Monday, March 17, 2014

Singing Her Heart Out

12-year-old Jessie Hillel, of Malayali origin, is a singing star in New Zealand

Photo by Suresh Nampoothiry

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Jessie Hillel was a three-year-old growing up in Wellington, New Zealand, she would be taken to a creche by her Malayali parents, Rabi Hillel and Sigy Susan George, both of whom are IT professionals. On the way the family would listen to music on the car radio. Sometimes, a CD of Jim Reeves would be played. One day, Jessie suddenly sang a Reeves song, 'Waiting for a train', from beginning to end. That surprised her parents. They realised that their daughter had a natural talent, and arranged for music lessons when she turned five.

Jessie's turning point came when she decided to take part in the popular 'New Zealand's Got Talent' programme in 2012. It is a competition without any age limit. “I had to wait three hours in the pouring rain to audition for the event, because there was such a long queue,” says Jessie, whose audition song was 'Pie Jesu' by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Initially, there were over 5000 participants, but thanks to Jessie's unmistakable talent, she went past, round after round, even though she was the youngest participant, at 10 years of age. Eventually, she reached the final, where, through a mass SMS voting, she became the runner-up. “People said that when they listened to me sing, they found it difficult to think I am a child,” says Jessie. “They told me my voice is so strong.”

Says Julie, the 17-year-old sister of Jessie, who is a talented pianist: “Jessie is able to sing classical songs. Nowadays, children rarely sing them. So, maybe, that worked in Jessie's favour.”

Jessie's powerful voice was evident during a recent performance at the JT Pac in Kochi, where she belted out a Tina Turner song, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, as well as ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, from the musical, ‘Les Miserables’.

Those who were in the audience were impressed. Says Vice Admiral M.P. Muralidharan (Retd.): “At first look she is like any other teenager, but once she starts singing the transformation is terrific. Suddenly, she is all confidence and professional, like a seasoned stage performer. Jessie has a deep voice, a fine sense of rhythm, and good voice modulation. When she sang the Tina Turner number, if you listened with closed eyes you could be forgiven if you thought Tina was singing! Jessie is a child prodigy.”

And this child prodigy has notched up some notable achievements: She won several awards at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, has performed at the New Zealand Parliament, and represented the country at the International Children’s Concert in China. Thanks to her 'New Zealand’s Got Talent' performance, Sony New Zealand signed Jessie to bring out a record of classical songs.

The album, 'With Love', was released in April last year and reached No. 2 in The New Zealand Top 20 chart and No 3 in the New Zealand Top 40 (World Albums). Incidentally, it is also available in India on I-Tunes.

Meanwhile, Julie has some words of advice for her sibling. “I always tell Jessie that she should be humble and down-to-earth,” says Julie. “Jessie should keep thanking her parents, because she is what she is because of them.”

When she is not singing, Jessie is listening to a lot of music. “I like Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, and Beyonce,” she says. “I also listen to Chitra and Yesudas.”

After a full day's study, as a Class 7 student, in Wellington, Jessie comes home and practises for more than an hour. “When I am singing I feel truly alive,” she says. “It is a gift from God. In fact, I am lucky to have found my talent and passion at such a young age.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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