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Bengaluru-Bred 17-Year-Old Guitarist Manou Rao on His Multicultural Upbringing

The Franco-Indian artist has set his sights on going professional, even as he balances school and the behemoth that is social media

Anurag Tagat May 04, 2021

Guitarist Manou Rao at the NAMM Show in Los Angeles in 2020. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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At the age of 11, guitarist Manou Rao guested with Bengaluru rock favorites Thermal And A Quarter to lead through Steve Vai’s “For the Love of God,” making every note sound soulful enough that you’d probably forget he was a pre-teen at the time.

That was about six years ago and in these crucial six years of his life, Rao – who began learning tabla at age four and then guitar when he was seven – has moved on up to tours as live guitarist, collaborated with hard rock band Whitesnake’s guitarist Doug Aldrich, repped a guitar brand and a strings company at the feted NAMM Show in Los Angeles and most recently, opened himself up to tons of online collaborations with fellow young artists like drummer Sina.

Growing up between Bengaluru and Mauguio in the south of France (his father Sanjeev is from India and his mother Claire is French), Rao is currently studying in the International Baccalaureate system, loving music as much as he does physics. Unlike most teens, he wasn’t really exposed to social media until last year. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, the focus shifted from being a touring, professional musician to forming networks with artists around the world via platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. With both accounts now launched, Rao is seeing the difference in approach. “Since I haven’t been controllably exposed to social media, I kind of have to understand how this works and try and use it to our advantage to hit a broader class of people. I think where I’m at right now, what I’m trying to work on is collaborations, with the simple aim of bridging geographies, genres and generations,” he says.

Rao is something of a living, breathing bridge between geographies, genres and generations already. In the house he lived in, he had his grandmother – Vidushi Lalith J. Rao, a veteran Hindustani classical vocalist – taking classes and practicing on the floor above and his grand aunt on the ground floor, playing Kannada and Hindi songs. “And on the first floor where I lived, there would always be Iron Maiden and Metallica blasting all the time. It was really funny to see completely different styles of music going on,” Rao recounts.  

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When it came to picking up the guitar and getting good at it, Bengaluru guitarist Tony Das (from prog band Bhoomi, multilingual pop-rock band Peepal Tree and Thermal And A Quarter) gets heaps of praise from Rao for being a mentor. There’s also composer Sandeep Chowta, which Rao counts as a “life changing” meeting. The young artist has years of learning and guitar mastery, but he’s clear that there’s always lot more to come. “I think one needs to establish a very strong base. I’ll never be done establishing this base. I’ll add to it and construct upon it, add vocabulary and theory to it. Right now, I may not understand its importance and I’m aware of that, but I hope that in the long term it is eventually going to connect with other information on music in my head. It’s going to make sense at some point. I just need to be patient and think of it more in the long term than in the short term,” Rao says.

Genre-wise, Pink Floyd is the ultimate favorite and formative influence for Rao (something he credits to his parents’ music listening habits), but there’s also guitar greats like Slash and Jimmy Page, prog band Dream Theater, plus newer mind-bending acts such as Animals As Leaders, Polyphia and Unprocessed. The goal, as Rao mentions, is to broaden his musical vocabulary and understand the directions that prog bands are taking. “At the same time, I’m listening to more pop – Billboard Top 50, Top 100 hits and trying to see what works at this time but also mixing that with what I’m listening to with metal bands and stuff. I try and listen to as many things as I can,” he says.

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Geographically, he’s already toured Thailand, Greece and the U.K. with British singer Stuart Craig (known for his work with groups like Wolf Within) and also made some inroads into the U.S.. Craig tells Rolling Stone India that he first saw Rao at age 13 on stage in Greece. “When he [Rao] took it upon himself to musically direct my entire show at our first rehearsal, I knew I had something very special, beyond just talent,” Craig adds, praising Rao’s professional bent. German drummer Sina, who has featured Rao on her song “Storm” and a few covers, says, “We never met in person but watching him play, I can tell how serious Manou is about his music. I love it.”

For his part, Rao adds that his larger goal with music is to also build his own bridge between “the values of India and France, across genres.” The challenges of the digital age and the pandemic notwithstanding, Rao says, “It hasn’t always been easy but I think it’s going to bring out my unique personality in terms of music. That’s the priority right now.”  

Watch Rao’s collaboration “Storm” with Sina and Noah-Bendikt below. Subscribe to Manou’s YouTube channel here.

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