A UAE-based band pays ode to Bollywood

A UAE-based band pays ode to Bollywood

How Rooh, a UAE-based band, is giving Bollywood chartbusters a unique twist, much to the delight of the industry itself

Once in a while, you might hear puritans mourning the loss of classical melody. Some are even outraged by vacuous lyrics that have replaced Hindustani poetry. And yet, Bollywood music has become an unstoppable force, an industry whose overwhelming popularity has stood the test of time. It is, in some ways, also a musical tradition that aspires to celebrate the cultural diversity in India – there is, often, something in it for everyone – puritans and non-puritans alike. No wonder then, for most Indians living at home, it has become a way of life. However, for those who live abroad, it is a passport to nostalgia. Realising the value of this very sentiment, 33-year-old musician Anupam Nair set out to create a space for a Bollywood band in the overcrowded and multifaceted music industry of the UAE. Four years and several challenges later, it would suffice to say that Nair and his band Rooh have not only managed to carve a niche for themselves, but have plunged into the very world their music originates from – Bollywood!

Why Bollywood music? “Why not?” asks Anupam, as we chat with him on the eve of the release of his new cover Haareya (Rooh’s take on the song from Meri Pyaari Bindu). “Four years ago, when we came together as a band, Bollywood music only meant DJs playing hit songs at parties or karaokes. We, as a band, never take the original as it is; we always add our own spin to it. Our music can range from an Arijit Singh number to a Kishore Kumar song.”

A quick look at the band’s reinterpretations of the Pyaar Humein Kis Mod Pe Le Aaya (from Satte Pe Satta) or Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s title track on YouTube lends considerable credibility to Anupam’s claim. Changing the notes and beats while retaining the essence of authentic compositions is, by no means, a small feat. Especially when one realises that these renditions come from a band where two members do not wholly understand Hindi. Drummer Hisham Ghanem is from Jordan while guitarist Kurt Rozario is Anglo-Indian (the other guitarist Mohsin Khan is a Pakistani and more conversant in Hindi). However, it’s not just the cultural backgrounds that are diverse, all four band members also come from different genres of music. “Hisham came from a jazz band, while Mohsin would listen only to qawwalis and Sufi music. Kurt came from a complete hard rock background, while I have always been influenced by desi music.” This cultural and musical diversity has also paved the way for some interesting creative moments for Rooh. “Initially, it used to be tough. We would have to explain songs to the others. However, once we did, it was great. After explaining what Lal Meri Pat (a Sufi song) actually stands for, Kurt was taken in by how spiritual it was.” On another occasion, it was the Jordanian band member Hisham, who, after hearing the original Pyaar Humein Kis Mod Pe Le Aaya, insisted on adding more Arabian beats to it. Looking back, Anupam admits, “It took us a lot of time to get in sync as a team.”

Once they did, new avenues began to open up, even as their biggest challenge was to simply convince the venues across the city that a Bollywood band could actually draw crowds. “We all had our respective day jobs, which is why our performances were limited. Back then, we couldn’t even come up with YouTube videos as often. Music Room (the popular live music venue in Bur Dubai) said no to us three times before they gave us a chance to perform on a Saturday. We were told, ‘Show us you can get us a crowd on a Saturday.’ We did just that. So, we created a market for ourselves from scratch. The fee we would get paid two years ago was between Dh2,000 and Dh3,000 – but today, that has changed.”

While the band once relied on opening concerts and other musical shows, a positive word of mouth helped them start a YouTube channel where they already have a million views and routinely release videos, an exercise the band may not have completely monetised, but has used effectively to create a market for themselves. “Recently, impressed by our mash-up of Befikre, the YashRaj team took the track from us and hosted it on their YouTube channel,” shares Anupam. “More than a process of monetisation, YouTube videos are a marketing tool for us. On YouTube, once you cross a million views is when you make $300-400. What social media does for us is that it helps us create a strong market, and we try to cater accordingly. If it’s an unplugged video, we keep it simple. Otherwise, each of our videos attempts to tell a visual story.”

The fruits of their labour seem to have paid off. Come September, Rooh, which takes its name from the Urdu word for soul, will be foraying into Bollywood, having composed and sung two songs for an upcoming film. Anupam, however, is reluctant to reveal any details as of now, though he does admit that it has come as a validation and somewhat justified his decision to quit a plum job as the senior human resources manager for Dubai Parks and Resorts to pursue his dream, full time.

Leaving everything to pursue your dream in your 20s is seen as an adventure. Doing so in your 30s translates as risk, and Anupam is not oblivious to this. “I realised that if I do not give this my everything now, I never will,” he says, adding that fellow band member Kurt too has opened a recording studio and is now working with companies to compose jingles.

With the big Bollywood leap and more shows coming up in the UAE as well as India, Anupam is hopeful the band will make its presence felt and touch many more roohs, on a much larger scale.

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