Welcome to the Gaana Music Festival blog! As we count down to the largest Indian music festival in North America, you can expect exclusive content here – from interviews to behind the scenes, from observations to insider tips.
Few names in Bollywood music are as ubiquitous as Alka Yagnik: Indeed, in the 90s and 00s, you’ll be hard pressed to find a film soundtrack that does not feature her talents – usually accompanied by Kumar Sanu, Udit Narayan or Sonu Nigam. With a voice that suits several moods and actresses, it’s easy to see why she’s been going strong for close to four decades. We’re honoured to have her perform at Gaana Music Festival, and double honoured to have an exclusive interview with her!
GMF: Alka, thanks for doing this interview! First up – you have had such a long career that has spanned decades. So let’s talk about two of the most active ones – the 1990s vs 2000s: The great battle over which was a better era for Hindi film music rages on for listeners and fans. You’ve had superhit tracks in both decades – where do you stand on this debate?
AY: It’s not like every song in either decade was good! Every era has its mix of good and bad music. But the 90s had romantic, soft melodies, that were just so lovely to listen to… I would pick that.
GMF: There are numerous ‘Alka Yagnik Top 10 Songs’ lists out there. But what if someone had never heard your songs and you had to recommend only 3 songs of yours to best show them who you are as an artist. Which ones would you pick?
AY: Well, that’s a tough one! I’d rather choose three albums: I would choose Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Refugee. These were albums in which all the songs were great.
Music from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak resonates even today, close to 30 years after it was released.
GMF: What is the toughest song you have ever had to sing? Why was it so challenging?
AY: There is no song that is really tough. Initially every song is challenging because you have to get the right notes, sit with the song, understand what is required etc. You put in that effort and you get it right. The real challenge for a singer is that no matter how difficult a song is, it should sound easy to the ears of the listener. When anyone hears a song, they should say: this is easy, and even I could sing it.
GMF: Based on the fact that re-making and recreating iconic nostalgia tracks like Tamma Tamma or your own Ek Do Teen is very in vogue right now…
Do you have a classic track that you wish nobody EVER touches?
AY: Honestly all these songs are superhits, and they are not the kind that should be disturbed. I feel it’s useless to do that because the original can never be matched. You can’t compete with it. No matter what you do, how many gimmicks you add, change the arrangement, make it more modern, what sounds best is the original. Why don’t you make fresh songs and see the kind of popularity you can bring in with original music?
The original Ek Do Teen, a superhit from a golden era of Bollywood music.
GMF: If you got the chance to turn the tables, which current original film track would you like to re-sing/re-do and why?
AY: No question – I would never ever do that! I’ve been offered this in the past… to do Lata Didi’s songs, I’ve outright refused. I would have done it if I thought I could have done better, but that is never happening. So I will never do these versions , it’ll just be ruining songs and nothing else.
GMF: You’ve gone on record saying you enjoy concerts more than playback singing. In your opinion, how are concerts abroad different from performances back home? Do you feel, like some performers have said before, that NRI audiences are a far more appreciative audience when it comes to live shows?
AY: There was a time when I used to enjoy doing recordings. We used to have live recordings at that time with an orchestra. But now recordings are scattered… Done in different places. Singing live at concerts is much more fun. The audience is right in front of you and whatever you sing you see a reaction instantly. The way people go crazy over a song, it shows you how popular your songs are. That interaction and that bond between the artist and the audience right there is what gives me a huge high. And that’s helped me open up on stage a lot more and I now do a lot more concerts. As for NRI audiences: they are more responsive. For them it’s a treat because they don’t often get to hear us in front of them. They’re so far away from the country and that feeling that this artist is here amongst us, in front of us and singing is big for them makes them euphoric.
GMF: We don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that you’re the queen of duets. You’ve managed to be a fabulously successful solo and duet artist at the same time, which is something we’ve seen very few singers be able to do. What makes the perfect duet? What are some things you would tell young singers about duets?
AY: There is no formula for anything. You just have to do it with focus and with your heart. And then if the audience accepts you with open arms, nothing like it. No matter how much good work you do, if the audience doesn’t like what you’ve done then it’s all a waste. I’ve always just focused on my work and sung every song sincerely. From my heart and my soul. And if something is done from the heart then it definitely touches other hearts. So solo or duet doesn’t really matter. A song is a song, what matters is how much you’ve put your heart into it. There’s no other trick or formula for it.
Throughout the 90s and 00s, Alka lent her voice to some of the country’s most popular songs in duets with amazing male singers like Udit Narayan (here), Kumar Sanu and Sonu Nigam.
GMF: Musicians and singers often say they listen to all kinds of music. Honestly tell us what is one genre of music you absolutely cannot listen to or understand! Alternately, what is a music genre you enjoy, that your fans would be surprised you listen to?
AY: I enjoy soft romantic melodies. I don’t like very heavy stuff or music that is very complicated. I like something with good lyrics and a soulful melody. Simple songs that touch your heart, that make you feel nice and relaxed. I’m inspired by Lata Di’s songs, by Kishore Da’s songs. I like listening to Mehdi Hassan, to Reshma. I also like Barbara Streisand’s way of singing, the way she projects her voice, her full-throated soulful singing. Sure, there are exceptions, but by and large music that calms the nerves is my cup of tea.
GMF: Lastly – You’ve been asked over the last couple of years why you don’t sing as much now, and you’ve said that contemporary songs don’t suit your voice. How do you judge if a song will suit you or not? Is there a formula/checklist you have? Also is that the only reason to say yes or no to a song, or are there other factors that aspiring singers should keep in mind?
AY: The genre and the style that is in vogue right now, most of the songs are not my kind of songs that I would be comfortable singing. My 90s songs are equally popular, if not more, even now. And in my concerts I don’t even get time to perform them all…there are just so many. So I’m not interested in just going on singing songs that don’t make sense to me or suit me. If a song is my kind of song, then it’ll come to me. Otherwise it’s pointless going on singing something or the other. When a composer approaches me, I listen to the song, and if I feel that I’m comfortable with it , I agree to do it. The melody, the lyrics, the range, what kind/style of song, will it sound good in my voice or will it sound awkward…all of it plays a part in my decision.
Catch Alka Yagnik perform her biggest hits live alongside a fantastic music & comedy line-up at Gaana Music Festival: June 8th (New Jersey) and June 9th (California). Be there!
We also did a playlist featuring Alka Yagnik: With songs through the years. See it here.
Please note: The responses in this interview have been edited for brevity.