Stephen Devassy believes presenting old classics in a vibrant way will make youngsters fall in love with them. City Times chats with the young pianist, who was in town for a stage performance at Dubai Wonderland
STEPHEN DEVASSY lives, dreams and breathes music. He is the sort of musician who caters for the youth with his electrifying presentations, but keeps the genuine values of music. He recreates old music in a new and vibrant style, woven by his own way of remix. Music is Stephen’s love, passion and career. He brilliantly composes, sets tunes and arranges music for the Indian music industry.
Stephen Devassy is a pianist from South India who was initiated into learning the piano at the age of 10. He is the record holder as Asia’s highest scorer in solo piano exams from Trinity School of Music, London. His forte is to play solo live, where his speed, control, dexterity, and expressiveness are unbelievable. Stephen’s solo stage shows have propelled him to the top league of on-stage performers.
Stephen has accompanied stalwarts like Dr. L Subramaniam, Padmasri Hariharan, Kavitha Krishnamoorthy, the Colonial Cousins and various celebrities for their concerts, and has performed in a number of prestigious venues the world over. His repertoire includes arranging music for leading South Indian music directors, and composing music for various events like Miss Kerala 2007, directing numerous music albums like The Sacred Chants and jingles which are very popular and on air. He has also arranged music for Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s latest album. Now, the 25-year-old fingersmith is one of the highest paid keyboardists in India.
Stephen Devassy was in town for a stage performance at Dubai Wonderland, along with his crew. He chats to City Times.
Retro remix revolution is what makes you stand out from other young musicians. What is the concept of retro remix revolution?
I have been experimenting with the concept for the last two years. It’s a contemporary performance, yet inspired by classics. I love old music so much. I want to pour the magical feel that I experience from old music to my generation. As old music gives prominence to the lyrics and has some technical and instrumental limitations, I remake the same in a vibrant way, mixing up the elements of Western and advanced musical instruments. So, youngsters can easily fall in love with the old songs presented in a new style.
Have you faced any opposition for diverting from the traditional way?
It has invited both positive and negative criticism. But I am satisfied with the heartfelt responses from people of my age. That’s my inspiration and my strength. I am aware that I am not doing any harm to music. What I do is attracting the young generation to the music of the past generation. I do try to wipe away the cultural and time differences between the old and young generations. It’s like building a sophisticated bridge between old and contemporary music. My efforts are to change the colour of music, not its pillars or foundation. Painting the old music with new colours is a painful process, as it has involved the risks of keeping the old music without losing its genuine values. Well-wishers appreciate the different way of presentation.
What is your concept of music?
It’s very simple. Music should be enjoyable. Listeners should be able to satisfy their tastes. Music relaxes us, rejuvenates our mind and helps us escape from the stresses of hectic life. I try to make waves among youth with music, because I represent them.
On-stage performances and composing music for albums are the two areas that you have been exploring at the same time. What gives you more satisfaction?
Both are totally different. Concerts and compositions provide us satisfaction in different ways. Stage performances help us receive instant responses. As we interact with the audience through music, we can judge their level of enjoyment of the performance. But in case of composing or arranging music for albums or films, it takes time to judge the success of music.
What are the models of keyboards you play on?
Mainly three: Korg Triton, Kurzweil, K 2600, and a modulator.
When did your passion for music begin?
When I was a schoolboy, my brother Sam used to learn violin at a church near our school. Inspired by him, I started to practice keyboard from the violinist Leslie Peter in 6th grade. Gradually I became a regular performer at the church. After 10th grade, I joined Chetana Music Academy in Thrissur, which is affiliated to Trinity College, London. Fr. Thomas at Chetana taught me the perfection and discipline needed for a pianist. This was the place where I learned more deeply about keyboard.
When did you get your career break?
My career break came when I was 18 years old and doing orchestration for two songs of an album by Johny Sagarika. After that, I got an invitation to play for the versatile Ghazal singer Hariharan on his Europe tour. We performed Ghazal and Western music fusion in the US, Canada, Paris, Germany, Belgium, Rome, South Africa and Middle East. It was a big experience, which made me learn Western classical music better. For three years, I played for Hariharan’s Ghazal concerts on hundreds of stages. It was like a being in a school. I also accompanied the violin maestro L. Subramanian at the Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival, and got the opportunity to arrange three songs rendered by Kavitha Krishnamoorthy for the concert of the London Symphony. Another proud achievement of mine is the chance to arrange and programme music for Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s latest project Breaking Barriers, an album of X-mas carols and hymns launched by Times Music. When I was 19, me and singers Franco Simon, and Sangeeth together started a music band called Seven. We composed and produced a bunch of albums and devotional series including the Hindi album Yeh Zindagi and the Sacred Chants of Kosmic Music, which has now released five volumes. With Sanskrit slokas, mantras and verses from the Upanishads, the Sacred Chants were set to a background of western music. I was also the keyboardist with Rex, the popular Gospel rock band. Music director and SS music trainer Alphonse Joseph was also a part of the band, which released my first solo album Different Vibes. I music directed and played the piano for the album, a bouquet of romantic pieces on Biblical themes. Through the Rex Band, we got a rare chance to play in front of the late Pope John Paul II.
How was the experience of performing in front of the Pope?
Imagine... a million people gathered at a giant venue spread over 15 kilometres, 60 music bands from across the world performing, and above all the Pope listening. It was a great opportunity to be on stage. Our Rex Band was representing India at the Conference on World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada. It was really amazing. Performances of the international bands were highly professional. I realised the secret of their perfection. It is dedication and focus, that the Indian music industry lacks. Indian music is not inferior, but our perspective is inferior.
You debuted in the Malayalam film industry with a Mohanlal movie. After that, no offers for composing film music have come your way..
Johny Sagariga introduced me to the producer of the film Hariharan Pilla Happyanu. Though the film was a flop, a number of offers have come my way. But I didn’t accept any. I don’t want to be trapped in film music. So I decided to stay away from being a traditional music composer for films. Meanwhile, I have worked with AR Rahman for the Vijay movie Azhakiya Tamizh Makan, and have done music arrangements for Vidyasagar's Majaa, and Thampi and Mohan Sitara's Nammal, and also for Ouseppachan. I also sang the song Purinchiricha Purinchiricha for the film Emttan Mahan, composed by Vidhyasagar.
‘Reality shows are not so real’. Being the background keyboardist for the blockbuster reality show ‘Super Star’ on Amrita TV, how do you take the criticism?
I am not bothered about it. I am optimistic, because it provides a platform for hundreds of budding talents to grow up. Let them utilise their opportunities to get noticed.
Tell us about your recently released piano album ‘Romanza’...
It’s a mix of world music, sprinkled with the flavour of real piano. Indian Ragaas are treated with the rich use of contemporary piano. Hariharan, Ouseppachan and a Russian vocalist appear as guest artistes on the album.
Thanks to Khaleej Times