As Benny Dayal conquers newer spaces with his music, he tells us it is organic partnerships that have taken him so far

Pointers to popularity matter to Benny Dayal. He keeps a close tab on them, for success yielded after some wooing. The morning after rocking the National Institute of Technology in Kozhikode to a two-hour live performance, one cannot blame Benny if he over-slept. When he appears, apology is profuse. The performance, though, has pleased him. “Mad” he says about the evening, the performance and the audience. A natural on stage, Benny has reasons to cheer on the playback front too. “My latest song ‘Locha-e-Ulfat’ from 2 States by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy was released on YouTube on March 13 and till last night (March 17) had recorded seven and a half lakh hits,” he says, the glint in his eyes getting sharper.

Is YouTube hit so important? “It is the medium of analysis today. I value it a lot,” says the singer who knows he is among the most heard and watched singers online in India. Benny puts that too to a number — “38 million views.” The year has so far kept up the tempo for the man who burst onto the stage with ‘Pappu Can’t Dance Saala’ (Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na) and sealed it with ‘Badtameez Dil’ (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani) last year. His ‘Besharmi ki Height’ (Main Tera Hero) and ‘Shake it Like Shammi’ (Hassee Toh Phasee) is still cracking up the dance floor.

But times were not always so. Though he dreamt music, opportunities were sparse. He took up jobs in Chennai and contemplated forgetting his dream. “I did think of giving up music. One has to keep things moving, can’t get stagnated,” he explains. But before he severed links, music won him back; that too with one of the biggest names in the business — A.R. Rahman.

Testing times

Looking back, Benny has a poetic view of the past. “I think God tested me till the penultimate point, wanted to see if I will jump and die or climb onto the next brick.” But when God relented, he opened the floodgates, for Benny grew to be Rahman’s trusted singer. He also sang for other music directors in Chennai. But the first song he recorded was for Deepak Dev, remembers Benny. “That was for Kilukkam Kilukilukkam.” But since then, Benny has not crooned much in Malayalam except for stray numbers in between — “Parannu Vanna Paingili” (Robinhood) and “Thillana Thillana” (Tejabhai and Family) among others. “Malayalam is one industry where I need to sing more. My contribution here has been quite low. But I have been away in Chennai and now Mumbai,” says Benny.

Musical influences

Though a non-resident Keralite all along, his links with Malayalam film music are strong, asserts Benny. “I would sit with musicians and start singing old Malayalam film songs like ‘Kalpanthakaalatholam’ from Soman’s film.” However, growing up in the Middle East, motley influences made his music. If Benny is comfortable with multiple genres, he credits his parents for it. “They let me listen to what I wanted. I heard everything; Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to Nirvana and A.R. Rahman, Ilayaraja and Raveendran to Baburaj,” he says. Formally, it was Carnatic. Benny declines to pin his training down to years, instead says, “I did learn for quite a bit, the years do not matter.” Once you get the technicalities right, music is part of your evolution, he says. “Music can churn a person’s personality; his conduct, character, everything.”

As a child what really got him hooked was dancing. It is now a handy skill as a live-wire performer on stage. “I loved performances as a child. For 13 years at school I never watched an annual day; I was always performing. But at school I was never known as a singer, rather a dancer,” he says. Benny quickly pitches in that he has lost weight, a remarkable 18 kilos, and is busy working out. The performances on stage might just get better.

When it comes to his film career, the name dear to him is Rahman’s. “If I am anything today it is because of Rahman. He is God’s miracle to me.” Benny came in as a chorus singer and his ability to sing in Arabic had him picked out of the choral team. What he treasures is the stage performances with Rahman. “When the world gets to see you, your responsibility as a performer rises. I watch those performances and realise I have to be that every time I am on stage.”

Benny is among the handful of singers who has successfully made the move from Chennai to Mumbai. Benny says he made it in Mumbai for he dared to make the first move. “I approached them for work,” he is candid. ‘Pappu Can’t Dance…’ had made his voice familiar in Mumbai and composers like Salim-Suleiman looked to tap the other possibilities of his voice. “They looked into what else I could do. They liked my R&B skills. Pritam tried something else with ‘Daaru Desi’ (Cocktail). My idea of music is collabortation. As Salim-Suleiman says music is all about people.”

If films and live performances are already splitting Benny’s time, of late there is a new claimant to it — his band Funktuation. A motley crowd with his long-time friends and musicians he picked up from competitions, Funktuation is where Benny, the singer, lets himself go. “We formed in 2011. There would be material I want to improvise on. A sound may not be over and one realises it can be a journey into a concert.” His improvisations and shows on music channels have invited appreciation, says Benny. “The improvisations done to ‘Badtameez Dil’ and even ‘Omanapenne’ won a lot of appreciation,” he adds. Benny and the band hope to cut an album soon. “The band keeps me grounded. I might be the artist, but when people praise my bass player, drummer or percussionist, that gives me the greatest joy. All of us have R&B, Blues, Jazz, Latin, Rock or Gospel background”