Rustam Ospanov’s rise from record collector to force in Kazakhstan music

Rustam Ospanov is at home on stage.

(Hal Foster appears in the Baltimore Post-Examiner under a partnership with Tengrinews of Kazakhstan. )

Rustam Ospanov is so passionate about music that he took his first step toward making it a career when he was 10.

The usual route for a child burning to make music his life is to pick up an instrument or begin singing.

Rustam took what the poet Robert Frost called the route less traveled by: The Aktau resident started a record collection.

Five years later, when he was just 15, the hobby led to his first disc-jockey job in his new hometown of Almaty. He was on his way.

The typical picture of a DJ is a fun-loving, quirky person with strange hair, piercings and wild clothes who utters words like “Cool!” and never grows up.

Everything is coming up rainbows for music promoter Rustam Ospanov these days.

Thirty-three-year-old Rustam is different. The radio personality’s fans view him as a music intellectual. He studies music, savors it like a fine wine, and combs the world for it like explorers seeking uncharted territory.

He’s become so immersed in it that Kazakh and foreign professionals alike say he’s one of the world’s best musical minds.

Rustam told me in a recent interview that his goal has long been to introduce Kazakhstan to the freshest sounds from other countries while also showcasing Kazakhstan’s rising talent.

He takes his self-appointed task so seriously that three years ago he became an impresario as well as DJ. The eight Jazzystan festivals he has put on have transformed him from musical statesman to a force in Kazakhstan’s performance scene.

Rustam, who does club and special-events DJ work as well as his radio show and concerts, is recognized far beyond Kazakhstan for his music prowess. His international reputation has come partly from the hundreds of connections he’s made with musicians and DJs in the United States, Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

Those connections have led to his doing DJ work at musical events in Europe, Japan and elsewhere.

Rustam has talked many of his overseas colleagues into coming to Kazakhstan to perform in Jazzystan festivals, the ninth of which will be Sept. 21 and 22 in Almaty. The headliner will be the Brazilian singer and composer Marcos Valle, one of the pioneers of bossa nova.

Rustam’s success hasn’t come easy. His first seven years as a DJ after graduating from Almaty’s Kazakhstan Institute of International Relations were tough.

Meager pay was a constant worry. It was also disheartening that few people could relate to his conviction that Kazakhstan needed to broaden its music scene away from an over-reliance on pop music in particular.

Rustam wanted Kazakhs to hear jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, Latin music, Brazilian music and other genres on the radio, in clubs and at concerts.

Luckily for music fans, the two times he was on the verge of abandoning his profession, he caught breaks.

His career began in Aktau 23 years ago with the start of his music collection, which has grown to tens of thousands of recordings.

It wasn’t easy for Kazakhs to find music from the outside world before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, but he persisted.

“I started to watch (the American music-video channel) MTV in 1989,” he said. A friend’s brother living in the United States sent him tapes of the shows.

After obtaining his university degree in June 2000, Rustam became a radio DJ.

But it was unsatisfying work because the station chose the songs the DJs played.

To obtain some career satisfaction, Rustam began doing DJ gigs at places with no music policy. His choices united listeners with the same musical tastes.

But he still couldn’t find a steady top venue to play the music he liked.

That changed when Rustam had a chance encounter in 2004 with Sinisha Lazarevich, a Serbian who was one of Moscow’s top music promoters. Lazarevich told the DJ he was in Almaty to open a nightclub.

“He asked what kind of music I liked to play, and when I told him, he said, ‘That’s the same kind of music I prefer,’” Rustam said.

Within seconds Rustam had an offer to play music at Lazarevich’s new Almaty club, Heaven.

And it WAS heaven, Rustam said. “I could play anything I wanted — from disco, Brazilian and Latin to hip hop and house music. Nobody forced me to play commercial stuff (best-selling records). People were happy. They could hear stuff they never heard before.”

Nine months later, Lazarevich pulled out of the Heaven operation – and with him went Rustam’s freedom to select music.

“I left Heaven, too,” he said. “At the time, I was dispirited, feeling that Almaty had no good music venues.” He thought seriously about giving up his profession.

His nine months at Heaven were a life-changer, though, Rustam said: They proved he could change Kazakhstan’s music scene.

Then he caught another break. In 2004 the Red Bull Music Academy accepted his application for one of its famed two-week music-production and performance seminars.

Red Bull, the Austrian company that produces the energy drink, reviews thousands of applications a year to select 60 musicians, DJs and music-production people for the seminars. So Rustam’s selection was a once-in-a-lifetime honor.

Bosa Nova great Marcos Valle will headline the latest Jazzystan festival.

Before he learned of his selection, he decided this was a defining moment in his life.

“I said a prayer to God that if I wasn’t selected, I would not do anything with music any more,” he said. The Maker decided he shouldn’t give up the profession he loved.

Red Bull sent Rustam and 29 other competition winners to a seminar in Rome for two weeks. The other 30 winners went to a seminar in another city.

Like his experience at Heaven, the Red Bull seminar was a life-changer for Rustam.

The top musical people at the event included legendary drummer Bernard Purdie; rhythm-and-blues singer and songwriter Leroy Burgess; hip-hop music producer Bob Power; reggae guitarist and producer Dennis Bovell; Dave Mathews, an arranger for soul singer James Brown; and the DJs Cut Chemist, Mark de Clive Lowe and Benny Sings.

“There were other legends around as well,” Rustam said. “We could talk with them, create music for them. It was wonderful.”

Rustam returned from Rome determined to branch into impresario work – to put on his own music festivals.

Although the festivals are called Jazzystan, the music ranges far beyond jazz. Rustam decided on the name Jazzystan because jazz has influenced so many other genres, including boogie, soul, funk, hip hop, Latin and Brazilian.

The first Jazzystan in October 2009 attracted a sold-out crowd of 1,300. The performers included the Japanese group Kyoto Jazz Massive, featuring Tasita D’Mour and the British singer Vanessa Freeman, plus Britain’s Bah Samba and Kazakhstan’s The Magic of Nomads.

Rustam has now brought more than 100 musicians and DJs to Jazzystan from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and other countries.

The acts have included Kazakhstan’s Satzhan Project; the United States’ Tortured Soul, Darien and DJ Kon; Britain’s Omar, Reel People, Gilles Peterson, Earl Zinger, Simbad, Seiji and Nik “Nippon” Weston; Japan’s Soil & Pimp Sessions, Quasimode, Root Soul, J.A.M. and Shuya Okino Live Set; Japan and the United States’ N’Dea Davenport and Navasha Daya; Germany’s Alex Barck; Germany and the United States’ Paul Randolph; France’s Amar Kabouche aka Jazzamar;  Sweden’s Mad Mats; Croatia’s Eddy Ramich; and Australia’s Electric Empire.

Rustam’s skills as an impresario prompted the Almaty Mayor’s Office to ask him to put on a city anniversary concert on Sept. 16. He is thrilled that it will feature the British jazz-funk and acid-jazz band Jamiroquai, which has sold millions of records around the world.

Rustam’s growing reputation as a force in Kazakhstan’s music scene led to the radio station 102.2 Energy FM offering him a dream job – a show of his own where he could play the music he wanted.

The offer came from Nour Makhambetov, the station’s general manager, whose mentoring and friendship Rustam has come to cherish.

“I was so thankful to this guy who gave me this opportunity to have my own radio show,” Rustam said.

In fact, Makhambetov’s recent departure from Energy FM prompted Rustam to accept a job offer at 103.5 Love Radio FM.

“He’s my friend, and I can’t imagine being there (at Energy FM) without him,” Rustam said.

Two weeks after the ninth Jazzystan festival ends on Sept. 22, Rustam will be on his way to Hamburg, Germany, for a DJ gig.

While in Europe he also plans to visit music-business colleagues in Paris, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Zagreb and London.

The best part for a guy who’s astonished that fame has turned him into an international globe-trotter is that, at 33, his career is just beginning.