Aditi Ramesh and her Sambar Soul

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 25, 2020

Joyous voice: Aditi Ramesh is one of the most popular faces in the indie music scene   -  IMAGES COURTESY: ADITI RAMESH

The Mumbai based Singer-songwriter on living beyond a label, blending genres and what it takes to find one’s voice

* Her foot-tapping, scat singing of alapanas and Carnatic kritis such as the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition Swaminatha Paripalaya meld seamlessly with blues, jazz, soul and R&B, making Aditi Ramesh one of the most promising musicians in the indie music circuit.

Ask Aditi Ramesh how George Gershwin’s classic jazz number Summertime can be sung in Carnatic swaras, and she instantly shows you how, in perfect notes, making the song her very own. But then again, it’s been five years since she quit a law career in Mumbai to focus purely on music. The 30-year-old singer-songwriter of EP albums Autocorrect (2017) and Leftovers (2019) pays tribute to her Carnatic music roots even as she serenades everyday experiences such as negotiating life in a busy city or bristling about being of a “marriageable age”. Her foot-tapping, scat singing of alapanas and Carnatic kritis such as the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition Swaminatha Paripalaya meld seamlessly with blues, jazz, soul and R&B, making Ramesh one of the most promising musicians in the indie music circuit.

Women power: The band Ladies Compartment consists of four female musicians


Ramesh is a part of several bands, including Ladies Compartment and Voctronica, and has performed at several prominent gigs abroad and in India, including Mood Indigo at IIT-Bombay and NH7 Weekender, Pune.

In her latest single Sambar Soul, released last month and devoid of her usual Carnatic embellishments, Ramesh cheekily sings: “This song is in the key of sambar soul/ It’s a vegetarian key I’m told.” In a telephone interview with BLink, the Mumbai-based musician talks about what it takes to make music with no labels.

Your recent single Sambar Soul is largely about how everyone is trying to fit you into a box. Why did you name it Sambar Soul and why have you consciously steered away from any Carnatic influences in it?

When I set out to make music I didn’t set out thinking I was going to make jazz plus Carnatic my (signature) sound. It’s always been about experimentation. Yet, you can’t escape people always asking you to describe the sound of your music. I do like jazz and Carnatic but I like a lot more than that. The style can’t be forced. Sometimes the fusion calls for it, sometimes it doesn’t. This song didn’t need it.

In the song, I wanted to speak about why we are afraid to do things differently, to have original thoughts and ideas. We have societal definitions of beauty, happiness, success and, if we don’t conform to these, we start doubting ourselves. I’d like to do my music with no labels. We should all live our life without having to worry about what people will think about it.

About the song title, basically I did a live-stream gig in April. I generally get asked what genre my music is. I usually just like to say whatever my music makes you feel, that’s my genre. At that point, someone just wrote ‘Sambar Soul’. And I loved it. I thought that’s what I’m going to tell anybody who asks me what my genre of music is. I knew then that I was going to write a song called Sambar Soul. It’s a title that speaks about the rootedness in my upbringing, tradition and soul music. And there’s an animated music video for it coming up in December.

You learnt Carnatic vocals as a child and then you went on to learning Western classical on the piano. How did these and other influences shape your music?

I grew up in Bangalore. When I was seven years old, my dad gave me a cassette which he had recorded from the radio in his college days. It had Pink Floyd, ABBA and The Beatles...

In school I was into ’60s and ’70s rock, folk, psychedelic — Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and more. In college — NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad — thanks to seniors, I went back earlier in time and started listening to the blues from the ’40s — Muddy Waters, Etta James, Little Walter, Howling Wolf, BB King and even earlier to Robert Johnson. It was the time when one guy would just sing and play the guitar and it would sound full, without a band.

I also listened to reggae, funk, world music. I used to just sit in my room and listen to discographies and that really formulated my taste in music. I sang once a year for my college fest, something I looked forward to all year. It was the one time in a year I got to sing on a stage.

Jazz came to me much later... after I moved to Mumbai in 2014, where I worked for a law firm. I started going to these jazz jams near my office at Cafe Zuhi, where they would have a house band and anybody could go up and jam with them. I loved that concept. The first time I went up, I sang Summertime and Fly me to the moon. It was very intuitive. I loved it. That’s when I started listening to Billie Holiday, Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and more. We had a lawyer band for a while, which was exciting, but it was more timepass.

When did you first try to meld Carnatic with jazz? And what was your first proper performance like?

After I quit law in 2016, I took up a day job. And then Ladies Compartment just came together informally. It was me, Nandita V, who is still the bassist, and Kristen Marea, a violinist from the US who was in India for some time. We became a proper band and went on to play at gigs like NH7 Weekender.

So, I was sitting down to write a song for Ladies Compartment. While playing some notes on my keyboard (for a western song) I started thinking these notes sound like a raaga. That made me think the building blocks are the same, it’s just that the way the notes flow into each other are different. In fusion music, a term I find limiting, there is an Indian part and a western part, but it isn’t really fused. So I played this arpeggio and thought it would be cool if I just flowed from one to the other in such a way that even I don’t know when that starts to happen. What is music if not for a culmination of our inspirations and influences? Your sound is a culmination of those influences. In theory, any two genres can be blended together.

My first proper performance was in July 2017, at Razzberry Rhinoceros, an outdoor venue in Juhu, Mumbai, which is right by the sea. It was hot and my set was at 4 pm. It was the first time I wore a sari on stage and then continued to make it a point to wear some Indian ethnic element for my gigs. I was nervous, super-sweaty (laughs) and my fingers felt sticky on the keyboards. It took me a few songs to warm up and get in the flow. It was a really supportive crowd, that had a lot of my friends. That time of the day, a sundowner set where you can see the sky change colours, has remained my favourite time to do an outdoor set. I feel like that mood goes with my music. By the end of that performance, I remember, it felt like this is what I’m meant to be doing. It felt just right.

Have you ever been through an identity crisis, with so many cultural and musical influences?

When you make music like mine, there’s always someone who’s not happy with it. Some Carnatic purist would say the arrangement of these notes are wrong or the aakarasare wrong, but it’s scat singing not aakaras, I want to say to them. Some very Western person won’t get my music for the classical elements in it. As your musical reach increases and you move beyond your small circle of supporters you get more of the negativity. I get all sorts of DMs. Should I not put Carnatic in it? Or should I do pure Carnatic to prove to people that I know my stuff and I’ve chosen to do it this way intentionally? Then I come to the conclusion that I’m not doing music to please people but I’m doing it to express myself and everyone is free to like or dislike it. So yes, it has messed with my head.

What keeps your music rooted? Would it be fair to say that at the core of it is some serious respect for Carnatic?

I guess you could say that. I definitely have serious respect for Carnatic music. Even when I teach music, I teach my Western music students notes in sa re ga ma because that’s the foundation. Of course, that doesn’t mean I conform to Carnatic purists.

So how would you teach a song like Summertime, sung by Ella Fitzgerald (among others)?

I teach both Carnatic and Western vocals. In both, I teach a bit of the other. Carnatic students learn Western music theory and how to read sheet music and the Western students have learnt some Carnatic exercises and how to identify Western notes in swaras. In our sa re ga ma... notes like re ga dha ni have a flat variant. Ma has a sharp variant. So Ella Fitzgerald’s Summertimee would be pa ga pa ma ga ma pa ga sa pa (sings). It has a flat ga.

There’s a big singer-songwriter boom in India. How hard is it for you to write lyrics, and does the tune often come before the lyrics?

I have a lot of things I want to say. I think about societal issues and everyday issues we all relate to. I think the idea comes first. Once I visualise the big picture then the lyrics flow quickly. Sometimes the music and the lyrics come simultaneously.

How do you keep your voice in tune?

The hard hours of practice I’ve done as a child have helped me keep my voice in tune. That does something to you. I still practise all the rudimentary basic exercises in the morning for at least an hour a day.

Full volume: Aditi Ramesh’s band Voctronica calls itself India’s first all-vocal ensemble


Has Covid-19 and the lockdown impacted your creativity? How do you stay in touch with your fans?

It’s been interesting. Ever since all travel stopped, it’s been a time of introspection. It’s made me go back and introspect why I do what I do. And to realise that I do it because it is cathartic, because it helps me express myself, not for some form of validation.

Of course, I miss playing at gigs. That was the way to keep in touch with fans and grow fans. In March and April I did a lot of live shows on social media. I started a series, ‘Songs from my room’, where I sing from my room and put up videos. That was fun. Tomorrow, I’m doing an interactive session with Apple for the launch of their Today at Apple series. It’s basically an informal conversation hosted by [artist-podcaster] Mae Mariyam Thomas with an intent to inspire people to go back and create their own music and art. It’s a free interactive on WebX.

Because there’s no scope for live music, many of us are teaching in exchange for smaller earnings. That itself is humbling. Going through a difficult time is generally good for growth and creativity.

Published on November 25, 2020

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor