(L) Samantha Noella; Komal Kuwadekar (R)
(L) Samantha Noella; Komal Kuwadekar (R)(L) Samantha Noella; Komal Kuwadekar (R)

Indian Women In Jazz On Shattering The Glass Ceiling

Jazz as a genre originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century and has its roots in the African-American communities who used blues and ragtime music to create the improvisational jazz form. Jazz is a melting pot of cultures, emotions, and skills, and is now considered a major form of musical expression in classical and contemporary music. Through the years we have been blessed with iconic American jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday.

India was introduced to jazz in the 1920s thanks to the same African-American jazz musicians who toured India’s 5-star-hotel ballrooms. These musicians inspired Goan musicians to tweak their music to stylistically include jazz and that soon was included in the Bollywood music of the time. From being introduced to the elite, it trickled down to the masses and created a link between western music and Indian classical music. Today, there is a niche jazz scene in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, and Bangalore.

It’s been observed that the majority of women in jazz are singers, rather than instrumentalists. In India and across the globe, there is a stark gender disparity in the ratio of vocalists to instrumentalists. Though that is slowly changing with a younger generation of women being keen to learn instruments, they still need to rely on the support of the existing veterans of the jazz industry. We thought we’d meet some of India’s best female jazz vocalists and get their thoughts on bridging the gap between vocalists and instrumentalists.

Image Courtesy: (L) Komal Kuwadekar; Shrea Suresh (R)

I. Komal Kuwadekar
Vocalist Komal Kuwadekar got her start five years ago doing jingles and voice-over work. From there, she realised that she loved being in a recording studio, and even more so, loved being on stage. She is very used to being the only woman on stage at a jazz gig, something that she hopes will change in the future. She says, “Jazz is a very small community in India, and having two or more women on stage changes the vibe for the better. It’s almost like having a mini support system on stage with you.” She also adds that she is now picking up an instrument to be a part of the band, as well as studying music theory and piano.

Find her here.

II. Shrea Suresh
When pop singer Shrea Suresh joined music school in 2018, she really struggled with vocal technique. Her teacher recommended that she give jazz a shot to improve her vibrato. There she heard Ella Fitzgerald and thus started her love affair with jazz. She says, “All music stems from jazz because it allows you to better explore other genres.” A singer with her band The Jazzafools, adds that there is a lot of competition within the industry. As a female vocalist, she has had to fight against male dominance and inter-industry politics. She explains that “Within jazz, a vocalist is the least important part of the ensemble. A saxophone player may replace a vocalist, but not vice-versa.” On a more positive note, she adds that she does find that the times are changing and that more and more women are getting into the instrumental side of jazz as well, herself included. She is of the opinion that “Women can do anything, from taking charge of the band to arranging the music.”
In addition to being the front-woman of The Jazzafools, she also writes her own music.

Find her here.

III. Samantha Noella
A veritable powerhouse of the Indian jazz industry, Samantha Noella has been singing jazz since she was five years old and got her start singing in competitions when the adults in her life realised that she could sing jazz and was introduced to prolific jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. For Noella, back in the day, not so many women went into music seriously, unless they went into teaching full time. She adds that you would be more likely to find a woman teaching piano or the violin as opposed to the drums or a guitar and that we have social conditioning to thank for that. With 30 years of industry experience, she says that “Being on stage has everything to do with like-mindedness, connection, and a common purpose, and less to do with gender.” Her advice to up-and-coming women in jazz is to “Keep your feet on the ground, do your groundwork, and know your language.”

With a new single out, you can find her here.

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