The human voice is an instrument: Artiste Varijashree Venugopal on the release of her debut album Vari

Varijashree Venugopal is releasing her debut album Vari on May 17. She talks about her collaboration with Michael League of Snarky Puppy fame and how the album shaped up...

Published - May 16, 2024 06:21 pm IST

Varijashree Venugopal

Varijashree Venugopal | Photo Credit: Daniil Strelnikov

“I have always been fascinated with the human voice and how it can be used as an instrument without the barriers of language or culture,” says Varijashree Venugopal.

The Bengaluru-based singer and flautist is between rehearsals before the live launch of her album Vari in Bengaluru on May 17, following its digital release on May 10.

“We are going to play the entire album live and have rearranged the entire set of songs for this scenario. Six of us will be playing these songs for the first time in India and we are beginning with Bangalore,” she says.

Harking back to her musical journey, Varijashree says listening to artistes such as Bobby McFerrin and others in the jazz fraternity piqued her curiosity about all the things that are possible with the human voice.

“I started experimenting with scat singing in jazz and how it could be applied in my musical context. The improvisational elements in these styles that brings these two worlds together, struck a chord in me as a vocalist. Over the years, I have met with musicians from different countries, trying to learn their genres such as a Brazilian choro or bossa nova or the samba, and sing it using the Indian sargam-swara system. There are so many things that are similar mathematically and improvisationally among these forms of music.”

Varijashree Venugopal

Varijashree Venugopal | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“That is how, as a vocalist, I can use my voice as a medium; I can use it to express without using lyrics. That is when the voice plays the role of an instrument such as a trumpet, violin or trombone.”

A valued musical friendship

Michael League of Snarky Puppy has collaborated with Varijashree on this album. “Michael is my music producer as well as the band director; he worked out all arrangements so we can all play as a six-member band in a way that is close to the original energy and impact of our sound.”

The artiste says these vocal-music driven composition are part of her first original music album, and she is grateful to Michael for his constant encouragement.

“Michael and I met about 10 years ago in New York, through a common circle of friends. At the time, I was exploring different forms of music, and was applying the techniques and fundamentals of Carnatic music to other genres such as jazz, Brazilian and other styles of music. Michael had come across some of my work through his musician friends, and when we met, we hit it off — we had so many things to share and discuss.”

Varijashree Venugopal and Michael League

Varijashree Venugopal and Michael League | Photo Credit: BRIAN FRIEDMAN

“I’ve always had an idea of coming out with a full length original music album someday, which technically seemed quite difficult for the longest time. Though I’ve released a few original singles in the past 10-12 years, an album still seemed a far away dream. But Michael pushed me into believing in this idea.”

Varijashree says Michael comes from a Western perspective, training and practice of music. “He travelled halfway to get the best out of this world and I travelled halfway to understand harmony and how to implement it in the style I practice.”

Vari is the journey of my learning — from where I come from, to where I have arrived musically as a student. It has been put into a capsule in this album.”

About the album

Seven years in the making, the album has strong roots in Indian music, says Varijashree, adding, “It might not be traditional Carnatic music, but if you listen to it, you will understand that this person has a background in this genre. Fundamentally, it reflects my soul’s connection to music — this is where I come from.”

“All these elements will stay with me forever. Wherever I go and whatever I sing it is my mother tongue in a way of speaking, and that has come across quite strongly in this album.”

Cover of Varijashree Venugopal’s album Vari

Cover of Varijashree Venugopal’s album Vari | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

As the daughter of accomplished musicians HS Venugopal and TV Rama whom she calls her, “first gurus” Varijashree says 90% of the music on the album comes from Indian instruments such as the nadaswaram and thavil from temples, dollu and tamate from folk songs, the mridangam, sarangi and shehnai and tabla from classical music and a Carnatic violin section which is a relatively new concept.

“You might have heard Carnatic renditions as a solo entity or at the most as a duet. But here we have three violinists and we stacked their sounds for the album so it sounds like a huge violin section, playing Carnatic melodies.”

Varijashree says the harmonies have been crafted with voices, another unusual concept in Indian classical music which is largely melody oriented.

“About 80% of the album’s lyrical content is original compositions, while two are traditional or saint poetry by Purandara Dasa that have been arranged into modern soundscape. I have also set a new tune to one of Purandara Dasa’s poems,” she says, adding that apart from one song in which she collaborated with another lyricist, all the songs are in Kannada.

“Then, there is one English song which is also a first for me because I don’t usually sing in that language. This has been a new experience for me — writing lyrics and songs. Kannada is a language I think in, it’s the most comfortable language for me to express myself musically.

Having said that, Varijashree admits that language actually doesn’t matter, “as long as we are able to communicate the emotional quotient of the music, but it just becomes extra special when it’s in Kannada since it is the language I think in.”

“The concept of chords and chordal accompaniment for a melody using the voice was something I hadn’t trained in. Here too, Michael encouraged me into writing my own chords — a lot of musical learning has happened for me throughout this project.”

Varijashree is part of the fusion band Chakrafonics; fellow band member and percussionist Pramath Kiran is the co-producer of Vari. “He has produced most of the rhythms on this project. It is full of Indian sounds — the ingredients are from here, but the kind of output that we are trying to achieve is global in context. It is a completely different palate of sounds.”

Pramath Kiran

Pramath Kiran | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Another band member Praveen Rao has played the harmonium for Vari, she says, adding, that she is thrilled that a few of her music idols such as Victor Wooten, Anat Cohen, Hamilton de Holanda and Bela Fleck are a part of the album, as well as Rajhesh Vaidhya, Ojas Adhiya and BC Manjunath.

“It is a dream come true for me as my work with these musicians was totally unexpected. Most of the time we connected after they watched a video of mine on social media. These are people I have admired for so long and to have them contribute their musical experience and artistry to my album is a dreamy reality for me.”

As an original music creator coming from a traditional background the process has been amazing, says Varijashree. “We performed this music for the first time at the Groundup Music Festival in Miami this February. The audience there had no clue about where this music was from, yet, they were all so open hearted which boosted me no end.”

Other artistes who will be performing with Varijashree in Bengaluru include Vivek Santosh on the keys, Jayachandra Rao on the mridangam and violinist Apoorva Krishna. Following this they will perform in Mumbai on May 18 at NMACC.

Vari is out on all streaming platforms. Varijashree Venugopal will perform at Chowdiah Memorial Hall on May 17 at 7pm. Tickets starting from ₹499 on Insider

Varijashree Venugopal

Varijashree Venugopal | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Varijashree Venugopal

Varijashree Venugopal | Photo Credit: BRIAN FRIEDMAN

Varijashree Venugopal and Michael League

Varijashree Venugopal and Michael League | Photo Credit: BRIAN FRIEDMAN

 Jayachandra Rao

 Jayachandra Rao | Photo Credit: RAVI POTHUKUCHY

Vivek Santhosh

Vivek Santhosh | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Apoorva Krishna

Apoorva Krishna | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

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