Hania Luthufi has many cousins. It was in their company that she had her first “voice training sessions” – learning how to recite the Quran in classes organised in the family home. “I shared my childhood with about 15 cousins,” she says, “all of us lived in the vicinity. Every day at 4, us grandkids would be taught together.” Hania has since had many teachers, the newest of which are her gurus at the Viswa Bharathi, Santiniketan in West Bengal, India. In the town where Rabindranath Tagore built a home, Hania is studying the songs he wrote while undergoing her training in Indian classical vocals and learning how to play the table as part of a B.Mus. The last she says provides the perfect break from focusing on pitch and note – for a while at least, it’s all about the beat.
Hania is fresh from ‘Bass for Voice II’ in Galle, the second in a series of concerts she and double bass player Isaac Smith have been collaborating on. There’s a video of their performance up on youtube – Hania’s lovely voice twining around the thrumming of the strings as Isaac plays ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me.’ “It’s really bare, so it’s interesting how we have to stick to each other to make that melody work,” says Hania. The clip is from their first concert, for the second they stepped outside the bounds of jazz and experimented with some Indian classical music for the bow bass while incorporating samples and beats. Hania also turned to some of her favourite poets for inspiration, making lyrics of their poems. (‘As clouds do drift above our heads/ As dreams do flit above our beds/So time does seep through our lives/ Where does it go? When it has past, what do we have to show?’)
Her own experiments with writing lyrics also read like poetry. Most of her recordings exist as rough pieces, lying in friend’s email boxes or turned into CDs and birthday gifts; they are nowhere near being a complete album. “When I know the time is right, I’ll polish it and complete it,” she says. Much of her most recent work in writing original music has been with The Flaming Mungoes – a band made up of students from Santiniketan, all of whom have in common a passion for Indian classical music but whose influences range from medieval church music, American Jazz, Soul, Roots Reggae, Folk, African chants and more. With them, Hania has been exploring her ability to improvise – she says it’s what both the traditions of Jazz and Indian classical have in common. “The surer you get of a melody, the freer you become of it.”
As a musician, she’s learned that composing can be a wonderfully collaborative experience. “People can just take you there,” she says, admitting also that for her it’s an unpredictable process. Some pieces come easier than others – “Sometimes the words carry the melody in them, sometimes the melody is waiting for the words.”
Having performed together (a lovely video filmed in a fir forest records Hania and her band mate, the French guitarist Axel Onnestead on an acoustic performance) The Flaming Mungoes are considering recording an album in France. Their work reflects Hania’s own concerns as an artist as she explores the kind of musician she wants to be. Increasingly she feels the times call for music that has a message in it. “I would say my writing always speaks of a yearning to go slower, to make every exchange a sincere one, to not have all these conditions we have between ourselves as human beings,” says Hania.
Her ambition has evolved considerably from when she was a young student of Ruwani Seimon and a member of the Bishop’s College choir (and later at the Elizabeth Moir School). Having begun performing around the age of 15, her earliest mentors were the people she played with like Jerome Speldewinde, Stephen Phillips and Ray Gomez, her influences the “serious listening sessions” with good friends and their parents. In those years she moved a lot from duos to trios to quartets, playing at events at Barefoot and at Jazz Unlimited. She remembers in particular the lessons in articulation, intonation and phrasing from her collaborators that defined the way she delivered a Jazz piece. (“It is how you shape the word that makes Jazz,” she says now, “Jazz is a feeling that you carry.”)
However, despite being hailed as one of the better singer on the circuit, Hania felt she was in danger of “getting lost in the performances here.” “It’s easy to start thinking you’re making it and that can stop you from learning,” she says now, “I wanted a place that would give me the time and place, to learn something in a non-city environment.” Finding that space in Santiniketan has given this young artist the self-assurance not only to challenge herself but also to return home. “Dipping in and out of Sri Lanka I can see my confidence as an artist grow,” says Hania.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 11 August, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara