Neither amateurs nor professionals, hotel musicians rarely get their due

Inside the almost dim-lit dining room of a city restaurant, the weekend crowd was in full attendance. The people, of varying ages, were lost in their tossed salads, chicken soups, and conversations. Trying to compete with the clatter of the forks and the spoons and the loud customers and painfully losing out was a group of musicians in the far corner of the room. Though they seemed to know that a part of the crowd was even oblivious to their presence, their faces did not convey any sense of disappointment. Rather, they continued having fun in their little group, keeping up the song’s tempo like clockwork.

They are musicians, sometimes more accomplished than the mainstream stars, but destined to be caught in an undefined space between amateurs and professionals. Strictly speaking, hotel musicians are professionals, for they earn their daily bread from music. But when someone takes a headcount of the musicians in the city, they usually do not find themselves listed.

Few serious listeners

In the earlier days, music performances in restaurants started as accompaniments to cabaret dances in various hotels and clubs in the city. The lack of attention to the music is thus historical. No one cared about the music as everyone was glued to the dance. The musicians used to play for many hours without any change in the beat, and the improvisation skills gained there helped some when they started their own bands.

Mohanachandran Nair is a veteran in the field. He has been singing ghazals at Hotel Luciya every evening for at least three hours for the past 22 years. When he started out, there was hardly anyone singing ghazals around here, and his group became a favourite with the North Indians who used to frequent the hotel.

“Yes, performing in a hotel is much different from a public performance or a concert, where it all goes according to your set list. In a hotel, not everyone comes to listen to your music. Some might be distracted. But at the same time, there are many who come back because they like the music. So, it goes both ways,” says Mr. Mohanachandran.

He says the job demands that one keep learning new songs so as to satisfy the demands of the customers.

“Our group usually sings old ghazals, Hindi, and Malayalam film songs. People still request old songs only. But we keep learning some new ones too. The best thing for me in this job is the opportunity to meet some famous personalities from the film, music, and literary world. Some of them got me chances to perform overseas too,” Mr. Mohanachandran says.

Music director Jassie Gift is someone who started his musical career as part of a band at Hotel South Park in the 1990s. He is one of the rare ones who managed to make the leap to a mainstream career.

“I was doing my M.Phil. at University College at that time, and in the evenings I used to perform at South Park. The band was called ‘Nine Hours.’ We used to perform mostly classic rock. But then, we had to be prepared with songs from every genre — the elder clients would ask for some country numbers and the younger ones would ask for the latest pop chartbuster. But the managers had asked us to not entertain requests for Malayalam songs as it would get too confusing for us,” he says.

Good experience

He says the experience of singing at the hotel helped him in his career as he could master a wide variety of genres.

“In hotels, the mood is much more relaxed, and so we could just improvise as the night wore on. We are also constantly updating ourselves with the latest song, and it is also a kind of marker of the current listening trends when people repeatedly ask for specific songs, such as Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ these days,” says Mr. Gift.

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