Roe Vincent, Kanakavalli’s July Vignette, discovered her passion for music early on, and always knew that she wanted to make a career in the field. Now a singer and pianist who works in the film industry, performs at gigs, and leads the vocal group 'El Fé’, Roe is living her dream. Finding inspiration in the rhythms of African music and the raw, powerful sounds of gospel choirs, Roe brings her beautiful voice and unique arrangements to varied genres and languages. While reflecting on her journey in a conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, she also shares some of her favourite artists, and lets us in on the independent acts to watch out for in India. For Roe, beauty lies in staying true to yourself, and tradition is the perfect balance between what we grow up with and what we discover for ourselves. In the midst of practices, workshops and more, Roe takes the time to browse through the Kanakavalli repertoire to curate a selection of saris that reflect her joyful soul and her love for the sari that she inherited from her mother. Excerpts of the conversation below…
Music for the Soul
Tell us about when you first discovered a love for music, and the journey that brought you to where you are today.
I have always been surrounded by music, even before I was born, when my mother would sing to me. Both my parents are amateur musicians, and both sides of the family are very musical. I really don’t think I could have escaped it even if I’d wanted to—but I do think music and I were meant to be.
Above (clockwise from top left): Roe as a child with her father; With her mother as a baby - both Roe's parents and their families are very musical; Roe started singing, playing the piano and performing at the age of 4.
Ever since I started thinking about my future, I have always known I wanted to be a musician. My passion for music has taken over every part of my life. I’ve been singing and playing the piano since I was four years old, and I think that my contemporary sense of music comes from listening and performing. I have also completed eight grades of piano from the Trinity College of London, and I have a bachelor’s degree in music from the Berklee College of Music.
My absolute favourite genre is gospel. I also love reggae, reggaeton, Afrobeat, and anything else with African origins. I try to incorporate all of these in my work, which is largely for the Indian film industry. I think people enjoy these new sounds—the harmonies and rhythms are quite different from what they’re used to hearing.
When I first started out, there wasn’t much of an independent music scene in India. Even now, while it has come a long way, it isn’t easy to make a living as an independent musician. I was lucky that I was able to make my first foray into the film industry after I started working with the KM Music Conservatory founded by AR Rahman in 2011. Since then, there has been no looking back.
I also teach music, both vocals and piano, and this kept me going when the movie work wasn’t as regular as it is now. I love teaching, and I enjoy doing live shows, including corporate gigs and parties. In addition, I am part of the church music scene in Chennai which has exploded recently, becoming an industry in its own right.
Where do you find inspiration?
I am constantly inspired by African American beats and gospel choir music. I remember growing up listening to Michael Jackson, and being fascinated by some of his songs that featured these incredible 150-member choirs. I just couldn’t get over the sound, and I always wanted to be a part of a choir or have one of my own.
Above: Roe dressed in a sari with friends while she was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
While studying at Berklee, I had the amazing opportunity to be a part of the choir there, and I learnt so much just from standing next to and singing with incredibly talented singers. The sound is very loud, very raw and throaty, and it is just one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard.
When I came back to India I joined a few choirs, but most were Western classical. So, I thought I’d start one of my own to create the sound I was always looking for.
Tell us about your vocal group ‘El Fé’, and what you enjoy most about singing with them.
While teaching at a school in Chennai after returning from the US in 2010, I met a lot of aspiring musicians. About six of us got together to start singing, and by the time I left the KM Music Conservatory in 2012, we were 30 singers from very different backgrounds. Over the years, some people have left, and others have joined, and now El Fé is a very tight-knit group. I think we have become better both as a group and as individual singers, and right now we sound better than we ever have.
Above: Roe with the singers of her vocal group El Fé with whom she has had some of the most memorable experiences.
Putting together vocal harmonies and singing together has been very, very inspiring to me. There is just something about singing with other voices—it is so different from solo performing. It requires a certain technique that I think my singers have mastered, and it connects us in an almost magical way. We work best as a unit, and we perform everything from American pop to Indian film songs. We sing in all languages, including Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Hindi and English. When people reach out to El Fé, they want our very unique, African-inspired sound, but we are very flexible and versatile when it comes to singing.
I love to reimagine and remix music I’ve heard, weaving together different songs and sounds, and arranging them for the voices of the group.
Looking back, what are some of the most memorable moments of your musical career so far?
My most cherished memories are with El Fé. We have travelled together to Goa, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pondicherry, Bangalore… Travelling with my singers, bonding over music, and laughing about everything that brings us together, has been really special and truly unforgettable.
Above: Roe playing the piano as she leads her vocal group El Fé in a stage performance.
In 2012, while working at the KM Music Conservatory, I had the opportunity to perform an African Gospel set with El Fé for Oprah Winfrey in Mumbai. The entire evening went by in a blur and it still feels sort of unreal even today! But it’s definitely up there with the most memorable moments.
Above: Roe and her singers doing what they do best - performing on stage.
Who are your favourite artists?
Just off the top of my head, Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Rihanna. My favourite African artistes are Tiwa Savage and Aya Nakamura—if you haven’t heard them, you must! I am also a big fan of so many Indian music directors, whose work I have always admired.
If there was one person you could sing a duet with, who would it be?
Bruno Mars, because he just has so much swag!
What is the one song that helped get you through the lockdown?
‘BonBon’ by Era Istrefi. It’s a very fun, upbeat party track.
Tell us about your favourite place to perform.
I love performing in Mumbai and Bangalore—both cities have audiences who bring amazing energy to every gig.
Can you tell us about the musical acts to watch out for in India?
One of my favourite musical acts is Staccato, a group that does excellent recreations of the classics, also RJD, a band with a very contemporary and very stylish sound that I love, and Josh Vivian’s NOBB (Namma Ooru Boy Band) has brilliant song writing and they make the perfect party songs.
How do you define beauty and tradition?
For me, beauty is being yourself. It might sound like a cliché, but it is something I have learnt from experience. Beauty lies in being true to yourself. Even if you’re not abiding by society’s rules, staying authentically yourself is always worth it.
Tradition for me is the perfect balance between what you have been taught or brought up with, and what you have explored and learnt for yourself. I am very modern, but I think there are some older, traditional values that are an important part of who I am. Tradition is also about allowing people to be themselves, without interfering in their experience.
What does the sari, and the kanjivaram in particular, mean to you?
When I hear the word ‘sari’, I immediately think of my mother, who absolutely loves saris, especially kanjivarams from Kanakavalli! The first time I wore a sari was for my school graduation day, and ever since then my mother has encouraged me to wear more kanjivarams. I completely trust her sense of style, because she always looks so lovely. Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable in saris. Now, not only can I drape my own saris when I travel, but I can also help others with theirs!
Above (left to right): Roe with her sister and her mother, whose saris and sense of style she loves; Posing in a Kanakavalli kanjivaram with her husband.
My mother has an amazing collection of saris, and she makes sure I always have a blouse that fits me. Anytime I need to dress up for an event or function, I just turn to her wardrobe! I absolutely love the way the kanjivaram makes me feel, and it’s now one of my favourites.
Tell us about the Kanakavalli sari you've chosen to wear for the Vignettes shoot.
This is a kanjivaram I stole from my mother. I’m a big fan of bright colours, especially the shades of fire—yellows, reds, and oranges. Yellow tops the list because it is closer to gold in my eyes. I think this sari and its colours really reflect my soul and character. I’m very loud in real life—people are constantly telling me to calm down! I love to laugh and have fun and work hard, so everything is big and loud. I think this sari captures me perfectly. My mother approved of the pairing with this blouse, so I had to go for it!
(Roe is wearing a beautiful yellow kanjivaram adorned with intricate self-jacquard patterns on the body. The borders in hot pink shot with yellow are embellished with twill patterns in gold zari.)
Listen as Roe sings a snipper from 'Naanum Rowdy Dhaan' for us in the video clip below, adding her distinctive spin to the pop hit.
- Roe Vincent, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant
View Roe's accompanying guest curation here.