|Too bad I missed Paul's 50th birthday gig at CJ's Pub & Restaurant on 20 November 2011|
THE MUSICIAN’S MUSICIAN
22 December 2007
Paul Ponnudorai has been called the ‘greatest musical interpreter of our time’, but who is he?
With his long hair and easy-going demeanor, it’s easy to dismiss singer-guitarist Paul Ponnudorai as just another musician playing in a pub. But one listen to him and you’ll know he’s definitely not just hired musical help.
His fans (many of them musicians themselves) know him as the guy who can turn a tune on its head and make it an extraordinary piece of art. They bandy superlative terms like "genius" or "musical phenomenon" when describing him.
When his name popped up in a feature article in Time magazine in May this year, wherein the writer called him "possibly the greatest musical interpreter of our time," they thought his time - no pun intended - had come.
But it hadn’t. Ponnudorai still plays Thursdays to Saturdays at Harry’s bar at the Esplanade - a gig he’s had for five years. In a straw poll we conducted, many didn’t even recognise the name and one actually asked if he was "the guy who started that famous shop in Little India." (FYI: That’s P Govindasamy Pillai.)
While failure to hit the big time despite a plug from Time magazine might bug younger musicians, Ponnudorai is nonplussed: "(The Time article) was certainly a nice compliment, but I don’t think of myself as a guitar hero. I’m known and, yet again, not. I play because I love to play and sing. It keeps me happy. And if I can touch people with it, even better. Because having something is no fun unless you share it."
Ponnudorai will be sharing the music on Saturday with local jazz legend Jeremy Monteiro and American greats Tuck and Patti at the Esplanade as part of Monteiro’s annual Christmas concert series - an event the jazz maestro started five years ago.
|Rehearsing in Singapore with Jeremy Monteiro (keyboard) & Howard Levy (harp)|
"When people see him, I’m sure they will be blown away by his ability and his singing," said Monteiro, 47. "Tuck and Patti have called him a ‘phenomenon’. The people who come to the show will come away with a better understanding of who Paul is."
Still, knowing how apathetic the Singapore audience can be, Monteiro is well aware critical acclaim is not necessarily followed by fame. "If you’re good, you should be famous," said Monteiro. "But it’s not always so. Like some musicians are famous, but are they good? Paul is definitely good - one of the best kept secrets of the music world."
The story of this secret started in Ipoh, Malaysia, where Ponnudorai grew up. He picked up the ukulele when he was four and the guitar at six. A left-hander, he taught himself to play right-handed and learned to keep time by playing to the creak of an old ceiling fan. His musical influences spanned from opera to country, courtesy of his father, who would play music at home.
But Ponnudorai never thought he’d be a musician. It was his brother who invited him to play during happy hours at a piano bar in Kuala Lumpur. Said the bachelor: "And as the story goes, I walked into a bar and I never walked out."
Since then, Ponnudorai has led what many would call "a full life," although he’s only a youthful 46. He’s had to endure threats from jealous musicians wanting to cut his fingers off, and played to gun-toting gang members in nightclubs - where they made him play Wham!’s "Careless Whisper" 17 times non-stop once.
He’s also won the hearts of some of the greatest musicians, including trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and vocalist Bobby McFerrin.
|Ponnudorai's only album was released in 2005|
He’s survived two car crashes, with the second in 1992 resulting in him having brain surgery. "I was worried, after the second accident, about the extent of damage," he explained. "I was afraid to pick up the guitar."
But a few months later, a musician friend of his asked him to come on stage and jam with him. "I said: ‘No, I haven’t played the guitar in months.’ And he said: ‘Look, you believe in God, don’t you? Have faith.’ So I did go up and I played - and I haven’t stopped playing since!"
And though he may have a few regrets, Ponnudorai says the music makes up for it. "I think if I could have afforded higher education I probably would have missed out on these experiences I have garnered over the years playing music. I would not have had the interaction with people, spanning a period of 28 years. I don’t think any amount of money could buy that experience or pleasure. You know they say it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. I believe that’s true. I’m enjoying the journey right now."
MUNSHI AHMED FOR TIME
10 May 2007
A man who is quite possibly the greatest musical interpreter of our time performs every weekend at Harry's - an ordinary bar in a Singaporean shopping mall. There, before a half-empty room, while soccer matches are screened and waitresses ferry beer and fries, Paul Ponnudorai sings with astounding virtuosity, accompanied only by his Spanish guitar. His voice swoops and growls with the range and soulfulness of mid-period Stevie Wonder, and his fluid, polyrhythmic style of guitar playing appears to have little precedent. But it is his choice of material, and the inventiveness with which he arranges it, that cloaks Ponnudorai in the aura of genius.
Ponnudorai's style is to deconstruct a hackneyed standard, reassemble the parts in startlingly creative ways, and then perform it with a passion that nobody has previously dared. Thus the campfire dirge Five Hundred Miles becomes a spine-tingling R&B ballad, dripping with anguish. The Beatles' chirpy Can't Buy Me Love is transformed into a complex jazz exercise, incorporating some of the Karnatakan rhythmic phrases of Ponnudorai's South Indian ancestry. The Cascades' saccharine Rhythm of the Rain metamorphoses into the purest Burt Bacharach, with unexpected chord changes and lush melodic lines.
Comparisons could be made with José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican singer-guitarist who had 1960s hits with stylish remakes of songs like California Dreamin' and Light My Fire. But Ponnudorai is better. His ability to dice songs up, look into their hearts and perceive the common veins connecting every genre has won the attention of top international players who go to Singapore on tour. Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and vocalist Bobby McFerrin have all been in the audience. In 2002, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis showed up at a performance and was so taken by it, he grabbed his instrument and leapt onstage to play alongside a startled Ponnudorai, who did not recognize him. "He told me 'Ever since I got off the plane I've been hearing about nothing but you,'" Ponnudorai recalls. The pair jammed together for the next two nights.
|Photo by Jack Hoo|
Marsalis was referring to the buzz Ponnudorai generates among local and overseas musicians. Among the public, it is another matter. If you watch Ponnudorai play, there will typically be a handful of fans near the stage. Everyone else will be at the other end of the room, noisily drinking and making a mockery of Singapore's reputation as a city at the forefront of smoking cessation. The kind of musician that the world produces only a few times in a generation is in the house, but the laity barely notice.
[Read the rest here.]