Rock on: Kerala's Spice Girls

SONGS OF SURVIVAL

Rock on: Kerala's Spice Girls

Shamitha (23) is a solo English vocalist in Kochi. She also hosts a  English music show on a private television channel. PIC / WFS

“If you don’t get appreciated, then it’s the dirtiest job in the world!” says Joe Peter or The Beast, as he is known to English-music lovers in Kochi. The ‘job’ that Peter (33) is referring to covers the music gigs that he and Beauty, his 18-year-old team member, otherwise known as Kavitha, perform at wedding and hotels. As a rock band, Beauty and The Beast offers a medley of R&B, country, pop and slow rock.

“Very rarely do people pause to listen or applaud at the end of a song at hotels or weddings,” says Kavitha. But going by their popularity, life certainly seems to be rocking for Peter and Kavitha. The most sought-after English vocalists in Kochi today, they sing cover versions of popular numbers on demand at corporate theme shows, mega fund-raising concerts, stage-shows or private functions.

High, on stage

“I am very lucky to have Kavitha on my team,” says Peter. “Most female vocalists back out at the last minute citing problems at home or quit when they have to sing in a restaurant where liquor is served.”

But Kavitha is a professional. “I started training in Carnatic music when I was three years old, and in 11th grade, I switched to Western music,” says the talented young woman. She was spotted by Peter, one of the judges at the English solo-singing competition at the All Kerala Youth Festival two years ago. Peter invited her to form a band with him. “I noticed that her voice was extraordinarily clear — her notes sounded like a piano with a throat,” he says.

“I am literally on a high on stage,” grins Kavitha. The best part, of course, is that she is financially independent. Kavitha and her  brother were brought up by their mother, a school teacher.

Singin’ in rain & shine

Shamitha (23) is another much-in-demand solo English vocalist in Kochi. Both her parents are professional singers. In fact, her father is the lead vocalist of his own band, NAME. “When I was in the eighth grade, I began singing devotional songs for the Exodus Worship band,” she recalls. The band was associated with a school of music in her hometown, Aluva, where Shamitha also sang jingles. Her big moment came when she sang for MotherJane, Kerala’s popular rock band, during a New Year gig at a plush hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. Belting out numbers by Shania Twain, Alannah Myles and Jennifer Lopez, Shamitha proved that she had arrived.

“My choice to sing in English was very natural,” says Shamitha, who grew up listening to Boney M, Abba and The Beatles, and was taught her first western number, Barbie Doll, at the age of 10 by a cousin. Currently the host of a Monday-to-Saturday English music show on Jeevan television, she gets to “sing the intro or the chorus of the song” before playing the video track. She has also sung for popular composers in the Malayalam film industry such as Gopisunder, Alphonse and Jassie Gift.

“They approach me when they need an English-Malayalam fusion number or a westernised lilt to Malayalam songs,” says Shamitha, whose USP is her strong voice that suits rock.

Does anyone care?

“It’s very difficult to confine oneself to English songs in Kerala,” admits Sarina (40), one of the female vocalists of 13 AD. “The public prefers listening to an assorted mix of Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam popular hits,” she elaborates. According to Sarina, Kerala is yet to encourage Western music in all its aspects. The younger generation just enjoys loud music.

Sarina, who has been singing since the age of five, along with her sister Rose, joined 13 AD in 1990. The band performed all over the country and stuck together for a year-and-a-half. Later, the sisters formed their own band, Home Town, in Trichur. Marriage and motherhood intervened and after a lull of many years, and with Sarina’s return from Dubai to Trichur, the two are now part of a band called Nomads that sings popular English hits.

“I also keep busy with studio recordings but unless you have the money, you cannot climb higher,” sighs Sarina. Cutting an album, making one’s own CD and marketing it — all this while sticking to singing strictly in English — just doesn’t work in Kerala’s contemporary music scene. Not surprisingly, then, neither of the two women earns a livelihood from singing alone. Shamitha, a psychology major, works as a consultant in a Human Resources firm in Kochi, while Sarina is an advertising professional.

The challenges

Kerala does not have the market to promote vocalists singing exclusively in English. Umpteen reality shows introduce young singing talent in Malayalam every season and most find enough work within the playback music industry or in the numerous live shows at home and abroad. But when it comes to English, the attitude is downright discouraging, particularly for women. Even at concerts, women vocalists are not hired for their individual style of rendition but just “to add colour”. Says Shamitha, “I stopped singing in restaurants after someone came up to us and asked if we could lower the volume.”

The two most popular all-Malayali rock bands — Avial and MotherJane — are primarily all-male bands although they have included female vocalists at concerts or in their albums. The four-member Avial team sings rock exclusively in Malayalam. “We took four years to compose eight songs for our first album,” recalls Tony, the lead vocalist. “None of our members have other professions — we are still struggling,” he adds.

Peter hits the right note with: “Men are still eking out a living from this profession. How easy can it be for a woman?” But the women are not about to give up. They believe their talent is God-given and, as Shamitha says, nothing that God gifts you should be allowed to go waste. These women singers want to believe — as The Beatles once crooned — ‘It’s getting a little better all the time’.

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