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17th April, 2017
Unparalleled Woman - Vandana Vishwas

Indo-Canadian musician Vandana Vishwas who recently won the 2016 Toronto Independent Music Awards in ‘Best World’ category, is truly an out of the box composer who is not afraid of experimenting fusing Indian music with other genres. She is one of the few original south Asian singers who is revered not only in her home country, but also in Canada. Vandana is also the recipient of the Indo-Canadian Arts & Culture Initiative’s Woman Hero award and recently she has added another feather to her cap by winning a Silver medal at the Global Music Awards 2016 for her flamenco based song ‘Mai Beqaid’ (I am Unprisoned), in World Music and Female Vocalist categories from her third album ‘Parallel’.

On her visit to Mumbai to launch her album and visit her roots in Lucknow, Verus Ferreira met up with the Toronto based Mississauga resident, to know more about her journey in music and architecture.

As a profession you have excelled as an Architect, which do you find more interesting, music or architecture?

Having had formal training in both music and architecture, and having worked professionally in both fields for a substantially long time, I find a lot of similarities between the two fields. Both are highly creative and subjective, yet you have to be very precise, technical and objective to achieve what you have designed or composed. Both work on basic concepts like rhythm, harmony, contrast, patterns, compositions, balance. Both take time to achieve mastery and maturity. Both call for a lot of practice and hard work, but are deeply satisfying when the desired result is achieved. I find both equally interesting, but my soul lies in music, which is why when the time came when I could not juggle with both, I chose music.

You have won laurels for your work back home in Canada, what USP do you think people saw in your music that got you the accolades?

Going by what the international critics write about my albums, the simplicity, honesty and authenticity of my music have been appreciated. Some critics have appreciated the smoothness and clarity of my voice. The lovers of my music from Indian subcontinent are inclined towards my expressive rendering and crisp diction of Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi and other sub-continental languages.

Why the name ‘Parallels’ as your album title?

Toronto is a mini world in all senses. Especially with music, the authentic ethnic musical genres it is exposed to, is unparalleled. I started collaborating with non-Indian genres in my second album, but it was just the beginning. I have some reservations to using the word 'Fusion' in music, because it contaminates the genres that are fused together. Whenever I listen to a non-Indian musical style, I always wonder where it is similar and where it is dissimilar to Indian music and if there is a way to collaborate with this genre in such a way that it maintains its integrity while allowing Indian music to maintain its own authenticity. So, I composed five songs and treated them in two diverse genres each, resulting in ten 'parallel' compositions that present the collaborated genres in their authentic forms. Hence the title 'Parallels'.

Were you trying to experiment with the songs in your new album to showcase how versatile you are in music?

Not at all. As I said before, it was an exercise for myself to see how I can collaborate with diverse genres without making them compromise, and without me compromising on Indian music.

You have played with multiple music genres in your new album, which genre of music are the most comfortable with?

I worked with all the genres to the point where I was equally comfortable with all of them. My personal favourite is Flamenco.

You also composed, arranged and sang the theme track for the Hindi novel Samarsiddha written by UK novelist Sandeep Nayyar, published by Penguin India in July 2014. How did this come about?

Nayyar had been following my works and asked me if I would be interested in creating a theme track for his novel Samarsiddha which is the story of a female warrior protagonist set up in historical backdrop. This was a first of a kind project for me and I took it up as a challenge. The theme track eventually turned out to be very satisfactory for the author and Penguin.

How different are your two previous albums from the new album? Do give a detailed account with the each album.

Having been deeply moved by Hridaynath-Lata Mangeshkar's and Kishori Amonkar's interpretations of Meera Bai's poetry, since childhood I had decided that one day I will compose, sing and produce Meera Bai's poetry myself and that is exactly what I did in my debut album 'Meera The Lover', released in 2009. Since it was a historical work, I kept the instrumentation of tracks mostly traditional. It won some awards and was critically acclaimed by music industry and masses alike.

My second album 'Monologues' was in response to my growing awareness of the diverse musical treasure available in Toronto and was my first experiment with non-Indian genres and instruments. This album was very contemporary in nature for the first time I collaborated with Western musicians such as Carson Freeman on smooth Saxophone, Barry Livingston on Piano, and Adam Langley on electric guitar. I also used heavy Bass and Drums for the first time in 'Monologues'. This album featured 'Mai Kya Hoon', my first Rock-E-Zal (a term I have coined to represent Ghazal treated with Rock music). While two songs were penned by Mirza Ghalib and Jigar Muradabadi a piece, Vishwas Thoke wrote lyrics for seven songs in the album.

In my new album, the term 'Parallels' has a two-fold meaning. Firstly, I have composed five songs and presented each of them in two distinct genres. So, there are a total of ten songs making five 'Parallels'. Secondly, within each song itself, the Indian music (melody) runs parallel to the genre with which I have collaborated. In 'Parallels',

The unique aspect about 'Parallels' is that Sufi songs by Bulle Shah have been treated in genres such as Flamenco, Country and Ballad, which has never been done before in my knowledge. I have also collaborated with genres such as Rock, New Age and African music for Ghazals, Thumri and Geet, which one normally doesn't get to experience.

I have composed two of Bulle Shah's poems - 'Mai Beqaid' in Flamenco music (collaborated with Canadian Flamenco guitar maestro Johannes Linstead) and Country music (collaborated with Canadian Dobro master Richard Henderson & Banjo wiz Tim Allan) and 'Hum Gum Huye' in Ballad (collaborated with Canadian drummer Mark Kelso) and Unplugged version (collaborated with Vishwas Thoke). I have used one ghazal written by Jigar Muradabadi sahib, composed by my childhood mentor Mr. Dilip Kumar Gandhe in traditional setting but collaborated with Chinese Erhu specialist Amely Zhou and the other version which I call 'Rock-E-Zal' has been collaborated with Electric Guitarist Adam Langley, drummer Mark Kelso and bassist Jarrod Ross. I have also debuted as a lyricist for the first time with two songs - 'Dhula Dhula' which I have collaborated with Njacko Backo on Kalimba and Constancia on vocals in the African Beats version, and Njacko Backo's African Harp with Anil Roopchund's Tabla in the Afro-Indian version and 'Piya Na Mose Bole' which I have collaborated with the Grammy winning trio of Ricky Kej, Varsha Kej and Vanil Veigas in the New Age version, and with Sunil Avachat's flute and Anil Roopchund's Tabla in the Thumri version.

What about the new album?

In my new album, the term 'Parallels' has a two-fold meaning. Firstly, I have composed five songs and presented each of them in two distinct genres. So, there are a total of ten songs making five 'Parallels'. Secondly, within each song itself, the Indian music (melody) runs parallel to the genre with which I have collaborated. The unique aspect is that Sufi songs by Bulle Shah have been treated in genres such as Flamenco, Country and Ballad, which has never been done before in my knowledge. I have also collaborated with genres such as Rock, New Age and African music for Ghazals, Thumri and Geet, which one normally doesn't get to experience. I have used one ghazal written by Jigar Muradabadi sahib, composed by my childhood mentor Dilip Kumar Gandhe in traditional setting and the other version Rock-E-Zal. I have also debuted as a lyricist for the first time with two songs Dhula Dhula and Piya Na Mose Bole which I have collaborated with the Grammy winning trio of Ricky Kej, Varsha Kej and Vanil Veigas in the New Age version.

Coming from a creative background, did you design all your album covers?

Yes, very much so. I am personally and deeply involved in all aspects of my albums. Being an architect, I am trained in visual arts as well and all three of my albums have been designed by me and the third album cover design had Vishwas Thoke's input as well. I then take help from a graphic designer to achieve what I want. I am a vocalist and play instruments like Swarmandal, Harmonium, Tanpura just as accompanying instruments when required. My vocal cord is my living musical instrument.

Who are your favourite Indian singers and musicians?

My all time favourite musicians are Madan Mohan, Rahul Dev Burman, Jagjit Singh and Carlos Santana. My favourite singers are Lata ji, Asha ji, Mohd. Rafi sahib and Jagjit Singh ji.

What do you think of the current Indian music scene now?

I think there has been good music, mediocre music and bad music at all times throughout the history. The popular music at any time in history is representative of the cultural values and aesthetic taste of the audience. One must change with times and respect the change. I believe that audience is intelligent enough to ultimately identify good music.

What are your future plans for 2017?

I will be back in Canada by end of March 2017, after which I have a very busy Canadian season lined up with concerts and some interesting live and recording projects about which I will update soon. I will be back in India later in the year.

How often do you visit Lucknow?

I have been visiting Lucknow at least once every year since my childhood, but since we have moved out of India, the frequency has decreased. However, the culture, rendering, mannerisms and language of Lucknow are deeply ingrained in me because of my upbringing.

Interviewd by Verus Ferreira


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