Interview with Tanya Wells: A beautiful new Voice in South Asian Classical Music
Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s kalam has been performed by so many artists, including Noor Jahan, Mehdi Hassan, Tina Sani, Nayyara Noor and more. RaviMagazine.com came across a beautiful rendition of ‘Gulon Mein Rang’ by Tanya Wells on YouTube and were amazed by the performance. We asked Tanya for an Interview and here it goes.
Ghazals and Indian Classical are considered the hardest genres even for South-Asian artists. What inspired you to take on such difficult genres?
I came to ghazals having learnt Hindustani vocal for the past ten years or so. One of my singing teachers Guruji Pt. Prabhakar Dhakde in India taught me a few of his ghazal compositions and then I began listening to the genre more and more. Honestly, I didn’t choose to learn ghazals because it is a difficult genre to take on, I chose to listen and learn these songs because of the beauty and expression of melody within a poetic form, its simply beautiful! When I read the translations of the Urdu poetry and understood the delicacy of the meaning within some ghazals its a no brainer that I would be drawn to them. There is also something like storytelling in the genre of ghazals that I love. Perhaps it’s my background in theatre and performance that compliments this genre. We listen to the voice of the poet expressed by great singers like Mehdi Hassan, Nayyara Noor, Madhurani, Noor Jahan just to name a few, who are like instruments beautifying the poet’s feelings: giving life, drama and colors to the poetry. Who wouldn’t love that?
You spent 3 years in Himalayan India. Tell us about your experience and its influence on your sounds.
My sisters and I went to an international boarding school at the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh which had a strong impact on our education and outlook in life. We grew up with kids from around the world and were exposed to Indian music, dance and culture. It was undeniably evident, even years after living in the UK after leaving India that it left a big impression on us. When I started getting into jazz music at sixteen I returned to Indian music because of its rich vocal ornamentation. At seventeen years old I went to study Indian Classical music at a music academy for a few months in my gap year, and I caught the bug and have been loving it ever since!
You have been studying light classical, thumri, bhajan and ghazal. Which genre you love the most?
Each genre is unique and I listen to different genres depending on my mood but in terms of studying and singing I am fascinated by the amount of colours and expression that thumri has. It’s probably my favourite to listen to in terms of vocal technique, colour of sound and improvisation. Bhajan has a very special place in my heart because I grew up singing bhajans so I guess I could claim it to be my first port of call in my journey of Indian music. There is also something so liberating about singing to the Divine, about the Divine. No ego involved, just pure heart, willing to unite with the Divine, that’s bhajan. Ghazal, i have explained earlier…
You have performed with world renowned artists such Anoushka Shankar. Who are your favourite South Asian artists in Ghazals, Qawwali and Bhajan?
This may take some time, haha, ill try and keep it brief. Thanks for limiting the genres… ok, ghazals, Ustad Mehdi Hassan sits on the throne for me in terms of ghazals. I love the weight and tone of his voice, the clarity of the sur, his expressions are unique and so rich and his singing just brings me so much peace, its magic. He is a genius. Qawwali, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, hands down. Untouchable in his height as a Sufi and a vocalist of Sufi music. I think he is one of my favourite singers/ performers ever. Artist Jeff Buckley famously said ‘Nusrat, he’s my Elvis’…I would claim him to be mine too. The influence and reach he has had in the West has definitely brought about wider knowledge and awareness of Sufism and Islamic culture which is deep and awe inspiring. There is no onewill be no one like him. I also listened to Abida Parveen sing Baba Bulleh Shah which was so utterly perfect in its devotion…very inspiring.
Besides Music, tell us about your experience in South Asia e.g. Food, Places and People.
Despite eating daal and rice with subzi everyday when we lived in India as kids I still don’t tire of it and I love cooking Indian food at home. I cooked my Brazilian husband chicken curry the other night and he loved it 🙂 Of course a good tandoori chicken with chapati always goes down well with me, so does chicken or mutton biriyani . Sometimes, when I miss India or my time studying music there Ill make something like a bheelpuri for a snack and I often make chai, a proper one, with cardamon, fresh ginger etc none of this powdered stuff. I recently went to a Parsi wedding in Mumbai and the food was out of this world, all served on a giant banana leaf …yes, I’m a foodie. I could go on and write an essay about India’s myriad tastes and dishes but Ill move on swiftly on to places. I’m lucky to have travelled around much of India, I love the vibe of Mumbai and the people are generally warm too. I have a few friends there who are musicians and I have played my own songs at several funky venues like the Blue Frog and Cafe Zoe in Lower Parel. I like Bandra as a neighbourhood. Mumbai is an exciting place. I have been to Rajastan which is stunning and down south to Kerela which is lush and green. I went by train with friends which was a great way to see the land, the villages passing by etc, but my favourite place will always be that little haven in the north, in Himachal Pradesh, near Dharamsala, those mountains are the home of my childhood and so always have a place at my core.
You play many western instruments. Tell us any Indian Instruments you can play? Which are your personal favourite.
The first instrument i learnt to play was the harmonium. I was seven or so when I began playing and when I returned to the UK at ten years old I stopped and started the piano, which is similar but not quite the same feeling. I wish I practiced more, then and now. My favourite Indian instrument is the voice, obviously. But I love the power and presence of the sheenai, the emotion of the sarangi, the serenity of the bansuri, the regality of sitar and sarod. And the tabla is just phenomenal.
Thanks Tanya for your time! Lastly, tell our reader about your upcoming projects and gigs?
Well, its been a busy year so far and its probably not going to slow down. I have recently returned from Brazil having recorded an album with my newly formed band Seven Eyes. The album is called The Seed and it covers a mix of cultural influences including Sufi music, English folk and Brazilian rhythms, all exploring the theme of nature. We are currently in the post production process and I hope it will be released in time for summer as it is definitely a sunny sounding album. We are looking at launching in London in July, details TBC. Also, I may be touring the UK this September as a trio, singing some ghazals, qawwalis and original music. Once dates are secured I will post the details on my Facebook fan page and website so please make sure you like the page to get information on your feed.