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Tall and blonde, Nicki Wells is a natural headturner. But jaws really hit the floor when she opens her mouth and begins to effortlessly recite a Sanskrit shloka or tell you which raag was a song composed in. The main vocalist for Nitin Sawhney's band for the past two-and-a-half years, Wells is, well accustomed to this reaction.
"Though I've been singing in Europe, it's quite a privilege to sing in India, " says Wells, while recording for an episode of Coke Studio. "Watching a blonde sing in Bengali or Hindi or Sanskrit challenges people's perspective. 'Should this blonde be singing in my language?' And I love the fact that I can do that, make people question themselves, " teases the Brit-Swiss singer.
Sawhney, 47, celebrated the world over for his unique musical sensibilities, is one of seven music producers who were invited by MTV for the second season of Coke Studio. Getting Wells along for this particular project was a decision Sawhney grappled with very briefly but decided to go with it. "The idea behind Coke Studio is getting people together from diverse backgrounds, " he says, "and yeah, we were a bit apprehensive about Nicki because she's someone you wouldn't expect but then that's the idea isn't it?"
Whether it's the kasturi tilakam shloka at the beginning of Nadiya, a thumri about two lovers at opposite ends of a river or the melancholic Tera khayal, the 21-year-old Wells manages to toss them off with a fluidity that's to be envied. No stranger to India, she spent five years as a child in the foothills of the Himalayas - her parents' jobs involved a lot of travel - and her gap year at a Thane classical music academy.
"I've always listened to Indian music and it's most definitely a part of my identity, " she says. "I'm such a sucker for melody and Indian classical music has such depth and resonates with feeling and emotion. I'm a total vocal addict. "
Interestingly, it was over a shloka that Sawhney decided to work with Wells. "Like everything great in my life, this too happened spontaneously, " Wells, who lives in London, recollects. "We were introduced and he asked me to sing a shloka because he'd been told that I was familiar with Indian music. And he liked what he heard. Whether it's Hindi, Bengali or Sanskrit, I pick up languages very easily, having heard them around me when I lived here. "
This Saturday's episode will see Sawhney and his crew perform six songs, four of which were written for Coke Studio. While Wells and Ashwin Srinivasan on vocals and flute are regulars with the British-Asian music composer, Sawhney has gathered singers and musicians as diverse and talented as Vikaash Sankadecha, who is a part of the London-based fusion band Trickbaby, 16-yearold bass guitarist Mohini Dey, the Toronto-based singer Samidha Joglekar, Carnatic singer Mahesh Vinayakram, Assamese singer Papon and Kolkata band Skinny Alley's drummer Jivraj Singh.
"The kind of music that I've written for Coke Studio is a bit different from my usual stuff in the sense that there are more Indian lyrics, " Sawhney says. "I don't usually play the electric guitar but for Vachan, I've actually done that. " The lyrics for all the new songs have incidentally been written by his mother, Saroj Sawhney.
Wells isn't just the vocalist for Sawhney's band. In 2011, the young composed the score for Tanika Gupta's theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, which received good reviews. She has also been recording her debut album. "It's an amalgamation of all my experiences, " she says. "I don't really differentiate between genres because they're just the different branches of the same tree. "
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