When music is the answer

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When music is the answer
Tanya Wells and Paulo Vinicius

British-Swiss vocalist Tanya Wells and Brazilian guitarist Paulo Vinicius on how their music transcends all cultural boundaries


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Fri 5 Apr 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 12 Apr 2019, 9:55 AM

Art is often credited with bringing people from different cultures together. Trained in Hindustani classical music, Tanya Wells is a British-Swiss vocalist who has performed across languages. Paulo Vinicius, on the other hand, is a Brazilian guitarist, who has trained under stalwarts such as Pablo Marquez, Franz Halász and Fabio Zanon. Together, the duo has created some magical moments on stage with their renditions of famous Urdu ghazals and other classical forms as part of their band Seven Eyes. Ahead of a private performance at Shaam-E-Rekhta in Dubai on April 11, we chat with them about how cultural assimilation is possible through music.
Can you tell us about your formative years? What eventually drew you to music?
Tanya: Music has always been a dominant force in my family. Some of my earliest memories involve singing with my sisters, composing songs with them, hearing my dad play Boogie Woogie on the piano and singing to us, watching my elder brother's records spinning on the turntables. Later, as my sisters and I went to a school in Himachal Pradesh, India, we listened to and sang devotional songs every morning. Music has always been a part of our language and singing was a fundamental means of expression.
Paulo: At home, luckily, my parents had a habit of listening to music without any (cultural) barriers. They listened to classical music as well as popular songs in their own unprejudiced styles. My first instrument was a drumkit made of cans, which I made myself when I was very young. Then came some Afro-Brazilian instruments such as berimbau, agogô and tambourine. Later, I found a guitar in my parents' room. The moment I first saw it, I knew it would be my lifelong partner.
Soon, I realised that music is independent of any instrument, any composer or anything else; it is present in every aspect of life. She inspires whom she desires and only she knows who is prepared to receive inspiration regardless of whether that person has professional or academic training or whether s/he is only a passionate music lover. When I finally realised this, it was already decided that in this life, I would prepare myself as an instrument or channel, so that this creative wave of sound could flow more purely and with it, I could float in that subtle wave that connects different cultures to people's hearts.
What inspired you to perform ghazals? How did you overcome the language barrier?
Tanya: My teacher Pandit Prabhakar Dhakde taught me ghazals to encourage a certain type of singing (light classical vocal) and so I learnt several of his compositions and listened to many artistes from the Indian subcontinent. A few years ago, I spontaneously uploaded a few ghazals on my YouTube channel, which got a lot of attention. I have a musical ear, so I am drawn to the sound of the Urdu language. I am learning the language as I learn the songs I sing.
What is your creative process ahead of a live performance?
Tanya: Our creative process involves, firstly, deciding which songs we are going to perform on a particular occasion. In Rekhta's case, this usually involves a mix of our own original songs (with Urdu lyrics) as well as popular Urdu songs. Paulo and I rehearse and try out different ideas to see how we can make the song unique to Seven Eyes. There's no point doing a cover of a song if you cannot somehow make it your own.
As artistes, how do you complement each other?
Tanya: We are from different countries and cultures, and I think this impacts the way we approach our music and songwriting because we learn and discover new things from each other's musical sensibilities. For instance, Paulo might play a combination of chords on guitar that I am not so familiar with (Brazilian music is rich in harmony and rhythmic changes) and it takes me by surprise and allows me to experiment with vocal melodies (often inspired by Hindustani classical music). This confluence is how we write most of our songs and the diversity keeps us inspired and interested to create more.
Can you talk a bit about the experience of writing your first song?
Paulo: That happened at the very first moment we met by the soothing Borbera river in Italy. That day, we composed three songs in a very intuitive and spontaneous way, which motivated us to understand that something very new and magical was coming from this collaboration. The songs can be found in our first album called The Seed, which was recorded a few months after this encounter. The first songs we composed together are: River; The Road is My Song and Thank You.
You perform in Urdu, English, Portugese, Yoruba, Sanskrit and French, among others. How does performing in different languages enrich you as artistes?
Tanya: Performing in a different language allows us to look into another world of emotions and expressions, which, in turn, becomes our own because we are expressing it. So, it's a process of understanding the difference and becoming one with it.
Which Indian and Pakistani artistes would you say have inspired you over the years?
Tanya: Too many to list! From Pakistan: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehdi Hasan, Abida Parveen, Sanam Marvi, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, his son Ustad Shafqat Ali Khan, Nayyara Noor. From India, Ustad Rashid Khan, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, his daughter Kaushiki Chakrabarty, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, Shobha Gurtu, Shubha Mudgal and, of course, my vocal teachers Pandit Prabhakar Dhakde and Ramakant Gaikwad.
Tanya, longing is a recurrent theme in the songs you write. Can you elaborate on that?
Tanya: Well, the sentiment of longing is often characterised in numerous ragas in Hindustani classical music. As I am inspired by certain ragas, the sentiment comes naturally with the melody. Ragas like bhairavi, bhairav and charukeshi often have a sentiment of longing to unite with the beloved. So, when composing in a particular raga, it is important to retain the mood and sentiments of the raga, hence the theme of longing.
A few years ago, your rendition of a Mehdi Hasan ghazal went viral. How is the Internet changing the reach and scope of classical music?
Tanya: It definitely allows for a wide-reaching audience all over the world without a middleman to distribute content. That is what is amazing about YouTube, in particular; you can view endless content from around the world and come to know of artists and music that otherwise would be difficult to get hold of.

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