Ujjayinee Roy has been on her musical bon voyage for nearly three decades. She has been a professor at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, Chennai. She has also worked with Grammy Award winner Ric Fierabracci. She has sang in an extensive range of movies and many musicals. She had her first recording experience at the age of 7.
HIGHLIGHTS of this episode
- Her inspirations, her reyaz and gazal schedule.
- Teaching at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music.
- The concoction of 10ml of brandy with hot water, pepper and honey. Works like a miracle on the throat!
- Preparing for gigs and opening of a set.
quotes and TAKEAWAYS
- I was always hungry for more music, more varied sounds. The difference in musical cultures and backgrounds fascinated me.
- No matter what frame of mind I am in, how good or bad my day has been, the minute I step on stage I block out every ounce of negativity.
- A quick tip: In my classes I always connected western musical theories with Indian theories. That made their lives much easier.
- Music for me is no different from an adventure. The more challenging it is the more exciting it becomes.
- In concerts, your audience is alive and responding right along with you. So it is very important to feel the pulse of the audience.
What were your musical experiences when you were growing up?
I grew up in a typical Bengali household, where music, dance, theater and literature played a critical and crucial role in honing the mind of a child. So it was just not exclusively music for me. My mom, who is writer, said this to me long ago – learn everything that you can lay your hands on and then decide for yourself what you want to pursue. When I was three years old, she started my training in classical music and dance. Literature came naturally to me due to my mother and she nurtured in me a hunger for reading and writing. It also helped that our home was filled with books! I remember as a child sitting next to our vinyl player, my ears glued to its speakers listening to one record after the other and my mind drifting to faraway places. I think that is when I decided that I wanted to be a musician. Not that I did not like theatre, literature or dance! But there was something about singing that was so liberating, so fluid and I figured that out even at that young age. My mother was also a hard task-master. In the early days of my training I had no love or understanding of classical music. It was something I had to do because it had to be done. I still remember mom chasing me with a wooden ruler around the house to make me do my daily reyaaz when all I wanted to do is play with the neighbourhood kids. The chasing became unnecessary when one day during my early teens suddenly I fell in love with classical music!
Were you influenced by old records & tapes? Which ones?
Of-course! I would listen to anything and everything. We had a lot of records of Bengali legendary artists like Sachin Dev Barman, Hemanto Mukherjee, Arati Mukherjee, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Kishore Kumar etc., in our home. I listened to ghazals. When I was nine years old my aunt brought a record of Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s concert at The Royal Albert Hall. I immediately fell in love with the mellifluous sound of Urdu and started learning to speak the language. That helped me when I started singing ghazals and writing poetries later. Many years later when I met Jagjitji, I told him what a role he unknowingly played in my life. Then I also heard a lot of Hindi and Bengali film music of the 50’s to the 70’s. Side by side I also heard The Shadows and Ventures. I remember in the evenings every time when there was a power cut, we would sit in our balcony dialling into Voice of America and some Chinese radio stations that miraculously our radio would pick up on the long wave. During my teens the magnetic tapes took over the vinyl. I remember exchanging tapes with my friends and making mix tapes! Then I was listening to a lot of pop and rock which later progressed into metal. I listened to everything. I was always hungry for more music, more varied sounds. The difference in musical cultures and backgrounds fascinated me.
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion and what’s your approach to performing on stage? How do an improvisation and the recording of this improvisation compare?
Let me answer your question about recordings first. What recording was when I first started singing in All India Radio as a seven year old child is a far cry from what it is today. The musicians recorded live together in one room. And if there was a mistake then you had to do it all again from the beginning. You needed to be at the top of your game. Though we rehearsed before recordings, improvisations were always intuitional and spontaneous. In-fact this spontaneity works more for live concerts. In concerts, your audience is alive and responding right along with you. So it is very important to feel the pulse of the audience. It doesn’t matter if you are performing in front of an auditorium or stadium filled with people or in front of a small intimate audience. The trick is always the same. Connect with the audience. And they will connect right back with you. And then you have your colleagues you are performing with. If there are no good vibes between the musicians or if they are not enjoying being on stage it becomes immediately visible. Every single soul performing on stage needs to function together as one unit.
These days recordings have become much easier. What you hear on records today is not the reality. You have a hundred quick fixes and processors to make a joke of a recording sound like million dollars. I don’t even want to start talking about the “Auto-tuner”. It has destroyed the quality of artists and also the soul of a performance. It has also given birth to an entire generation which thrives on mediocrity, a generation which believes in shortcuts. There are more people who want to become “famous”/ “stars” and not artists. But again there are a lot of positive sides to it. For one instance, now collaborations with artists from other parts of the world have become much easier.
What were the criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process?
The environment is always important. In a utopian situation everybody on the bandstand needs to feel positive and in harmony with each other. In reality it doesn’t happen all the time. But as an artist I have always had this one simple mantra. No matter what frame of mind I am in, how good or bad my day has been, the minute I step on stage I block out every ounce of negativity. Then it becomes only about the music. Nothing else matters!
How was your experience of teaching at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music?
If I speak only about my students that I taught at SAM then my experience was great. I met some very promising young talents, some of whom are already doing well as professionals. Most of them had no prior experience with Hindustani Classical Music and I could see that by the time I was done with them, there was a whole new understanding and respect for this genre of music for them. In my classes I always connected western musical theories with Indian theories. That made their lives much easier. I also met some amazing musicians amongst the teachers who came from all over the world.
Could you take me through the process of preparing for one of your gigs? How do you select the tracks you like to play, how do you prepare and how do you decide on the opening phase of your set?
I always prefer doing original music. Firstly I find out from the organizers about the audience. My set list depends on that. Very rarely do you find a super receptive audience who will take whatever you throw at them. The opening song is always something that hits them hard, something that grooves well. That also helps in relaxing the musicians and in setting the pulse of the gig. Once you have that going the rest is smooth. The preparation is two pronged. One is that with the band. The other is my own personal rehearsal, my reyaaz. No matter what genre of music I am performing I always do my own personal homework. It might not sound much but even when you eat before a gig and what you eat matters for a vocalist. Never go on stage hungry or right after you have eaten. It is always preferable to eat one and half hours to two hours before you start singing and avoid the oily junk. Salt and luke warm water gargling also helps. You could also try a concoction of 10ml of brandy with hot water, pepper and honey. Works like a miracle on the throat (wink)!
You have also worked with worked with Grammy Award winner Ric Fierabracci?
Yes I have. I have always liked his music and his sense of melody is very pretty. What is prettier is how he harmonizes the melody. I loved playing with him. His energy is fantastic on the bandstand.
In how much are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of music influenced by cultural differences?
In simple words, we all are products of our surroundings. What we have experienced in our growing days have an everlasting influence on us. But how much hold it has on us and pulls us back from exploring new avenues is what makes it positive or negative. I didn’t let my past musical experiences or cultural backgrounds hold me back. It actually prompted me to push ahead into areas which were not my comfort zone. It also helps that I have an inquisitive mind always questioning and seeking new experiences. Music for me is no different from an adventure. The more challenging it is the more exciting it becomes.
Words of wisdom for growing musicians.
Creativity is a language of your heart and mind, fine tuned by what you see, hear and feel. It doesn’t matter where you came from or who you are. What matters is how brave you are to take chances, make mistakes and learn from them. Never stop learning. A mind that doesn’t question or seek new experiences is a mind that is dead.