Chennai’s Octet Cantabile turns 25

Taking a break from his piano lessons at ProMusicals, Egmore, musician Augustine Paul reminisces about Octet Cantabile’s first concert in Dubai.

“Outside the airport, we saw this magnificent limousine, but the driver told us to maintain a distance. So we discreetly started clicking pictures of it. Then the limo moved towards us. The driver laughed and told us to get in. Turned out it was waiting for us!”

Twenty-five years of the octet giving over 300 concerts all around the world, and it’s these little things that Augustine remembers when looking back at the journey. On the eve of its 25th anniversary, the gospel harmony group comprising eight voices: Roshni Sharon and Maxyn Kingston as sopranos, Pearline Roopkumar and Jayanthi Prabhakar as altos, Augustine Paul and Emmanuel Prathap Singh as tenors, and Kingslin Ponbhabha and Billy John as the basses, will be performing at the Museum Theatre.

It was in 1994 that Augustine took his idea of an acapella group to long-time friend and fellow musician Billy John. “Madras was famous for having many choirs, but none of them was a mixed group — we were the first and the only ones to have an equal number of male and female voices,” says Augustine. This gave the group the advantage of covering a vocal range wider than most. The group harmonises gospel country, gospel rock, classical and contemporary, in Tamil, Malayalam and English.

Some changed...

In its 25 years, the octet has seen multiple members join and leave. While the bass and alto sections remained the same, Augustin’s original tenor partner was Prem Kumar Solomon, who was replaced by Samcy Philip, who in turn was replaced by the current member Emmanuel.

The sopranos in particular, have been ever-shifting. Originally anchored by Belinda Prem and Grace Ross, it also saw singers Nina Menezes and Anupa Paul, before current members Maxyn and Roshni. Each and every one of these musicians will be coming back to Chennai, to perform at the 25th anniversary concert.

“Billy and I identified them from various church choirs and the Madras Music Academy, and asked if they would like to join us,” says Augustine. “Back then, none of us was an established musician. But we did have lots of time to put in. We were like-minded in our approach of putting octet practice as our top priority.”

With individual careers and families, things have changed a bit now. Kingslin, who is in charge of coordinating the group practices, says, “Every Thursday, we have practice. And it’s very difficult to work around the schedules of eight people. But if even one member is missing, we won’t go ahead with the practice.” Augustine emphasises, “That has always been the case. I remember driving around for practice in a Fiat with eight of us stuffed inside.”

The eight of them would become so close that one could read the other’s mood 10 minutes into the weekly practice. So with every member that left, the group had to start afresh, to learn how to harmonise with the new partner, not just musically but also personality-wise.

The years brought in musical experimentation as well. “We started doing harmonies of keertanais as well, which is Carnatic, so it’s a bit unusual,” he says.

Some unchanged…

A few things have remained the same. One, their tailor: Masood. “We were always firm about wearing formal matching uniforms while singing, and Masood is always the designer. He travels with us to our concerts.”

The other major cornerstone has been their faith. The group’s focus has always been gospel, viewing music as something that brings them closer to God.

“I do believe that through all these years God has been watching over us,” he says, referring to all that the octet has seen, from Billy defeating liver cirrhosis, to Belinda and Prem finding their soulmates in each other, and getting married.

“Until today, every concert is followed by a performance at a church the next morning,” he says.

The Octet Cantabile’s concert is at Museum Theatre, Egmore, on July 13 and 14, 7 pm. Call 9444412149, for details.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 2:29:29 AM |

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