In the morning light that filters into the hotel lounge, he looks relaxed and totally at ease. As if he has all the time in the world. It is hard to imagine that just a few hours ago, he was on stage singing soulful ghazals to a sold-out crowd in Hayward for four straight hours. I ask him about the concert. Yes, it had been a great success, he says in his attractively pitched voice. The audience had not wanted the night to end. And yes, it was all a bit
disorienting. After all this was his 13th concert in as many days. New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, Calgary, Toronto—the cities, the hotel rooms, the faces, have all passed by in a triumphant blur but he is enjoying it tremendously. And there is more to come as he sings his way across the U.S. and Canada on his first North American tour in nearly 15 years.
Clearly, the years of struggling for a break, of being overlooked and underestimated are behind veteran singer Hariharan now. The ripples made by Colonial Cousins, the fusion mega hit album that catapulted him and Bombay-based singer Leslie Lewis to instant stardom, have not completely subsided. The duo won the 1996 U.S. Billboards Award and the MTV Indian Viewer’s Choice Award for this album. He has become a tremendously sought-after playback singer for Hindi and Tamil films ever since A.R. Rahman showcased his voice in the film Roja. And most importantly, he has earned himself a formidable reputation as a ghazal singer with a distinctive, personal style. Three of his ghazal albums, Gulfaam, Kash, and Hazir, have made it to the top.
A singer with an impeccable classical training to fall back on, Hariharan says he is “fearless” when it comes to experimentation. He has tried ad jingles and classical concerts and everything in between. Things have not always worked out but he “kept on going.” His energy is boundless and there are many projects in the works at the moment. On the current tour he recorded some local musicians in New Orleans and Toronto. They will be featured in his next international album due for release at the end of this year. There is also future collaboration in the works with some American artists and though he won’t give details, Hariharan says it will definitely be “the logical next step” in his musical journey.
The first step of that musical journey began at home in Bombay where Hariharan was born and brought up. How did a South Indian science and law graduate enter the world of music and end up making it his career? During our interview Hariharan answered this and many other questions with a mixture of earnestness and good humor.
Tell me a bit about your early music training.
I began training in Karnatik music under my mother. It was more than training, it was osmosis. Though my parents were both Karnatik singers, we listened to all kinds of music at home. We used to listen to Ustad Amir Khan, Ravi Shankar ji, and a lot of other great musicians. Studying with one’s mother you can’t do much … mummy hai akhir. Then one day I stumbled on a recording of Bhopal Todi in Naiki Kanada sung by Ghulam Mustafa Khan saab. And I was zapped. I told my mother I would like to learn music from him. At the age of 19 I became his shagird (student) and began learning khayals from him. Khan saab is from the Rampur—Sahaswan Gharana. In order to learn Hindustani style I had to unlearn some of the Karnatik style I had picked up. Everything is very different—the tonal quality etc. I stopped singing Karnatik for a while. Aur Khan saab se taleem hasil karne laga. Even today I go to him for guidance.
What got you started on your musical career?
I met a great human being, who I call my friend, philosopher, and guide. His name was Jaidev-ji and he gave me my first break in his film Gaman. Then a lot of things followed. I sang for Laxmikant Pyarelal, Usha Khanna, R.D. Burman and Shiv-Hari for the film Lamhe. I wouldn’t say they were great breaks but I kept going. When I began singing ghazals, it was Jaidev-ji who suggested that I learn Urdu to improve my pronunciation.
How did you get interested in singing ghazals?
In 1978 I met Mehdi Hassan saab. After hearing him I was very inspired to pursue the style of music called ghazal. It has everything. You can use your khayal, your classical innovations—it’s middle-of-the-road music. It’s got poetry, it’s got rhythm, and I thought it was great. It was funny … in 1980 I was like the Lone Ranger, this one South Indian guy singing ghazals, of all things! I enjoyed it though. Since 1980 I have made about 25 albums of ghazals.
How did you go about evolving your own style of singing?
I was definitely struggling to get an identity. I had my own voice, my own style, and people had to get used to it. It’s all a question of identification. The moment people remember your voice you are popular. If you think about Kishore Kumar you can hear his voice, can’t you? I struggled for 10-12 years. Nothing phenomenal happened. But I did reach some people and sometimes at my concerts they ask for compositions from my earlier days … makes me feel good. Throughout the ’80s I performed and soon had a niche audience.
I like music to communicate—to touch people who listen to it. They should feel it is personal. I like to converse through my music.
You “arrived” in the 1990s. What do you attribute this to?
In the ’90s I met A.R. Rahman who first called me to sing a jingle for Ponds or some such product. Then he asked me to record a song for an upcoming movie called Roja produced and directed by Mani Ratnam. In 1994 Bombay was released and the song I sang in it “Tu Hi Re” became a big hit. So it was as if Rahman exhibited my kind of voice and gave it a huge commercial perspective. At the same time three of my ghazal albums Gulfaam, Reflections, and Hazir (which I did with Zakir Hussain) became popular as well. In 1996 came Colonial Cousins with Leslie Lewis and that added to the profile. I started out with ghazals, went into films, and ended up with fusion.
How adventurous are you in your exploration of music? Are you afraid that people will see you as catering to the popular culture … selling out?
Oh, I am very adventurous. I have never played it safe. When we started up Colonial Cousins people got confused initially. They said “Man, what’s happening? Has Hariharan suddenly become Harry?” But they came around eventually and because I sing two or three different styles of music I don’t get boxed in any one category. All said and done, whether I am singing a ghazal, a Hindi song, or Tamil song, the soul is the same. It’s only the style and technique that changes.
What happened to the second Colonial Cousins albun? Why did it do so poorly?
I’ll tell you why. The brief was that it was being released internationally. So the whole production and way of thinking changed. It is technically a very good and evolved album compared to the first one but the difference was too much. You can say we changed too fast for our listeners. The third album Atma, which released last year, did well. The fourth one is in the works.
As a ghazal singer in the Indian tradition do you relate to the different types of music you have encountered here in the U.S.?
I definitely relate to jazz and blues. I call Kash my last album which was released one and half years ago … Urdu Blues. In fact this trip we recorded some musicians in New Orleans and Toronto and this is all going into my ghazal tracks for an album I will be releasing in November or December.
If you were able to do a collaborative album with any artist of your choice in this country who would that artist be?
Hmmm … probably a good artist. Stevie Wonder would do very well.
How do you feel about this trend towards the increasing globalization of music?
It is good on a broad spectrum because globalization is the order of the day. It creates new sounds, new influences. But among all this, doing all this, you’ve got to keep your roots pure, because that is why you’re there. Music has the smell of a country. It has the sound of a country. If you sit in Poland and listen to a thumri, you’re suddenly transported back to Delhi or Lucknow. I mean it is so powerful. That purity is what you want to maintain.
In world music there is good and bad music. Whatever the diversity is, there has to be unification when you do music. Even if there are two or three elements in one track, it has to stand for one kind of drone or sound or picture. Just by putting two things together you can’t call it fusion. The demarcations should not be seen. It has to be blended.
On the whole though, I’d say it’s a positive trend.
You have a worldwide audience for your music and several fan clubs on the Net. What do you bring to your fans?
I feel I am touching people and enriching their lives. Music should add value to people’s lives. Yesterday I met fans after the concert … one of them was just 4. His mother said he downloads and listens to all my songs. I was so touched. There are the odd fans that try to pursue you and make a nuisance of themselves, but over the years you learn how to handle it.
I also want to say that audiences everywhere have been terrific. I can feel their energy when I enter the hall. I’ve been lucky that eight concerts out of 10, people don’t want to leave the hall when the concert is over. It really moves me … I feel so fulfilled. It is a real, real, real high.
What advice would you give aspiring ghazal singers?
A good singer should always know what he is doing. Don’t say “pata nahin, hit ho gaya.” I always tell singers to learn and understand their music so that they have the language down fluently. Learn the basics, the grammar, or else you will be groping in the dark. When you do riyaz a lot of Indian-ness comes into the soul. There is an essence of culture in these old music traditions and when you touch it your soul is enlightened. And that is what your listener will hear when you sing.
You have it all. Where do you go from here?
I’m presently acting in a film in Tamil and Hindi. It is called Swayam and my co-star is Khushboo, a big name in the South. I’ve been getting other offers in films too. Maybe I’ll explore that a bit. Not that it is going to be my mainstay. The usual question I get these days is aap kya sangeet chod denge? And I say, bilkul nahin chodunga, kyon chodunga (Absolutely not, why should I?). But I’m having fun. I keep ticking when I do new things.
Hariharan’s concerts in California were organized by Shubhendu Banerjee of Harmoni Ventures.