• Wed, Nov 14, 2018
Features

Instrumental Role: More Than Just The Voice

features Mar 08, 07:01pm

While talking to women instrumentalists in the music scene across India, we find 8 stellar musicians who have smashed those gender barriers with their talent and are winning the world and our hearts.
 Photo Courtesy: Artist Social Pages

Gender equality in the Indian music scene is far from reality, that is a fact. Chew this: taking the facts from the major music festivals including Bacardi NH7 weekender, VH1 supersonic, Magnetic Fields Festival, the percentage does not even cross 30 percent when it comes to women line-ups in last few years. Let us dive a little deeper – let us consider only the women who are behind the instruments, and the glaring gap of gender inequality just grows wider. British guitarist Jon Gomm - in a Facebook post published two days ago - went on a rant concerning this topic and the music community’s ignorance and stereotype revolving around female musicians. His post said: “Women too often aren’t allowed just be a guitarist, it's like they’re making a political statement by existing. When all they wanna do is play guitar, which is a patently normal-as-f*ck thing to do. That's when you know the prejudice is real.”

From the audience point of view, women in music primarily comprising of the ones in the role of a vocalist are cheered and that doesn’t come as a surprise anymore. However, what is heartening to see is that even in this challenging environment there are female artists who earned their name in the industry by playing an instrumental role by displaying their passion behind the instrument. 

Women performing musical instruments in the alternative and mainstream music scene is a fairly rare view. Unfortunately, even in the mesmerizing world of music our thought process is anything but non-stereotypes. Many times, we associate a ‘gender’ to some particular musical instrument. Until the new generation emerged who dared to go beyond vocals and carve a name in the industry, the Indian music scene was different and women were mainly considered for vocals. For some, Mohini Dey, a bass player came along and created a whole new perception. She started doing concerts and recordings at the age of 10. Mohini has been described as prodigy by many acclaimed musicians and has already created news for all the right reasons. Other than that, there are some brilliant female instrumentalists both in India and globally who are representing themselves as instrumentalists. From sitarist Anoushka Shankar to tabla player Anuradha Pal; from violinist Kala Ramnath to drummer Meg White; from violinist and composer Alison Krauss to veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh - the list goes on.
 
Women are trying to break gender barriers in the scene. They are picking up their instruments to prove vocals is not their only identity. There are some who have formed their own bands, while some play solo with their instruments and some as session musicians. As the world is celebrating International Women’s Day, Rock Street Jounal grabbed the opportunity to speak to the women instrumentalists in the music scene across India. Here are 8 amazing Indian musicians who have smashed those gender barriers with their talent, winning the world and our hearts:  


 
Anushka Lewis (Nush Lewis-) Mumbai based Harpist/Singer/Songwriter at Nush Lewis

 

Music journey:
“I grew up in a household that loves music. We always woke up to the radio, sitting around with family and singing was something that always happened. So, I grew up loving music. When I moved to Bangalore to pursue a degree in media, literature and psychology, I joined the college choir. That's what changed how I felt about music. I started loving it on a very serious level. It became a space for me where I felt most happy. So, as I reached the final year of college, I decided to do this more seriously and maybe think of it as a profession."
 
Inspiration

“I joined music school in 2009 as a vocal major. Two weeks into the program the school had its first annual day event where our Theory teacher, who is a harpist, performed. That was the first time I ever saw the instrument being played. I was immediately in awe of it and more intrigued; I think because it seemed to have a million strings and pedals. So, I asked the next day if I could try it out. I ended up doing lesson after lesson and before I knew it I was practicing the harp more than my vocals. The rest is history.”

 


 
General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points.

“You couldn't be more right. Every time I meet someone and introduce myself as a musician the immediate reaction is "Do you sing with a band?". It's a very ridiculous situation but you can't really blame anyone for it. This is how it has been engrained in our society. Girls were either sent for a vocal or piano class whereas the boys were sent for guitar or drum classes. Having said that the times are changing. We have so many little girls learning all kinds of instruments and doing really well in them.”
 
Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field. 

“Oh, I agree. Women are always looked at as the pretty face of the band. It really irritates me when people are amazed at how good a female musician is which they wouldn't do for a male musician for sure.”
 
Feminism through your lenses.

“Feminism is equality. Feminism is respect.”
 
Music as full-time profession.

“Absolutely, why not. It's a tough one but every profession has its challenges and if you wake up in the morning and can't think of anything but being a musician then you're probably cut out for it.”
 
Future Plans

“I have my second EP in the works and scheduled to release later this year. I also run an music education company called Offset, so working on various projects with that.”
 
Message for women reading your article on women's day.

“As hard as it may seem, don't be afraid to go out there and do what you want. People are intimidated by strong women.”

 

 

Rie Ona- Japan based Saxophone and Clarinet player

Music journey:

“As born in Japan, the opportunity of music as education was given to all of us. At kindergarten, we learn rhythm on castanet as one off play. At elementary and junior high school, music is compulsory. We take exam of music theory and performance exam for recorder, harmonica. But It was my first crush in music when I saw and listened to the school brass band annual concert. It was like high rainbow, many colours of the sound as one.”
 
Inspiration 

“I was playing clarinet at a school brass band, music was mostly western classical. There I was not understanding about saxophone sound yet. Much later, when I heard David Sanborn playing "Straight to the heart " on his album "Alpen Horn", I was shocked at the sound of sax - like voice with lots of emotion. Then I bought 200-dollar second hand sax from a friend and started learning on my own.”

 

 

Female artist added appeal or competition as usual 

“As a Japanese, my school time was more like - girls for piano, boys for baseball. In school brass band, boys were much less. I am sure more girls learned musical instruments in childhood than boys did. But, despite of that, that was boys who took electric guitar and started rock bands. and female students were sometimes invited as guest singers. As child, I feel more girls are better at learning, practice, play precisely.” 
 

General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points?


“If the one is really great beyond others, then there is nothing like a woman or a man, good personality or not, good appearance or not. Till that level, maybe there is demand sometimes more for female players, or male players depending on the nature of the show and the target audience.”
 

Music as full-time profession.

“As a teacher, definitely yes. And if less musicians in circuit, as a payer yes. Think about financially even if it’s not entertainment kind of music. Anyway, if someone says her / his profession is music, then it is. A painter is a painter even nobody buys right now. Music is of course a full time profession.” 


Future Plans

“Keep playing. And I’d like to sing my own songs.”
 

Message for women reading your article on women's day

“I recently attended the launch of " SheDecides" movement, which has statement that every girl and every woman can safely exercise her right to decide for herself what she does. Through speech by performers, I could know here it’s much harder than many other countries. I just wish that whatever they decide, even the decision of following tradition, then live own life as only one special one for yourself.” 

 

Thotyaphy Muivah-Manipur based Drummer at Minute Of Decay

 

Music journey:

“I was just a kid who liked to spend time playing with the other kids in the neighbourhood rather than staying at home and practice like my older sisters. My parents literally forced us into music. My sisters had started performing when they were 6 or 7 years old. I gradually joined them and it hasn't stopped ever since. Hey! I'm a passionate drummer now. All thanks to God and my wonderful parents.”

Inspiration

“It was more like it was already decided for me by my parents. My sisters play guitar and bass. It was natural they gave away their third daughter to drums. I am happy they did.” 


General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points.

“Is that so? Well, I'd say it’s not about women being better in singing or men associating with instruments. There are excellent male singers and female musicians. It’s all about talent and hard work.”
Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field. 
“I won't deny that we are beautiful human beings (giggles). I take pride in being a woman. But be it male or female instrument player, one must be appreciated truly for their musical abilities.”

 

Feminism through your lenses.

“Feminism is not about girl power. But as Whitney Wolfe quoted "it is about equal power". In a male dominate world, women musicians are as good as men.”
 

Music as full-time profession

“The music scene in India is growing massively. We can now say it is as good as any other jobs.”


Future Plans

“Happy to be where I am now. What I'll be tomorrow is in God's good hands. But one thing I know for sure, music will stay with me, always.”
 

Message for women reading your article on women's day.

“Life is too short to take comfort in sleep. Whatever talents we have, use them to create a difference and inspire people.”

 

Thotyaphy Muivah-Manipur based Drummer at Minute Of Decay

 

Music journey:

“I was just a kid who liked to spend time playing with the other kids in the neighbourhood rather than staying at home and practice like my older sisters. My parents literally forced us into music. My sisters had started performing when they were 6 or 7 years old. I gradually joined them and it hasn't stopped ever since. Hey! I'm a passionate drummer now. All thanks to God and my wonderful parents.”

Inspiration

“It was more like it was already decided for me by my parents. My sisters play guitar and bass. It was natural they gave away their third daughter to drums. I am happy they did.” 

 


General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points?

“Is that so? Well, I'd say it’s not about women being better in singing or men associating with instruments. There are excellent male singers and female musicians. It’s all about talent and hard work.”


Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field. 


“I won't deny that we are beautiful human beings (giggles). I take pride in being a woman. But be it male or female instrument player, one must be appreciated truly for their musical abilities.”

 

Feminism through your lenses.

“Feminism is not about girl power. But as Whitney Wolfe quoted "it is about equal power". In a male dominate world, women musicians are as good as men.”

 

Music as full-time profession.

“The music scene in India is growing massively. We can now say it is as good as any other jobs.”

 

Future Plans

“Happy to be where I am now. What I'll be tomorrow is in God's good hands. But one thing I know for sure, music will stay with me, always.”
 

Message for women reading your article on women's day

“Life is too short to take comfort in sleep. Whatever talents we have, use them to create a difference and inspire people.”

 

 

Melanie Hardage—US based keyboardist/pianist (Moved to India)
 

Music journey:

“My music journey started with Piano lessons at 8 years old. But I always knew I would do music even before I started official lessons. I graduated university with a music degree, trained in western classical piano, but now my journey has led me to eastern music in various forms.”
 

Inspiration:

“I’m not really sure. I always wanted to play the piano since I was very young.”


General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points 

“This is definitely something I’ve felt both in America and in India. It doesn’t bother me as long as I am treated with respect when people realise I play an instrument and don’t just sing. I was a teacher for many years, so I am always advocating for children to take part in formal music lessons—regardless of their sex.” 
 

Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field. 

“I honestly haven’t given that much thought, since I don’t view myself in that way, personally. I think there can be a variety of collaborations and if a female is added it should be based on the skill, creativity, and dynamic she brings to the group—not purely for the sake of having a female. In other words, any woman participating in music with a group of men should be valued for who she is and how she contributes musically and not what she looks like.” 

 

 

Feminism through your lenses 

“Feminism through my lens in simplest form is choosing to value and champion women for who they are and not just what they can do for you. It’s being a mom of five children (me!) and still going out there and pursuing my musical passions in a male dominated field. It’s boldly taking a path that may be seen as “non-traditional.” It’s the strength and courage in the face of a patriarchal society that says “you can’t do that...you’re a girl” to proclaim “I can and I will.” 

Music as full-time profession.

“The stereotype of struggling musicians is there for a reason. It’s hard to earn a living solely from, say, performing only. But there are tons of other ways to include music in your life and make a full-time profession from it. Teaching, coaching, writing, working for others in the industry, supplementing performance work with contracted writing—the possibilities are endless. It’s hard but possible and most musicians I know have the obsessive passion to make it work.”

Future Plans 

“Currently working with Susmit Sen, formerly of Indian Ocean, as a piano/guitar duo and with his band, the Susmit Sen Chronicles. We recently performed in Rishikesh for the International Yoga Festival. I plan to continue this work as long as I am able and soak up everything I can with these amazing Indian musicians.” 

Message for women reading your article on women's day.

“Whatever it is.... go for it. Don’t wait. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t let your fears get in the way. Go for it. Don’t live anyone else’s dream for your life. Go for your own dream.”
 

 


Aarifah Eve Rebello-- Mumbai-based drummer/singer-songwriter
 

Music journey:

“Born in a family that has music in its blood, it was inevitable. But me being a shy kid, realising this took a while; it was only when I started college when I realized that I could make something out of this mostly because going to college opened me up to a world I didn’t know existed before. writes and sings her own lyrics, plays guitar and is a drummer too. The percussionist performs with multiple different bands, including folk group Lawntuba, alt-rock outfit The Bassic and blues-funk trio Nookie Jar.
 
Inspiration

“I had gone for a show at NCPA where Gino Banks was playing. Just watching him enjoying himself on stage made me want to feel like that and make others feel the way he made me feel.”

 

 
General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points 

"It’s just a mindset that needs to be changed. Picking up any instrument is highly intimidating, that pressure along with the added pressure of not having access or acceptance to learning an instrument is what the issue is. With more women learning, performing, teaching can we progress to a future that has more women realising that it’s easy and not be afraid of picking up an instrument.”
 
Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field. 

“It is an issue in every industry, but the best way to counter that is by highlighting talent as opposed to gender. When talking about top musicians do we forget the women? Just because there are more men around? Do we include more women to appease stereotypes? If we can stop doing this and just appreciate talent for what it is, will this issue subside.”
 
Music as full-time profession.

“If you're hardworking, you can make anything a full-time profession.”

Future Plans 

“Release music, get better vocally, guitar skills, drum skills theory, expand into different genres/styles of performing.”
 

Message for women reading your article on women's day.
 

“Happy human’s day.”
 

 

Kiran Upadhyay - Delhi based bass guitarist 

 
Music journey: 

“Music has been a part of my journey. As a person, there’s only music that has brought me up in worse times. So, it cannot be expressed the kind gratitude I have towards playing bass guitar. Music came in my life by attending concerts and listening to good musicians.”
 
Inspiration

“Bass is a very special instrument. It's an underdog actually but when it takes front seat, then everything shuns. People don’t get that it's the groove that keeps them going; be it dancing, head banging or whatever. The inspiration came by watching such amazing bassists play. They have such a cool vibe and that shows in their playing.”
 


General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points 

“Being a woman and playing heavy instruments is a bliss, trust me. Now I don't even see it like this, all I think is of becoming better at what I do. I have been rigorously playing and it's not easy. The industry is no doubt male dominant but it's not their fault, it's because we have to keep breaking the pattern and society always teach you to follow a pattern, a structure, a struggle. Why to choose what they want?  I'll choose my own struggle, at least I won't regret This hierarchy is shifting and it will shift. Trust me I have at least 5 different all girl band groups right now. Every girl I have met wants to form all-girl band. I have been a part of The Vinyl records.”
 

Women instrument player is an added appeal. You agree or it's competition as usual like any other field
 

“It's never easy. Has it been easy for you as a writer? Don't tell me, I know the answer. There are awesome men out their ripping their instruments. Any human would want to become the best version of Itself. I look at the bests of the players and I see most of them are men but then there are these very successful women like Tal Winklefield Esperanza Spalding and bass prodigy Mohini Dey and then you tell yourself do what you have to, keep going no matter how tough. There’s a lot of competition. People support you but it's a pity only. I have heard humility at times specifically as a session bassist.”
 

 


Feminism through your lenses 
 

“Feminism is misinterpreted. I am actually very fearful about this subject. Whatever I say will go against me, so I choose to stay away. Men have become too vocal about this topic, so yes, I will stay away.” 
 
Music as full-time profession

 

“Music is a full-time profession for me from past two years. And I am very happy. Trust me ladies you get the perks and stay at awesome resorts, awesome food and booze. But sometimes, it’s really hectic.” 
 
Future Plans 


“I want to collaborate with as many women musicians as I can. And also, with awesome guy friends. I want to start my own channel soon. It’s in the progress.”
 
Message for women reading your article on women's day.


“This is the best time in the music business in India, so stop making silly excuses and be lazy. Go and get it.”
 
 

Swarupa Ananth-Sawkar—Mumbai based Versatile percussionist- She dabbles in the tabla, djembe, darbuka, cajon, dhol, duff and drums.
 

Music journey:


“Music was not new to me at all. I grew up in a musical family. My mom is a singer and so was my grandmother. There was always music as part of my growing up years. Hence, as was natural, I took to music at a very young age. I was about 6 when I first joined classical vocal classes. However, my interest in Tabla classes that was being conducted in the adjoining room grew and I quickly made the switch. I was lucky my parents also saw my keen interest in Tabla and helped me pursue it. I was 10 when a friend of my mother told her about Ustad Allarakha Institute of Music. Keeping in mind the various rules the institute had, we had prepared ourselves to be content with even just the maestros blessings. Much to our delight Abbaji (Ustad Zakir Hussain) as we fondly call him heard me play and asked me to join immediately and needless to say there was no looking back. Over the years my intrigue in percussions from around the world led me to pick up a bunch of instruments like the djembe, darbuka, cajon, kanjira and many more. Music, I believe, is a life-long journey and I'm only blessed and excited every single day to be able to travel on this path.”
 

Inspiration
 

I am not sure I can actually say 'this thing' or 'that person' was the reason I picked tabla or percussions. What I do remember is as a kid whenever I heard any music my first reaction would be to drum or run my hands and fingers to the beat on any surface that was in front of me. Be it the dining table or my school books or the door or kitchen utensils. That instinct made me want to learn to play the tabla. Once I did start playing of course I had and still have a long list of inspirations to keep at it. From great artists and gurus of the genre to all those numerous tabla players who accompany classical / light / folk / Bollywood / dance and all forms of music; from artists of all art disciplines around the world, waking up every single day to pursue their art in however trying times they may be, to audiences who smile when they listen to your music everything works as inspiration.”

 


General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points ?


“There have always been women instrumentalists. And many par excellences. Maybe, and this is just my personal view - in the earlier times especially in the Indian societal context, women didn't have the freedom to go out and perform on stage or pursue a career as much as we enjoy today. And I would like to believe that's the biggest reason why we never heard of many of them. There were still the greats like Annapurna Devi ji or Karen cCrpenter who ,in a way, paved the way for the later generations. Having said that, times have changed and we now have so many brilliant female instrumentalists both in India and globally.”


Female artist added appeal or competition as usual 


“Every coin has two sides and so does this. I will not deny the fact that many people approach females musicians with a novelty factor in their mind. But like all fads/trends/novelties only the truly good ones last. So, at the end it's only the talent and quality that counts and will help you stay there. I’ve always told myself 'work so hard and play so well and honestly that people will be forced to look at your art and not your gender'. Then it's competition as usual!”

Feminism through your lenses 


“Feminism to me is not matching up to what men can do, it's about being able to do what you as a woman can or want to do to your full potential. Dream, pursue a dream, chose your own career, educate oneself, raise kids, be single, buy a home, drive a car, run a company, be a homemaker whatever it is your heart tells you, being able to do that free of seeking anyone's permissions is feminism to me.”


Music as full-time profession.


“Music as a full-time profession? Absolutely! The avenues and opportunities that are available to us musicians today are amazing and in plenty. It is as fulfilling, well-paying and competitive with its due share of rewards as any other profession.”


Future Plans


“I'm not much of a future plans person, I like to take every day as a new and beautiful adventure and music is definitely something that'll be with me throughout.”


Message for women reading your article on women's day.


“While many women chose to say every day is our day and we don't need a women's day to celebrate us, I say have you heard of anything like men's day? We are totally worth being celebrated so let's stand up and take centre stage, feel proud and celebrate womanhood! Happy women's day!”


 
Kuvelü Tetse-o- Nagaland based multi-instrumentalist & singer

 


Music journey:

“Serendipity at the beginning. We never had a plan but over the years, we decided on a direction and eventually, what was meant to be, just fell into place.  Our journey started a long time ago as school children - just a gang of siblings who loved to sing together and wanted to do something different. Our parents led us on this path to discover our history and our cultural heritage and understand and appreciate it. When we first started, we just loved being on stage and sharing our songs. After performing our first folk song in school and then on local TV, the appreciation was a huge push to continue doing it. We learnt more songs and got invited to perform on bigger stages and eventually representing our state and then the country on the international stage. And today, we have carefully cultivated a musical act/presentation with an aim to showcase certain aspects of the rich repertoire of Naga folk music, weaves and traditional jewellery in our concerts and shows based on a theme as per our fancy or the demands of the event. We are so lucky and happy that with all the effort we have put in over the years, now we get to do what we love and also make a living out of it. It hasn’t been easy but it has been an incredibly fulfilling and blessed experience for each one of us.” 

 

 

Inspiration 

“A lot of the traditional songs have few or no instrumentation. They have this natural rhythm and a catchy beat to it with the many layers of vocal harmonies and the natural work-related sound accompanying it. When we learned the few festival songs that are usually accompanied by the one stringed instrument or any of the percussion instruments or shakers, we adapted the way the instruments were played to many more songs which had never been sung with an instrument accompanying it and found that it added to the song. That’s when we started playing around with the plucking styles and strums as well and since then - we have had much fun improvising and playing around with different instruments - both traditional and others.” 
 
Female artist added appeal or competition as usual 


“In the world of folk (Li) that we belong to, there is a constant competition focused on the vocal finesse of the singers and less on the gender of the singer or musician. The aim is to bring out clever lyrics and harmonise in time to perfectly crest or drop with each syllable and ululation. So, we haven’t really felt the gender differentiation of musicians. Also, in the Northeast of India, there are as many female musicians as male musicians. There may be certain male preferences and female preferences for instruments but we have grown up surrounded by equally great female and male musicians. It’s more a matter of personal commitment than gender expectations or association.”

 

General perception: Vocals for women & instruments for men. Your view points?


“Of course - when people come to know that we are a band, they want to know who plays what and who is the lead singer. The funny thing is that our band does not have a lead singer. Each part-harmony is equally important and we all sing different voices as per the song’s dictates so we are all main singers and also play all the instruments - except the guitar at gigs. That we leave to our brother - not because he is male but because he is the best there is. Some people are surprised that we all play and sing at the same time. Others just take it for granted. For us, it is business as usual. We actually wish we could play more instruments ourselves. We are learning to play more instruments. To tell the truth, there are many more male musicians as compared to females in the industry - we don’t know why - perhaps that’s why female musicians seem more attractive but lately, female musicians are on the rise playing professionally. But we salute all musicians - male or female - as the struggles are real and so are the amazing talents! What an inspiration!”
 
Feminism through your lenses. 


“We belong to the school of feminism that believes in equal rights for all humans. Being feminist means recognising the strength of each person and not at the gender. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be the best version of herself or himself. The saddest tragedy of our times is that we have advanced so much as a race but when it comes to gender equality and parity, it is a new low and dark age for women still. We want to change that and we all have a role to play. Instead of promoting a mindset of what #WomenShouldNOTdo/say/wear, let’s promote #SameStandardsForAllHumans.” 
 
Music as full-time profession.


“Yes. BUT there is a big BUT. You have to be really talented and smart in your decisions; and grab/create/chase opportunities with sincerity and put in your best every day, every gig, every song.” 


 
Future Plans


“To do great music for as long as we can. The day it feels like we have stopped growing and learning, we might just take up another of our passions.”

 

Message for women reading your article on women's day.


“We women need to rally together more and stand up for each other more. Let us support each other more. Let us encourage each other more. Let us be there for each other more. It’s okay not to live up to others’ expectations of us and how we should look, what we should do or say or wear or whether we should be housewives or career women or single or double.  Let us judge each other less. Let us learn to live on our own terms and not under pressure. More power to all the beautiful souls out there. We will all find our way home somehow and, in the meantime, hang on and chill. Every day is Women's Day and we have to own it like we mean it. Hiyohey!”

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