Interview: Thierry Gregoire & Ghulam Ali

Posted on September 19, 2004


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Not if you scratch beneath the surface. Baradwaj Rangan speaks to Ghulam Ali and Thierry Gregoire.

SEPT 19, 2004 – TWO UNIQUE MUSICIANS – ONE ASIAN, ONE EUROPEAN – make their way to Chennai, and, on the surface, they are so dissimilar, they seem to have been picked up at the airport by drivers holding up the name-cards Janab Chalk and Monsieur Cheese.

Ghulam Ali is, of course, the ghazal maestro from Pakistan, and even if you think a ghazal is something you do with a cola bottle in the summer, you’ve probably heard the singer’s work – the usual suspects like Chupke Chupke Raat Din (used in the film Nikaah), Dil Mein Ek Lehar Si Uthi Hai Abhi, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, or one of the innumerable versions of Patta Patta Boota Boota. (Yes, the one that Rafi and Lata also sang, in Ek Nazar.)

Thierry Grégoire, on the other hand, is a French countertenor – and, no, that’s apparently not the guy sitting next to counter No. 9 at a Paris railway station. To figure out what he is, we need help from the man himself, who says, “The countertenor is a voice that was used in the classical music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mainly in the works of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel and early Mozart. It’s a combination of the sound that’s produced in the head region (for the higher notes) and the chest area (for the lower notes).”

The Ghulam Ali-Thierry Grégoire differences don’t end there.

Ghulam Ali meets the press dressed like the indistinguishable uncle next door, while Grégoire, in his embroidered white shirt and scarlet sneakers (yes, such a thing exists), appears to be making some sort of fashion statement, more counterculture than countertenor.

Ghulam Ali’s first words to the Chennai press are, “Mujhe ummeed hai ki aap meri yeh zubaan samajh sakte hain,” meaning that he hopes we can understand what he’s saying. After a nervous look around to check if there are any DMK volunteers in the vicinity, we say yes, and the rest of the session continues in Hindi/Urdu. Grégoire, though, talks in the sort of charmingly accented English you can hear only from the French – the sort of musical speech that makes every utterance seem the most pleasant thing you’ve heard, even the confession that he unwinds with tapes of Robbie Williams and Madonna.

Ghulam Ali’s father was a vocalist and sarangi player who instilled an early love for music in his son – it’s no surprise that the boy took to a bandish rather than biology, or chose a khayal over chemistry. Grégoire, however, stuns you by claiming, “I was 17 when I began musical training. Before that, I didn’t know anything about music. My parents didn’t listen to music, and it was only at college, when a teacher took the class to see the opera, I realised I wanted to do this.”

When Ghulam Ali is asked why his music is no longer found in our cinema, he laughs (presumably to conceal his shudder at the thought) and says, “Aaj kal jo gaane aa rahe hain, usme main nahin aana chahta,” which is essentially a very polite way of saying that wild horses couldn’t drag him to a Mumbai recording studio. The obligingly contradictory Grégoire says he’s open to singing in Bollywood: “I would if I could, but I don’t know if my head voice can do this kind of music.”

Even the locations these two artistes perform at couldn’t be more dissimilar. While Ghulam Ali entertains fans at a well-known city auditorium, Grégoire’s concert takes place at Luz Church, chosen because it was built in the early sixteenth century, thus complementing the Handel cantata being sung by the countertenor.

But forget the surface and look deep down, and the two aren’t all that unalike. They’re both performing in a city that rarely gets to hear the kind of music they specialise in. Each of them is carrying forth an artistic tradition your average Gen Y-er probably sees as being elitist rather than entertaining – and for this, both have been richly honoured. Most importantly, Ghulam Ali and Thierry Grégoire do not depend on language to get their music across. As the latter puts it, “A journalist in Chandigarh [where one of his performances was held] wrote that I broke the language barrier. I was so proud of this. Of course, I’m singing words, but more than the words, it’s the feelings and emotions that are important and are more understood.” And that’s how a city mostly of Tamils ends up being enthralled by Urdu poetry and Italian recitatives.

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