She may be just eighteen, but she has been ruling Russia's pop charts for two years. Alsou Ralifovna Safina (known to her fans as simply Alsou, pronounced “all-soo”), daughter of Lukoil's first vice-president Ralif Safin, has taken the music industry by storm. And it looks like she is here to stay: she recently signed a seven album contract with Universal records.
Nicknamed "The Russian Britney Spears," Alsou may soon bring a breath of fresh air to Western music. Her gentle, almost angelic voice vibrates with compassion; she does not resort to cheap tricks or sexy murmuring to draw attention to her talent. It stands on its own, her music tinged with a compelling undertone of jazz and salsa. While her style may remind some of Spears, her melodious, gentle soprano will set her apart.
Born in the little town of Bugulma, Tatarstan, Alsou (“rosewater” in Tatar) moved to Moscow with her parents when she was nine, and at 13 moved to London to go to art school. She first sang on stage at her brother’s wedding. Later, in the summer of 1998 in Moscow, some friends of her mother heard her sing and insisted on taking her to a recording studio. There she met producer Valery Belotserkovsky, who was blown away by her talent and has since become her manager. Soon, Alsou’s recording of Zimny son (Winter dream) was charging up the pop charts, racking up the largest number of sales for a single ever in Russia—100,000. A CD followed in 1999, with another of its songs, Inogda (Sometimes), also rising to the top of the charts.
Indeed, so meteoric was Alsou’s rise to fame, that she didn’t have time to get used to performing on stage, building up from small clubs to concert crowds. By the time she was 17, she was performing in front of 100,000 fans. "The first time I was ever on stage I was really scared," she said. “But my manager said ‘you can't sell all these records and not do it live.’ As soon as I went out, my voice and knees were shaking. I couldn't remember the words, but all these people started singing my song. I was so touched that, since then, I just love being on stage."
The next turning point in Alsou’s career came just a year later, in the summer of 2000. At the prestigious Eurovision contest in Stockholm (the competition that introduced Abba to the world over two decades ago), Alsou placed second. It is the highest placing ever by a Russian pop artist. The significance is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Russia’s previous highest ranking was by megastar Alla Pugachyova—she took 15th place in 1997. Alsou’s performance at Eurovision of “Solo” in English was so natural that commentators asked her if she knew any Russian.
Last April Alsou released her single in Britain, “Before You Love Me.” And in July her first CD in English was released in Russia (to have been released in the West in August). It includes 13 songs and a duet with Enrique Iglesias with whom Alsou sang on stage in Moscow during Iglesias’ Russian tour.
Alsou may come from a wealthy family, but critics and fans agree that her success is earned, not bought. Kommersant Daily critic Igor Maltsev said, "Alsou has such a nice voice that she could have made it without Lukoil's help." Belotserkovsky has meticulously planned the young singer’s career, determined to make her a long-term megastar, not just a one-hit-wonder that blazes to the top of the charts, only to disappear months later.
A native of Tatarstan, Alsou now lives in London, but often returns to her homeland, where she thanks her many fans by singing in both Tatar and Russian (residents of her hometown, meanwhile, ‘thanked’ her by gifting her a car).
Recently, at the Days of the Republic of Tatarstan in Paris, connected with the millennium of Kazan (capital of Tatarstan) she reportedly rejected any compensation, saying she wanted nothing more than to sing for the honor of her homeland. A rising star that does not forget her roots is indeed one to cherish.
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