Vocalist Gillian O’ Donovan sits on a chair with an instrument that resembles a UFO on her lap. What followed for the next half-an-hour was soulful music as Gillian spiced her performance with resonant beats from the steel instrument. The French musician was demonstrating the potential of Aciel Handpan. Gillian is a professional singer and teacher. Her musical interests range from Pop, Folk and Jazz to Carnatic.
Gillian and her husband, Jimmy James, were at Chetana College of Music and Dance, Thrissur recently. After the performance, Gillian related her musical journey. Excerpts:
A talented child
I am an information technologist. My parents spotted my passion for music as a child and at the age of 11, they presented me with a special Christmas gift – a set of music records of the Beatles. I listened to the group’s soul-stirring music with rapt attention and could identify the elements of harmony in the music. I was untrained in music but over the years I became interested in how the ‘voice’ worked. Thereafter my fascination was ‘voice’ and its peculiarities.
In the studios
I was invited to studios in London those days and sang in the styles demanded by the record producers, that too without any prior preparation. An amateur like me could not read the ‘staff notation’, therefore I memorised the scores and reproduced them spontaneously with improvisations. But I realised the necessity of the ability to read music and therefore got trained in Jazz piano. Jazz and Blues were the right choice as they suited my penchant for improvisation.
Travelling with music
My first tour was with the group ‘Eurhythmics’ to the United States. That was in the 1980s and for the first time I sang in big stadiums. The experience was most rewarding. This turned me into a true professional performer. But over the years, it dawned on me that teaching music was my métier. So I started classes at my residence. A self-trained vocalist, I give lessons against the backdrop of my experience after examining their theoretical validity. Also I choose only students with whom I can exchange ideas. I also work with La Citrouille, a national centre for pop music where I have group classes in vocal techniques and a choir called Soul Train where we sing the evergreen melodies of the 60s.
Association with hand pans
Jimmy is a sound engineer who has worked with celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Madonna and also in Olympic festivals including the one in London. He was instrumental in bringing me to the world of hand pans, also called Hang. Jimmy learnt about this idiophone through a video our son showed us. The first hand pan was invented in 2000 by Felix Roher, a steel drum tuner in response to a request by an Indian ghatam player who wanted a steel drum he could play with his hands. The Aciel Hand pan was the end product of the combined research by Jimmy and Michael Colley, a master hang player. Aciel is a combination of two French words, Acier meaning steel-made, and Ciel, the sky. So literally it means steel-sky. The instrument is hand-crafted.
Hand pans have gained much popularity throughout the world over the past decade. We have an annual festival in the United Kingdom where hand pan musicians across the world assemble for performance, interaction and for the learning of new techniques of playing.