At the Winter Universiade, the talk of Almaty and indeed all of Kazakhstan was a young singer who had performed at the opening ceremony: Dimash Kudaibergen. And not long after, he also became my new Central Asian musical obsession after I shared a plane ride with him from Almaty to Astana.
Kudaibergen, whose name is confusingly spelled differently in each of the languages of Central Asia thanks to the different versions of Cyrillic used in each (Құдайберген in Kazakh, Кудайберген in Kyrgyz, Кудайбергенов in Russian), has been the breakout star of the Chinese TV series Singer 2017, which previously was known as I Am A Singer, and also occasionally called by a few other names that refer to its broadcaster, Hunan TV. It basically follows an American Idol format, with performances, audience votes, and so on.
By breakout star, I mean he now has over half a BILLION followers on Sina Weibo. Kazakhstan is a country of 17 million. Literally that’s 29 times the population of his own country. If that doesn’t make him a superstar…
I stumbled upon his music when a good friend in Almaty showed me a video of his first performance on Singer 2017, when he sang the song “S.O.S. d’un Terrien en Détresse,” a French song that requires incredible range and technical vocal ability. As a native French speaker, I can’t help but find his accent…problematic, and his vocals were occasionally bombastic (it’s hard to control the power of notes in the countertenor and sopranist range), but as someone who knows the original version of the song well, I have to say the emotion that comes behind his delivery is incredible. If he takes the time to fix the accent (totally doable) and moderate some of the song, his version could become the definitive recording of the piece, which still has yet to find a voice that captures it properly.
So, a few weeks later, I had researched him and listened to a few of his songs, but wasn’t really thinking about him at all… until I was standing in customs at Almaty International Airport. Ahead of me was a young man speaking flawless Chinese, then switching back and forth to speak Kazakh with a young man in an olive peacoat who I couldn’t see very well. After he went through, he stood waiting, and I paused, because he looked so familiar, just like that singer…
Well, I made my way to my gate for my connecting flight to Astana, and after a few minutes, a hidden door opened and the three of them walked directly past everyone, heads down, sunglasses on, escorted by Air Astana staff. Whispers went through the crowd, and as we boarded, we got to see them sitting in the premium cabin. It was definitely Dimash.
For some reason, he waited to deplane, and was hugging and taking selfies with the entire flight crew, so by some miracle I happened to deplane directly behind him in Astana. Once we got to baggage claim, I finally got up the courage to ask for a photo with him in Kazakh. At first surprised (foreigners almost never know Kazakh), he very graciously invited me over and his manager offered to take the photo for me. Given that it was midnight and he had just taken 3 different planes to get from Beijing to Astana, he was gracious as he could have possibly been, taking photos with many little old ladies after they saw me take a photo with him.
Since then, I’ve been following his progress closely in the competition, and he recently made it to the finals of the competition. Here’s his performance at the Winter Universiade.
One of his most well-received performances was this performance of the Kazakh folk song, Daididau, where he got to show off his skills on the dombra, the national folk instrument of Kazakhstan.
His other performances have included French, English, Russian, Kazakh, and even Mandarin. While he’s still got some work to do on his pronunciation in his non-native languages, you can’t deny the power, uniqueness, and emotion behind his singing.
If you’re not following his career already, you absolutely should be, as he has the potential to become an international superstar. There was even talk of sending him to represent Kazakhstan at Eurovision this year. That fell through, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2018, and you should too. He’s now a finalist in Singer 2017, so stay tuned!