Front singer of Bombay Royale, Parvyn Kaur Singh, electrifies vintage Bollywood numbers for audiences worldwide. And she has more to offer.
Not everyone can boast of such a sweet memory from childhood. Parvyn Kaur Singh was ten-years old when Michael Jackson, the deceased King of Pop, came to perform at the Adelaide Oval as part of the HIStory World Tour in 1996. Parvyn and her two sisters were among the lucky children selected to welcome Jackson at the red carpet. Dressed in traditional Punjabi suits, the sisters, on an impulse, started to chant the Mool Mantra (first hymn in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs) as soon as Jackson showed up. He stopped, listened, and walked on.
But for Parvyn and her sisters, the surreal moment did not end there. Suddenly, one of Jackson’s assistants walked up to them and said ‘Michael wants to meet you properly’. She took them through security to Jackson’s presidential suite where they came face to face with the man the world was crazy about. “He asked who we were and what we were singing,” recalls Parvyn, adding, “He also wanted to take photos with us, something he likes doing before a show. Since his show was on the next day, he organised to get us tickets.”
One thing led to another and before Parvyn realised she was there the next day not just for the photos but with a main role in one of his songs on stage. “It was the Earth Song and as part of his live performances, a massive tank comes up with a soldier in a ready-to-shoot position. At that point, a child comes out to the front and hands the soldier a flower, so I did that. And then I stepped back and Michael gave me a hug,” says Parvyn.
Clearly, it was a life defining moment for Parvyn. “It was one of the moments when I thought this is what I want to do, to be on stage, in front of people and performing. And it felt so natural for me to do it. Yes I was nervous, but not really. If you know what you need to do on stage, it’s quite a thrill.”
It has been an interesting journey since. Parvyn, born to renowned singer/musician Dya Singh, candidly admits to never having made a conscious effort to be a singer or a dancer. “It just happened. I started performing with my dad from such a young age that I just kept going and kept getting different opportunities. I never forced myself into one direction, I kept saying yes to things and from that it has grown.”
Today as front singer of Bombay Royale, Melbourne’s much loved cross-cultural band, Parvyn is making a grab for Bollywood vintage singing success and is on the way to recording her own original album (more on that later).
Parvyn hooked up with Bombay Royale in 2010, the year the band was formed. It was band leader Andy Williamson’s idea to present live vintage music. Based in Brunswick, Williamson’s hobby was collecting old records from India and he soon realised that there was not anyone else doing live vintage music. It helped that he had professional musician friends who shared the same interest.
“There are lots of different pockets of vintage vinyl, so record collecting is very big in Brunswick and Fitzroy, it’s a niche market and these guys were locked on to Bollywood music. Because it is such great music, unique and over the top and Bollywood is amazing to watch, these guys were just drawn to it despite not understanding anything. They just wanted to play in a band that played that type of music. Besides, there wasn’t really anyone else doing it,” says Parvyn.
When Williamson and his group got in touch with Parvyn through a common musician friend, she was curious to know what these guys were doing. The day she got to their Brunswick warehouse which doubles up as the studio too, they were playing old Bollywood numbers such as “Yeh Mera dil” (Don), “Dum Maro Dum” (Hare Rama Hare Krishna). “It was fascinating,” says Parvyn.
Thus was formed Bombay Royale with an elaborate story attached to the 11-member band. With inspiration from vintage Bollywood, all of them wear bandit masks infusing the gangster element as they exploit their alter egos on stage. For instance, Parvyn is the Mysterious Lady, Williamson the Skipper and Bhattacharya the Tiger. “We can go over the top as we are acting and it takes away all of that extra baggage that we have for our own egos.” Coming together as a band was also easy, says Parvyn, as all the musicians are top professionals. “They have been doing this for a very long time. Because they are also great, it’s kind of easy, everyone does their homework and when you get together and play as a group, it happens quite organically.”
Their first gig, after six months of intermittent rehearsals, was at the Australasian World Music Expo in Melbourne where they got noticed instantly. “That was a place where people from the music industry all over the world come for shopping almost, to find bands. Fortunately for us, the director of that festival saw us there and straightway booked us.” There has been no looking back since.The band started doing covers and from there made their own records. They released their first album You Me Bullets Love in April 2012 and it was chosen as iTunes Breakthrough World Music Album for 2012.In 2013, the band was booked to play at Glastonbury Festival in the UK and toured Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden. In January 2014, The Bombay Royale made its US debut, playing at GlobalFEST at Webster Hall in New York City and at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. It has also played at many other major festivals including WOMAD (in Australia, New Zealand and the UK), Sziget in Hungary, Sakifo Music Festival in Reunion Island and Festival du Chant de Marin in France.Their second album The Island of Dr Electrico was licensed in films, video games and TV shows. Recently the band brought out its trademark sound yet again with their third album Run Kitty Run.
Full of fun, great costumes and theatre, the group has evolved into a creative force of their own infusing Indian classical, rock, pop surf, funk, cosmic disco et al with “a bit of Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and English lyrics” thrown in.
“We have very quickly got a lot of attention. I think that’s because we are so different. Our music is funky and different with very elaborate stage performances. It’s unlike anything else. It is so full of energy,” smiles Parvyn. Among their huge fan following are Russians, Japanese and Mexicans.
One of Parvyn’s fondest memories is performing at the first White night event in Melbourne in 2013. A stage was set up on the steps of Flinders Street Station where about 40,000 people crammed in at the intersection of Swanston and Flinders Street to watch them perform. “Our dressing room was at the BMW Edge so we had to leave at least half an hour earlier to walk to the stage because it was so packed with people. We had a good time slot, you can’t pay for that sort of stuff, it was just a dream-like performance and in that size crowd.”
Now that they are making their own music, Parvyn says one can’t call it Bollywood (although it is inspired by that) because it is original music made in Melbourne. “It’s also hard to call it Indian music because it is not really that either. Bollywood kind of helps label it but it is not entirely correct because it’s just a bunch of jazz musicians in Melbourne making funky music. I think one of the coolest things about the Melbourne music scene is the presence of so much world music from African to Latino, so this is just the Indian sector of that music scene.”
Parvyn was born and brought up in Adelaide. There were only a few Indian families then and her parents made a big effort to assimilate. At primary school, every now and again, she would perform a Bharatnatyam or a Bollywood dance number during assembly, her father would also go to the school and talk about his turban and show everyone how to tie one, while her mother would bring “aloo paratha” for the class to try. “We wanted to make sure people knew about us and our culture. It is like the one sandalwood tree in the forest that the whole forest can smell. For us it was an opportunity to share and to be open about our culture.”“That’s why I became such a proud Indian,” she laughs, adding, “ Holding on to my culture gave me the inspiration to say this is what makes me different, unique and special and, I suppose, you stand out that way.”
Growing up under the wings of her father who was a larger than life figure, Parvyn took to the arts naturally. She started singing with him from a very young age, following what she calls “the path of least resistance”. And he made things easier for her as she was able to make contacts in the music industry through some of his networks. “It’s not the normal path that most Indian children follow where you go to university, get married etc. Dad couldn’t tell me otherwise because I was just following his footsteps.”
At university, Parvyn dabbled in engineering but ended up doing journalism. It was something she did for fun, she admits, going with the flow of the time. However, her singing became her full time job.
After high school, she also went to India to study Kathak at the Kadamb Dance Academy in Ahmedabad under Kumudini Lakhia. Today she teaches semi-classical Kathak and Kathak beginners’ class. “I like to choreograph to Bollywood songs but in a Kathak style, I keep myself open so I can explore my choreography and add more contemporary elements to it.”
Asked if she is a better dancer or a singer, Parvyn says, “I am a singer first and dancing is something I do on the side, but in saying that, because I learnt classical dance I can teach dancing better than I can teach singing, for example. Singing is something that I have always done, I have never had lessons with singing, so it’s a different understanding of it. But I love both so much, I recall my guruji saying, ‘the singer dances within and the dancer sings within’ so that duality of both, of having this connection to the internal – is what I aim for as an artist, reaching that space of stillness where you get to a focus that is beyond the everyday norm. That is why I do art, it’s my type of meditation and what my life is about.”
Not everyone can boast of the experiences that Parvyn has had in her musical journey. Performing sitar for Pandit Ravi Shankar at his home in Delhi is one such valuable experience. Married to Josh Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist of Bombay Royale, it is said that Bennett adds a tapestry of sound to her lush voice.
Parvyn admits she loves performing at small venues such as house concerts or private functions where she is doing acoustics with Bennett and they are both singing. “It’s a different sort of communication that you can have with an audience as this unlike a big stage where the feedback is different.”
It is one of the reasons why she is now working on a solo album. “We have done the three Bombay Royale albums and we are going to put that on the side for a while, and do some Parvyn stuff,” she laughs.
The other thing that Parvyn does is cultural education shows where she goes to primary schools teaching young students about Indian music and dance. “That is part of my seva (service), teaching the general Australian public more about our culture and trying to get everyone participate. When you go out to regional towns like Geraldton in Western Australia, they’ve never done any Bollywood dance before and there’s a lot of Aboriginal communities out there and they love it.”
At the moment, Parvyn is concentrating on song writing to get her solo album out. “I have given myself three years until the actual album will be released but there will be a few singles coming out before that. I haven’t nailed the sound yet, never heard the sound of the music that I want to make. I have this craving and I can’t hear it anywhere else, it is there in my head but I haven’t brought it together yet. It’s a mix of all of my culture and all the traditional Sikh world as well but with the groove that is contemporary I suppose. It’s a rhythm I am looking for.” There is no end to what one can do but Parvyn says having a two-year old makes her realistic about her timelines.
For the moment, having just finished a big gig, Bombay Royale is having a bit of a break. “The 11 of us are more like a family and we meet often. When I moved to Melbourne, they literally adopted me. I grew up in the Sikh community a lot, that was my world and then I was introduced to this community which is different. We support each other like family and go to each other’s performances, that’s where we do our socialising – at live gigs instead of going to Gurudwara each week.. Perhaps I should do that too.”
Parvyn blends the spirit of belief with that of musical ambition.
By Indira Laisram