Know Your Musician: Naama Choonawala (Drums)

Naama Choonawala playing live

Know Your Musician: Naama Choonawala (Drums)

Back when I was studying at St. Xavier’s College, I remember the passing sight of this short haired girl walking around the crowded foyer or reading an unknown book under the stone arches of the long corridoor. It’s hard to describe what she looked like back then because although she stood out in many ways, she blended in with the college counter-couture in an unintentional way. What I remember were knee length khaki pants, comfortable looking white or black T-shirts and a khaki sling bag with a hand drawn Opeth logo, a pair of drum sticks often probing out of it.

I first heard Naama play at a college festival audition back in 2009. I recall the text I sent to a fellow musician friend, “Joe, we’re auditioning for the band event this year. I don’t know who’ll play bass with us, but I’ve found us a drummer.”

Long story short, the many hours jamming with Naama were a captivating lesson in making music by feel. With a traditional grip on a pair of splintered Vic Firth sticks, a comfortably erect posture on an extraordinarily high steel stool, Naama’s mellow grooves, buzz rolls and splash hits were what made funk and progressive rock so much fun to discover. It’s been a long couple of years since those days at her home an old building at the beginning of Sarang Street, high over the daytime commotion of Crawford Market. Six years hence, I get a chance to learn the highlights of what I missed out on in the life of one of the most creative people I know.

The moment of inception for Naama was when a close friend and well known guitarist, Daniel Rego, showed her how to play a simple 4/4 groove on the drums. Soon after this, she began learning under Gopal Dutta (Ex-Vayu) who’s lessons she would religiously practice on the trial electric kit at the famous Metro music store, B. X. Furtados and Sons.

“I’d play on that kit from the time I’d finish class each day to about eight in the evening when the store would shut. They would often ask me to leave so that other customers could also try the kit out. I just kept coming back. Eventually, they’d just let me be.”

It was only after a year and a half had passed, that she finally possessed her own drum kit to practice on. A considerate daughter, she set it up at a friend’s place where she would practice daily, until an unfortunate burglary—drums untouched— forced her to set up shop at home.

Her folks weren’t too happy about having a drum kit occupy precious space in their flat, not to mention their apprehension towards the noise it would encourage. In the time I spent at Naama’s home, I experienced her mother’s kind acceptance of our band’s invasion in the tasty snacks she’d give us. However, I cannot say the rest of her family shared the sentiment.

“It was very hard initially, they (her family) wouldn’t want me to practice. I wouldn’t hear the end of their resistance to my practicing at home. My Grandmother, who would be at home all day would often ask me, ‘What’s all this kher panju (Madness)?’”

The start and end of each visit to her home involved a meticulous ritual of assembling and dismantling her black chancellor kit. I rather enjoyed the efficiency with which we’d put it all together and after a jam, stash it back carefully under a wall-closet in their balcony overlooking the south end of Sir J. J. Flyover.

At a time when Naama’s father was reluctant about her venturing further into the art, their family advisor, Mr. Navneet Bhai who on looking at her hands, suggested that she invest her time in an art. The wise man advised him to let Naama take her music education further.

In 2012, Naama enrolled in a performer’s course for drummers at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM), Tamil Nadu. Here she learnt, among other styles, Brazilian rhythm under Alexandre Kautz. Although he taught her for just a week, she says, “Alex was my only influence over there.” She mentioned that although it was a good experience studying at SAM, she needed a place like Mumbai, where the active music scene offers the chance to apply the skills learnt.

On returning to Mumbai she continued learning the drums at Mumbai’s premier music institution, True School of Music. The school know for appointing world class music educators to teach aspiring young musicians, gave Naama a deeper grasp theory and practice. Initially under the guidance of Philippe Lemm, she studied Latin drumming. In regard to her first tutor’s playing she says, “I wanted to learn everything about his sound and touch.” She then picked up hip-hop drumming and learnt the mysterious ways of jazz under Mike Mitchelle whom she was with for six months. She claims that after studying under Mitchelle she couldn’t learn under anyone else.

Being a professional musician in India can be undulating in its constant let downs and occasional glory.

When we spoke about the challenges she faces as a musician, she says, “It’s challenging in general, to play what you want to play. There aren’t many people there who actually want to play the music I want to play. I’ve found people I want to play with, but every ones busy with a lot of other commitments. If you want to get paid, you have to do gigs you don’t want to do and play music you don’t like playing. When you meet people worth playing with, you must try and improve yourself and take it up as a challenge.”

Back when we played together, gig set lists would be designed keeping in mind Naama’s strict preferences. Just for heck’s sake, we would throw in an occasional pop-rock crowd puller that she rarely enjoyed playing.

On asking her about the genres she prefers playing, she says, “Honestly, I like everything, as long as I can be creative. I used to be very selective about what I played earlier: I went through the rock phase, the funk phase, the jazz phase, the indie rock phase. Now I don’t mind playing anything. I would like to be challenged with the songs I play at gigs. Even if the song is simple, I’ll give it my best as long as it’s nice to listen to.”

Drums to Naama can be, as she put it, ‘grounding’. She says, “The drummer is like a back bone of a bands performance. If I’m not holding it down well, the guitar player will lose focus. If I hold it together all the others follow and keep up.”

As advice for aspiring drummers, my friend, Naama had this to say, “Yea. Stop thinking of yourself as a girl drummer, you’re a drummer, it’s about the music. It’s not about the girl or the boy. It’s about the music.”

If you’re interested in listening to her music, follow her current projects:

Stella by Starlight

Rashtriya Swing Sena (RSS)

Along with the drums, Naama is also a proficient Tattoo artist. Click here to get a glimpse of her art. If you’re interested in getting some mean ass ink on your body, do drop her an inbox message on Facebook.

Photo Source (Facebook): Geetu Unplugged, Stella by Starlight


Jason Rasquinha is a Mumbai based freelance writer. Along with being a curriculum designer he writes about music and travel. In his free time, he pursues his hobbies of recording his music and clicking photos.

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