Indian musical maestros Salim and Sulaiman Merchant have just brought their own special brand of music to Oman for the first time. Kate Ginn caught up with them
It feels a little like being in the presence of Bollywood royalty when you’re in the company of Salim and Sulaiman. They arrive at a reception at Muscat Grand Mall to announce their debut performance in Oman and are greeted with the sort of treatment reserved for VIPs. I suppose people who are known by their first names only (like Madonna) must be in the superstar stratosphere.
“It’s wonderful”, Salim says later when I ask if he likes being famous and all that comes with it.
“I would never say that it’s not nice. Sometimes I’d like to be normal and just take a walk, but in certain places, the smaller sectors in India, it gets crazy.”
His brother agrees: “It [fame] comes at a price.”
With their pedigree, it’s not surprising that everyone in their home country and beyond wants to get a selfie with them.
Since being thrust into the global spotlight after their song, Africa – You’re a Star, was chosen to be the official tune of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, it must be hard to go anywhere in their home country without being recognised.
Their career to date has seen them compose music for more than 100 Bollywood films and TV shows, including Chak De! India and Rab Ne Bana di Jodi, while their arresting vocals and perfect percussions have captured the hearts of people in every corner of the world.
They’ve also worked with contemporary artists such as Lady Gaga and Enrique Iglesias and recently dipped their toes into Hollywood, while Salim was one of the judges for the fifth series of Indian Idol. Their MTV Unplugged acoustic sessions are legendary.
It’s fair to say that the duo live and breathe music. Their late father, Sadruddin Merchant, led the Ismaili Scouts Orchestra in India and he remains their inspiration.
“All our songs are tributes to our dad,” says Salim. “He was our mentor. We are who we are because of our parents, whether you’re a musician, artist or businessman.”
Classically trained – Salim studied piano at Trinity College of Music [now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance] in London and Sulaiman was trained in the tabla [a percussion instrument similar to bongo drums] – they got their Bollywood break composing the music for hit horror film Bhoot.
Their distinctive work, a fusion of Hindi and Sufi influences mixed with western and folk sounds, resonates with audiences across cultures and countries.
“Music has its own universal language. It has its own pulse frequency, its own beat. You don’t need to know the language for music,” says Salim.
“Having classical routes and experimenting with different genres gives us an edge. We’re constantly listening to music and discovering new kinds.”
Growing up, their western music favourites ranged from Michael Jackson to Sting and Daft Punk to Madonna (Sulaiman is a big fan, apparently). On Salim’s current playlist are Coldplay and the new Justin Bieber album Purpose.
There have been many career highs, but one of the biggest was performing at the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“They invited us to perform in Johannesburg at the opening ceremony and when we walked out into the stadium, there were 90,000 people,” says Salim.
“We are such a strong community, the Southeast Asians, and the minute they saw us on stage, there was a huge roar and it was so loud that we could not hear ourselves singing. It was really overwhelming.”
Spending so much time with a sibling can’t always be easy and both admit to the odd argument when creative tension boils over.
But neither seems to want to even contemplate the idea of not working with each other. They are like two halves of a whole that just don’t make sense without the other.
“We’re each other’s punching bags,” says Sulaiman. “We’re constantly bouncing off each other.”
His brother adds: “We grew up listening to, learning and playing music together. It’s a huge part of our strength. We complement each other.”
Trying to find out which one of the brothers is the oldest is like trying to crack a piece of concrete.
Their ages have never been reported and when asked, Salim jokes: “Who do you think? Come on, don’t I look younger?”
At a guess, I would say Salim is the elder. He does the most talking and seems to be in charge.
We do know that both are married with one daughter. Forget fame, fortune and adulation. Family, the siblings agree, is the most important thing. “Whatever we have done is always towards family,” says Sulaiman. “When we go out there and we do all these things and we’re out 200 days a year, it’s such a wonderful feeling to go back home and feel your daughter and embrace them and enjoy them.”
Salim adds: “They give us the inspiration and they give us the love. We’d be incomplete without them.”
Sulaiman says his daughter, aged five-and-a-half, is too young to realise how famous her dad is, but Salim’s child is aware of the fuss.
They better get used to more attention, as their work is soon to be shared with an even wider audience. The pair have collaborated on a Hollywood film called Sold, produced by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, about human trafficking, set to be released at the end of this year. Another film, a love story between an Australian man and an Indian girl, is also due out this year.
Audiences who witnessed their spectacular first time appearance in Oman last Friday (February 26) in Muscat will know just how good they are live.
Up close, they are even better. Before leaving, Salim sings a few lines from their hit Shukran Allah. His voice is sweet and mesmerising, and he sounds like the star that he is.