At the 55th Grammy Awards, which will be announced next month, besides the late Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar, who have been individually nominated for Best World Music Album, there will also be a less-known name representing Indian talent. Arun Shenoy, a full-time investment banker based in Singapore, is in the race for the Best Pop Instrumental award.
The day the nominations were announced, Shenoy had taken the morning off from office to watch it online. When his album was announced, he would have liked to jump with joy. Except that he had a bad case of stomach flu. “The mixture of my medication and the Grammy nomination left me feeling very dream-like. I called a few of my musician friends and then slept off.” The one word that he says best describes that moment is ‘relief’. “It had been many years of struggle, disappointment and pitfalls,” he says. “I always aspired to this. At this level, there is nothing called luck. I never aspired to sales, commercial recognition, or chart-topping. I aspired to creative excellence, which is primarily what the Grammys reward.”
The nomination is for his album Rumbadoodle, which he calls ‘world fusion’. All the 11 tracks of the album employ a ‘gypsy rumba flamenco’ style of music. “Unlike traditional flamenco, the rumba may be played in any key— major, minor and modal. This made it more appropriate in fusion with not only Western contemporary pop and rock music, but also the odd traditional influence like Celtic or Arabic sounds that appear occasionally on the record,” he says.
Rumbadoodle is an international project that features musicians from around the world, including the US and UK, and one pianist from Bangalore. Each of these musicians usually pursue rather different music. Jonathan Wesley, for example, who is the Bangalore-based pianist featuring on several tracks, including the title track, is also known for his work with the progressive rock band Slain. Shenoy’s own taste in music is eclectic. He has been based in Singapore for the last ten years, but spent his growing years in Bangalore, which has always had a vibrant gig culture. He then spent a few years doing his engineering degree in the isolated university town of Manipal, where music festivals are always an item and a release. Before this personal project of his, he produced music for the US rock band Tanadra. He is already working on his next project, an Indian fusion one. “I started off as a guitarist, and liked bands like Floyd and Guns N’ Roses. But I was always enthralled by the flamenco style of guitaring. Since my early days in college, I had a plan that I would do something with this style. Many years later, the idea began to take shape and the right people began coming together for it.”
Rumbadoodle was a big project. It was developed over two years. “I wanted to have enough high-quality material for a full album and not have filler tracks. I also wanted every track to be unique, while having a consistent vibe,” says Shenoy. No single track was recorded with all the musicians together. All were online collaborations, with all the musicians working in their respective countries and sending their recordings to Shenoy. This was a painstaking operation, involving several retakes. “It was a combination of being at various studios myself, doing a lot of stuff online, and doing a lot of it locally in Singapore. The core team, including the engineers and the drum and bass section, was from Singapore. But the violin, guitar and piano parts were all done abroad.” The logistics of doing a project like this can pull the whole thing down. Renting studios, hiring engineers, finding mutually convenient times across various time zones, can make work impossibly slow. But in this case, “The studio professionals I worked with all had their own studios. There were times when I found very good people to work with, but they didn’t have their own setup and I just could not collaborate with them,” he says. His wife Roshni also handled the video and cover art for the album, which took several months. He also credits her for some of the direction: “She is heavily into flamenco dance and speaks Spanish. She contributed by refining the idea.”
Shenoy plays the guitar but doesn’t call himself a guitarist. He prefers to be known as a producer and composer. What complicates life, though, is that he doesn’t spend most of his time on music. He works as an investment banker for ten hours every day in Singapore. He works on his music every night after dinner, till about 3 am. “I basically have two jobs. By day, I do what I call ‘the mathematics of finance’, and at night, I work on the mathematics of music,” he says.
These double-shifts allow him the freedom of calling himself an “independent musician”. Shenoy funded this entire project himself, and did not have to deal with producers, record labels and other middlemen. This did mean that he exhausted all his savings and at one point was running on extended credit card debt, because he felt it would be a bad idea to pause the project. He says, “Right from the beginning, I was sure I wanted to go it alone. Even when I was running out of money, I had no interest in selling out to a label and losing control over the project. My wife and I handled everything from project conception, to getting the shelf-ready product, to managing distribution. I formed my own label, Arun Shenoy Music Publishing. I realised I can collate my experience in issues like copyright management, licences, royalties and other legal aspects, to release more albums of my own as well as of other artistes who are always approaching me.”
The media have variously called him an ‘Indian boy’, ‘Bangalore boy’, ‘Manipal boy’ and ‘Singapore boy’. Shenoy says he is now a Singapore national. “After my graduation, I found a good job in Singapore. Now I would associate my identity with Singapore. I’ve been here ten years, it’s home,” he says, adding that this is actually an irrelevant sort of categorisation. “Where I am based, or my passport, is insignificant. For example, Ravi Shankar was based in the US but he would never be considered a US artiste. In terms of what I naturally identify with, it is still Indian music. As far as my musical journey goes, Manipal is what gave me my exposure to rock music, and Bangalore had its own distinct music culture in which I participated. And in Singapore I just met many of the right people for my journey.” He continues to work closely with Indian musicians and says he is looking to do several auditions in India. The Indian fusion album he is producing is due this year.
Shenoy gets no money from the sales of Rumbadoodle—all proceeds go to Milaap, an NGO that works in the arena of microfinance, providing loans for education, clean water and energy to India’s working poor. “The price at which I sell is my cost price. I don’t think I would break even for the album, considering I have spent about $60,000 on this. I am friends with the people who started Milaap and have been contributing to the organisation in my personal capacity. It made more sense for me to connect other people with them via my project, than try and recover my costs. I treat my costs as an investment in my art.”