ritish songstress Tanya Wells has recently caused a stir with her soulful renditions of well-known ghazals. The stark contrast between her blonde hair and blue eyes and the ease with which she expresses melodies and emotions in refined Urdu prose provokes the curiosity of many. But there is far more to Tanya than meets the eye. From a young age, her journey has naturally led to this blend of musical styles, genres and backgrounds. As I found out one evening, for Tanya, it was only a matter of time before she would present this story to the world.
The formative years of Tanya’s childhood were spent at a boarding school in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, where she received a creative education and where devotional bhajans were a part of her environment. Although she might not have realised it at the time, this experience sowed the seeds for Tanya’s artistic outlook. She was always fascinated by the power of words and wrote her first poem at the age of 8. In her teenage years back in England, she listened to jazz and folk greats including Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell while taking guitar lessons and playing the piano as an accompaniment to songwriting. Tanya was also exposed to spiritual themes through Sahaja Yoga and was constantly curious about the experiences that surrounded her.
“There was always that need to tell a story. I felt like whether it’s acting or writing or singing, you’re conveying something and that’s what I’ve always wanted to express,” Tanya says.
After completing her BA in Theatre and Performance from Warwick University, Tanya decided to take a year out to travel to India where her friend had recommended a singing teacher named Prabhakar Dhakde. “I’d grown up seeing Guruji perform. He’s an incredible harmonium player and a blind musician. I was always astounded by his musicianship. He’s just so graceful,” Tanya recalls. But when she started to delve deeper into Indian classical music, Tanya realised that a month of learning was nowhere near enough time. “I really wanted to go for longer. Guruji teaches many different styles including classical and light classical and he has helped me so much with my singing technique. I really want to continue learning with him because of that.”
After returning to the UK, Tanya enrolled for a Master’s degree in International Performance Research and travelled regularly from Warwick to Leicester where she continued to learn Indian classical vocal music under Tofail Ahmed. She began to experiment with different genres and styles in her songwriting, but her interest in singing ghazals has only developed recently.
“I guess most of the ghazals I’ve heard have a longing feeling, which is just an emotion that I’m drawn to and I love the way that the poetry is expressed. It’s the sound of Urdu mixed with the influence of Indian classical music and the appeal of the rāga. It might be a mix of a few different rāgas, but you have the sentiment to express that poetry.”
Her videos on YouTube as well as live performances of ghazals in London earlier this year have been met with a tremendously positive response. The soft versatility of Tanya’s voice weaves around melodic embellishments and her catchy adaptations of English translations open up another dimension of musical understanding and expression. One of the most surprising elements of Tanya’s renditions is her accurate pronunciation of Urdu, one of the most poetic of languages. “I can hear how words should sound, I guess, because I listened to a lot of Hindi growing up but I appreciate all the corrections I can get. It’s something that I still need to learn but I make sure I understand every part of what I’m singing. I read the translation and I speak to someone who can tell me what the poetry means, so that when I sing it I can try to express it to the best of my ability.”
Some viewers have noted that it is quite daring for anyone to even attempt to sing the songs of greats such as Mehdi Hassan, but Tanya’s response emphasises that she is still very much a student. Her intention is to focus not on perfection but genuine emotion. “You could say that I am ignorantly blissful. For me, I just find the form fascinating and I want to learn it, it’s as simple as that. I see it as more of a personal challenge to just see if I can actually do it!”
Some of the most moving responses to her recent performances have been from the Pakistani community – individuals as well as national TV channels and news outlets. Tanya serves as a positive symbol compared to the negative media attention that the culture of Pakistan often receives. “I think it’s amazing for people to see that a ‘gori’ or ‘white girl’ can actually connect with someone in Pakistan and maybe even break a few stereotypes about what Western women are. There’s a connection and recognition with the music but I’m not doing that. That’s the music and I’m just a student of that.”
So what’s next for this nomadic storyteller and cultural transcender? Well, along with crowdfunding for an album with her husband, Brazilian classical guitarist Paulo Vinícius, and expert tabla player Shahbaz Hussain with whom she’ll be touring Pakistan in April, she’s working on her solo album, Lessons. Inspired by exchanges in Indian classical music with her Guru and partly produced by Shammi Pithia, the album is due for release in 2017.
Her humble hopes for the future are to continue to learn and become a more mature musician with a greater ease of expression. When I ask Tanya what drives her, she responds: “I think with music, whether it’s performing or writing or just trying to get the emotion, it’s about connection. Connection with the audience, connection to yourself, connection to the feeling you have, what you’re trying to express or even connecting to God. Music can bring you to a state of union.”
Tanya brings together a rich array of diverse musical influences to create a melodious voice of the modern age. Instead of cherry-picking, she gets to the heart of meaning and reveals that blending styles together results in a unified beauty that is unique yet universal in its message.