Jeffrey Iqbal on how a generous moment from A R Rahman ignited his musical career.
I am originally from Newark, Delaware. My father, born in Gujarat, India, and mother, born in Karachi, Pakistan, moved to the United States decades ago, where they had three children.
As a first generation American desi, I felt fortunate being exposed to so many more diverse cultures, languages, foods, countries, music and people than my average American friends.
One of those major life-changing things in my home was music. Listening to 1980s pop music on the radio, then hearing Hindustani classical at home, I was exposed to two ends of a spectrum.
As I got older, one of those styles of music was developed more than the other. Although I was in the school band and choir, I had also started learning the tabla, Hindustani classical and light vocals. I taught myself how to play the harmonium.
It wasn't long before my affinity to desi music would turn into pubic performances and local music competitions. Years past and life moved on. Eight years on, the music had left my life.
In the summer of 2007, I took my last leap of faith. For years I had tried to audition for many musical shows and teams but failed. I was down to my last bit of effort, when I saw an article in India Abroad, titled 'A R Rahman's Talent Hunt.' Even then I didn't see how I could stand a chance, so I did nothing. As the deadline to submit a recording came near, I had a feeling inside that told me to just send it.
So I did, with very little expectations of hearing back. Within a couple of weeks, I got a phone call saying that I made it to the next round and that I needed to come to New York to audition live.
Keeping this a secret from everyone, I drove to New York where contestants from all over the US and Canada were present. One by one I heard these talented people sing, and I knew I didn't stand a chance. It was finally time for my name to be called. As I walked toward the room where I was going to audition, I held my harmonium in one hand while a cameraman from the network recorded my every move. I walked into the room, looked to my left, and there he was, A R Rahman.
Usually, I'm quite nervous to perform in front of anyone, but for some reason, I felt very comfortable and reassured. AR was a very down-to-earth, soft-spoken person. Someone I felt comfortable around immediately. After the audition process was over, all the contestants were brought into a room where the winner was to be announced. Rahman, feeling generous, decided to select six people instead of one. As all the contestants circled around him and anxiously awaited to hear his selection, I was the only one sitting in the back of the room on a couch, playing a game of solitaire on my phone. That is until the second name he called was mine.
I could feel the look of shock on my face. Then a smile I couldn't get rid of, no matter how calm and collected I wanted to appear.
A few days later I was to perform in New York City at the Nassau Coliseum for 16,000 people. The moment I walked into that stadium, I was amazed. I got to meet with A R Rahman, Hariharan, Sukhwinder Singh, Chitra, and many other musicians and entertainers I have been watching and listening to for years. Watching all of the rehearsals, which Rahman conducted, meeting everyone, and then finally performing, was a life-changing experience. It was something I never could have anticipated. I was on stage with an orchestra including some of the most talented musicians in the world.
As the anxious crowd settled into their seats, I started to pray. I hoped I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself and hoped I could impress Rahman and the audience. The time came, my name was announced, and I was on autopilot walking onto the stage. Rahman to my left on the keyboard, and in front of me a sea of 16,000 people!
At that moment I made another prayer. That one day I would be on a stage like this again, but the crowd would be there to see me, and to listen to my songs. It was that very moment that changed a part of me. I felt something like never before, and it was to be my destiny to reach my goal.
In 2008, once again another opportunity was presented to me. A dream of my mother's, and a secret dream of mine, was to one day perform on the television show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. I got wind that Sa Re Ga Ma Pa was hosting a US challenge and auditions were to be held in six major cities around the states.
Once again, I didn't want to spread the word of my audition for fear that I wouldn't make the cut. I travelled again to New York where I was to perform. They took us in by groups of 10. When my group was called into the auditorium, I was shaking. Somehow, after my voice cracked twice due to nerves, the judge said he would give me a pass to the second round. Second round, I came up on stage, performed a few songs, and was asked to go to the lobby to wait and hear the final results. I was selected to be on the national list to be on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, USA. I was so surprised yet humbled at the same time.
The shoot was to take place in Dallas, Texas. As the episodes rolled by, so did eliminations, until it came down to six contestants. I finished as the runner up.
A week later, I was on an Air India flight heading to Mumbai, leaving my friends and family behind in search for a future. There are a million stories I could tell you about my experience in India, but I will stick to the competition. This was the most talented bunch of singers I have ever been around. I went from competitive mode to student mode. On one of the episodes, I got to perform for Asha Bhosle twice. I was truly honoured at her comments toward my performance, and I'll never forget those moments.
I was able to rate myself against the best. The day I was leaving the show, I said to the world that they would hear from me again. And they would also hear my original music. That is my dream.
Today I sit here in the US with my dreams. I hope I am able to incorporate my musical influences into my music, and leave my footprint in this world. I hope I can bring soulful music to the world and represent my American, Indian, and Pakistani cultures to the fullest!