“Music has no boundaries. No matter what language, genre, rhythm, it can always find a way to everyone’s heart.”
Watching the English singer Tanya Wells sing the ghazal virtuoso Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Duniya Kisi Ke Pyaar Mein’ while playing the guitar is part of what makes her singing even more soulful and mesmerising. Her voice rose steadily in pitch, along with a distinct sweetness in her voice, which delightfully astonished Pakistan’s music lovers.
Her choices of songs ranged from Shahanshah-e-Ghazal Mehdi Hassan’s ‘Rafta Rafta Woh Meri Hasti’ to the ‘King of Qawwali’ Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Man Kunto Maula’ to Nayyara Noor’s ‘Ae Ishq Humain Barbad Na Kar’ to a mash up of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ and ‘Dam Mast Qalander’. She sang each and every composition not only melodiously, but with great involvement and left everyone spellbound with her versatility.
I was fortunate enough to have a tête-a-tête with Tanya Wells, who became an internet sensation after her Urdu song videos went viral on social media. We conversed about her musical inspirations, the Urdu influence and her passion for song writing.
I’m interested in your musical background. Could you please tell me about your musical influences?
My father is a doctor and a songwriter as well. He would often play the piano, write songs about my sisters and I, and we would usually sing these songs together. From a young age, I observed how music can be invented, improvised, and played about with in a light-hearted way. I started writing lyrics when I was just eight- years-old. I still remember how my first composition was about a bluebird. I feel my musical influence comes from my father’s piano playing, my parents’ favourite pop-music, cartoon jingles and the eventual influence Indian music had on me.
The one thing all of us want to know about Tanya Wells is how she became interested in singing in diverse languages. Could you give us insight into that?
I lived in India for a while and I studied at an international boarding school for around three years. The place was beautiful since it was situated in the foothills of the Himalayas. We used to sing bhajans (devotional songs) in various languages – such as, Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit and Urdu. It’s because of this reason that I developed a flair for singing in different languages.
What was the inspiration behind singing Urdu ghazals, qawwalis and Sufi music? Why did you choose this tone of music?
I love the feeling and freedom of devotional music. I began listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in my teen years and loved the passion and power of Sufi music. My interest in ghazals evolved rather recently when I visited India in 2012. I took singing lessons from Guruji Pt Prabhakar Dhakde. He taught me beautiful Urdu compositions, ghazals and light classical music. I was absolutely in love with the rich and emotive melody of ghazal music.
If you sing a song in Urdu, would it mean the same thing if you sung it in English? Is it difficult to translate the poetry?
The languages seem totally different – Urdu would probably lose much of its linguistic beauty if it were to be translated into English. Although sometimes it works, like the translation I found for Mehdi Hassan’s ghazal ‘Duniya Kisi Ke Pyaar Mein’. I don’t speak Urdu so I’m not entirely sure how much meaning is lost while translating. But when I found out the meaning of certain Urdu words, I found that they had more feelings than a direct English translation.
Was it a turbulent journey to sing songs sung by maestros such as Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan?
Absolutely not! For me, learning to sing their music is a joyful journey because it’s all about feeling the words you sing. It’s all about pure expression. Yes, I imitate these singers, the way Mehdi Hassan changes his tone when singing a certain word just to bring out emotions, and it’s something I pay attention to. I study how he sings his expressions. For me, singing is like painting a beautiful picture of emotions, you have to find the right tone of colours to express what poets feel.
This is the art of singing. I feel singers like Mehdi Hassan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Nayyara Noor, Abida Parveen, Sanam Marvi and many other classical singers do this so well.
Which Pakistani female musicians have inspired you and made an impact on your music?
I’d say Abida Parveen has inspired me. Before going to India to study music, I watched a video of her performance where she is singing Baba Bulleh Shah’s poetry. I was moved by her devotional singing, expressions and passion for singing to the Divine. Her and other Sufi singers taught me that voice/music can be used to bring listeners to a higher reality of love.
So many incredible singers such as Noor Jahan, Begum Aktar, Farida Khanum, Nayyara Noor, Shobha Gurtu, Madhurani, Sanam Marvi and Asha Bhosle are masters of vocal expression and have contributed to the musical culture of South Asia.
Through them, I developed a huge respect for Pakistani music and culture. But I have to say that Sufi music trumps it all. To develop a culture that sings praises of God and divine beauty is incomparable to any other. It is pure bliss.
You are learning classical music, for instance Thumri, do you prefer one particular genre of music over any other genre? If so, why?
I have studied Indian classical music for a few years. I have always been drawn to more minor scales (raag pilu, bhairavi, darbari, puriya dhanashri). My deeper tone of voice lends itself well to ghazals but I love the various colours of diverse notes one can play within Thumri and light classical. If one sings the raag in the way it should be sung, expressing its character and colours, then consider the job done.
For me, it’s not about preferring a particular genre of music – I love them all. It is more about how true a singer can be to the melody and poetry. If a listener can feel the truth and sincerity, then you can consider yourself as an accomplished singer.
What sort of feedback/reaction have you gotten from Pakistani people? Do you have any plans to perform live music events in Pakistan?
I have had such a surprising and wonderful response from fans in Pakistan. Many people have been pleasantly surprised by my accurate Urdu pronunciation, which is encouraging. I still have much music to learn and much riyaz to do. Of course, I would love to perform in Pakistan one day.
Let’s talk a bit about your song writing experience. What specific theme is prevalent in your song writing?
A constant theme in my song writing is longing, be it longing for love, union, divine love, seeking, learning about life or going on a journey. I am working on writing several new songs for an album at the moment. The theme is lessons.
Do you think the internet is an effective tool for promoting a singer’s musical career?
Yes, the internet is a vast space which offers various opportunities for sharing and communicating. I’m still learning how to use it though. It can be an amazing tool for an artist and I am learning and finding my way with trying to control my work and space within this realm as an artist.
Would you like to tell us about any new project coming up in the near future? Do you have any plans to launch a solo album?
I am working on my debut album which features English songs inspired by raags and would love to incorporate some Hindi or Urdu songs into this project. Right now, I am focusing on writing and recording these songs but I am also looking forward to collaborating with other musicians to create more music.
You have already exhibited your singing skills, would you like to explore the other realms of performing arts such as dancing and acting?
Yes, I studied theatre and have quite a lot of experience in acting. I like to incorporate drama in my music. When I sing a song, I think that I am playing a character who must convey a certain story to the audience. It may not be my own story, but I just feel that it is my own. My training in theatre helps me out with this.
What would you be doing if you were not making music?
Definitely something in the arts department or doing some kind of spiritual healing work for communities. It would have to be something related to making people feel better.
Finally, do you have anything you’d like to say to Pakistani fans?
To my fans in Pakistan, shukriya (thanks). I hope to learn more about the incredible music and express some of its beauty. I hope I can show that music can be universally integrated without cultural or racial boundaries. I hope to make you proud and give you joy.
Thank you Tanya!
Let’s all give a big round of applause for this incredible singer with a stunningly exquisite voice. Take some time out and listen to this amazing talent.