Dana Gillespie: swinging from blues to bhajans with consummate ease
She is no ordinary blues singer. With 60 albums in her kitty in 50 years, she is nothing short of a powerhouse performer. In a conversation with Brunch, she talks of her music and her unique India connect.brunch Updated: Dec 14, 2013 20:08 IST
Dana Gillespie's not just any blues singer. She's recorded over 60 albums in 50 years; taken the blues to every part of the world (including Siberia); worked with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page; and played host to Kate and William at the blues festival she organises every year in the Caribbean. Gillespie is also an old India hand; she's been coming here for 30 years and once toured India "from top to bottom" doing 22 concerts in 11 cities.
The singer was recently in the city to perform at the Simply The Blues festival. Gillespie rocked St Andrew's Auditorium, Bandra; but sat down with us a few days earlier over a cappuccino at the Café at the NCPA, Nariman Point, to discuss her love of everything Indian and her passion for the blues.
Excerpts from a conversation:
You didn't start by singing the blues, but you've devoted your life to it.
In the early Sixties, although I listened to the blues, my voice, which is just a muscle, wasn't really strong enough. To sing the blues, you need vocal chords like leather. I made my first record at 15, and didn't know then how to put the blues into my life. But through the years, the voice toughened up.
Besides, you have to feel the blues, you cannot teach it. You also have to have experienced an awful lot of life for it to come out in your voice. There are no thin blues players; you need meat on your bones to sing about meat (although I am vegetarian). I can also sing the blues till I'm 99, whereas with pop music, you have a sell-by date.
What was it like playing Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar?
Well, I had to witness the crucifixion eight times a week, and the 39 lashes, which they accentuated with a synthesiser! If you do anything eight times a week, there's a moment of tedium. When I left in 1973, I vowed that I would stick with the blues.
You've also recorded bhajan-based albums in Sanskrit.
I started doing this 20 years ago to take bhajans to a wider audience, and have made 10 albums so far. I always tell people that even if you don't believe or understand, just having the songs swirling about you will bring you peace and calm. I like to sing sarva dharma bhajans because I feel that if people understood each other's music, they are less likely to murder each other. Music is a great healer for a damaged soul, it's a great uplifter for an aching heart, and it's a joymaker for everyone.
You've performed all over the world. Which one stands out?
I did a concert in Kazakhstan last year, which featured both blues and bhajans. By the end of the concert, these pretty girls were on stage dancing away, and my guitarist thought he had died and gone to heaven. Next year, I'll be in Kyrgyzstan and Russia. These countries don't really know what the blues are, but once people get a taste of it, they end up loving it.
How difficult is it to manage the blues festival you organise in the Caribbean every year?
I'm terribly organised when it comes to putting together the festival in Mustique every January. My job is to persuade musicians to play for free (the performances are recorded as an album, and the proceeds from that go to charity), and the bait is this paradise island, with turquoise blue waters and powder white sand. The fest also has a royal connection, earlier princess Margaret would attend the festival, last year Kate and William did.
What's next on your bucket list? Do you have more to achieve?
God, yes! I want to keep making albums. I complete 50 years in the music business next year, and my only worry is that I should stay fit to keep doing this. I've had three knee operations, and I never want to sing sitting down, I always want to be able to sway to the music.
Favourite Indian city: Bombay - I've been coming here for 30 years now. I love visiting the temple at Madhav Baug, and going to Bhuleshwar, Mangaldas Market and Abdul Rehman Street. Also, I visit Khadi Emporium, where I buy lots of handspun. I also love Varanasi, and I have a lot of friends In Bangalore and Jamnagar.
One thing that strikes you about India: I love how when people speak in Hindi, every 20th word is in English.
Favourite Indian food: I love eating a dosa for breakfast, also palak paneer and kheer.
What is the sound of India? Peacocks calling in the morning, and dogs barking at night. I also love it when I can hear 1940s film music playing in the background.
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From HT Brunch, December 15
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