The Smoky Singer


Neha Mujumdar, October 26, 2012, The Hindu, Metro Plus

At the recent concert to mark the launch of UNK , a jazz album, I am busy tapping my feet, leaning forward in my seat, smiling to myself in enjoyment.

A woman next to me has been staring for some time. I turn and smile, quizzically.

“You like this kind of music?” she says.

“Yes,” I say, but with an enthusiasm that says “Hell yes!”

She crinkles her nose. “I don’t know how you can. This is boring.”

“What kind of music do you listen to?”

“I prefer hip-hop.”

Radha Thomas, the Bangalore-based leader and vocalist of UNK , is all too aware that for many, jazz isn’t necessarily easy listening. Writing in these pages in early 2011, in fact, she compared it to bitter gourd (Why Is Jazz Like Pavakkai?, The Hindu, January 12, 2011).

In some ways, Radha wants to gradually get new listeners to hear her music: she doesn’t want to challenge the listener, she says at an interview at her home. With the launch of I Only Have Eyes For You , UNK’s debut album, the group has been winning much acclaim, from around the world.

Radha tells me she’s thrilled the album is doing so well. Global radio stations have been seeking out her kind of music, which incidentally falls under two or three categories: jazz, world music, and often ‘smooth’ listening. At this last categorisation, Radha isn’t pleased. “It has to be edgy, not smooth.”

What does ‘edginess’ mean to her? At least part of the meaning is transforming jazz standards, owning their new versions. For instance, ‘Bluesette’, a jazz standard, is typically done in waltz timing (three beats); Radha does her version in five. I Only Have Eyes For You has been set to seven beats. “People should notice the subtleties, they should like it,” she says.

Radha has been working at the media company Explocity for nearly 20 years now; her full-time job helps her support her music, which she describes as her “vacation”: she doesn’t need the beach, just a gig to feel rejuvenated.

Radha’s family is from Chennai, but Malleshwaram was a holiday home, she says. She went to boarding school in Panchgani as a child, and was never home much. The Carnatic music classes they asked her to join didn’t work: “the gamakams were too strong for me.” But what she did take to was her mother’s collection of Peggy Lee and Doris Day records – not hardcore jazz, she points out, but pleasant enough to get her into jazz.

She hits upon a realization. “That’s what I’m trying to do now, too! A lot of people feel jazz is unapproachable, hard to understand. But I’m starting out with beautiful, popular melodies. I want to challenge myself, not the audience. And then later on I’ll start experimenting.”

In her boarding school years, all she listened to was rock-and-roll; once she finished, she joined Human Bondage, a rock-and-roll band based in Delhi, which is where she went for college. The band often played in Bangalore, as well; she recalls one gig at Chin Lung, the bar on Brigade Road. “I must have been 17 or 18. Lots of people seem to have come – people like Prasad Bidapa still say today that they remember listening to me!”

How did the switch from rock to jazz happen? To Radha, it’s an inevitable process of maturing: “With rock-and-roll, the chops are all in emotion – not much technique. Jazz requires a little more technique. If you’re an intelligent performer, you want to challenge yourself – not just with drama and the high notes, but the other stuff which shows your vocabulary.”

It was in Delhi, during her college years, that she would join the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, where she learned under Pandit Kumar Gandharva. “I didn’t want to go – I was singing rock! But thank god my mother put me.” She sees the technique she learned there as invaluable for her jazz singing, as well as offering her the tools to meaningful fusion.

When Radha moved to Bombay, she also started learning from Zia Fariduddin Dagar, the dhrupad exponent. He didn’t want to teach her initially, saying dhrupad-style singing was only meant for men. “I begged him, and it worked. He actually came once to hear me sing with the rock-and-roll band, and said, ‘not bad’!”

Niranjan Jhaveri, the jazz aficionado who used to hold the Jazz Yatras in India, heard her sing in Bombay, and arranged for her to go to Europe to perform. From there, she went to New York, where she stayed for 20 years performing at the local bars. It was great fun, but she wanted to return. “I have much more leeway here,” she reasons. Still, she’s realistic about her ambition. “I doubt I’ll pack Palace Grounds – I prefer responsive audiences.” When she’s working on a song, she listens to six different versions usually, sings it till it’s her version. “Finally in my head, it’s a nice sambar,” she grins.

The current ensemble came together when she saw Aman Mahajan play piano on Youtube; the duo started off doing bebop and other jazz standards at city venues. Slowly, the group began to take shape, with Mishko M’Ba on bass, Ramjee Chandran on guitar, Suresh Bascara on drums and Matt Littlewood on saxophone. Now, the band mostly plays their own compositions.

“I want to do more music now,” she says. “Aman is already saying, ‘okay, when’s the next album?’”

The Hindu : FEATURES / METRO PLUS : The smoky singer.

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