o Miranda Rights, no curfew nights, only gypsy camaraderie,” croons 24-year-old Monica Dogra, clutching a mike as her wavy, charcoal locks swing to guitarist Randolph Correia’s pulsing tunes. It’s a breezy Memorial Day evening, and the duo, who go by the name Shaai’r and Func, are debuting in New York City at The Annex, a bar tucked away downtown. If they’re feeling nervous, they’re certainly not showing it.
Ask Dogra, aka, “Shaa’ir” (Urdu for poet) about the performance a few days later, she reveals the truth: “I definitely felt like it was a great first meeting, the way first meetings are a little hesitant and awkward at points,” she says.
“At The Annex, our performance had those different colors and pixels of discomfort. But there was also discovery, excitement and trepidation. I guess none of our audiences members knew what to expect.”
Fusing a mélange of poetry, funk, R&B, electronica, and a healthy side of jazz, Shaa’ir and Func live to serve up the unexpected. Their bridging of the gaps between a plethora of genres is reflected in their first record, New Day: The Love Album. Spoken word and rock are an unlikely combination, but then again, so are Correia and Dogra.
Though her roots can be traced back to Kashmir, Dogra was raised in Maryland on a steady diet of Ani DiFranco CDs. She went on to attend New York University, dabbling in musical theater along the way. Her parents divorced when she was 11, greatly influencing her journey towards the arts.”In a lot of ways the divorce was very freeing, because I was forced into a situation where as it was, I was already different,” she says. “I feel like had my parents stayed together, I would have had this pressure on me to be this perfect Indian girl.”
Correia grew up in Mumbai with Goan parents who tolerantly endured his love for (really loud) Metallica and studied at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art. “My parents have always nurtured my being, they liked the fact that I was an individual, even though all the music I listened to growing up was completely alien for them,” he says. Thanks to their support and his relentless drive, he went on to start Pentagram, one of India’s premier, homegrown rock bands, almost 12 years ago.
“The night I first met Monica, she was freestyling and singing at a friend’s jam session in Bombay,” says Correia. “I caught her in her element, in her prime time, and thought, ‘Wow, this is someone I want to be around’.”
“I thought he was beautiful,” confesses Dogra, who first caught a glimpse of Randolph through the lens of her camera.” But I’d learnt prior in that year not to be fooled by beauty anymore, so I knew that wasn’t enough.”
And so began a relationship—”We fell in love with each other’s person first,” stresses Dogra—based on the mutual desire to make accessible music, free of the pressure to impose a contrived “Indian” sound (think twangy sitar solos and misplaced tabla beats). “Before I met Randolph, producers would be like, ‘Write a line in Hindi’,” says Dogra. “I can’t even speak Hindi! I’d listen to it and think it was so insincere.”
Give their debut CD a listen, and it’s obvious that Shaa’ir and Func are staying true to their mission of keeping themes universal. “We want to pave a better way for the next generation of not just Indian kids, but kids the world over who want to put out an idea. They can do it without having that ‘Who are you?’ pressure on themselves,” explains Correia. It’s increasingly apparent that the two are committed to their goal as they sing about everything from illegal-alien ancestry to the downsides of long-distance love.
“Part of the reason it’s called The Love Album was it was written during the five months that we were away from each other, me in Bombay, her in New York,” explains Correia. “Monica wrote a lot of songs about the way she was feeling about her life in transit.” The title track, “New Day,” was born out of an impulsive girls-night-out, where an Irish barmaid whispered the lines from a particularly impressive poem to Dogra. “She said, ‘After awhile you learn the difference between holding a hand and chaining a soul,’ and I loved the concept of it,” says Dogra. “Those five months were really heavy in terms of inspiration because I was going through so much. But we’re a lot more balanced and secure in this relationship now, so our next album is going to come from a different place.”
The two hope to put finishing touches to their second album—another concept-driven collection, much like The Love Album—this summer. “We have this inside joke where we wanted to write an album per house we’ve crashed at because there are different energies everywhere,” declares Dogra. It may not be an impossible goal. Between them, Correia and Dogra have enough written material for a whopping five albums. When they return stateside later this fall, a cluster of gigs will await them, including an event hosted by DJ Rekha’s Sangam Entertainment and an AIDS benefit called Ladki Can Rock. “Randolph doesn’t even know this, but any men who perform have to dress in drag,” offers Dogra, giggling.
Their summer agenda involves whizzing through the UK, stopping at Glastonbury to attend the world’s largest performing arts festival, where Correia will play alongside the Midival Punditz, fellow pioneers in the Indian electronica scene. When asked about the fine line between musicians like the Punditz, who effortlessly integrate a distinct, desi vibe into their tunes and those who seem artificial, Correia concludes that, “for people like the Punditz, it’s [the classical Indian sound] a part of what they identify with and who they are, and their music is coming from an honest place.”
For the moment, Shaa’ir and Func seem perfectly content. In their Upper West Side apartment, Randolph shuttles around in the kitchen, stirring up cappuccinos, while Monica slouches comfortably on the couch, reminding him to add sugar, as they share a playful glance. “I’m definitely blessed,” she muses. “I feel like I’m exactly where I always wanted to be.”