Few artists coin a term for their own genre of music. Even fewer name it after themselves. While Fela Kuti gave rise to Afrobeat and Jim Steinman
to Wagnerian rock, the emerging superstar Priya Ragu’s eponymous “Raguwavy” is virtually unique.
“We grew up between two cultures, two worlds,” she told The Face as she was breaking out in 2020. “And those two worlds are merged in the music, our style and visuals. It’s a mix of R&B, soul, hip-hop, pop and South Indian music. And we just gave it a name, which is Raguwavy.” Now she unapologetically pushes her own sound and her own philosophy.
Born and raised in Switzerland by Sri Lankan refugee parents, Ragu experienced two cultures that were unimaginably different. There are over 50,000 Sri Lankans among Switzerland’s population of 9 million, most of them ethnic Tamils driven there by the quarter-of-a-century-long civil war that began in 1983. Ragu and her brother were the only brown kids at their school. The eastern Swiss city of St Gallen where Ragu grew up, known for its 1,200-year-old abbey and chocolate box beauty, was a long way from Sri Lanka’s tropical plains.
Ragu’s parents maintained the traditions of home, in particular playing Tamil folk music and songs from “Kollywood” films, but western music was not welcome in their home. Even so, the likes of Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill and Brandy were formative influences on Ragu as she worked on her singing. When her brother, the producer Japhna Gold, invited her to perform with his rap group, her father forbade it.
In 2017 Ragu was working for Swiss Airlines in Zürich as a technical buyer of aircraft parts when an opportunity came up to go to New York and get into the studio with the US rapper Oddisee. Ragu set herself a challenge – to write
10 songs in six months and see where that took her.
The result was Ragu’s debut mixtape damnshestamil. It was released last year
after she finally ditched her day job (her parents were not aware until it came out in interviews). “Raguwavy” was unleashed and she was on the path to establishing a music career in her mid-thirties, an age considered geriatric in the world of pop.
The debut single, Good Love 2.0, which appeared in October 2020, had already shown she was a true original. While it was clearly influenced by
American R&B, the track broke down into a dreamscape of south Asian
instrumentation, suddenly revealing what makes Ragu so special.
That single also indicated the sense of dignity that runs through Ragu’s
work, and there is a purity and innocence on damnshestamil that is reminiscent of another of Ragu’s musical heroes – Stevie Wonder. Good
Love 2.0 is intensely romantic, inspired by her parents’ resistance of arranged marriage for their love match.
“My parents didn’t have the luxury of ambition,” Ragu has said. “It was
about surviving and providing for the kids. We owe them a lot. They’ve been
through a lot.” She has also talked of her need “to challenge the stereotypes
of Sri Lankan people essentially being limited to cooks, cleaners or shop workers. People who are looked down upon. People who are rarely envied or
desired. I’m proud of who I am, and my music celebrates that.” While her music was once a source of family conflict, her father ended up providing backing vocals on damnshestamil and her mother wrote its closing track.
After the laidback grooves of damnshestamil, 2022 has seen Ragu come back with a bang. First there was the vibrant single Illuminous and now Adalam Va! (Let’s Dance!), a post-pandemic song “about the fresh energy that emerges out of these times”. Beginning with a pep talk in the form of a staccato rap (“Relax, reset/ That’s fact, let go/ Inhale, exhale/ That’s breath control”), it explodes into a Tamil-language electro pop riot that is pure exuberance.
With her debut album set for release early in 2023, Ragu is just getting started. As she puts it on Adalam Va!: “2020 got lost in the sauce/ ’21 was OK,
but/ ’22 on track for the cause”.
“It’s all in my hands right now/ It’s all in my hands right now,” she sings, with
an optimism for the future that is infectious.
PRIYA RAGU in five songs
Good Love 2.0 (2020)
Soulful and summery, Ragu’s debut single drew universal acclaim and received a boost after featuring on EA Sports’ Fifa 21 video game.
Chicken Lemon Rice (2021)
Bouncing along on a tabla drum groove, this song is a celebration of the mingling of cultures: “Flavours how you mix, you know, chicken lemon rice.”
In huge demand at European festivals this summer, Ragu showed her live
dynamism when she performed this song on Later… with Jools Holland in late 2021.
Showing both Ragu’s infectious joy and her tendency towards the spiritual – “I believe we are all beings of light,” she has said – this first single from her forthcoming album is typically ballsy: “If you didn’t see me then/ Bet you see me now”.
Adalam Va! (2022)
Ragu’s latest single takes clear inspiration from the Tamil-language Kollywood soundtracks of composer AR Rahman, with Padayappa (1999),
Bombay (1995) and Kadhal Desam (1996) among Ragu’s favourites.