How a stroke of luck helped me meet the musical superstar Batyrkhan Shukenov27 may 2011, 15:01
It started out as a day when I would meet the remarkable headmaster of the Haileyberry international school that will open in Astana this fall.
As fun as it was to get to know the enthusiastic and gregarious Andrew Auster, the day would blossom into a chance for me to realize a longheld dream: Meeting the Kazakh musician extraordinaire Batyrkhan Shukenov.
The day began with me popping in to Andrew’s office at the Rixos Hotel in Astana to do a story about the latest Kazakhstan incarnation of the top-flight British school that he leads. The first Kazakhstan Haileybury opened in Almaty in 2008, and proved so popular that President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself asked that one be opened in Astana. Yes, sir!
Andrew and I talked a lot about Haileybury and Andrew’s interesting background, which included helping Russian orphans immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
I asked about his interests away from work, and he said one was playing sax in a jazz band in Almaty.
I told him I loved jazz saxophonists, and I began extolling the virtues of Batyrkhan Shukenov, whom I had seen in concert three times in Almaty but never met.
“I think he’s one of the Top 10 jazz saxophonists and jazz clarinetists in the world,” I said. “And he’s a superb singer. I sent one of his CDs to my daughter, who is a musician in Portland, Oregon, and she said to me: ‘Dad, he’s hip!”
I was facing Andrew’s desk at the time, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see a young woman sitting at a desk behind me perking up when I talked about Batyrkhan, whose stage name is Batyr.
“I’ve always wanted to interview Batyr, partly to encourage him to take his music to the West,” I told Andrew. “Americans would love him.”
Andrew smiled. “You just might be able to do that,” he said. “This young lady is his niece.”
I looked around, and Dinara Shukenova, who is a Haileybury staff member, was smiling as only someone can when a stranger has praised a person she’s close to.
Dinara had heard me tell Andrew that I would be in Almaty the next few days doing stories for a magazine.
“I will ask my uncle to give you an interview,” she said. “He’s in Moscow at the moment. He will be in Astana two days, then return to Almaty.”
“Wow – that’s great,” I said, sounding like a kid instead of a guy with a large repository of gray hair.
Dinara kept her promise. Batyr said he would meet me on a Thursday. He ended up having a commitment that day, but he saw me the following one.
It was a wonderful interview, with Batyr talking enthusiastically about the music that influenced him from early childhood to today.
I had heard that he was a genuinely nice guy, and the interview backed that up. He showed no hint of ego, despite his superstardom across the former Soviet Union.
Part of the reason he diplays humility is some advice his musical-instruments professor at the Leningrad Culture Institute gave him when he was 19. “I know you’re going to be a famous musician,” Nikolai Dranitcyn said, “ 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 seemed to really enjoy the interview, giving me a full hour -- an incredible amount of time for someone so prominent and so busy.
He was friendly, charming and so revved up that several times he got up to act out his stories – playing an imaginery sax, for example. I had done some acting in Tokyo, and I thought to myself: “He’s so animated – I think he’d be a good actor, too.”
I told him my daughter Angie admired his work. I mentioned that she wrote her first song, “Never Forget,” as an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks and that Universal Studios has shown interest in another of her songs, “Can I Wish It for You.”
I gave him Angie’s Web site address, and I have a feeling he’ll visit it sometime to listen to her music.
As we were saying goodbye, Batyr agreed to give music-career advice to my translator, Zhenya Kechina, a 21-year-old with a clear, sweet voice who writes her own songs. He kept his promise, meeting with Zhenya three days later.
Batyr’s creative partner, the composer and arranger Kuat Shildebaev, a super talent and nice guy, gave Zhenya advice as well.
All in all, the interview with Batyrkhan Shukenov was one of the most memorable days of my life.
After Dinara set up the interview, she sent me a mobile-phone message saying she believed that she and I would have a long friendship. I was sure of that, I replied.
And, you know, something tells me I’m going to have a lasting friendship with her Uncle Batyr, too.