Maalavika Manoj on her latest single Play, and recording with her musician-grandfather for the first time
Maalavika Manoj decided to collaborate with her grandfather, who can play the harmonica and harmonetta, because she realised the influence he has had on her style
Whenever singer-songwriter Maalavika Manoj (Mali) would learn to play a new song or write one of her own, she would show it to her grandfather MC Rammohan last, considering he was “a sharp critic”. She says, “He’d tell me all these things about not having the feel or going off note. I didn’t take it too well as a teenager, but I think I learnt from it.”
Mali’s septuagenarian grandfather started out playing the harmonica and harmonetta first in Kannur, and then in a band called Black and White in 1950s Chennai – named so because they wore white shirts and black pants, says an amused Mali – and was a hard-core audiophile, collecting vinyl, speaker systems and other audio gear. She adds, “He introduced to me a lot of music – he introduced me to jazz. I remember he played Miles Davis records and said, ‘This is how you should listen to music, always on loud’. I remember when I was much younger, he said, ‘Have you heard of this band called Pink Floyd?’ and then he called me over to watch Pulse (1995 live album). He’s a really cool granddad.” Family time at home usually involved singing songs together, while her grandfather played the harmonica.
The Chennai-bred, Mumbai-based singer-songwriter always knew that her grandfather had influenced her sensibilities as a musician and listener, but she felt the need to acknowledge it now, more than ever, in her latest single ‘Play’. Sometime in late 2016, Mali was sent a few old photographs of her grandfather by her family, and one of them became the artwork for ‘Play’, portraying a young Rammohan playing a Hohner Harmonetta. Mali explains why this photograph had such an impact on her. “The backstory is that my granddad did the opposite of what I did. He quit music to get a real job to support his family. But I quit a proper job to take up music.”
And while her grandfather was initially sceptical about Mali becoming a full-time musician, he was still supportive. When she showed the first version of ‘Play’ to her grandfather, Mali says he was his usual reticent self and didn’t seem moved. “But later that night, my grandmother told me he was over the moon. And I had to hear it from her!” she says with a laugh.
Her next step was to include her grandfather in the song, getting him to not just play the harmonica but also be a part of her first ever music video, which was shot in Kannur. “I seemed to have a sudden longing for something I hadn’t lost. I just wanted to document that my granddad was a strong influence in my life,” she says, about the motivation that has driven her since she first saw a portrait of her grandfather as a young musician.
Mali wrote the harmonica parts for Rammohan to record, but it was the first time he was in a studio, which gave him a bad case of the nerves. She recalls, “He’s usually excellent at picking things up quickly, but I think the pressure got to him. He was sweating and turning pink. I’ve never seen my granddad like that. So we did the best with his takes. I had to think about where to draw the line between being a producer and being a granddaughter. But that’s part of what the song was about – even if it’s hard, just do it, just play.”
Even for the music video, she recalls how he needed to be coaxed more to face the camera. “I told him the whole point of it was to have him in it. He said, ‘Okay, fine, but I can’t act’. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to make you act. It’s not a movie’,” she says with a laugh. Mali describes herself as being a not-so-camera-friendly person too, but with filmmaker Krish Makhija behind the lens, she says the video lent itself to a candid vibe quicker than she thought. “I was surprised, my granddad just snapped into character. He started interviewing me, like it was a talk show. He made some jokes here and there, and we both got super comfortable.” It’s one for the books, for both Mali and her grandfather.
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