Indipop singer Mehnaz, who’s made a comeback with an all-American band, Manooghi Hi, in conversation with Nikhil Taneja.
How did the band come about?
In 2007, I went to USA on a holiday and Ava, who’s a family friend, said that we should get together and jam. Her friend, Mark Nichols, had heard my album, Sajnaa, and loved it. I had nothing to lose, so we got together and did a gig in a Seattle club, where these guys – six Americans – played to my music and Hindi songs. The response was overwhelming! That’s when I decided to take this forward, and I’m so glad I did!
What does your band name, Manooghi Hi, mean?
It was actually a joke that the name came out of. These guys knew that my biggest hit was the song, Banoongi hi, and they couldn’t pronounce it. So they kept calling me, Manooghi. We even had a song on our first album called that, which was a random rhyme, where the drummer and I jam, and I’m doing tabla bolis. We knew he had to name it that. The best part is, there is nothing in the world that has the name, Manooghi!
Was it an obvious decision to add an Indian flavour to the music?
We wanted to have a sense of both the Indian language and sound in our music, but not in an overt way. Any Indian listener would be able to identify the signature Indian influence, but somewhere it’s a part of a larger scheme of things. We’ve used many languages, from Persian to Bengali to Sanskrit to Rajasthani folk to Hindi in the songs, and you can hear tables and shehnais, amongst heavy guitar riffs.
The lyrics and song themes also have an Indian touch to them.
Yeah, but again, we are telling stories through the songs. Like we have a song about goddess Kali, and about how she symbolizes the death of ego. We’ve even done a take on Dama dam mast kalandar. You know, I had never written lyrics until this band happened. The other members would always push me to pen my thoughts. They’d say even if a word or a line inspires me, I should try and write about it. I did that, and it was the most beautiful experience. I know myself better now!
How clued in are your band members about Indian music?
They are definitely interested in it. In fact, all the Indian instruments we’ve had on our songs, have been played by them. The great thing about the band is that we feed off each other’s influences. With every band, you either hit a vibe or you don’t. We somehow have that connection, and that comes through in the songs.
Has the India craze post Slumdog Millionaire helped create more curiosity about the music?
Yeah, India is exotic and mystical and is definitely on everyone’s radar. Even generally, people always look for the hatke appeal of music. A lot of people have come to our gigs through word of mouth publicity or sheer curiosity. And thankfully, they’ve never been disappointed. Our jugalbandis on stage, on songs like ‘Manooghi hi’ where I do tabla bolis and Dama dam mast kalandar, are a riot!
Your life seems to have come full circle, from when you started out years ago.
Yeah, it’s literally a rebirth for me. It’s as beautiful as it is unbelievable. It’s almost as if all my years in the industry have readied me for this. I’ve always worked solo, and it’s exciting to be learning the ropes of this business as a band.
Why hasn’t your band performed in India yet?
I’ve been dying to do that since the last three years. The band wants to come down to India… We are really waiting for listeners to hear it. We are just waiting to get established in the US first. We are focusing on making a mark in the regional circuit. We’ve had quite a few opportunities here – South by South West, Sundance Festival, Bumbershoot Festival. We are now working on our next album, and are targeting more festivals and clubs.