When will I ever see, that you’re wise and free
When will I ever stop holding you down
When will I ever know it’s time to let you go
Into the destiny to which you were born…
Two years ago, at Kolkata’s popular Sienna Cafe, singer-songwriter Jayashree Singh and guitar legend Amyt Datta performed songs from their Skinny Alley repertoire. One of them was When Will I, a song written by Singh for her son, Jivraj “Jiver” Singh, drummer and one half of dream-pop duo, Parekh & Singh. To say that it is a song about motherhood, would be doing Singh a terrible disservice — to write simply, and encompass an entire universe of emotions in a few lines does not come easy. But Singh always made her gifts look and sound effortless, smiling frequently and easily as she swayed behind a microphone. When news broke, last morning, that Singh, who founded and fronted Kolkata bands, Skinny Alley and PINKNOISE, had passed away in Chennai after a prolonged illness, there was only one thing to do —listen to her again.
Growing up in Kolkata, I had seen only two women rock a microphone with pizzazz — Usha Uthup and Singh. Singh’s mentor and guru, the famous Pam Crain, was much before my time; Uthup was a delight to watch in her Kanjeevaram saris and gajras, but it was Singh and Skinny Alley who made an entire generation want to be like them. The band, comprising Singh, her husband and bassist Gyan Singh, Datta on guitars, Jeffrey Menezes on keyboards, and Jeremy Rikh on drums, had been performing together since the 1970s. A hit on the live scene, they only brought out their debut album, Escape the Roar, in January 2003; a heady mix of rock with bluesy and edgy riffs. While the first track, the immensely hummable Fence, gained popularity on the radio, MTV and Channel [V], the album was replete with quiet gems like Used to be mine, and Hey Hey, songs that captured the anxiety of urban life.
In 2006, Singh, Gyan, Datta and the teenage Jivraj, came together as PINKNOISE, switching from a classic rock sound to something more experimental. In a 2008 interview with The Indian Express, she talked about the happy domesticity her life had offered her: dinner and music practice were under the same roof. “One evening, three years ago, Gyan came back from work (he managed a hotel in central Kolkata) and we heard Jiver playing. We walked in and just caught on with the jam,” she said. Soon enough, so did the rest of us, as the Singh family and Datta performed extensively at music festivals that were mushrooming all over India in the late 2000s.
Watching Singh perform was always an exhilarating experience. There was never any of that showboating that plagues so many singers, just an unabashed zest for the music. Born into an Iyer family, Singh had fleetingly trained in Carnatic classical before her father asked her to give it up, and try western music. It was her work with PINKNOISE that truly illuminated her vocal range: she could go from melisma to scat in a second.
I met Singh at a gig in July 2014, two years after Gyan had lost his battle with cancer. She was warm, friendly and genuine as always, but she didn’t glow as bright as before; the loss had been hard to bear. Singh’s sudden passing will also be difficult to come to terms with, but she is reunited with her best friend and soulmate. Look up tonight, there’ll be a great gig in the sky.
While some would say she had stage presence, I’d simply say she had presence, whether in a room or a car or a hall or the stage or a festival. She has always been the nucleus of all activity. It’s just that there was seldom anyone with that kind of clarity and wisdom. So everybody went to her. She has helped people at many levels, and not just music. She cured my migraines with a Japanese therapy, my wrist pains with yoga, and of course she cured my music by letting me hang out and perform with her. She is one of the primary builders of the independent music scene in India. That house has been a destination for musicians all over the country. I take solace in the fact that she is with her husband Gyan and I’ll miss them terribly, especially their incredible sarcasm and wit. Whenever I say something nonsensical, I’ll miss that expression on Jay’s face. I hope she has a great gig in the sky. The whole scene will feel her absence.
Music director, singer-songwriter
I knew Jayashree and Gyan for almost 20 years and for me they’ll always be some of the greatest friends I’ve had. We played at so many festivals together, spent so much time talking about music, and absolutely nothing. She was a rockstar and had played music for more than four decades. She was one of the finest human beings I knew. She helped so many artistes. They earned respect by being the humble souls that they were. Almost every second musician has a Jayashree story. I remember, once, at a festival, we were doing soundchecks on two stages, 100 metres apart, and she said, “It’s about to be 10, the booze shops will shut. Does anyone need anything?’ It was funny and sweet at the same time. The warmth from her and her beautiful, humble family, was so wonderful. I’m sure she and Gyan will soon have a band up there and jam together.
Lead keyboard player, Parikrama
It’s a huge loss for the music community and the people close to her. Skinny Alley had performed at Blue Frog a few years back; they were so esoteric and avant-garde, way ahead of their time. She was at the forefront
of the indie music industry before it was called indie.
Musician and co-founder, Blue Frog
I entered the scene when I was 21, and was the baby of the band for many years. Everyone I was working with was much older. Jay was a strong presence then, musically and personally. She was the only real female role model on the scene. She was everything — grace, performance, humour, kindness and no-nonsense. She would take out time to tell people that she appreciated them. The last I met her was when she came for my gig with Karan (Joseph) at Big Ben in Kolkata in 2016. She spoke about our duty as musicians to push every boundary and be fearless.
Compiled by Suanshu Khurana and Surbhi Gupta