by Ayesha binte Rashid
Rachel Viccaji has always been performing. When she was a toddler, she would be recruited by her elder siblings for plays that they would perform on the patio in their family home. The audience, family and parents’ friends, would be treated to performances of Incy Wincy Spider and Little Miss Muffet. Rachel’s first gig as a backing vocalist was for her sister Zoe’s, fifteenth birthday, who had put up a performance of Six Pence None The Richer’s Kiss Me.
Before she was even born, Rachel was being exposed to music. Her mother, a teacher, was always listening to music in the months preceding Rachel’s entry into the world. Whether she was cleaning, cooking, checking notebooks, preparing for classes, she would be listening to the Bee Gees, Don Mclean, ABBA; the voices of the 1970’s providing a soundtrack for the months leading to Rachel’s arrival.
At family gatherings, someone – sometimes Mrs. Viccaji herself – would bring out a guitar, someone would take a seat at the piano and everyone would join in on the singing. Rachel sang along to Elvis Presley's songs, ABBA songs, and Neapolitan songs like Santa Lucia. Her family’s flair for music went beyond family jams. Rachel’s grandmother, an alto, was asked to sing on the radio and sometimes performed with a band called the Gondoliers. Mrs. Viccaji, in her youth, appeared in musicals and performed with the Karachi Vocal Ensemble. Rachel’s, brother and sister, Cyrus and Zoe, both wrote and performed songs, eventually joining bands in their teenage years.
Rachel’s talents, too, were apparent at a young age. She remembers singing to herself, when she was alone in class, at the end of a school day while packing her bag. Her classmate, a little girl, walked in on her and exclaimed, “You’re going to be a singer when you grow up!” And wasn’t that the truth – sing, she did. At her family jams, in the church choir, on stage, in school plays.
At a friend’s school mela (festival) Rachel gave her first ever solo performance, when she was twelve – she got on stage and sang a karaoke version of Shania Twain’s I’m Gonna Get You Good. At sixteen, Rachel formed her own band. Their first gig was at Karachi’s T2F, an incubation center for arts among the youth. The band was set-up in a small corner of a room of people who were singing along, clapping and hooting. Rachel was hooked.
By seventeen, Rachel was doing musical theatre, playing two minor parts in Nida Butt’s production of Chicago. The director heard her sing one day and made her the playback singer for the lead role. By this time, it was becoming more and more apparent to her that this was more than just a hobby. She would go to school in the morning, be in hair and make-up in the afternoon, and on stage at night. By midnight, she’d be back at home and would repeat the next day. While preparing for her A’Levels, filling out college applications and working on her SATs, Rachel was acting in Mama Mia.
In 2011, Rachel received a call. Her YouTube cover of Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason had been noticed by Coke Studio. Zoe was already a backing vocalist on the show. Would she like to join her sister? For Rachel, this was an absolute yes.
While Rachel’s journey may seem to be fueled by a constant drive, Rachel’s ambitions have not been derived from a love for the stage or the spotlight. What fuels this artist is the process of creation. Behind closed doors, coming up with harmonies, she is in her element. Jamming in a friend’s drawing room, improvising to a guitar riff, is when she is most at home. She is content with uploading loops and scratch pad ideas on Soundcloud. What is a real song, she asks? Music is everything around us. In a busy street or on a quiet roof. The sound of people’s voices, dogs barking, leaves rustling on trees. Rhythm is the beat of our hearts, our steps as we walk. Music, she says, is life. To Rachel, it is a sixth sense, of picturization and imagination.
“You can be yourself, but you can open all these little doors and live what’s behind them. You can live as yourself but you can also get lost in them. Creation is probably catering to that energy. If you don’t [do that], aren’t you getting stuck within yourself? Being filled to the seams with all that you’ve absorbed and observed. Creation is a tap; it’s a release.”