Roll up, roll up for the Susan Boyle of Tajikistan

He stacks supermarket shelves by day but by night, he wows the crowds. Shaun Walker meets the Russian-speaking world's latest singing sensation

Friday 01 May 2009 00:00

Baimurat Allaberiyev doesn't look like a pop star. He's 38 years old, but looks well into his forties, and his creased, leathery face hints at a life of sadness and toil. For the past two years, the native of mountainous Tajikistan has lived near Kolomna, a provincial Russian town just outside Moscow, where he earns a paltry salary stacking boxes in a supermarket. Two of his front teeth are missing after Russian skinheads took a dislike to his Asiatic features earlier this year and attacked him, unprovoked, while he was sitting on a train.

But things are changing for Mr Allaberiyev, and the Tajik labourer is on the cusp of unlikely stardom, thanks to a bizarre course of events that is part Susan Boyle, part Slumdog Millionaire.

In front of a packed crowd of twenty-somethings at Solaynka, one of Moscow's hippest nightclubs, he steps onto the stage to yelps from adoring fans and belts out "Jimmy Jimmy Aaja", a classic Bollywood number and his trademark song. Pretty young Russian girls, the kind who would cross the road to avoid Tajik labourers in real life, scream out "Jimmy Boy, we love you!" and the crowd claps along to the catchy melody.

Mr Allaberiyev's incredible tale begins with a series of YouTube videos. Entitled "Tajik Jimmy", they feature a downtrodden Central Asian in a variety of grim looking workshops and building sites, wearing a scruffy shell-suit and singing the song, while co-workers giggle and egg him on.

His voice is unexpectedly good, and he sings both parts of the love song, using a pitch-perfect falsetto soprano for the female lines. Further entertainment comes from the fact that he accompanies himself on an imaginary keyboard, and despite the grim surroundings looks genuinely happy and absorbed in bizarre dance moves and gestures.

The clips rapidly became YouTube favourites, gaining hundreds of thousands of hits in the space of a few months. His first steps from YouTube cult to genuine celebrity came in early April when a reporter from a free Moscow weekly decided to track down the mysterious Tajik.

He found Mr Allaberiyev in a shopping mall with the incongruous name of "Rio" in a grim provincial town two hours out of Moscow. Like tens of thousands of Tajiks, he had made the journey to Russia in search of work and money.

The journalist called a friend, a Russian producer who was organising a concert for British band Asian Dub Foundation in St Petersburg. Arrangements were made for Mr Allaberiyev – who everyone calls Jimmy – to support the British group at the concert. For the big day, the Tajik bought a new shirt, grew a mullet, and instead of tapping out his melodies on an imaginary keyboard, used an iron bucket to lay down a rhythm with his fingers.

His performance was a roaring success, and since then, it's been a dizzying upward spiral for Jimmy. Concerts have followed at Moscow nightclubs, he has been featured on television documentaries, and a St Petersburg promoter has signed a contract with him that he hopes will enable him to become a full-time singer and record an album.

He has come a long way from his birthplace in the mountains of tiny Tajikistan, a poverty-stricken former-Soviet republic that borders China and Afghanistan. His brother worked as a cinema projectionist, and the young Baimurat would watch the Bollywood films. "I had a talent; I could learn any song in a couple of days," he remembers. "I didn't know what the words meant but I still understood the meaning." He started singing at weddings, and when he moved to Russia two years ago, the plan was to earn enough money to buy a Yamaha keyboard. Now, he is aiming for bigger things. "I want to be a star," he says with a smile that exposes his missing front teeth. Despite the skinhead attack he says he wants to make his name here, and not back in Tajikistan.

An impatient Russian camera crew are waiting to interview the new star, and our interview draws to a close. As he says goodbye, he leans over and asks for 200 roubles (about £4); he is using his new status to collect as much money as possible to send back to Tajikistan to buy medicines for his father. It's a sign that while he may be flavour of the month on the Moscow clubbing scene, there is still a long way to go.

For his Moscow concert on Wednesday he was paid about £100, and admits he has no idea where he is going to sleep. "I have to be back at work at 9am, and I don't know how I'm going to get back there or where I'm going to stay," he says, looking rather confused as a concertgoer thrusts a beer into his hands and asks for a photo together. "Maybe I'll just sleep in the club somewhere."

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