MOSCOW — The great cities of Russia are still strange to Baimurat Allaberiyev, who as a younger man herded sheep in his native Tajikistan for a salary of one lamb per month. Two years after moving here, he still wonders aloud where the apples in the market come from, since he cannot see apple trees anywhere.
For this reason, his manager has assigned an assistant, 22-year-old Natalya Glazova, to look after Allaberiyev as he pursues his career in show business. Glazova quickly developed a fondness for the new client, and her heart flipped over with pity when on their first meeting, she realized that the things he was carrying — a change of clothes in a nylon sports bag — were everything he owned.
The rise of Allaberiyev, widely known as Tajik Jimmy, a migrant worker in a provincial Russian stockroom who delivers astonishing renditions of Bollywood musical numbers, is one more testament to the strange power of the Internet. A little more than a year after one of his performances was filmed by a co-worker with a cell phone and posted online, Allaberiyev cannot walk through a crowd in the Russian capital without being stopped by fans. This is especially remarkable given the place that Central Asian migrants occupy in Russian society: members of a vast and nearly invisible work force, targets of derision and occasional violence.
This summer, Allaberiyev quit his job loading boxes and decided to move to St. Petersburg to pursue fame. The transition has not been entirely smooth; after one of his first bookings, at a hip Moscow nightclub, he was so desperate for a place to stay that he asked journalists if they could take him home for the night. During an interview with The New York Times he asked for money to replace three teeth that were knocked out in April, when he was attacked by thugs on his way home from work.
“You have lots of people in America,” he said. “Send me lots of teeth.”
In recent years, YouTube has bestowed global celebrity on a long list of unlikely candidates, like Tay Zonday, a baby-faced graduate student who wrote the cryptic anthem “Chocolate Rain,” and Chris Crocker, a teenager known for his two-minute rant defending Britney Spears. Virtually all of them have found it hard to parlay the experience into a lasting career, said Bill Wasik, whose new book, “And Then There’s This,” explores the phenomenon of Internet celebrity. Even a short ride, Wasik said, is a kind of gift.
“They all seem so happy just to enjoy their little slice of microfame,” he said. “Just watch Tajik Jimmy: Do you really think he belongs in that storeroom?”
Indeed, the voice seems to come out of nowhere — a clear, warbling Hindi falsetto, complete with percussion and twanging sitar solos. For an impoverished boy growing up on a Tajik collective farm, there was no greater pleasure than Bollywood films, which were approved by the Communist Party as a politically safe diversion. Allaberiyev’s family understood that he had a gift; by the age of 7 or 8, he could commit songs to memory and repeat them with eerie accuracy, after watching a movie twice.
But he was born at the wrong time, or in the wrong place. By his early teens, he was picking cotton for a pittance in pay. When the Soviet collapse cast Tajikistan into poverty and civil war, he joined the great river of young men who left home in search of work.
He sang as he watched 1,700 sheep and fed cows for a wealthy Uzbek trader, and as he made the long trek to the Russian city of Kolomna, about 110 kilometres southeast of Moscow, where construction work on a glittering new mall was paying around $400 a month.
At 38, Allaberiyev looks like a much older man, with deep creases in his cheeks and a painfully bloodshot eye. But as soon as he begins to sing, he switches on like a light bulb. He was singing in the storeroom at a hardware store in the mall in May 2008 when the store’s head of security filmed him with his cell phone. The guard sent the clip to his brother in Moscow, who posted it online, and Allaberiyev’s fame blossomed into something extraordinary.
By the time Roman Gruzov, a reporter for the magazine Bolshoi Gorod, tracked Allaberiyev down last April, he was so well-known that strangers began to converge at the sound of his voice.
As Gruzov and Allaberiyev sat in a railway station in Moscow, “on the faces of the workers at the cafe you could see horror, because suddenly there were 50 foreigners clapping and dancing,” Gruzov said. “He was forced to stop before the militia came to break up the demonstration.”
Gruzov wangled Allaberiyev a guest appearance with the Asian Dub Foundation, a London group that was performing that same night in St. Petersburg. Ilya Bortnyuk, a concert promoter in the audience, felt what he described as “almost rapture.”
That night Bortnyuk offered to manage Allaberiyev’s career for a period of three years or for five albums. He hopes to position Allaberiyev as a “world music” star, leaving behind Bollywood imitations for a repertory of Afghan and Central Asian folk songs. Bortnyuk has shared an early recording of Allaberiyev with producers at Real World Records, the London-based label founded by Peter Gabriel. He will have to look West for serious fans, Bortnyuk said, since the market for world music in Russia is practically nonexistent.
“If there will be disappointment, it’s no big deal,” said Bortnyuk, general director of the agency Svetlaya Muzyka. “It’s show business. There is glamour, there is disappointment. No big deal. I’m used to it after 20 years.”
Allaberiyev, it seems, is not yet used to it. For months after that groundbreaking April concert, he has worn the red laminated backstage pass from the event around his neck almost every day, perhaps because it is printed with the word “artist.”
His relatives are also struggling to understand. When he returned to Kolomna for a brief visit with his family, an older relative sternly ordered him to go back to St. Petersburg, saying the contract with Bortnyuk made it illegal for him to leave. His brother Bakhtior, who still loads boxes in the storeroom, said he worried that Allaberiyev was not getting enough to eat in that distant, mysterious city.
“Tell me,” he asked, “is there a cafeteria there?”
Gruzov is sober about the process he set in motion.
“I have the feeling that this story is more sad than happy,” he said. “This whole story, which people take as a great success, when in fact there is no great success. He still doesn’t have teeth.”
But there was no such ambivalence among his former co-workers at the mall, who say Allaberiyev’s experience is evidence that miracles sometimes happen.
Yelena Mirzoyeva, 38, a handsome woman who manages a cleaning service on the second floor, recalled that for many months, Allaberiyev had promised her he would become famous. She did not believe it, looking at him, a small and weather-beaten man, who after being assaulted on the trolley car, rode a bicycle home in the dark every night, singing all the way.
“Everyone thought it was a joke,” she said. “I envy that in a person, the ability to drop everything and go after your dream, while the rest of us sit at home, afraid that something won’t work out, or that somehow we’ll end up with something worse than we have.”
Allaberiyev came back last week to visit the mall, in a pair of pointy, dazzlingly white loafers, and they are all still talking about it. Asked if she expected to see him again in Kolomna, Mirzoyeva smiled and shook her head, a little wistfully.
“A person that feels he is a star,” she said, “that person will really go somewhere.”