Music: Tanya Wells, Much More Than a Ghazal Singer
A Caucasian woman is usually not what comes to mind when we think of a ghazal artist. This Anglo-Swiss singer, however, with her perfect Urdu diction and moving voice, can hold her own amongst the best of contemporary ghazal exponents. And yet, she is quick to point out, her music extends well beyond ghazals.
Storytelling infused with spirituality is the hallmark of Tanya Wells’ compositions, an eclectic blend of Western music with influences from around the world. In conversation with Khabar, Tanya talks about her band’s unique, experimental, continuously evolving brand of world music.
Aaj jaane ki zid na karo
Yun hi pehlu mein baithe raho
Aaj jaane ki zid na karo
Hai mar jaayenge, hum toh lut jaayenge
Aisi baatein kiya na karo
Aaj jaane ki zid na karo…
As the plaintive lyrics of this popular Farida Khanum ghazal waft across the concert hall, the largely South Asian audience is entranced, both by the song and its singer, London-born Tanya Wells. Her delicate features, framed by blonde hair cascading over a silk kurta are pure stage magic—but it’s her chaste Urdu and the emotion-laden voice that leave listeners spellbound and yearning for more.
But wait, there’s much more to this Anglo-Swiss singer than her arresting looks and that shockingly perfect Urdu accent. Her flexible vocal style has given her opportunities to perform with world-renowned artistes such as sitarist Anoushka Shankar (Cannes Film Festival 2014), soul singer Joss Stone (Mama Stones 2013), and Arabic vocalist Natacha Atlas (Ronnie Scotts 2016), as well as lay down vocals for award-winning film composers such as A. R. Rahman and Nitin Sawhney.
With a double Masters (with distinction) in International Performance Research, Tanya now embraces the praxis of bringing cultures together to tell stories through music. Seven Eyes, the band she co-founded with her husband, Brazilian guitarist Paulo Vinicius creates “world music,” inspired by a host of diverse cultural influences.
A childhood anchored in Indian classical arts
The secret of Tanya’s versatility and her complete ease with Eastern cultural traditions goes back to her childhood. Educated with her sisters at an international school in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), Tanya recalls that “It promoted this very healthy education, surrounded by some spiritual grounding. Every morning we would wake up and go to meditation. We would learn about the different religions. We would learn about the prophets, the different gurus from different religions. We were growing up in quite a spiritually integrated climate where we could appreciate many different religions including Christianity, and we would sing in praise of all of the Gods. So we were singing qawalis and singing in praise of Sri Krishna. It was all a normal day-to-day activity for us and something that I really grew to appreciate as an adult.”
Besides regular school subjects, there was Kuchipudi dance, bhajan singing, and listening to qawalis, a wide and happy exposure to Indian culture that Tanya imbibed in the organic way of young children.
The turning point came during her late teens, some years after she had returned to England, when these early experiences converged to become her life’s passion. A cousin’s recommendation took Tanya back to India, to Vaitarna, Thane district, near Mumbai for a brief course in Hindustani Classical Music and Music Therapy. “It just blew my world,” she reminisces. “It showed me how music is so interconnected to one’s own self. It was teaching me the subtleties of raag and chakras, how we can be subtly impacted by music. I was learning Sanskrit shlokas and classical bandish, and also getting some understanding of light classical music like thumri. I was hooked.”
(Right) The novelty of seeing a striking Caucasian woman singing ghazals soon gives way to the awe of her sheer talent for this art form—the perfect Urdu diction, the characteristic lilts and inflections of ghazals, and of course the soulful voice. (Photo: courtesy, Ahsan Saeed, Fiaz International Festival)
How ghazals came into her life
She returned to England to join Warwick University where she was majoring in the performing arts. But the desire to pursue Hindustani music burned strong. Tanya found a teacher in Leicester, Tofa H. Ahmed, who helped her continue her practice and pursue her passion for music. What started as a hobby grew into something deeper. “I would drive up and do my riyaz and then come back and just listen, listen, listen. It was with this listening that my awareness of different types of music [expanded]. Because with classical music, it’s all raag based which is absolutely wonderful, but I was also interested in the mixing of raags, and this is where ghazals come in. Because ghazals are considered light classical, so you can bring in a raag but then you can change its color by introducing a different raag.”
After graduating, Tanya headed back to India to study music under Pandit Prabhakar Dhakde of Nagpur whom she considers her guru. “He introduced me to ghazals, some of his own compositions. And that’s when I started listening to Mehdi Hasan saheb and Shobha Gurtu and many singers from the Indian subcontinent who sing this type of music. And that also was interesting to me, and I started listening to more…. it all comes with listening,” says Tanya.
A musical repertoire extending far beyond
While ghazals came to her naturally, Tanya is wary of being slotted as a ghazal singer. “I don’t want to be put in a box, no,” she says firmly. “I’m a singer, and the way that I approach my job as a singer is a bit like an actor. My job is to interpret and to tell the story, that’s my role. So, of course, if I’m singing a ghazal I need to tell the listener the story of the poetry. [But] I don’t necessarily consider myself a ghazal singer in that sense.”
As to what she likes to listen to, Tanya offers, “I like devotional music, and I like to hear real instruments. With Bollywood, I don’t listen to the current stuff. [It’s all] programmed beats, it’s getting really irritating. And since being married to Paolo, who is a classical guitarist, I have just tuned my ear away from programmed sounds. I really like the sound of live instruments, real instruments. The sound that you have of harmonium, tabla, dholak, sarangi, it’s incomparable to the sound of a keyboard, to programmed beats. So in that sense I really like traditional music.”
This brings us back to Seven Eyes, Paulo’s and her unique venture into world music. “In Seven Eyes we are trying to bridge the gap between the East and West. I’m a British person, but I’m influenced by the music from the Asian subcontinent,” she says. Paulo adds, “We compose new songs, original songs, with lots of influences of Indian raags and Indian style. Maybe the poetry of ghazals or the sentiment of Sufi songs—but in a Western structure of music. We try to do that in an organic way so that we can communicate to people in the West as well as in the East.”
Why the name Seven Eyes? “The name came quite spontaneously, and it stuck because we felt it rings true to what we feel. Seven Eyes obviously means multiplicity and having multiple perspectives. It also relates to the seven chakras. Then when we were researching the name, we found that the [British] poet William Blake had written about seven eyes as the seven angels. He illustrated the Book of Job, and these seven eyes represented the seven stages of Job’s journey towards God. It was like he had to take these seven steps towards his relationship with God. And that was also really a nice side note for us because music is a journey and for both of us, it is a spiritual journey. And so we’re Seven Eyes,” she elaborates.
(Left) Storytelling infused with spirituality is the hallmark of the world music of Tanya and her husband, Brazilian guitarist Paulo Vinicius.
Raag Pahadi and “Return” to Himachal roots
For Tanya and Paulo, music is more than just a skillful technical arrangement of all these varied influences. Every composition is “really about us telling a story and finding what tools we have to tell it.” To accomplish this, they must explore musical genres across the world. Their new album, Senses, is a case in point. Tanya’s enthusiasm is infectious as she talks about the album. “It’s basically stripped down to guitar and voice, but really bringing in these influences. We have one song, a duet with Ustad Shafqat Ali Khan with whom we recorded in Lahore. He is coming in with a beautiful thumri composed by his father. And then I’m singing in Raag Pahadi which is a mountain raag, about going back to Himachal, the place I grew up. And so we called the song “Return,” but it’s in Raag Pahadi and he is fusing the thumri and I am singing in English, expressing in Raag Pahadi the sentiments of returning home. That’s what we are interested in doing. It’s not only about drawing in a Brazilian beat, or an Indian raag just for the sake of it. It’s really about telling a story.”
Tanya recalls another fascinating collaboration, a folk song about Irish immigrants in America and the beautiful green island they left behind. “We were exploring that song with Lahori musicians. It was so easily translatable. They could identify with it, express everything that they’re comfortable with in Raag Pahadi and it worked really well.”
With her years of training in Hindustani music and impeccable ear for desi languages, speculation about a foray into Bollywood seems inevitable—would she be interested? “It depends on the material, because I wouldn’t just sign up just to be in a [Bollywood] film for the sake of it. I’d want to be able to offer something that I feel passionate about. I don’t know, I’m really on a journey with Seven Eyes, and I’m really excited about where we are going with our music. So I just want to stay true to our vision, and if Bollywood somehow in keeps with that vision, with what we’re trying to do, then I’d be interested. But just for the sake of being in a film, it’s not my goal,” says Tanya.
A multitasking and multifaceted artist
For this talented singer and songwriter, performances and composing her own music isn’t the end of her journey. She’s a born multitasker and a lover of all the arts. She has taken up a new assignment in Geneva, teaching performing arts to children. She also tutors young, aspiring singers one to one, as part of her deep interest in “voice culture.” She elaborates, “Some students want to learn how to sing a Whitney Houston song. So I’m teaching them breathing technique which is from the Western style of singing. But then, some students really want to learn Indian music so then I’m teaching them some techniques that I have learnt from teachers, teaching them sargam.”
Painting is another outlet for her creative spirit. “I studied Indian miniature painting. There are so many beautiful ornamented patterns that you see in Indian art.” Speaking more about her painting, she says she does commissioned work. “I’ve just done one recently on Shujaat Khan playing the sitar.”
And if that’s not enough, Tanya enjoys another creative activity—cooking! While she’s a dab hand at Indian basics like rice, dal and sabzis, Brazilian cooking is now a new space to explore.
A third generation progeny of the Delhi Gharana, Niraj Sharma is steeped in Indian classical music. Recently, he, along with other talented musicians from Atlanta, spearheaded the creation of rythmspace.com, a unique music collaborative comprised of songwriters, musicians, and vocalists from around the world with the goal of creating, collaborating, and sharing their music internationally, primarily through YouTube.
Jab They Met
Tanya’s own love story is as poetic and mystical as the songs she writes and sings. Paulo and she met at a festival of arts in Italy. Paulo, already an experienced musician, was immediately drawn to Tanya’s India-influenced style of music. It wasn’t long before they were composing a song together, aptly entitled “River,” since they were, indeed, sitting by a river.
“We felt that that moment, some magic thing came out, in the sense that we created organically, something new but very beautiful. And maybe four months later, we were in a big studio when we recorded our first album, within two weeks of rehearsal. It all kind of kicked off together the moment that we met actually. It all kicked off that weekend!” smiles Tanya.
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