The Indian Jazz music circuit has witnessed a spurt of female artistes. Not so long back the scene had not more than a handful of them. A prominent name among them is Radha Thomas.
Radha has been synonymous with the jazz music scene in India. She has been performing since the 1970s and was selected to represent India at a jazz vocalists festival in Warsaw, Poland. She later moved to New York and spent twenty years performing and growing as an artiste. A better educated audience, not a huge one as per her, helped her hone her skills. The experience of performing alongside artistes like John Scofield, Micheal Brecker and Joe Farell aided to maturing as an artiste.
As a child, Radha was inclined towards singing but wasn’t really good at it.
“I’ve always wanted to be a singer. I think I knew it when I was three years old. I wouldn’t stop singing. My parents would beg me to shut up, but they really weren’t successful” quips Radha.
Well, jazz fans sure are not complaining that her parents lost in this cause. Her love for jazz is largely due to her mother who sang quite well and also the fact that there was always music playing in her house. The genres weren’t limited to jazz or western music but also Hindustani and Carnatic music as well.
“All genres of music played in the house so all in all, a big concatenation happened around me which eventually took root inside my head” recalls Radha.
This is also one of the reasons she doesn’t credit a particular artiste to be her influence. Cole Poter, Anita O’Dey and Chet Baker are all major influence but for completely different reasons. But she picks out Chet Baker as the artiste who made her go weak in the knees. Baker played the trumpet but also sang. The fact that he had an unambiguous style of singing made him stand out from the rest as, in Radha’s words
“His singing is sometimes a little flat. Something so perfect about imperfection. Basically everyone who made a dent on jazz singing is an influence.”
(Pic: Radha Thomas)
The Hindustani and Carnatic music influence from her childhood inspired Radha to learn and improvise the Indian Classical music genre with jazz. She studied Indian classical music with two Hindustani vocalists, Kumar Gandharva and Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagarin in the art of Dhrupad singing.
“To be able to use those kind of rhythmic imrov techniques was unique. It definitely set me apart” adding that “Honestly, Indian music can’t really be incorporated into jazz all that easily because it’s monophonic and the very essence of jazz is polyphony” says Radha.
The ability to achieve this mix of genres is what the audience appreciates her for.
Song writing comes to Radha naturally. It is like an author penning a book. That she is also an author of bestselling books is another thing but surely there would be a process that she incorporates when envisions her songs.
“Sometimes I’ll hear a strain in my head which I immediately sing into my iPhone and get back to it when I’m ready to finish the song. Since I’m musically illiterate, the iPhone is my most favourite tool. I record everything and then string it together. Once the music is done, I write lyrics” explains Radha
Radha could have taken up Indian Classical music as her career but she chose Jazz. Before I could probe further, Radha said
“For me there’s no other form of music that moves me more or that I enjoy more. Jazz is not the most popular genre and I could never become a ‘trillionaire’ singing jazz but when I get up on stage and sing, it’s like I’m in heaven.”
That wouldn’t be hard to achieve when you perform alongside brilliant musicians like Louis Banks, Keith Peters, Sanjay Divecha and the gang. After returning from the US, she has performed with the giants of the Indian jazz circuit and also formed her band – ‘UNK: The Radha Thomas Ensemble’. The band comprises of pianist Aman Mahajan, piano player Ramjee Chandran, guitarist and ofcourse Radha Thomas. Other musicians join them on stage the gig demands.
With jazz gaining acceptance amongst the youth and more artistes performing at numerous gigs across the nation, Radha thinks the future augurs well for the jazz circuit.
Last year the ICCR (The Indian Council for Cultural Relations) empanelled Radha to represent India in the field of jazz.
“That’s a huge thing for the government to put its seal of approval on a form of music that’s not intrinsic to the country. I think it’s very forward of them and I applaud it.”
India is becoming more and more hospitable to jazz. Still the music is far from getting the acceptance it has received even in countries where it is not native to.
“I think that Europe and Japan are still the top places where jazz is welcomed. However, they have their own cultural biases in those places and that sometimes can work against a jazz musician of Indian origin. You have to read between the lines here” opines Radha.
As a genre jazz has evolved and still is. Evolution is basic nature.
“The growth and future of jazz depends on evolution. Much like the human race, I imagine. If it stops evolving, it will die out like the dinosaur” says Radha.
Her mantra for the youth is the same she follows herself, ‘Listen, listen, listen. Practise, practise, practise. Play, play, play!’
“It’s a hard thing, this singing of jazz. I suppose that’s the real reason why I like it” smiles Radha.