Ageing, declining voice quality and changing trends in music mean less opportunities
The lights are peach, purple and just perfect, as are the curtains and hand towels, designed to match the ambience. The aroma of food wafts past, and it is only the clinking of glasses and cutlery, and the flipping of pages of a menu that break above the constant buzz of whispers.
Amid this, someone strums a guitar to harmonise with the tunes of the saxophone player, and in the background, the drum beats acquire tempo. The singer clears her throat, but is anybody taking notice of her presence?
“There are some who actually do,” says Yuliya Popova, an artist from Ukraine, who plays violin at Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers. “People here are more interested in European music,” she says, recounting the numerous times the audience has asked her to play ‘Lady in Red' and songs of Abba. “Anyway, we know that we are here just to accentuate the food and the ambience.”
But for the ones performing in smaller restaurants, the experience is very different. “The kind of music we play solely depends whether alcohol is served. When people drink, we get to sing songs that are a strict ‘no- no' at dinners and weddings. But on some such occasions, people get sentimental and insist on some old sad songs often unheard of. It gets embarrassing then,” says Nirmal Kumar, an artist who sings at restaurants and weddings.
“The worst is when a cricket match is on, or when people come to discuss only business, and you know no music would divert their attention,” says Jai Josh, a musician.
Noisy children, frustrated people in queues at buffets or a missing guitarist – all have to be dealt with – with the right kind of music. “When called as a band, the keyboard can suffice for many instruments. So depending on the pay we try to reduce a player or two if needed,” says Mr. Kumar with a grin.
Many smaller resto-bars insist their singers also engage with the audience, especially with foreign visitors and this can get quite uncomfortable, says S. Vaani, who sings at a jazz bar in Nungambakkam.
And since most big restaurants prefer to have mild, subtle music or solo guitarist or violinist playing, and insist on trained performers, not everybody gets to sing there. “Most of us look for opportunities to sing at marriage receptions and public functions. Ageing, declining voice quality and changing trends in musical entertainment means less opportunities,” says Ms.Vaani.
“There is usually a pattern for playing at restaurants. The pace of the music gradually picks up. Singing at marriage functions is easier, because you have an audience that keeps changing, and people always are happy with popular numbers. Ilayaraja's melodies would work most times,” says Mr. Nirmal Kumar.
In fact, the wedding season that ended recently has left many of these singers with strained throats. “Many restaurants, to prevent this, often employ musicians on contractual basis,” says Mr. Josh.
Most of these artists get around Rs.5,000 to Rs.1 lakh, depending on where and how they sing. But one artist does look back to a happier time. “Even up to ten years ago, restaurants preferred bands. It used to much more exciting, jamming together and presenting our versions of songs, unlike now where performing solo, or a thematic singing is encouraged,” says Ashley Thomson (50), who performs at Residency Towers.
After years of performing skits and cameos in live shows in various parts of the country, Mr Thomson now specialises in all forms of Western music, though a mix of retro and reggae is his strength, “The secret here is to never stop singing for yourself. Singing for others throughout may rob us of our style. Not getting lost is our biggest challenge.”