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Guitar Ace Adil Manuel: ‘Why Should I Confine Myself to a Shoebox?’

The seasoned guitarist looks back at two decades in music, new material with his band Adil Manuel Collective and more

David Britto May 10, 2019

Mumbai-based guitarist Adil Manuel. Photo: Babul Bhatt

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When we reach Mumbai’s Salt Water Café for a breakfast interview with guitarist Adil Manuel, he has already arrived, one coffee down and listening to the latest mix of his upcoming music on his tablet. He says with a smile, “Mornings is the only free time I get in a day.” We’re astonished that he even has free time considering the amount of projects Manuel finds himself in. From his own bands — the Adil Manuel Collective and Bombay Bandstand — to his involvement with collaborations, advertising work, programming shows for brands and festivals, being a TEDx speaker and more.

Amongst the many occasions in his 20-year career that he’s a man wanted in two places at the same time, Manuel recounts one such incident from 2012. He stood in for New Delhi alt rock band Them Clones’ guitarist Joseph Lalhmachhuana at Bacardi NH7 Weekender in 2012 in Pune, a day after jazz duo Adil & Vasundhara’s set at jazz festival Jazzmandu in Nepal. “I get a call [from Them Clones] in the evening between sound check and our gig asking if I was free tomorrow. They said, ‘Joseph is sick, we are playing NH7 Pune and are you free?’ I said, ‘I am free, I kind of know your material also but look I’m in Kathmandu. I have a gig right now. How do you get me down to Pune?”

Not one to lay low after a gig, the “party boy” in Manuel enjoyed some whiskey with keyboardist Ben Stivers (known for his work with Matchbox 20, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and the Bee Gees) before his redeye flight. “I’m like, ‘If I sleep now, I won’t get up.’” Them Clones frontman Prithwish Dev had Manuel’s guitar and pedals brought in for sound check, and meanwhile, Manuel decided to catch a few winks at his stopover in New Delhi before his Pune-bound flight. “At Delhi I went to the coffee shop outside the boarding gate and I told the guy to please wake me up.”

Manuel narrates further, “I’m in that a half here half not there kind of scene. There was someone waiting for me outside. I remember getting out and I’m rushed to the venue. I literally had enough time to plug in for a sound check – I think Fali [Damania] was doing sound – and we’re good to go. We’re literally fucking good to go.”  He adds, “We’re playing and I’m having a blast and I turn around and I see two or three white guys checking us out. And then it hits me when I turn around again, [Australian prog rockers] Karnivool were watching! That was fun, I got to meet them.”

First guitar, initial bands and Silk Route

Before rubbing shoulders with the likes of Karnivool, Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas (we’ll come to that), Manuel grew up in Varanasi in a household that was playing Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, the Doors, Wishbone Ash and Cream as well as British heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and even Eighties prog rock. “I was a toddler. There was a lot of music at home,” says Manuel.

Manuel, who wanted to be a drummer, was instead gifted a guitar in 1992 by his father while on a family vacation in Goa. After going to boarding school at St Joseph’s, Nainital, Manuel moved to Lucknow. “I would hang out with college bands and someone would show me like a [chord] shape and stuff and I picked up really quickly.” The guitarist recalls that his first live band performance was as a 13-year-old while he was living in Lucknow alongside guitarist Chris Hale from rock band Olio and the Rock Opera. “They were a really cool band,” he says. He even later joined a thrash metal band called Asphyxia. While being primarily self-taught, Manuel did want to pursue music further at either Boston’s Berklee College of Music or Los Angeles’ Musicians Institute. “I could never afford it, it was extremely expensive. It didn’t get me down; it just made me hungrier I think,” he says.

(From top left) Adil Manuel circa 2002, with American pianist Herbie Hancock and as part of the crew at Great Indian Rock in 2003 with American musician Shawn Lee. Photos: Courtesy of Adil Manuel

By 2000, Manuel had moved to New Delhi to pursue a Bachelor of Arts via correspondence and began gigging in full swing. He went on to play guitar for everyone from pop outfits and hotel groups to fusion with Hindustani Classical artists. He says as he chomps on his akuri, “That was like a killer phase.” In 2003, Manuel received a call from New Delhi rock band Parikrama’s keyboardist Subir Malik to audition for folk-rock outfit Silk Route who at the time were part of Malik’s artist management agency Parikrama Inc. “That was one of my longest session gigs. I was with them for like five years constantly till they disbanded. And that really opened my mind up because they were like a wonderful bunch of guys. I learned a lot with them. I toured a lot. I got to see a pro side of how things work, like a pro band as opposed to a college band,” the guitarist says.

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The Adil & Vasundhara years

Adil & Vasundhara. Photo: Shiv Ahuja

Before we get talking about the project that according to him “was a high point musically,” I jog Manuel’s memory back to 2012 when I first discovered Adil & Vasundhara on music documentary and travelogue series The Dewarists. That particular episode featured the jazz duo, Bengaluru rockers Thermal and a Quarter (TAAQ) and flautist Ashwin Srinivasan together, churning out the alt-funk and bluesy “Make Love” for the show. “That was great fun – it was an odd time signature song. Bruce [Lee Mani, guitarist-vocalist, TAAQ] and I just got into it – got the riff down and Vasu wrote the lyrics. Ashwin just slammed it with his flute parts and spoken word section. That was a great memory.”

Funnily enough, Adil & Vasundhara was born out of an enquiry for a corporate gig in 2009, which called for an R&B/jazz band. Manuel managed to put a group together but was still missing a vocalist. “The bassist said he knew this girl so I was expecting some mama walking in. I hadn’t heard anyone sing blues or jazz and then we [Vasundhara Vee] met. And we just got along.” Within the next few days of that first rehearsal, Adil & Vasundhara (A&V) was formed. “It was a great connect. A lot of times it’s very hard to express your musical ideas to a band enough for them to execute it the way you want it in your head. You’re hearing something else and most times, you’re just flicking ideas here and there. Plus, if you have a revolving lineup, it’s very hard to have a consistent song, tone or whatever. And that was the biggest connect [with Vee].” The pair went on to release a self-titled EP in 2010 and their full length, Ampersand, in 2013. Although the duo called it quits to focus on solo projects in 2014, Vee joined in on a couple of songs with Manuel’s ensemble Bombay Bandstand at a gig at Mumbai’s Flea Bazaar Café last year. I ask about if they’ll ever bring the duo back and the guitarist says, “Life is a funny strange thing so you never know what will happen.”

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Move to Mumbai and the Adil Manuel Collective

Manuel moved to Mumbai in 2015 and has now made the city his home. It wasn’t long till he started his newest project, the Adil Manuel Collective. “I wanted people to groove, I think that was the starting point. How do I do that? What elements do I need?” he says. Ask Manuel if he ever imagined how big the Collective would be in terms of the musicians in the band and the scale of shows they are playing and he says, “No I hadn’t, but I’ve been a huge fan of large ensembles. In particular, bands like Earth, Wind & Fire; massive bands that have a horn section, backing vocalists and when a gig would come up I’d try and recreate that with four or five members but it doesn’t happen, man.” He adds, “I need some more singers, I need backing vocalists, I need a percussionist, I need another keyboardist and so four became six, it became eight, then it became 10 and more. It’s a large undertaking, it’s a pain but it’s really rewarding.”

The Adil Manuel Collective performing at Mumbai’s Flea Bazaar Cafe and at the now shut antiSOCIAL (below). Photos: Sanjeev Asher; Kaushik Thanekar; Neil Valles

The Adil Manuel Collective recently put on a stellar show at this year’s International Jazz Day gig at Mumbai’s Flea Bazaar Café on April 30th, the seventh jazz day gig curated by Manuel independently. “The first three gigs, I was pulling my hair out,” he says jokingly. The undertaking was put in motion by Manuel’s manager Rishi Raj Ravi, who locked in availability of musicians and dates for rehearsals. Helming the setlist and arrangement, Manuel looked up all the sheet music online for songs he’d picked. The Collective comprises young musicians such as bassist Yohann Coutinho, drummer Linford D’souza (from neo-soul band Smalltalk), keyboardist Rahul Wadhwani, trumpeter James Miranda, vocalist Samantha Fernandes and more.

Does he feel like a mentor now? Manuel says he gained a lot from his previous bands to always remember to lead by example. He says, “I love doing this and showing them how to make it work — band ethics, advice, how to handle payments, terms and conditions. And I keep telling them, for what we do, skill is one thing but the gig comes after a long chain. What comes between it is the grey area where we can […] become clearer, get better and [do] things like management, PR and branding.” He adds with a laugh, “I love it, man. After every gig, I love to have a hang. I’m the band hang guy.”

The Adil Manuel Collective with Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas. Photo: Courtesy of Adil Manuel

Earlier this year, the Adil Manuel Collective — joined by a string quartet — played two sets at the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur for actress Priyanka Chopra and American musician Nick Jonas’ cocktail party and wedding reception. “I set up the playlist so it was mainly Seventies funk and they loved it, man. We got to meet them and this was super chilled,” he says.

The musician jokes that in another 20 years, he’ll hopefully have enough anecdotes to write a book. For now though, Manuel is looking forward to releasing Adil Manuel Collective’s debut single “Time Turn,” featuring Mumbai vocalist Azamaan Hoyvoy and hip-hop artist Shah Rule. Also in the works is the group’s debut album, which is currently being tracked at Mumbai’s Island City Studios. The record is set to feature instrumental tracks, a Latin-based tune, pop songs and even a Gospel song. “I want everything to be as organic and natural as possible,” says Manuel. Until then, it’s more rounds of gigs and session work. The eggs are cold and soggy, but Manuel is eating his akuri with excitement still. He says, “Each year, it gets bigger and better.”  

Watch the Adil Manuel Collective performing below:


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