Music Malayali girls in a rock band? Common, you say, but not in the eighties. Rose Johnny and Sarina Sunny began it all, says Shilpa Nair Anand
T here is nothing about Rose Johny or Sarina Sunny that hints at the fact that the sisters are/were probably the first Malayali female crooners in a rock band. We are not talking college bands, we are talking professional rock bands, 13 AD to be precise.
It was not too distant a past, the late 80s or the very early 90s in Vimala College, Thrissur. The two sisters along with other college-mates formed a music band to represent their college for inter-collegiate competitions. Says Sarina Sunny, the younger of the sisters, “We sang a lot, there was so much music in our house when we were growing up. We would listen to so much of it at home, our father encouraged us and in college we carried it forward. Rose played the guitar and I was the singer, and a couple of others so that we could be counted as a band.” They didn't limit themselves to any one particular genre or kind of English music, be it country, pop, rock, blues…they sang ‘em all and well.
They were raised in Mumbai and on a steady diet of English music, cassettes of which their father brought from Dubai where he was working. “Our house in Thrissur even had a room exclusively for us to practise,” says Sarina. She says that since Rose was the older of the two, she had the old sister's prerogative to take the important musical decisions.
Therefore when they heard that 13 A.D., sometime in 1991, was looking for female crooners, they leapt at the opportunity. Those were times when everybody who was active in the rock scene (which tended to concentrate around Kochi, more than any other place in Kerala) knew everybody. They had an audition of sorts, and they were in. The sedate life of college going girls changed, suddenly life meant rushing home after college on Fridays, changing and boarding the first bus to ‘Ernakulam'. Singing with the band, and rushing back home on Monday mornings, to college.
The intervening 20 years seem to vanish when Sarina goes on flashback mode. Her face lights up talking of those times. Rose and Sarina were with 13 AD for a year-and-a-half and provided the backing vocals for 13 AD's album ‘Tough on the Streets'. They travelled with the band on tours to elsewhere in the country, and sang. They sang covers of Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston etc. They, in fact, went a step further, they sang Led Zeppelin and Freddie Mercury numbers too. However when it came to the album, the ‘girls' provided the backing vocals. They wanted more and after a year-and-a-half with 13 AD, they moved out. Rose took the decision for the sisters to strike out on their own and strike out they did, and formed ‘Hometown' in their hometown.
Rose introspects, very matter-of-factly, about their time with 13 AD, “It was essentially a boy's band and probably there was a clash of ideas within the band about women singers. They would have had to find a slot to fit us into or for that matter any female crooner. Given that scenario at the time there was scope for us to provide only backing vocals.” She counts the experience with 13 AD one from which she has learnt a lot about performing.
They quit at a time when the going was really good for them as members of the band, but as singers they probably felt, and rightly so, underutilised. That one year plus with 13 AD gave them that ‘societal acceptance' too. “A feature about the two of us appeared in the newspaper and suddenly what we were doing became acceptable,” jokes Sarina.
Those were times when the perception was that ‘good girls' had no business being in the vicinity of rock bands/music, let alone perform and travel with them thereby making it a lifestyle of sorts. Those were days when societal pressure was big deal. If you are wondering who those two rather conservatively dressed girls with very heavy eye makeup are…they are Rose and Sarina.
And then, as the cliché goes, life happened. First Rose got married and then after a couple of years Sarina. Although music was always a part of their lives, other things took over. The passion remained. For Rose as an English teacher using music as a tool to teach children, she is the principal of Vimalagiri International School, Muvattupuzha. She sings and a couple of years back brought out a music album, ‘Neelanilave'. She performs with a band ‘Highway Haze' in Kochi.
Talking of music albums, Sarina is working on one of her own. Sarina works for an ad agency and has been busy with dubbing, jingles, doing voice-overs and of course singing. After the break, of sorts, she is taking hesitant steps (back) into performing. Recently she sang at a music festival held in the city. And she is glad she did and is extremely happy with how it turned out to be. She jams with local bands in Kochi and with ‘Nomads' in Thrissur too.
The joy that she derives from singing is unmistakable when she says that it doesn't matter where she sings, it may as well be a small gathering busy eating dinner at a wedding “there might at least be a couple of people listening to my music and absorbing it. I love music!” she says.
Ironically, 20 years down the line, in Kerala's powerful rock music culture which boasts of bands such as Avial and Motherjane and a whole array of musicians, very few (almost none) women rock.