Nikhil Mawkin & Nathalie Ramirez: Creative hearts bid a brief adieu
If there was ever a personification of the phrase ‘melodically sonorous’, it would be vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Nikhil Mawkin. Having spent over 18 years as a musician in India, Nikhil is so much more than just one aspect of his music. A mentor to many in the industry, he’s collaborated with almost everyone, introduced many to Latin American and Mexican influences, and been pivotal in making jazz easily accessible to the Indian audience by tastefully marrying it with Bollywood. The proof? My mother prefers his renditions of songs she had heard in her youth. And of course, he’s always been the go-to for everyone who didn’t mind an honest feedback.
Today, given the absence of live performances due to the pandemic, he has shifted base to Xalapa in Mexico, his wife, flautist Nathalie Ramírez’s hometown. When the couple carve out time for a chat two days before they leave, it’s a difficult but gracious and grateful trip down memory lane.
Born in Chandigarh and brought up in Delhi and Gurugram, Nikhil picked up the guitar at the age of four. When he was old enough, he would hitch rides in the then-isolated Gurugram with his guitar, which was something like a best friend for the introvert. “That’s how I got into this scene. The owner of a restaurant, LBW, gave me a lift and asked if I wanted to play at his venue,” reminisces Nikhil about his first gig at the age of 17, for which he was paid Rs 250.
He studied vocal technique under a Korean opera singer for four years and was one of the first few Indians to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston in 2006. That’s where he got acquainted with the culture of listening to music in a club setting and saw the respect people had for musicians.
Jazzing up Bollywood
Back in Delhi though, Nikhil found himself playing at private shows, which inevitably demanded old Hindi film songs. And 2012 was when amateur remixes were in abundance. Annoyed, Nikhil wondered how these melodies would sound when treated with a more acoustic and instrumental-approach. And Bollyjazz was born.
“What was monumental was (AR) Rahman subtly using a jazz progression in his song Anjaana Anjaani in Yuva. We labelled it Bollyjazz, which helped people put the music in perspective,” he says.
And so, the first version, where Nikhil played the drums, was born. The 2.0 rendition of the ensemble saw him back on vocals and guitar, and there was an interesting new addition: Nathalie, whom he had met earlier that year while drumming for a Latin American ensemble in Delhi.
Nathalie came to India in 2010 to learn Hindustani classical music (the bansuri to be specific), on an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship. As Nik and Nat started playing together, love blossomed. “I remember thinking he was someone special when he sang an original song,” says Nathalie. Four years ago, they tied the knot, sealing the bond between two cultures and a lifetime of collaborations. They even performed at their favourite venue in the city – The Piano Man Jazz Club – on their D-Day, in their wedding outfits, no less!
For better or for worse
As they bid adieu to Delhi for the relatively inexpensive Xalapa, the couple is nervously excited about starting from scratch, especially Nikhil, who will have to hone his Spanish skills now. There are many Western classical musicians in Mexico, and although that means more competition, it also translates to diverse collaborators. There’s also a growing interest for Indian classical music there, though they may not get paid as much.
“But the government there has implemented programmes to support artists, including musicians, due to the economic crises caused by the pandemic,” says Nathalie, whose Mexican scholarship while in India was much more generous than the ICCR one.
“See, Mexico is a third world country but they don’t have problems like over-population. We are just so many people in India and everyone wants a piece of a really tiny cake. Our problem is confusion about the idea of respect. As musicians, we can still ask for food at weddings but workers and vendors can’t even do that,” interjects Nikhil with one last truth shot.
Ask the 35-year-old about leaving ‘home’, and he says he’s still waiting for it to sink in. “You build a home, but sometimes the home can’t hold you anymore. But this is also how you experience life, age no bar,” he smiles. This isn’t goodbye though, he promises. With his mother and sister still here, Nik and Nat will be back to play. “Hopefully to a healthy music scene in Delhi,” he says.
We hope so too, Mr Mawkin.
Follow @KKuenzang on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 23, 2020
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