, and on the right, in the section ‘Related Videos’ appeared such links as ‘Football fans – the attack on the guest-workers’, and ‘Nationalists cut off head of a gastarbeiter from Central Asia’ and ‘Uzbek gastarbeiter kills young woman in Moscow.’

For a few months, a thousand-odd people viewed the video. Then it was copied by user 8philadelphia8, specialist publisher of fights and football matches, and the singer’s fame exploded. By the end of the year, tens of thousands had seen the clip. Then Jimmy began to appear in new videos: in three or four films, he sang the same song but at different venues. Wearing a camouflage jacket at a construction site, tattoing a rhythm on the windowsills. A sports outfit in a shoe-shop, drumming on a bench. Then at a large supermarket, banging away on a two-hundred-litre barrel instead of a drum. Even the context changed: Bollywood films were intercut into the videos. The videos passed from user to user, via social networks and through the most unexpected channels – Old Skool Ravers and Chechenchat.net. And Jimmy and his video steadily achieved more visibility on the Web than the killings of Tajiks, or even the murder of a girl in St Petersburg by skinheads. (That unfortunate girl still showed up in related video searches, with the comment of someone truly twisted, “A murdered Tajik girl. Too bad, there was only one.”). Jimmy, with his 200,000 views, suddenly had become the most famous Tajik in Russia, even more famous, it seemed, than the slain field commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

I was able to trace Jimmy’s phone number and address in the township of Kolomna a day before the immigrant troupe Asian Dub Foundation was to perform in St. Petersburg. I didn’t want to miss the concert, but I figured that I had time to meet Jimmy and still get back in time for the show.

Golutvin station, two hours’ ride from Moscow, is not a place one associates with cheerful singers of Indian songs. The station square, one enormous puddle, is dotted with wrecked Zhigulis with checkered roofs; policemen and vendors of gilt and icons and used mobile phones wander about. Looming above, one finds a mass of concrete and glass, a shopping and entertainment plaza named ‘Rio’. Its interior is a mirror of the square outside. The only difference is that the gilt and icons lie on glass counters, and the mobiles are sold in glass stores. In the labyrinth of cafes and shops, in a shop called ‘Our Home’, Baymurat Allaberiev works as a loader. He, it turns out, is not a Tajik. In fact, he is Uzbek, although he was born in Tajikistan. Meanwhile, sales-ladies in the shop do not know his real name.

– Baymurat? – says one, stretching out the vowels in her surprise. – I reckon you need Jimmy!

The star of the RuNet, Jimmy, at that moment emerges from gloom of the shop. He is wearing the same sweater, and his boots are laced up now. He does not look like an easy-going fellow then, a short, elderly man, his left eye bloodshot, his fingers bent, a large bruise on his upper lip. Although we have agreed to an interview earlier, he still needs to get permission from the manager.

The kind-hearted manager gives Baymurat an hour’s break. Just as we are walking out of the door, the man says:

– You will be able to sing, won’t you?

Jimmy freezes on the doorstep.

– Yes – he says, embarrassed. – I tried earlier today.

The manager shakes his head.

– Please don’t cheat him – he says to me. – We had a television crew around the other day. They promised to pay him, and broadcast him on TV. And then neither was he shown, nor was he paid.. And yesterday he was beaten up on the train.

I guess they have mistaken me for a telejournalist, but the reason for their anxiety becomes clear when we sit down at a nearby cafe. Baymurat, realising that I haven’t brought a video camera, hides his disappointment behind a wide grin, and I see a bleeding hole in his upper gum. He is missing his two front teeth.

– They came up to me on the train yesterday on my way home – he said. – They said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m going home.” They hit me. I asked them, “Fellows, why are you doing this?”. “No reason,” they said. When I got home – no teeth. Only the gold tooth remains.

He speaks of his beating quietly, gathering the Russian words with difficulty. Indeed, he is remarkably calm, slowly sipping green tea, winking at the Uzbek waiters who eye the dictaphone warily. He talks of himself equally simply, interspersing his speech with the occasional smile. He was born in the kolkhozPravda‘ in the Kurgan-Tyubinskiy region, studied Arabic at his neighbour’s, a mullah, and learned music at a music school, served in the army, got married, divorced, herded sheep.

– I lived eight years in Kazakhstan with my wife, but we didn’t have any kids, so we split up. Had a bit of luck, thank God – I served in the Soviet army in Azerbaijan, and just after they sent me home – the war started there. In Tajikistan, too, I was lucky – the war began, but I wasn’t affected. The Wahhabis arrived and announced, “All the women should wear chadors.” The other Tajiks said, “No way that’s going to happen.” And there was war. I was working under contract for a Tajik, he had agreed to pay me in sheep. When they came for us, we had to take the sheep into the mountains. Every time they came, I’d tell them – there’s nobody here, they’ve taken the sheep into the mountains. So I spent the war in the mountains. Thank God, I was alive and well. And an agreement is worth more than money – at the end of every month, the Tajik gave me a sheep. My mother was ill those days, and we needed money for her medicine. And when she died, again I needed sheep – for 40 days… You also have a similar tradition?

Speaking of his mother, he gathers himself, speaks lightly, quicker.

– My uncle played the drums. He was old already, performed in the chaikhanas, sang at weddings. Mama said, “When you grow up, you can go perform with him.” My real name, in the passport, you know, in the documents, is Oymahmad. But my uncle was called Baymurat. When he died, I took up that name. Baymurat – it means ‘wealthy man.’

Smiling, he drew his tongue over the unaccustomed hole in his mouth.

– Mama said, “When you grow up, I’ll buy you a drum, just like Uncle’s.” I was going to middle school, Michurin’s school, and after classes, went to the music school – I learned the piano, dombra, drums. Then I took up the mike, and when I started to sing, I noticed that when there were other people around, I’d take on a second voice, female. And I developed it quietly. My brother was a projectionist, he often screened Indian films. Of course, it was translated only into Russian. It turned out that I had a talent: in two days I’m able to learn any song. The old man said to me one day, “Baymurat, you go sing at weddings – and sing like a woman and like a man.” I began to sing “Jimmy.” True, I didn’t understand the words, but the meaning is clear: “Sing, Jimmy, sing from your heart.” And that’s what the song is about. And what a fellow is this Jimmy! So I also became Jimmy, when I was still in school. And whenever there was a wedding or a festival, the villagers would come over and ask me to sing. “Sing for us, Jimmy, sing whatever you like.”

Speaking of music, he finally comes alive: he jumps up from the table, wiggles his shoulders, clicks his fingers, and, as though unable to hold back, begins to sing. He is immersed in his song, oblivious of what’s happening around him. Having begun in a low voice, by the second verse he is belting it out in full voice, so that everyone around stops and turns around to look at us. The strong, confident voice beats against the glass walls, as though to be heard even by the policemen in the square below, in the huge pond by Golutvin’s railway station. People applaud; the waiter who marched towards us to shush Baymurat, halts half-way. But Baymurat stops anyway, visibly forcing himself to stop, and he sits down and turns back into a grizzled, elderly man, indistinguishable from the other workers at the mall ‘Rio’. Just like them, he lives in the neighbouring village, wakes up at six in the morning, so as to arrive at work by eight, drags boxes till the evening, and returns home in the gloomy darkness. He fires up his fireplace with wood, not having enough money for coal, and he sings again.

– Sometimes I’m asked to sing. In our village, we get the occasional Russian or Armenian. I sing for them the whole evening, and in the morning, it’s back to work. I’ve been doing this for two years now. At first, I would think: Tajikistan is beautiful but Kolomna is not. But what is beauty? Here I have work, I can get an advance, they pay me on time – that is also beauty. In Tajikistan, of course, I would attend the mosque regularly. We have a mosque here as well, the Tatars go there, but I’m working, and just can’t manage it. But you see, at home, my father is a pensioner, if I send him a hundred dollars, he can live normally in Tajikistan. When the building work ended, thank God, I was fortunate again. I went to the manager and said, “Do you have a moment?” and he said, “What is it, Jimmy?” and I said, “Will you take me on for some work?” and he said, “Please, we have a need for porters.” Three thousand I send home, three thousand on rent, seven thousand remains for food. It’s good. I can’t save anything, though. Here, in ‘Rio’, on the second floor, there’s a shop, they have a Yamaha synthesiser costs twenty thousand. Sometimes I go there after work. The owner knows me. “Go on, Jimmy,” he says, “Play it. Sing.” If I can buy that synthesiser, maybe I can go back home, play at weddings. I love weddings: they make pulao, they speak kindly, everyone dances. And in any village, they go, “Jimmy, sing something.” They don’t pay much, but they feed you really well. And I don’t need a lot. For whatever God gives me, I’m grateful. What more can I ask for, when Allah has already given me two voices? All I need is a synthesiser.

He quietens down, turns the tea-bag around in his cup. Then he repeats

– Too much money? That’s not good. As we say, “Even the rich weep.”

And for the first time, he bursts into laughter, as though he has heard a hilarious joke.

This childlike wish for a synthesiser convinces me finally. I call up Ilya Bortnyuk, the producer of ‘Light Music’, and organiser of the concert by the Asian Dub Foundation in St. Petersburg. He has also seen Jimmy on YouTube, and agrees at once to have Jimmy as a warm-up to the show. But a few minutes later, he calls me back: “It is a large hall, a few thousand in the audience. What if he is frightened and runs away?”

– If he runs away – I say – we’ll pretend he’s a stagehand.

Baymurat followes the conversation without interest and with no emotion. He only asks if the equipment in the hall is any good. When I tell him that the equipment is professional-quality, he smiles toothlessly, and promises that he won’t run away.

– When I was a kid, I won first prize at a contest in Tashkent, and there were many people there. When the equipment is first-class, and there are many people – I become happier, more cheery than ever. And you know what? – he says, putting his hand on his heart – I feel that tomorrow I will be a star.

There is something touching and naive about this quiet confidence of a man who, for two years, has never left the environs of Kolomna. But at the Kazan station in Moscow it becomes quite clear that he knows what he is talking about.

A man on the station platform is the first to recognise Baymurat. “Jimmy!” he exclaimed, “Is it you?” At once, they begin to talk in Uzbek. A couple of Daghestanis come up then; they have seen him on the Web. Hearing that there is internet access even in Daghestan astonishes Baymurat more than being recognised on the street. In St. Petersburg, where he is accosted every twenty minutes, he explaines, not shy at all, that he can’t sing just then because he is on his way to perform at a concert. And then, he sings briefly, has his photo taken by schoolgirls, who then film him with their own cameraphones.

– I didn’t know that so many people recognised me – he says to me, signing autographs – but I felt it in my heart of hearts.

Neither during the flight, nor being introduced to the Asian Dub Foundation, nor the soundcheck in which he astonishes everyone not only with his voice, but with his first class percussion, nor, in general, during any of the pre-concert turmoil, does he even once betray any anxiety at all. He is focused, polite with everyone, quietly and completely calm. After getting changed into sharp-nosed shoes and a white shirt with a pattern of yellow balls (a gift from an Englishman named Quincy who encountered him in ‘Rio’ a year ago), he slowly paces around the still empty hall, and suddenly remembers an absolute necessity – a bucket.

– Usually, when there’s no drum, I play on a barrel, you get a good sound out of it. But there should be buckets here in the hall. A good iron bucket, that’s what I need.

When the security arrives in the hall, Baymurat noted with satisfaction that throughout his journey, he has not had a single run-in with the militia. Thoughtfully, he adds:

– No problems so far, but still it’s scary. At home, if they catch me, they say, “Jimmy, you are the star of Kolomna.” The others are arrested, but they only ask me to sing something for them. Here, who knows what can happen.

At this point, as though feeling the need to justify himself, he says:

– In two years, I’ve been attacked twice. Once before, and then yesterday, in the train. Thank God, no more than that. So I don’t really have any problems in Russia.

I promise him that he will be escorted to the airplane. At that moment, he is called up on stage.

Baymurat steps out with Steve Chandrasonic, the guitarist of the Asian Dub Foundation who has recently recorded a track with Iggy Pop. Steve introduces him to the audience, knocks himself on his strong white teeth, and speaks of discrimination and tolerance. It is evident that even if Steve speaks in Russian, his words will not have quite the same effect on Baymurat as the name of Iggy Pop. Still, he listens carefully to Steve’s English speech, takes the microphone from him, and, having waited for the hall to quieten, he addresses the crowd:

– Hello, friends. I came from Tajikistan and I work in Russia at construction sites.

The hall growls, and, as though someone had especially trained him for the moment, Baymurat waits for the noise to die down.

– I love to sing. These guys – he waves to the side – have come here from England. They also love songs. Everyone – equal, and everyone equally loves songs. And while they are getting ready, I’ll sing.

He speaks clearly, confidently, without a single mistake. And without waiting for the audience to absorb his message, he performs a solo beat at this bucket, and bursts into “I am a Disco Dancer.”

The hall erupts in a roar.

– Are you sure he has never performed in a stadium? – behind the scenes, an incredulous Steve asks me.

Jimmy manages the public like a shepherd guides his sheep, as though all his life he has been doing only this. He pounds the bucket, shifts his voice from male to female and back, strikes poses, tosses up his arms, and having sung “Jimmy, Jimmy,” turns the mike towards the audience, so that a thousand voices can be heard responding, “Aaja, aaja!” Then he bows, putting his hand on his heart in the Muslim way, and he leaves the stage, but within half an hour, he is dragged back, this time to sing with the entire group. The Asian Dub Foundation dedicate their main hit “Keep Banging on the Walls of Fortress Europe” to the “fantastic Mr Baymurat”, and instead of banging the walls of Europe, sing about the walls of Russia.

– I haven’t seen such a reaction from an audience in a long time, and it’s been even longer since I met such an unusual artiste – says Ilya Bortnyuk to me after the concert. In the next half-hour, with the same sang-froid with which he agreed to travel to St. Petersburg, Baymurat signs a contract with “Light Music”. Young women crowd around, trying to get backstage to have him autograph their t-shirts. He poses a bit more before the TV cameras (“We have a satellite dish in Pyanj, my father will be able to see me.”) and immediately gets ready for the night flight – at eight in the morning, he has to get back to work.

– This was a success – he says to me, bidding me farewell. – And it’s possible to continue this success a bit. Maybe, Inshallah, I might get that synthesiser. But the synthesiser comes second, it’s only a dream. First of all is God. My good fortune comes from the fact that I was filmed on that cameraphone, and the video posted on the Internet, and that you came to Kolomna. And it comes from the fact that if I am asked to sing, I am happy. Truly happy. But I always think first of Islam. Islam – it is obedience, it means that I need to pray and to hold on to it.

He wraps the bucket (signed by the members of the Asian Dub Foundation) in a plastic sheet, puts it under his arm, walks to the exit – this little man, soft-hearted, very polite, and just a little bit nervous, taking life as it comes, invincible in his acceptance of God’s will.

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Categories: india, music, russia, tajik, uzbek