Too jazzy for Indian audiences? A.R. Rahman's vocal group NAFS performs at Seychelles India Day musical gala
Masked faces - the vocal group NAFS, put together by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, perform in front of a packed crowd in Seychelles on Sunday night (Joe Laurence, Seychelles News Agency)
(Seychelles News Agency) - For ardent fans of musical composer and producer A.R. Rahman, the fact that he was present in the archipelago of 93,000 inhabitants for the 2015 Seychelles India Day celebrations was a cause for jubilation.
Rahman, who has been given the moniker “the Mozart of Madras”, joined the annual celebrations of Indian culture on Sunday night in a packed-to-capacity stadium in the tiny Seychelles capital of Victoria to be honoured as a cultural ambassador to the islands.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air as thousands of people, including Seychellois people, both of Indian origin and from other demographic groups, joined by large numbers of Indian expatriates and contract workers jockeyed for position close to the stage and VIP seating area, with the occasional fight breaking out as toes were stepped on and visions obscured.
But the excitement turned to palpable disappointment when Rahman, surrounded by bodyguards, exited the stadium after accepting his honorary title with a brief speech, and hopes that he would perform for the crowd were dashed.
|A.R. Rahman made a brief speech on stage after being honoured by Seychelles' Designated Minister Vincent Meriton as a cultural ambassador for Seychelles, but did not perform for the waiting crowds. (Joe Laurence, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY|
Many of the concert-goers who spoke to told SNA expressed their sadness at being unable to see him in action.
“We were really disappointed that A.R. Rahman did not perform,” said Jyoti, who teaches at a local secondary school on the main island of Mahe. “We wasted our money taking a taxi here from the south of the island.”
However, fans were not left in total deprivation - some of Rahman’s hits were indeed performed that night, although not in a format that fans were expecting – the songs were performed by a special vocal group Rahman had formed in Chennai called NAFS, comprised of eight Indian vocalists and a bassist, 19-year-old musical prodigy Mohini Dey.
The group has a capella tones, but is accompanied minimally by music, most notably by funky, jazzy bass notes thrown down by the talented Dey.
|The group NAFS, led by conductor and director Arjun Chandy (far right) performs for Seychelles India Day celebrations. Bassist Mohini Dey (far left) is the youngest member of the group at just 19 years old. (Joe Laurence, Seychelles News Agency) Photo License: CC-BY|
Backstage before the show, SNA met up with Dey, who is the daughter of professional bassist Sujoy Dey. Taught from the age of three and being surrounded by music all her life certainly helped her on her way to success, but Dey is adamant that life is what you make of it.
In addition to her work with this group, the 19-year-old has also gone on a North American tour with A.R. Rahman and is a successful session artist in her own right, even working with legendary American producer Quincy Jones.
“My dad helped me learn to a certain point and provided the environment for me to develop my talent, but it’s up to every individual to decide whether they want to work for success,” she told SNA.
Arjun Chandy, the group’s director and conductor, got involved with the formation of NAFS when Rahman called him at the end of 2013 to come to Chennai and help him with the group.
“A.R. Rahman had always wanted to put together a vocal band of sorts, because he loves vocal groups and harmonies, not necessarily a capella but just the sound of a group singing, even if it’s a large choir, if there’s vocal harmony, he’s a big fan of jazz and all these things,” Chandy told SNA. “So he wanted to put together a vocal group that isn’t quite an a capella group, but he also didn’t want heavy instrumentation either.”
Texas-born and raised Chandy, whose parents are Indian, had built a career in the United States from conducting and arranging vocal groups.
"It was very intriguing for me because the opportunity to introduce really a new form of music in India was a very cool thing… so to do it here was pretty interesting and also it gave me personally an opportunity to come stay in the country of my heritage,” he said.
“We spent the first one and a half years just rehearsing, we never performed once, and A.R. Rehman didn’t want this to be known either, so we kind of just rehearsed on our own.”
The group was first introduced in August with the release of their first official music video, a remake of a classic A.R. Rahman hit ‘Tauba Tauba’.
|The first song by the group NAFS, a remake of A.R. Rahman's 'Tauba Tauba' was released on Rahman's official YouTube channel in August. (A.R. Rahman/YouTube) Video license: All Rights Reserved|
The group performed a variety of songs on Sunday night, and many of the numbers were American songs such as ‘Route 66’, ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ and ‘Stayin’ Alive’, peppered with a few A.R. Rahman classics such as ‘Ganaan Ganaan’ from the classic movie ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Vande Mataram’.
“We do some Western songs… we don’t want to be handcuffed to one style or culture of music, we want to sing everything, so if we do an Indian song, I’ll rearrange it in maybe a jazzy kind of way that isn’t completely like the original.”
But Chandy says that even when the group sings an A.R. Rahman song, it will bear very little resemblance to the original.
“We don’t want to do it too much like the original, but we want the original to be heard. But if you do it like the original too much then it’s just like any other cover, which most people do,” he said.
Chandy himself seemed unsure what the reception to the group’s performance would be in Seychelles, explaining that the crowd in the stadium was very much like a typical crowd in India – hungry for commercial Bollywood songs.
“We love getting the opportunity of introducing this music to audiences anywhere... we don’t know how it’s going to be received because they’re used to film music. We’re not going to be doing that so we don’t know how it’s going to be received,” he told SNA.
And the crowd stayed uncharacteristically silent when listening to the American jazz numbers, occasionally erupting into excitement when they recognised the familiar refrain of an old A.R. Rahman classic, then lapsing once again into silent concentration when they realised it was entirely unlike the original version.
The Urdu word ‘Nafs’ carries a multitude of meanings, including ‘free will’, ‘the inner soul’ and also ‘desires’. But it seems that the group, which dresses up all in whiteface, wigs and glasses, still might leave a little something to be desired in terms of a unique identity.
Technically faultless however, many of the group's melodies are seriously catchy, and perhaps the group simply needs to bring more personality to the fore to be understood by a more mainstream Indian audience.