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Kazakhstan: Cellist Hits The Big Time In United Kingdom

She was born in Kazakhstan, studied cello in Moscow, and soon had a thriving career as part of a classical piano trio with her two sisters. Then, 25 years ago, Alfia Nakipbekova defected to the United Kingdom. She has since established herself there as a sought-after performer of everything from Bach to jazz-influenced contemporary music. Now Nakipbekova's group, the Cellorhythmics, has just released a new album.

Prague, 22 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- How do you get from this: The Bekova trio performing Rimsky-Korsakov

To this: "The Rise of the Cellorettes"

The answer: take a classically trained Central Asian cellist and team her up with an English jazz cellist-composer. It's an unlikely musical marriage and a story that begins in Soviet-era Karaganda, Kazakhstan.
In 1981 Nakipbekova defected to the United Kingdom: "It was suffocating for me, the whole situation. I had to leave because I felt I couldn't stay with it."

Alfia Nakipbekova and her two elder sisters were born into a family with no classical musical background.

A musician and teacher, a former political exile, spotted the girls' talent: "My mother noticed we were creative from a very early age we organized theater and we were dancing and singing all the time," Nakipbekova said. "So she took us to the music school. And [teacher] Roman Mazanov said we should be musicians because we had very good talent and ability to play instruments. He chose instruments for us. Elvira, the oldest sister, she started playing violin; then Eleonora the middle one started playing piano and I was the last one, it was cello for me. That's how we started."

Alfia later trained at the Moscow Conservatory, and the sisters went on to considerable success as a trio.

But then in 1981 Nakipbekova defected to the United Kingdom: "It was suffocating for me, the whole situation. I had to leave because I felt I couldn't stay with it. [But] I knew it would be hard for my sisters, because we were very close."

Not only that -- she had no cello.

"After I defected there was a lot of interest from media, and I appeared on television and people were just coming forward and offering me different things, very kindly. Then through a friend of mine who came to Britain I met [violinist] Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced me to an instrument dealer. And I borrowed a very good cello from him."

Nakipbekova soon established herself as a soloist and chamber musician. She was reunited with her sisters in 1989. The trio is now based in London and has been described as one of the best piano trios around today.

The Bekova trio performing Rebecca Clarke.

Then, 10 years ago, Nakipbekova's music took another direction, when she met the English composer and jazz cellist James Hesford. Together they formed the Cellorhythmics and, in the words of one reviewer, brought "the cello into the 21st century."

Hesford says it's music with many different influences: "I'm a blues-jazz cellist and Alfia is a classical cellist who is crossing over and becoming a good improviser also. We wanted to use all these influences to make a new kind of music."

"Chunky Chicken Cellos"

Nakipbekova says it was hard to cross over from classical music.

"At first it was quite difficult to adapt to that, but I now feel very natural about it," she said. "I can't say I prefer it to chamber music. Recently I played a chamber recital with a very traditional program with Beethoven and Debussy and Britten and I just felt so at home as well. I can't say what I enjoy most, I enjoy all the music I play."

Last month, the Cellorhythmics released their new album, "Rise of the Cellorettes." Most of the music is written by Hesford, with a couple of exceptions, like this version of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations."

Nakipbekova has also visited Kazakhstan several times in the last few years -- an exciting homecoming, she said. Each time, the performances have been with her sisters.

So far there are no plans for a Cellorhythmics performance there. Though, Nakipbekova adds, she'd very much like to do that. It would give people back home, she says, a chance to see her in a different light.