Ponnudorai's style is to deconstruct a hackneyed standard, reassemble the parts in startlingly creative ways, and then perform it with a passion that nobody has previously dared. Thus the campfire dirge Five Hundred Miles becomes a spine-tingling R&B ballad, dripping with anguish. The Beatles' chirpy Can't Buy Me Love is transformed into a complex jazz exercise, incorporating some of the Karnatakan rhythmic phrases of Ponnudorai's South Indian ancestry. The Cascades' saccharine Rhythm of the Rain metamorphoses into the purest Burt Bacharach, with unexpected chord changes and lush melodic lines.
Comparisons could be made with José Feliciano, the Puerto Rican singer-guitarist who had 1960s hits with stylish remakes of songs like California Dreamin' and Light My Fire. But Ponnudorai is better. His ability to dice songs up, look into their hearts and perceive the common veins connecting every genre has won the attention of top international players who go to Singapore on tour. Harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist Tommy Emmanuel and vocalist Bobby McFerrin have all been in the audience. In 2002, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis showed up at a performance and was so taken by it, he grabbed his instrument and leapt onstage to play alongside a startled Ponnudorai, who did not recognize him. "He told me 'Ever since I got off the plane I've been hearing about nothing but you,'" Ponnudorai recalls. The pair jammed together for the next two nights.
Marsalis was referring to the buzz Ponnudorai generates among local and overseas musicians. Among the public, it is another matter. If you watch Ponnudorai play, there will typically be a handful of fans near the stage. Everyone else will be at the other end of the room, noisily drinking and making a mockery of Singapore's reputation as a city at the forefront of smoking cessation. The kind of musician that the world produces only a few times in a generation is in the house, but the laity barely notice.
Given that his life has already seen enough hardship and redemption to warrant full bluesman stature, Ponnudorai is unfazed by the indifference. A Tamil by ethnicity and Malaysian by birth, he grew up in the tin-mining town of Ipoh, the youngest of 10. Ponnudorai's parents were too poor to buy him a metronome: he learned his exquisite sense of timing by playing along to the creak of an old ceiling fan. Naturally left-handed, he taught himself to play on a right-handed guitar because it was cheaper than a model strung for left-handers (and this is how he still plays). A car crash in his early 20s ("we were road racing and I drove my car into a ravine") gave him the limp that he still walks with at 45; in his head are two drainage holes, covered merely by a thin layer of skin, bored during brain surgery, the legacy of another smash that almost killed him. He will sit and drink Scotch after Scotch with disconcerting ease and tell of a bluesman's lifeof scrapes with jealous musicians wanting to cut his fingers off, and of playing to audiences of gun-toting triads in Kuala Lumpur nightclubs. And like so many who have flirted with the devil, he is a product of the church.
"I grew up soaked in the brine of the Bible," he says. "As Lutherans, we would go to church and sing as a family." His father was a locally famous countertenor, but in fact the entire family was talented and the house never silent. If it wasn't one of the children playing guitar or piano, it was classical Indian music or the Beatles on the turntable, and the Johnny Cash Show on TV. "I used to watch my brothers and sisters and pick things up," says Ponnudorai. "At 6, I was playing guitar."