Vasundhara Vee on Empathy, Authenticity and Voice
The Mumbai-based vocalist talks about turning educator, working on new material with veteran guitarist Sanjay Divecha for Merkaba and the power of a Nina Simone song
If you needed any more proof that American jazz legend Nina Simone would have a widespread, timeless legacy, there’s her 1966 song “Four Women.”
The track about racism, slavery and oppression was sampled in 2017 by rapper Jay-Z on “The Story of O.J.” but closer home, New Delhi-bred, Mumbai-based vocalist Vasundhara Vidalur aka Vasundhara Vee performed a powerful rendition that was also an education in voice and style. But Vasundhara says she doesn’t “traditionally have the ‘right’ or ‘place’ to sing” a track like “Four Women.” Acknowledging her privileged upbringing – Vasundhara has roots in Assam and has spent the last decade becoming one of the foremost jazz singers in the country – she says she picked “Four Women” because “songs educate us in a way that no history book ever can.”
It’s probably her attachment to songs and the ways to sing them that’s led to the creation of The School of Voice earlier this year. It’s not a room or studio in a building, but more of a flexible, floating institution that Vasundhara plans to take across the country. She says, “Calling it The School of Voice just made it formal and gave people a place to come find me. I have some plans with it for the future. But right now I’m going to stick to teaching singers and actors and corporate speakers.” Excerpts from the interview:
How did you end up picking Nina Simone’s “Four Women” for a cover?
As a world, we are suffering a dire lack of Empathy. We are more disconnected than ever in an age of hyper-connectivity… By being mentored by the songs and authentic narratives of various communities, we can start regaining our humanity. What if we each, could learn to sing each other’s songs for a day?
It serves as a very powerful statement in the ongoing fight for fair treatment for women everywhere, especially in the music industry. Was that also part of the intent with this song?
I feel the we need to have one foot in the specific and another in the general to see the entire story. The fight for fair treatment for women is a subset of a general disease in our culture. We have all learnt to wrong people and get away with what we can get away with. We have all internalized very advanced ways of silencing and numbing others and ourselves.
Every community, be it based on gender, occupation, gender identification, sexual orientation, caste, class, mental health… suffers real, incomparable and very specific manifestations of this general mal-conditioning. Just as there is an overlap in the Venn diagram of victims, there is an overlap in the Venn diagram of perpetrators too! We are in this deeper than we think. And we are more complicit than we’d dare admit.
So, I did not pick “Four Women” specifically for women, or for women in my occupation. I chose it for all, for myself and to put empathy as my first priority.
What has it been like setting up The School of Voice? It’s not an institution, but more of a flexible community? What has the interest been like so far?
Yes, The School of Voice is not a physical institution. It gives me the flexibility to nurture talent and vocal ability across the country. Time-bound curriculum courses and physical institutions have their own setbacks. I wish to fill in the gaps that are left in the study of voice. My method is in some ways the inverse of the way voice is taught right now in India.
I lost my voice in 2012 and it was a terrifying time. The method I now teach is the one that saved and rebuilt my voice from scratch. I was able to tweak it a bit to suit Indian singers, as we relate to sound, imagery and body mapping in a very different way from people in the West. Over different projects, I got to tweak it further to suit the needs of Bollywood, musical theater etc.
My students are generally professionals or just-about-to-go-pro singers. There’s interest from all over the country and I’m astounded at the kind of talent we have.
When did you start teaching? What has your experience been like to work with corporates, musicals and training singers for competitions? Was there a point in that whole journey that served as a spark to set up School of Voice?
I’ve been teaching formally for three years now. I needed to get a go-ahead from my teacher as I wouldn’t want to touch another’s person’s voice without it being absolutely safe to do so.
Voice is a psycho-biological instrument. With the right cues read and the correct buttons pushed, the effects on one’s voice are actually immediate. I get high on seeing people light up, and know that they can do a lot more than they had ever imagined. I love hearing their before-and-after recordings, the change in how their audiences respond! I like to see them winning and then going beyond their wins.
And in your years teaching, what is it like to also retain a student-like curiosity and fascination towards listening to, performing and writing music? Or do you think that’s changed in you after you became an educator/trainer?
Every student is a new system. There are unique ways to troubleshoot each one’s vocal habits. And no two people respond the same way to the same exercise. That alone keeps me on my toes. I’m studying all the time and my mind is blown afresh every few weeks with how much there is to discover and create in this area.
I’ve become clearer as an artist since I started teaching. Teaching humanizes the entertainment realm. I’m more and more clear now about why I sing. This is the life-gift my students have given me.
It’s been a while since Adil and you called time on the band – I would certainly say it’s a decision that’s worked well for both of you. And you both moved to Mumbai on your own time – what has it been like?
It’s been great for me. The time of chaos after the band split actually led to much rethinking, study and personal realigning. Merkaba was formed in 2015. I had always idolized Sanjay (Divecha, guitarist-composer). I really never knew I’d have him as my mentor, bandmate, friend and family. Merkaba comprises Gino Banks, Sheldon D’silva, Rohan Rajadhyaksha, Sanjay and me.
Adil is doing amazing things. He is producing. He also started Bombay Bandstand and is making big band ensembles a thing here. I’m very excited for him
What is the next Merkaba release going to be like?
Our songs talk about personal and community healing. With topics ranging from mental health, privilege and prejudice, self-forgiveness, personal freedom etc.
Musically, it’s a sonic hybrid of many contemporary artforms. jazz, hip hop, blues, R&B, rock, funk etc ….but it can’t strictly be called any of those things. Sanjay calls it “Urban Contemporary”.
We’ve been producing the album slowly over the last two years. Five songs out of nine are done and are in the mixing phase. We want to release it when it feels right, but my gut says mid-2019.