Exclusive Interview with Raggy Singh of the Raggy Project

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“There is really no end to experimenting with different instruments and musicians” – The Raggy Project from Malaysia

Raggy Singh heads the Raggy Project, an East-West blues and fusion band from Penang, Malaysia. Grooves, guitar and tabla have been blended together by this group for almost four decades now, and they have released two albums as well (see their YouTube video). The lineup at the recent Penang World Music Festival included Raggy Singh (vocals, guitars), Jimie Loh (bass), Jone Yeoh (drums), Richard Gomis (keyboards) and Kirubakaran Naryanasami (percussion).

Raggy joins us in this exclusive interview on musical convergence and impact.

What was the vision behind founding of your music group? What new lineups and instruments have you experimented with since the early days?
My “Project” is a constantly evolving thing, the key being to develop and improve as a musician while the music itself evolves as I go through different stages of my musical journey. I consider myself to be an ordinary person with ordinary talent, but I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to improve my musicianship, so the “Project’ is to see where all this effort can take me.

The lineup of musician changes sometimes because it is a big strain being in a band focused on a vision which is not abstract. I do not set out to play commercially “safe” music, and when the band has settled into whatever music we are doing I become restless and need to try something different again! I guess I must drive my band members crazy: I’m always unhappy when I am happy.

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I’m of Sikh-Punjabi descent, born in Malaysia, and my earliest instruments were the tabla and harmonium. In my early teens I picked up the guitar and bass, and later some keyboards and drums. Over the years I’ve experimented with all these instruments, and also with modern synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers.

I keep experimenting, but I also remind myself to go back to the basics and I also do acoustic shows, sometimes just singing solo with an acoustic guitar. I’ve also experimented with playing the acoustic guitar along with a tabla player and Indian flutes – we did everything from Led Zeppelin to Elvis in this format which got lots of enthusiastic response!

There is really no end to experimenting with different instruments and musicians. Each change brings a different flavour, but one needs to be mindful that the objective is to produce meaningful and beautiful music, not just an assortment of sounds and styles.

What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
The main challenge is to be creative and pleasing while retaining originality. Too many musicians sacrifice their integrity playing “safe” structured melodies because that is what sells. I don’t see the point in dedicating my life to music only to become someone else’s plaything.

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Who would you say are the leading influences in your musical career? Who are some of your favourite musicians?
Oh dear, this list would become very long, I tend to be influenced by anything that excites me. But if there is one person whom I would say had the greatest impact on my path as a musician, it would be my ex-manager, Grenville Pereira. He was an extraordinarily talented musician and played with Malaysia’s most famous bands, and he would drive me to improve, improve, improve. Unfortunately he died a few years ago but whenever I’m performing I can still hear him say “Hey, that’s a mistake, practice it another thousand times!”

My favourite musicians would include the late Ustad Alla Rakha Khan (tabla maestro), guitarists like Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Gary Moore, BB King as well as singer-songwriter types like Don Maclean, Paul Simon, Jose Feliciano, Jim Croce.

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How do you blend different musical influences and genres in your music? How do you bring about this fusion without confusion?
I just try to listen to what any given piece of music is telling me. If it starts talking to my soul then the playing styles and instrument arrangement just follows naturally. When I try to force myself upon the music, the result is invariably painful.

How would you describe your musical journey and how your albums have evolved and changed over the years?
“A constant struggle” would be a somewhat apt description 🙂 It’s not easy when you’re not doing mainstream stuff. But I have an abundance of passion and dedication. My albums are evolving as I learn how to control the various aspects involved in recording and production. I record and engineer/mix/produce all of my songs, in my home studio (that is always getting modified and upgraded as I try to improve the production quality), and as each album gets released I try to work out areas for improvement for the next albums. Two albums have been released and I’m already working on two more.

How does your composition process work: through a main songwriter, or through collaboration/jams between your band members?
So far all the compositions on my albums have been mine, though that may change if band members come up with their own songs as well. Once the basic song has been composed, the final arrangement would involve all band members giving their opinions and ideas and I’ll try to work out something that everybody is happy to work with.

Song ideas come to be at any time, there is no fixed “songwriting mode.” Some songs just flow out in minutes, others get written over a long period of time. Sometimes I get stuck just because I can’t find the words to describe a certain idea; lyrics to me are fundamentally important, and then the melody has to carry the lyrical content appropriately.

How was your overall experience at the Penang World Music Festival? What were the Top Three highlights for you?
It was a fantastic experience! There were so many wonderful musicians around and such a diverse range of music to experience. My Top Three highlights were the Drum Circle workshop (where the percussionists from all the performing bands spontaneously created beats together), and the performances by Dizu Plaatjies (from South Africa) and Razon De Son (from Spain, led by Raul Rodriguez). Of course all the other performances were great too.

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What are some unusual reactions you have got during your live performances?
Well, if you want to talk about unusual, there was once this Japanese girl who came onstage when we were playing some heavy rock stuff, and she tried to rip my pants off…

What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?
Many of my songs have underlying social and environmental themes, but I steer away from political stuff in my albums. Politics is such a divisive thing. I try to convey my feelings about social issues and figure that if anybody reasonable listens he/she will form their own reasonable conclusions irrespective of their political affiliations.

My vision is that music can bring a reasonableness to our times, but of course that would only be possible if musicians themselves are reasonable. Songs that spew hatred and anti-this or anti-that sentiments don’t really work. I can understand the frustrations that people feel on a number of issues, and I too am often in despair at current socio-political and economical issues but I try to express these in my music in a way that does not alienate people but rather makes them think.

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Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com

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