Master of the keys

He says that he is spiritual but not very religious, yet Stephen Devassy is one of the few Indian musicians (if not the only) to have performed for the world’s top spiritual leaders. This would include not just one, but two Popes — the late Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and even the Dalai Lama.

Given a choice, however, another instrument this young pianist would love to learn is the harp. “If I were to pick a solo instrument other than the piano, it would be the sitar,” says Stephen. In August, he’ll be peforming in Madrid for the ‘World Youth Day’ with his band, Rex, with an estimated attendance of over 5 million people, which will include His Holiness himself, again.

It all started when his father brought a keyboard to their Palakkad home and a 10-year-old Stephen started taking classes. “When you are playing, it is difficult at first because your left brain is coordinating your right hand and vice versa,” he shares. “But when you master this, it becomes much easier.”

By the age of 19, Stephen recorded the highest score in Asia, for his exam results from the Trinity College of Music, London with a score of 92.2 per cent. That and the fact, that he finished the ‘dreaded grade exams’ in three years, as opposed to the usual eight years it takes, marked his talent. “I was studying Commerce at the time, and I wasn’t very interested. So I would spend atleast 8-10 hours practicing at night, then go to college and sleep,” he explains.

But a career was never on the cards at that time and the piano was purely a passion — until, financial difficulties arose and there wasn’t much choice in the matter. Stephen discontinued college and now a decade later, he clearly has no regrets.

With over 2,000 concerts to his credit, not to mention working with legends like AR Rahman, Zakir Hussain, Mandolin U Srinivas and renowned French bass player, Dominique Piazza, things turned out beyond expectation for the young pianist. While most of the people who he shares the stage space with are much older him, Stephen emphasises that this is the best part of the experience.

“Of course I get nervous, but I think for musicians, the vibes play a big role while performing. It doesn’t matter whether you have rehearsed together, it’s just a give-and-take of energy that makes for great dynamics on stage.”

What his fans may not know is that Stephen is quite the movie buff, his favourites being ‘Amadeus’ (Story of Mozart), ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murder’ and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series. Despite being actively involved in song arrangement for various films, he says, “I don’t like being locked up in the studio for too long. I am a performer.”

There is more than one concert he can recall where things didn’t go as planned. “There was a time when four out of five of my keyboards got fried because of a generator overload. We performed the entire concert on one keyboard,” adds Stephen.

This year looks to be exciting for him as he’s all-set to complete his solo album (yet to be titled), which he reveals is primarily world music. Add to this is his debut as music director in Tamil cinema, the details for which are still under wraps.

But the project most endearing to him is probably jamming with the students in his newly opened Muzik Lounge, a school of audio technology in Vadapalani, co-owned by his brother Samuel.

If you are passing by, you just might be lucky enough to catch him in action for a performance up-close, at the end of an interview like this one!

He played a funk piece, and it is safe to say, with no exaggeration whatsoever, that the ‘keys’ to Stephen Devassy’s soul, are black and white. And they’re on his piano.

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