Shruti Ramani isn’t your usual jazz singer. After all, no other Vancouver jazz performer has a degree in Hindustani classical music from the Agra Gharana in India.
Moreover, no other local vocalist has sung in a jazz group created by famed Indian songwriter and Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, a.k.a. the “Mozart of Madras”. (However, Krystal Kiran toured with Rahman when he played his Bollywood hits.)
“I did meet him,” Ramani tells Pancouver over Zoom. “He put together this eight-piece vocal band named NAFS. I was the alto.”
She became the youngest member of NAFS after replacing Shakthisree Gopalan, who went on to become a high-profile South Indian singer. At Rahman’s conservatory in Chennai, Ramani learned the basics of western theory, western classical, sight reading, and notation.
NAFS toured extensively, fusing western music with Bollywood hits in original interpretations. When asked what she learned from Rahman, Ramani replies: “Really, what makes a good melody. His music is…iconic melodies. He’s worshipped in India.”
She shares this story in advance of this weekend’s Jazz @ The Bolt festival in Burnaby. The Cellar Music Group and the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts will present Ramani’s Indo-jazz quartet, Raagaverse, in the James Cowan Theatre at noon on Sunday (February 5).
Ramani grew up singing ghazals and moved to Canada as a student in 2017. She explains that Raagaverse’s melodies are predominantly rooted in Indian classical music. As a result, they’re rhythmically loaded, very intricate, and “full of ornaments”.
However, the band’s harmonies come from the world of western jazz.
“There are traditionalists in the Hindustani world and there are traditionalists in the jazz world,” Ramani acknowledges. “Not everybody is happy about the marriage.
“So, my intention is basically for the western audience to indulge in Indian music because I’m coming halfway,” she continues. “I’m giving them harmony, which they are familiar with.”
Ramani loves her bandmates
Ramani credits Raagaverse pianist Noah Franche-Nolan for making it all possible. In fact, she describes him as “the most amazing musician I’ve ever heard in my entire life”.
When Franche-Nolan improvises, she says, “it’s not a recycling of licks, which often happens in bebop.”
“I have cried while playing with him and also listening to him,” Ramani says.
She’s also full of praise for the bassist, Jodi Proznick, describing her as being like a fort.
“She’s really so supportive of the music as well as a support person,” Ramani says. “Her bass playing is her, as a person.”
Drummer Nicholas Bracewell is the other member of the quartet. “I picked band members who play like they are,” Ramani says. “It’s very important to me.”
She says that when she’s on-stage, she’s deeply connected to the musicians in the band. Yet Ramani remains “completely oblivious”, for the most part, to anything else that’s going on.
“I’m very tuned in to what my friends are feeling—and what I’m feeling in the moment.”
Here’s something else unusual about Ramani: she studied opera after earning her degree in Hindustani classical music. But she didn’t complete the degree in opera in the London-affiliated program.
“I don’t think that fulfilled all the musical needs I had,” Ramani says. “My musical voice wasn’t reflected well through opera…
“I was singing all this repertoire,” she continues. “I was really happy to be studying music, but it didn’t ignite that spark.”
Then, she happened to hear jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald singing a ballad on one of her albums, with full orchestration behind her. And Ramani became hooked on jazz.
“I had goosebumps,” she recalls. “I had a visceral reaction to this music.”
Video: In 2021, Shruti Ramani recorded “Mora Saiyyan” with guitarist Max Clouth.
Jazz scene thrived in Mumbai
Ramani was born in the Indian state of Kerala, where English is spoken widely. In Mumbai, where there’s a very vibrant English-language media, English is on par with Hindi among the middle and upper classes.
In addition, Mumbai has a glorious jazz history. Journalist Naresh Fernandes chronicled this in his 2017 book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age.
“In my earlier years, I met Sanjay Divecha, who’s a very phenomenal, renowned guitarist in the Mumbai scene and also globally,” Ramani says. “I saw him play at Blue Frog. There was a Blue Frog Mumbai. It doesn’t exist any more, which is really unfortunate. It was really one of the coolest venues.”
It’s a long way from her family home in the Mumbai suburb of Kandivali to the West End of Vancouver, where she now lives. And Ramani certainly took a circuitous musical route to get here.
She initially enrolled at Vancouver Island University because it was more affordable. She later transferred to Capilano University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies (performance).
Ramani comes across as very thoughtful and is open to discussing a variety of topics in her interview.
For example, when asked about Canada’s Indian residential school system, she says that she knew nothing about it when she arrived in B.C. She then suggests that postsecondary institutions should educate international students on this issue.
“When international students come to universities with no background and no awareness of the history of Canada, we’re made to take English courses, literally, to get your degree,” Ramani says. “But there’s no initiative of making sure that the immigrants that are going to come and settle here are fully aware of the history.”
Despite this, she emphasizes that she loves Canada and she’s thrilled with the vibrancy of Vancouver’s jazz scene.
Video: Shruti Ramani sings “Fly Me to the Moon”.
Mumbai friends were queer-friendly
Ramani admires women who speak their minds—and has been known to do so herself. She recalls once being asked to write a paper in school about Diwali, which is the Hindu festival of lights.
“I basically wrote a whole essay on how Lord Rama and Lord Lakshmana were misogynists,” Ramani says.
She did this because she was offended by the revered Hindu god Lord Rama instructing Lord Lakshmana to take Rama’s pregnant bride Sita into a forest. Sita remained there to raise two sons.
The essay was read aloud, generating a great deal of trouble, resulting in the principal being called.
Ramani also speaks freely about what it was like being “queer-appearing” in India. For many years, she’s had short hair and dressed in a masculine way.
“It didn’t seem unnatural for the people around me to put two and two together,” Ramani says. “I identify as a woman. I’m gender questioning and I hope everyone is in some ways.”
She mentions that some communities in India don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat to LGBTQ+ people. However, the people she grew up with in Mumbai and with whom she attended university were all very queer-friendly. And while it came as a shock to her parents when she came out, they’ve also been “super supportive”.
“Now, I live with my partner and we’ve built a life here,” Ramani says.
As for her parents’ reaction? “They celebrate,” she replies. “They’re queer advocates now.”
JAZZ @ THE BOLT takes place on Saturday (February 4) and Sunday (February 5) at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. Raagaverse will perform in the James Cowan Theatre at noon on Sunday. For more information and tickets, visit the website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.