Music, a numbers game

Arjun Chandy on his tryst with NAFS, one of India’s first vocal groups, that started with a phone call from A. R. Rahman

August 20, 2015 03:44 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 04:23 pm IST - Chennai

Arjun Chandy  Photo: Special Arrangement

Arjun Chandy Photo: Special Arrangement

“Your voice is your instrument, so use it,” Arjun Chandy instructs his ten-member vocal group called NAFS, in a terrace-studio in Kodambakkam. The group is rehearsing ‘When the saints go marching in’ by Louis Armstrong and their version is bold, complex and nuanced. Chandy comes to greet me and I notice a sheet of paper with numbers on them. “Is that music or math?” I ask. “That’s how I write arrangements; music is a science too,” he offers.

Arjun Chandy is a singer, arranger, studio vocalist and vocal group coach from Dallas, Texas. This Indian-American is trained in Carnatic, Hindustani and Western music, which he has studied and performed for over 20 years throughout the U.S, India, and Singapore. “I come from a musical family; my grandmother was a Carnatic singer and taught music all her life. So I trained in Carnatic and Hindustani singing.” How did he shift from Indian music to Western? “I learned to read music and studied music theory when I was in my school chior. It was a great platform for me to understand western classical music. When I was 14, I started singing for a quartet in the school and we were singing a lot of The Beach Boys, The Temptations and Motown. This was when jazz came into my life.”

He started working professionally at the age of 15, conducting and arranging music for groups across the U.S. “I never really learned conducting, but I realised that how you wave your hand is a product of what you hear in real time and you are responding to what you hear; then it’s just a matter of how you make adjustments to the sound in real time.” He went on to become a crucial part of The Vocal Majority in the U.S., a national award-winning vocal group. Originally from Chennai, it was a call from A.R. Rahman that brought him here. “He wanted to put together a group and feels that it’s a good time to introduce this here because people are now exposed to such groups from the U.S. and Europe.”

They recently performed at the GIMA event in Mumbai. So why are there very few vocal groups in India?

“I think it’s largely a cultural thing; the basis of Indian music is Hindustani and Carnatic music, and its all melody based. Everything you hear now is a by-product of this, and over time, with the introduction of technology and influences from outside, this has expanded, but there is still scope for vocal-based groups to be formed. The U.S. and Europe have a large culture of choirs and there are many more music schools in the US that are promoting music through education. In India, there are only about four dedicated music schools,” says Chandy.

The members of NAFS were hand-picked from the K.M Music Conservatory and the music industry at large, after trials and auditions. Says Abhay Jodhpukar, an NAFS member, “When I joined the group, I was unaware of how choral singing works and how to sing as an ensemble. I struggled because it’s a group of just voices, so you have to make sure you do your part right and also keep track of what the others are singing to harmonise. Arjun has introduced us to styles of music that we would have otherwise not been exposed to. Every time we meet to practise, it is like being inducted into the world of western music.”

What makes a good vocal conductor? “You should be able to hear multiple harmonies; it is like being a human mixer. You have to listen for a faulty note and know instinctively how to put which voice where,” says Arjun. As he resumes class, he directs the voices that fill the studio. By nothing more than a sleight of hand and motion of his head, he tells each singer what to do.

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