Another weekend to savor
That it certainly was, for though the week’s weather was a bit glum and grey, the Friday evening was spent watching a fascinating drama in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. With the accentuation of the experience in IMAX and 3D, and superb music by Steven Price, watching ‘Gravity’ was money well spent. And with that done with, we flew westwards to Ohio where Anu and Sabu had arranged a concert with the fascinating 32 year old Stephen Devassy from India and three competent young singers.
Both Shoba and I have been following the rapidly rising career path of Stephen for a few years now and enjoyed his musical support for the Indian Voice program as well as a few others, and it was after a span of some 6 years that I was seeing him again in person. The first was at San Diego and I had written about that event, a time when Stephen had provided accompaniment to the famous Hariharan.
Stephen has progressed famously since then, and the village boy from Ottapalam had indeed travelled a long way, performing across the globe and in front of many a luminary. Some of you may not know Stephen, so a little bit about the young musical genius.
This young lad burst into the music scene with dreams to arrange and perform the music he composed. Starting early with just a keyboard, he quickly anchored himself firmly in church choirs and gospel music, and started solo performances when he was in the 8th standard. As he progressed to college, he decided to divert his interests fully into music and that was when the famous vocalist Hariharan beckoned, with which Stephen’s world travels started. By 16 he had completed his exams on the Piano at the Trinity College in London scoring very high marks. Soon he immersed himself in the film world as a music programmer, working with many a musician, music director and singer, not only in the South but also the North. He still is one of the busiest programmers now settled in Mumbai, but then with the hectic style he has chosen, he also jets around the world doing many a stage program. His heart however is in creating original music and performing with his bands.
And that was how we met Stephen at Cleveland, the hallowed center for rock and roll and Carnatic music in the USA (recall my article about the Thyagaraja Utsava?). For those who raise a quizzical eye, that was where Moondog (Alan Freed) the DJ popularized a new style of rhythm and blues music calling it rock and roll and then went on to promote the first ever rock and roll concert. Freed was also one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame following which Cleveland warmly embraced rock and roll, making it a center for record-buying, radio stations and live concerts. Stephen, if you are not aware yet, is a keen western music enthusiast, while fully at home with all the Indian genres. Gospel comes to him readily, but funk, rap, rock and blues are no strangers and we were soon to witness his genius at impromptu jamming.
Stephen was very easy to get along with and as a simple and humble man, shared many a tidbit of the world he comes from, but at the same time was inquisitive, sometimes almost childlike, about the life of an ordinary American Malayali. He had traveled alone for this event and getting ready for the next day’s event was prime in his mind and a few electronics items were needed. Stephen incidentally, is pretty adept with tools and taking apart his musical machines if so needed, for he had discovered that his Keytar had suffered some minor damage. Once he had repaired it, his mind was at ease, and soon we were off to the musical superstore Sam Ash nearby, something Stephen does when he is in the USA. This was a place where he just gets lost, browsing the latest tools of his trade and comparing experiences with the specialists there, and Cleveland has a really big store. Sam Ash describes itself - Visit any Sam Ash Music Store at any time and you’re guaranteed to see somebody making music. After all, making music is what Sam Ash is all about and they mean business. Playing the incredible selection of instruments is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. You’ll find people of all ages, from novice to pros playing guitars, keyboards, drums or brass and woodwind instruments.
It was after Stephen finished selecting the hardware he needed that he spotted a serious looking gent rapping
Dinner and conversation followed at Anu’s and Sabu’s home, and it was great fun, chatting about music, Stephen and his interests, life and so much else. Simi was busy with the preparations to host the show for some 400 people the next evening and Jishnu and Vinod, with all kinds of activities related to the dinner, the other hall arrangements and so on, and I will agree that the efforts were very painstaking, just look at the place holders the ever so efficient Simi made for each dish.
Stephen was fighting the drowsiness creeping in with the jet lag as he had come in directly after a hectic show in Dubai. You think we would have let him drift off to sleep? No way! For the charming threesome of children were making a bedlam while the young ladies were getting the dinner ready. And thus we heard snippets from Stephens’s busy life, his new pad at Bombay, his married life and events around his life and his many friends…
One of the events he remembered was the performance he gave at my alma mater, NIT Calicut. For him,
The Keytar liberated him in stage shows, and allowed him to move around and interact with the audience, and he showed how as the concert started, making a grand entrance, fingers furiously playing a peppy tune, while his eyes were taking in the audience and occasionally at the keys. Stephen said in a recent Hindu interview - Till then the keyboard or piano was treated as a backup instrument. But when I was given a chance to do unplugged versions of chartbusters or jam with contestants, people started noticing me and the instrument. As a Motif artiste (he endorses the Motif series of keyboard synthesizers) of Yamaha, Stephen knows quite a lot about his keyboards and is up in the league (or even above in my opinion) of Loy Mendoza and Louis Banks. But whatever said and done, Stephen agrees that it was reality TV, shows like Indian Voice that took him to the hearts of millions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as many others in India and abroad.
He had appreciative opinions on every new singer and sees only the good in everybody who sings, talking reverently of the greats like AR Rahman and Hariharan with whom he has performed often, of the great fun he has jamming with his pal Sivamani and his friendship with MJ, Karthik and other singers. And of course, we discussed things other than music, like food (he loves the porridge kanji!!) and he told us about something I am looking forward to eat – the Dindigul Venu Biryani at Coimbatore, something both Stephen and Sivamani love.
How many of you know that he worked with Colonial cousins, the twin set of CD’s Hariharan and Leslie Lewis made? Termed sometimes as India’s Jazz pianist or the South Indian Mozart, he has performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. He has done over a couple of thousand concerts and is totally at ease on stage and even takes pains to ensure that his co-artistes are at ease. His concept in his own words - It’s very simple. Music should be enjoyable. Listeners should be able to satisfy their tastes. Music relaxes us, rejuvenates our mind and helps us escape from the stresses of hectic life. I try to make waves among youth with music, because I represent them.
His performance at the concert was electrifying, and his endearing vibrancy on stage enough to get the audience involved. Remixing old tunes, and introducing new melodies interweaving western, Carnatic and Hindustani, he served us a heady mix of music for a couple of hours.
And the vocal accompaniment was equally good, with many a popular song sung by Bhadra, Shalini and Thahseen. Each of them is a competent singer with many shows behind them. Bhadra, the lovely lass continues to brings us art from the family of thespian Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair, being his grand-daughter. She sang a number of peppy and melodious numbers, warming the hearts of the audience while the charming Shalini Rajendran anchored in with a number of ever popular songs. The third singer was somebody I knew from the blogger’s world and somebody I had corresponded in the past, in fact it was a surprise meeting him at this concert, the somewhat serious looking Thahseen Mohammed. We had shared notes on stalwarts dead and gone in the Malayalam music world, people like Mehaboob and K Abdul Khader. Thahseen weighed in with a few Rafi numbers and Malayalam songs. With Stephen supporting, all three gave us a lovely mix of Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi songs, and in the gaps Stephen would take us away into another sphere with his keyboard pieces.
Stephen, who loves Mozart's Symphony was inspired by Yanni (In fact it was playing Yanni’s ‘Nostalgia’ that got him entrance to Fr Thomas’s Chetna school many years earlier), the Greek musician, in making his musical compositions. In fact we spent many a minute discussing the Yanni show I had attended some time ago. He also recalled watching the Celene Dion show at Las Vegas and hoped that someday he could also be part of such mega events! From the new musical lineup, he likes Michael Buble and Michael W Smith. Interestingly he believes that he may have picked up the Sitar if it had not been the piano. But all said and done, audience interaction is important for him in a concert. In fact in an earlier interview, he explained "My early training on the piano was restricted to Western classical music, and I played Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin to audiences in Ottapalam and Thrissur who could not much appreciate it," recalls Stephen. "As I played my pieces fast, they seemed impressed. And when I began to introduce tunes - drawn from local films and folk music - the change was dramatic. They applauded, because they enjoyed what they heard."
And so that was how he got the audience to their feet – when he paid tribute to the most popular romantic tracks of the past years. He got the crowd to do the vocals for Thumbee vaa, Ayiram kannumai, Anjalee anjalee, Pehla Nasha, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and so on among others. The crowd happily sang along, like we did…remembering the scenes with Prabhu, Shahrukh and all those actors.
A sumptuous dinner catered out from Chicago followed with many a mouthwatering Kerala dish prepared with meticulous care. The dishes were attacked with gusto and consumed amidst animated conversations with Anu’s and Sabu’s Cleveland friends. Stephen was happy that the weather in Ohio was mild, for he hates the cold weather which is tough on exposed flying fingers. Gloves, he says, don’t help with the speed and dexterity needed, so he tries his best to schedule programs during the summer days. But he was surprised seeing so many people from Ottapalam at Cleveland, he mentioned that so many people walked up to him to mention they were also from Ottapalam. But good things have to end and soon, it did…..
Again, it was a week end with so many happy surprises, I met my friend from my Ambika Nivas Triplicane days, Babuji and his wife, after all of 33 years!! All in all, those three days were so nice, meeting so many young people like Jishnu and Simi, Saju and Bhadra, Vinod, Anup, Kannan, Shalini and Thahseen and so many others. The hours we spent talking about Calicut, for Bhadra and Saju also studied there (Shalini too hails from Calicut), common relatives and so on till the wee hours of each morning made us want more than the available hours in a day. And so, we all agreed to remain in touch, as new friends…… And for all that, once again, thank you – Anu and Sabu…….
Stephen has a studio and sound technology college in Chennai which we have decided to visit, the Muzik Lounge, and perhaps we will meet Stephen the musician again there, arranging music.Or who knows? We may come across him again, somewhere, sometime, someplace and enjoy more music….
Photos – Courtesy Jishnu
A movie and a concertA movie and a concert