Harmonica player Rohan Singhal — the youngest artist ever to perform at Mahindra Blues — on his influences, performances across the globe
When Rohan Singhal takes the Mahindra Blues stage over 9 and 10 February this year, he will be the youngest artist to have ever performed at the coveted festival.
When Singhal takes the Mahindra Blues stage over this year, he will be the youngest artist to have ever performed at the coveted festival
His two 20-minute sets over the weekend will see five songs that span fusion, blues, funk and Indian classical with a special rendition of Raag Madhukauns.
Rohan has previously performed at the Indian Mouthorgan Meet (2015), the International Jazz Festival (2016), National Harmonica League (2017), among other such events.
When Rohan Singhal takes the Mahindra Blues stage over 9 and 10 February this year, he will be the youngest artist to have ever performed at the coveted festival. At 13, Rohan didn’t even make the cut for the Big Blues Band Hunt because the eligibility criteria specified 18 years and above. But that didn’t dishearten diatonic harmonica player Rohan, who sent his videos to the organisers anyway.
Genius, they say, cannot be hidden. The organisers of the festival instantly knew that they had a prodigy on hand. Touted as the Blues-eyed boy of Indian music, Rohan is part of a growing Indian culture of young musicians taking to the blues in India, a genre often considered that of older cognoscenti. His two 20-minute sets over the weekend will see five songs that span fusion, blues, funk and Indian classical with a special rendition of Raag Madhukauns.
His early childhood, much like his setlist, has had a multi-genre soundtrack. At the age of four, his grandfather gifted him a 10-hole Hohner diatonic harmonica. Growing up in a home where songs of the 1950s and 60s were playing, and an indulgent, self-taught grandfather who himself played the diatonic harmonica, tenor saxophone and flute at leisure, Rohan’s upbringing has been undoubtedly rich in music.
“My grandfather is a businessman in Goa and my visits to him were so full of music. From him, I got exposed to blues and jazz, and took a liking to the forms of music. I would also listen to old English classics as well as Bollywood songs. Over the years, he took me for concerts, and even got me to perform with Goan bands such as Oasis, Jazz Junction and Lynx,” says the student of Shishukunj International School, Indore.
His attendance at a workshop by renowned diatonic harmonica player Ben Hewlett in Pune in 2014, changed the course of his life. Amazed at young Rohan’s talent, Hewlett recommended a four-year plan to work towards the prestigious National Harmonica League (Bristol, UK) and then to the World Harmonica Festival 2017 in Germany, which takes place every other year. For that, he suggested that Rohan be trained on the diatonic harp by two-time Grammy-winner Howard Levy. The video training programme with Levy gave Rohan access to a whole different world of diatonic harmonica playing. He also started to play the keyboard, an instrument that gave his harmonica playing much depth in chord progressions, scales and more.
“Playing the piano really gave me a different understanding of my own instrument. It taught me how to listen to music from a different angle and so how I played music on my harmonica also changed. I’ve also been learning Indian classical music since I was about five years old and it has been instrumental in my understanding of rhythms, melodies and pitch. While my blues-jazz education came from my Western classical training, my Indian classical background inspired me to play ragas on the harmonica; something that isn’t done much,” Rohan adds.
As his musical training continued with Levy online, Rohan went on to perform at the Indian Mouthorgan Meet in Indore, 2015, the International Jazz Festival in 2016 among other such events. Before he knew it, 2017 was here and he was at the National Harmonica League, Bristol (UK). Embodying the spirit that the best things in life come in small packages, Rohan mesmerised the audience that was full of budding and professional musicians. He went on to win all the prizes in his Diatonic Harmonica category: solo jazz, blues, group and melody.
The next stop was Trossingen, Germany, where he participated at the World Harmonica Festival 2017. “I won the third prize for playing Raag Multani in the Solo Diatonic jazz/melody category. For the blues/rock category where I stood fifth, I played a song I wrote called The Power of Hanuman, based on the Hanuman Chalisa,” he says humbly. Both these awards were given to him in open categories for adults.
The fact that the harmonica sounds closest to vocals, plays a prominent role in Rohan’s love for the instrument, says the youngster who admires BB King and Steve Baker among others. He adds, “The chromatic harmonica with its keys makes it easier to play chromatic notes and it is more commonly played in India. The diatonic harmonica that is played widely in Europe, the United States and South America, is distinct in its role in the blues-jazz scene the world over. I wish more Indians took to the diatonic harmonica, and I hope my journey will inspire them to.”
The globe-trotting youngster’s competitions, concerts and workshops have meant that he’s had to miss school sometimes, once even missing an exam. His school has been very supportive of his talent and his determination, and having a set of friends that he adores, helps in shaping his overall growth.
“My school and friends have been very understanding and helpful. I love going to school and when I’m not practising music, I love playing all kinds of sports with my friends. I love Ronaldo and teams like Juventus and Barcelona,” he says, his excitement typical of a 13-year-old footie-loving boy. Only when the diatonic harmonica is in the picture that his age is truly immaterial.
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