Kazakh musical superstar wants to take America by storm

Shortly after I arrived in Kazakhstan five years ago, friends took me to a benefit concert that featured many of the country’s top entertainers.

I marveled at how much talent a nation of only 16 million people could produce. The musicians, singers and dancers were superb. So I was in a euphoric mood when the headliner walked onto the stage in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

The stocky, pleasant-looking man with the captivating smile picked up a saxophone and began pumping out a frenetic-paced jazzy tune that was so good I was stunned.

I turned to a friend and asked, “Who is this guy? He’s got to be one of the Top 10 jazz saxophonists in the world.”

“Batyrkhan Shukenov,” my friend replied. “His stage name is Batyr.”

After the sax number, Batyr grabbed a clarinet for another rippling number. “My God,” I told my friend, “he’s one of the world’s Top 10 jazz clarinetists, too.”

Then Batyr began singing. By that time I wasn’t surprised to discover that he was one of the best singers I’ve ever heard as well.

“What a talent – and nobody in the West knows him,” I told my friend. If you don’t believe me, check out Batyr’s website at www.batyr.net.

Although I watched Batyr in concert three more times, it took me three years to get a chance to do something I had wanted to do from the moment I saw him: interview him. I learned during that interview that the 49-year-old, who sings in Russian and Kazakh, has dreamed for years of conquering the U.S. entertainment market. And I’d love to help him with that quest. I have selfish reasons. I want my daughter Angie, a musician in Portland, Oregon, to see him.

Batyr was a delight during my interview with him, crediting everybody in his life except for himself for his smash success in dozens of countries in the former East Bloc.

And “smash” is the right word.

During the waning days of the U.S.S.R., Batyr was huge in Russia, a country that doesn’t easily embrace non-Russian entertainers. He’s still such a phenom there that one of the Almaty-based singer’s homes is in Moscow.

It isn’t just musicianship that endears Batyr to his millions of fans. Batyrkhan Shukenov, who hails from the arid southwestern Kazakhstan city of Kyzylorda, is a genuinely nice guy.  He heads many charity efforts and is a special United Nations children’s ambassador.

Batyr’s repertoire is wide-ranging – from folk to jazz to pop to rock to Latin to almost-classical. And he’s been influenced by music from around the world.

In 1967, when he was 5, he heard the famous Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar in a Bollywood movie. Her singing was so enchanting that “it drove me crazy,” he said. “My head started spinning around.”

When he was 10, he bought a Louis Armstrong record – and had the same overwhelming sensation as when he listened to Mangeshkar, feeling “as if I were vibrating inside.”

The Beatles also were a major influence. When was 12, he was enraptured with the Fab Four’s song “Across the Universe.”

As much as he liked music, in his early childhood he gave no thought to making a career of it. Then fate stepped in. An instructor at a summer camp asked the 12-year-old to enter a singing contest. He did so to humor the instructor, he said – and was flabbergasted when he won. It was a sign that music would be his calling.

Batyr learned to play a guitar, keyboards, clarinet and saxophone. One of his teachers “opened the jazz world to me,” he said. It included such icons as “Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and the great Charlie Parker.”

When he heard Parker playing sax, Batyr said, he became so revved up that he couldn’t sleep.

In 1981, Batyr followed his brother Baurzhan to the Leningrad Culture Institute’s music program, where he not only became enmeshed in classical music but also attended as many jazz concerts as he could. When he left after two years for Almaty, his musical-instruments professor, Nikolai Dranitcyn, told him: “I know you’re going to be a famous musician, and the most important thing you need to remember is not to become too egotistical.”

“I understood that message later,” Batyr said. “Pride is the hardest thing a person has to struggle with when he becomes famous.” A person with talent should always remember that “he has been given a gift,” he said.

Batyr finished his last two years of university at the Almaty Conservatory. At the time he entered, in 1983, the school did not teach saxophone.

He auditioned on the sax for the conservatory president, the renowned composer Gaziza Akhmetovna, who said: “That was great! We’re going to have to open sax classes here just for you.” And she did.

Batyr’s rise to stardom began during his conservatory years. He joined the band Aray, which backed up Roza Rymbayeva, a tiny Kazakh singer with fans across the Soviet Union.

After becoming the conservatory’s first sax graduate in 1985, Batyr formed the band Alma-Ata Studio, which fans would dub A Studio.In 1989, the band’s megahit “Julia” catapulted them to fame across the Soviet Union. Batyr decided to try a solo career in 2000 after an 11-year run with A Studio.

Jazz fans like me love Batyr’s 2006 album, which is simply titled “Batyr.” It features mostly up-tempo songs, with generous splashes of the maestro’s saxophone and clarinet.

The Latin-beat numbers – of which there are several – are particularly fun. Listeners want to jump up on the spot to do a bossa nova, samba or merengue. Many expats living in Kazakhstan have sent the album to friends back home.

Batyr also is a great ballad singer. The emotion he pours into slow numbers is guaranteed to send your heart atwitter.

Batyr told me in the interview that although he’s accomplished much during his career, he’s restless these days. That’s because he’d like to see if he can appeal to American audiences. And he has a game plan for doing it.

He said he would give a diamond-encrusted samovar for the chance to do an album with David Foster, the Canadian whom many consider the world’s top pop-music composer.

In fact, Batyr asked me to help him approach Foster, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Andrea Bocelli and many other stars over the past four decades.

The entertainment business is a little out of my league, though.

So I’ll ask you music fans out there for help. If any of you know David Foster or someone close to him, forward this to him. You never know, right?