Migrant Thing: Baimurat, Jimmy the Disco Dancer and “The Best Antifascist Gig For Years”

April 26, 2009

Baimurat was born on a collective farm called Pravda in the southwestern corner of Tajikistan. As a boy, he attended music school and studied Arabic with a neighboring mullah. He also watched all the movies that came to town, as his brother was the local film projectionist. Bollywood shows, with their catchy songs and dance numbers, were especially popular. Through these movies, Baimurat discovered a unique talent. After hearing a song a few times, he could sing it in its entirety, even if he couldn’t understand any of the words. Friends and family were suitably impressed and soon he was being invited to perform at weddings.

But such gigs didn’t pay the bills. So, like many citizens of Tajikistan, the singer hit the road.

Baimurat currently works stocking shelves in a store in the Moscow suburb of Kolomna. He is still known for breaking out into song to amuse his co-workers or entertain guests. One of these performances, a rendition of “Jimmy” from the 1983 film Disco Dancer, was captured on video last year. The clip was posted on YouTube and quickly went viral. Intrigued by the vision of a Central Asian worker belting out an infectious Bollywood tune, journalist Roman Gruzov tracked down Baimurat earlier this month for an interview published in Bolshoi gorod.

After witnessing Baimurat’s singing first hand, Gruzov got an idea. The British group Asian Dub Foundation was playing in Petersburg the next day and he thought that a gifted Central Asian worker performing an Indian hit would be a perfect opening act. The organizer of the concert had also seen Baimurat on YouTube and immediately agreed. Gruzov and Baimurat hopped on a train and arrived just in time for the concert.

Baimurat was a natural, earning the admiration of ADF’s Steve Chandra Savale and encouraging the crowd to sing along:

According to ADF’s blog on myspace, the show was described by fans as “the best antifascist gig for years.”

Still, I can’t seem to quash a certain uneasy feeling I have about this canned Forrest-Gump narrative, writ small with an ethnic twist. The unsavory whiff of paternalism can be overcome. No, it’s the dizzying paradox of how to evaluate a successful minstrel show that I can’t shake.

When Baimurat is asked whether he has any problems with the militia, the singer explains that the Kolomna police don’t trouble him anymore. All the other Central Asian migrants regularly get rounded up and shook down. But when the cops stop Baimurat, they only ask him to sing a song.

This is a migrant’s life on easy street.



  1. My apologies for totally off topic question.

    Recently I’ve been renting through Netflix all “The Wire” dvds–one after the other. I’ve just finished the fourth season. I guess I’ll be done with the fifth (please, no spoilers!) within the next two or three weeks. That slow because I’ll be out of town for a bit.

    I have not been in Russia for a while, certainly not since The Wire got started, but you’ve lived there recently and are into media. Do you know whether The Wire was shown in Russia TV? Or, if not, whether it has any sort of following through dvds (probably pirated)?

    And a follow up question is whether you know of any recent Russian shows/series (or even films) that are comparable to The Wire in grittiness and high quality? (I assume not, but might as well ask…) (As films go, Brat is one, but I was wondering about more recent stuff.)

  2. Off topic, but good question, Kolya. I don’t remember ever seeing The Wire on television or for sale in Moscow. But a little googling shows that Прослушка does have some Russian followers who talk to each other on various internet forums. I can’t really imagine how it translates…

    I also can’t think of any Russian series that come close to The Wire in terms of content and quality. The gritty shows tend to be over-played. And the police procedurals are all formulaic and poorly written. The closest thing I can remember is the mini-series *Likvidatsiia* about post-war Odessa cops and criminals. I only watched the first couple of episodes of this show, and those only half-heartedly. The heroic cop David Markovich just seemed corny to me.

    But maybe Marrmot can help? I know that he watched some TV out there in Kamchatka! Or anyone else?

    (I do think a show like The Wire in Russia could be fascinating, digging into the government, schools, organized crime and the media. It’s so easy to conjure up the possibilities, though what’s the Russian equivalent to Baltimore? Tver’? Voronezh? Rostov-na-Donu? Anyone game for a thought experiment?)

  3. Thanks for the reply, Buster. Yes, a Russian The Wire would be fascinating, as long as it can at least approximate it’s quality. A tough act to follow, even in the US.

    As to the location of a Russian The Wire, my feeling is that it should be in the outskirts of either Moscow or St. Pete. It’s hard to find a close equivalent in Russia, but part of what makes Baltimore Baltimore is that it is close to DC and Philadelphia and only a three-and-half hour drive from NYC. In a way, the whole NYC, Philie, Baltimore, and DC area is one huge metropolitan area with greenery in between. There is nothing quite like it between Moscow and St. Pete.

    Perhaps one reason I got so quickly sucked into The Wire is that before Vermont I lived in the DC area for for thirteen years and have been in Baltimore many times. But that’s only a small part. It’s truly remarkable TV regardless of whether the audience is in any way familiar with the area.

  4. Sorry for falling asleep at the wheel and missing this conversation. I don’t remember seeing The Wire in any DVD stands at the various Moscow markets last year, but that was before I had seen the series myself, so perhaps it just didn’t show up on my radar. I’ll be back in Moscow in a few weeks and will report back.

    I agree that Russia has all the key elements to make such a series possible. However, one key factor that hasn’t been mentioned is that it would take a director who was committed to developing a variety of characters, rather than just the protagonist (a la David Markovich). From my imperfectly attentive viewings of russian serials last year, I think that developing the likes of Omar, String Bell, Bunk, Snoop and Clay Davis would be a major step. Then again, the major networks in the US don’t often do so either. Is there a Russian equivalent to HBO that could give a director more freedom?

    Also, just to add an idea for the city setting: what about Vladivostok? I’m hesitant to endorse this wholeheartedly, having never been there, but all that I’ve heard suggests that it would allow for the kind of dynamics that The Wire explores. It’s certainly on the outskirts, but remains a central hub for industry, shipping, etc for that part of Russia. I would imagine that you’ll find all the “characters” there that you’d find in Moscow, and perhaps a few more!

  5. Marmot, funny that you mentioned Vladivostok. Like you I’ve never been there, but before deciding on the outskirts of either Moscow or St. Pete, I thought of Vladivostok as a suitable location for pretty much all the reasons you wrote so well about. I guess your note convinced me that Vladivostok should be the place. What are the chances of there being a pair like David Simon and Ed Burns?

  6. Hello. A bit new to bloggin so not sure where this is going to take me…

    I got hold of this through Bob Amsterdam’s web-site on global issues and Russia…big stuff there.
    I’ve seen all of the Wire and I do jail research so all the moral complexity is pretty spot on. But up there with the Wire, for me at least, is Zona, the Russian prison drama. Seen it? Ok no Bunk, no Stringer Bell but lots of gritty set pieces and if you can through the Russian prison jargon, you deserve a medal!


  7. Laura, Welcome to the blogosphere and thanks for your comment! I haven’t seen Zona, but I’m curious about it. Next time I’m in Moscow, I’ll keep my eyes peeled, though who knows when that will be….

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