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Keeper of the keys

Composer, arranger, performer, educator... Stephen Devassy juggles several hats in his quest to entertain the audience, writes PRINCE FREDERICK

PHOTO: S.S. KUMAR

Tryst with tunes Pianist Stephen Devassy

Stephen Devassy marries the classical to the contemporary, the Western to the Eastern, and this is reflected in the collage of pictures at his audio engineering school, a mix of music maestros across centuries, continents and genres. The 30-year-old pianist, today, is widely regarded as an enthralling stage performer, an innovative arranger of film music and a brilliantly original composer.

Stephen, who hails from Ottapalam in Palakkad district, has been displaying his virtuosity with the keys since his late teens, when he began to receive opportunities to perform and work with the cream of the nation's music fraternity, including A.R. Rahman, Zakir Hussain, Amjad Ali Khan, Hariharan, Anandan Sivamani, Shankar Mahadevan and Mandolin U. Shrinivas. But it is only in the last six years, after he began operating from Chennai, that Stephen has evolved into a musician with a clear vision of where he wants to go.Part of this vision is Musik Lounge Studios, a professional recording facility in Saligramam, and the state-of-the-art Musik Lounge School of Audio Technology in Vadapalani (promoted by Hariharan, Sivamani, M. Jayachandran and Stephen's elder brother, Samuel Devassy). This infrastructure enables Stephen to generate a staggering amount of arrangements for films and private albums. (In a career spanning around 13 years, he has arranged music for 2000 songs in various languages).

"Being based in Chennai gives me a strong foothold in the South Indian film music industry," says Stephen. "Even the songs for Malayalam films are largely programmed in Chennai." The amount of work in the studios and the easy accessibility to performers encouraged Stephen to launch his school. "Our students experience firsthand the science of music-making. They also get to meet the experts in the field. "His greatest passion, however, is performing on stage. He is, right now, red-eyed from lack of sleep, having returned from Dubai just a few hours before this interview. "He is always sleep-starved," complains Venkataraman, a key figure at the music school and Hariharan's former keyboardist.

Stephen is much sought after for his solo shows, where he often juggles with three or four keyboards. He values extemporaneity and stage shows allow his imagination a free rein. He also enjoys innovating with other stalwarts. He has given about 60 ghazal performances with Hariharan. "None of them had a rehearsal," says Stephen. Four years ago, Stephen formed a deep friendship with Sivamani during a performance in Dubai. "Sivamani was all set to start his solo performance, when he asked me if we could jam together." Since then, Stephen and Sivamani have shared over a hundred platforms, enthralling thousands of music lovers.

Stephen believes that the utmost purpose of music is to give joy to listeners. "This can be achieved only if a performer bothers to find out what his audience want to hear. "My early training on the piano was restricted to Western classical music, and I played Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin to audiences in Ottapalam and Thrissur who could not much appreciate it," recalls Stephen.

"As I played my pieces fast, they seemed impressed. And when I began to introduce tunes - drawn from local films and folk music - the change was dramatic. They applauded, because they enjoyed what they heard."

Stephen has never forgotten this lesson. From collaborating with sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan for an album of Christmas carols to mixing western tunes with Sanskrit slokas for a Kosmic Music production to making his world music album Romanza, Stephen has consistently demonstrated that a rich mix of diverse elements is what makes music entertaining. No wonder the applause doesn't stop.

* * *

A musical life

"I could not have helped becoming a musician," says Stephen Devassy, crediting his musical inclinations to his hometown of Ottapalam. "Kathakali and Ottamthullal performances were part of the festivities at the temple behind our house. A piano was heard at the Seventh Day Adventist church in the front. Dapankuthu and band music were also a regular feature of life." As a child from an orthodox Protestant family, Stephen had an early exposure to Church hymns and western music. "As an 11-year-old, I accompanied my brother, Samuel Devassy, to his violin class with Leslie Peter, who also took guitar and keyboard classes. Later, I joined Leslie's keyboard class with a Casio MT 600. Thanks to the training, I could play simple hymns." His focus was sharpened when his father, P.K. Devassy, brought from Dubai a Kenwood system, accompanied by CDs of Eric Clapton Unplugged, Michael Jackson's Dangerous, Boney M and a symphony based solely on the violin. Suddenly, practicing to play the keyboard became the topmost priority. During the six-month vacation following his Class X board exams, Stephen - who had now graduated to a Korg I3 - was taken to Chetna Music Academy in Thrissur to learn to play the piano from Fr. Thomas. "I was placed 250th on the waiting list," recalls Stephen. "My father requested Fr. Thomas to hear me play a piece. I chose Yanni's Nostalgia, which I had learnt by ear. Fr. Thomas asked me to join immediately." The rest, as they say, is history.

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