India's answer to Simon Cowell prepares for his 10th Dubai gig
There’s certainly something to be said for persistence, routine and habit – qualities that 38-year-old Indian pop star Sonu Nigam must have by the trunk-load as he prepares for his 10th Dubai gig in a decade. Nigam claims to be a familiar face to the majority of India’s population, yet his regular-like-clockwork visits to Dubai have crept under the radar for much of the city’s Western audience. But following duets with Britney Spears (a desi remix of her single ‘Wanna Go’) and Kylie (2010 single ‘Chiggy Wiggy’), a touching tribute to Michael Jackson recorded with brother Jermaine, and with a album of collaborations with Western stars in the wings, the situation could soon change. Beat the buzz and catch Nigam’s four-hour, 30-member touring troupe at the Madinat Arena this Eid al-Adha.
It’s the 10th show in Dubai in as many years. What can we expect this time around? I’m not really bothered about what I’m going to be singing or doing on that day – all I’m concerned about is putting as much soul into the show as I can. You can do all the gimmicks and drama, but a spiritual soul is something you can’t manipulate. It comes from within; absolute within.
You describe yourself as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Can you explain? As you grow you understand that everything on a low level is fragmented, but on a high level one knows that there is one soul of everything. I respect religions and all faiths, but I believe everything is governed by this one big, mega soul of the cosmos.
Despite a long career, you’re not known to many Westerners. Do you feel snubbed by that audience? We need to be very clear: Beyoncé is known to just two per cent of Indians, but 98 per cent of Indians know me. I’m not trying to prove a point to anyone else. I’m not a conqueror, I’m not here to go crazy and say ‘I want this, I need this’ – I was doing that 10, 15 years ago. But as you get older, you realise that while you keep doing the best you can be fulfilled.
You’re planning your first album in English, a collection of collaborations with Western stars. How was it working with Britney? I never actually got to meet her, but it was very strange to one day get a tweet from her. They sent us the song and we did my vocals and changed the production – it was good. I also worked with Kylie two years ago on a soundtrack… and I’m in the process of trying to work with Lady Gaga.
How did the ‘This Is It’ duet with Michael Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, come about? That is the best collaboration I’ve done. I was three miles away from Michael’s home in LA when he died. I couldn’t imagine the world without Michael Jackson and I wanted to say something positive. I crafted the song with loops and samples and it came out very nice, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Then I was performing in LA and Jermaine Jackson came to see my show – his wife is a huge fan – he invited me for coffee in Beverly Hills and I played him the song, and after he heard it he started weeping. He said, ‘If Michael was alive this is exactly what he would have to say.’
You’ve been a judge on Indian Idol and The X-Factor, and have been called the ‘Indian Simon Cowell’… I’m the absolute opposite to him – Simon is a different personality altogether. [On the shows] I tell people where they were wrong, but I deliver my message in a more polite way.
Who would be your dream collaborators for the new album? Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston – she’s a great singer – and Christina Aguilera. For the boys I’d say Justin Timberlake, Usher… so many people. P Diddy, Jay-Z, Beyoncé…
You’ve changed your image and style countless times. Who is the real Sonu Nigam? The real me is the change, not the person behind the change.