Desert Companion

The nightingale of Commercial Center

Melque RodriguesShe greets diners, serves food, cleans tables — and sings. Oh, how she sings

It’s a busy Monday afternoon at Namaste Indian Cuisine — the tables are packed, the buffet line is buzzing. But the diners also seem to be waiting for something, and it’s not dessert.

They’re waiting for restaurant owner — also hostess, waitress and table-busser — Melque Rodrigues. She takes the tiny stage beneath a wall-mounted sitar in the corner, grabs a microphone and activates her MiniDisc player, triggering the opening chords of “Lisbon.”

Rodrigues pours forth a beautiful Goan pop ballad about a woman who broods for her boyfriend to return from working in the Portuguese capital. She dreams of marrying him one day in Goa, of having a family, of him securing a decent job back home. But like all dreams, there is an intimation of fragility, unfeasibility. Rodrigues communicates all of this using her plaintive, lovely voice.

Rodrigues’ own story is no less dramatic. She was born in 1976 in the West Indian state of Goa. The oldest of three daughters of successful bar owners, Rodrigues insists she never had a mind for business, only music. When she was 3, she sang English-language nursery rhymes for her grandmother, who predicted that one day Rodrigues would leave Goa for the U.S. and make it big. But first she needed to conquer her native state.

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There were challenges. The beautiful, diminutive Rodrigues was a high-spirited young girl who preferred to sing competitively rather than do homework. Still, she stayed in school, and by 10th grade began winning contests across Goa with her rendition of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” (made famous by the Everly Brothers). She continued competing in college, mastering all styles from jazz to pop to reggae. But even with a fantastic voice, she had no formal training. She knew she’d have to eventually make a big leap to make it as a pro singer. So she auditioned for and joined the most popular band in Goa, Muzik Mann, as lead singer.

Under the tutelage of bandleader Brian “Bones” Monteiro, Rodrigues enjoyed tremendous success, becoming, she says, the highest paid vocalist in Goa. It wasn’t long before she earned the nickname “The Nightingale of Goa.”

Indeed, the wall adjacent to Namaste’s host stand is wallpapered in West Indian newspaper articles praising Rodrigues’ talent. After a time, she even earned the mentorship of Goa’s most revered musician, Chris Perry. He was the first producer to cause her to reconsider every technical aspect of what she did as a vocalist. The training was invaluable; she was no longer a raw singer but a polished performer. Perry, who died in 2002, offered his own prediction as well.

“He told me when he died I’d become a world-renowned singer,” she laughs. “I’m not quite there yet, but God willing I’ll have my chance one day.”


The voice of Vegas

Her next transition would be even more profound. After a stint singing in the packed nightclubs of then-booming Dubai, she saved enough money to move to Los Angeles in 2005. She managed a perfumery, worked at Macy’s and basically did whatever she could during the day so that she could go out and take in the nightlife. Still, opportunities seemed limited; besides, friends kept insisting she should try to sing cover tunes in Vegas casinos. After all, few can belt out Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” or Celine Dion’s “Because You Love Me” or Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” better than Rodrigues (save for the artists themselves, maybe). So she packed her belongings and transplanted herself a bit more eastward. In Vegas, her dreams felt tantalizingly closer, yet somehow further away.

“When I arrived here, music was happening everywhere, playing from every car and every corner, and I heard its call,” says Rodrigues. “I knew I had the voice, the talent, but I lacked a manager and an agent. I couldn’t find a place to showcase myself.”

A devout Catholic (Goa was a Portuguese colony for centuries), Rodrigues would go straight from evening mass at Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip and walk into the hotel lounges — Riviera, Stardust, Sahara. Sitting in those smoky dens, she prayed to God for her own place to perform. The nightingale needed a roost. But in 2009, the economy continued to tank, lounges closed or were revamped and redesigned without live music in mind. The light at the end of the tunnel began to dim.

“I felt I’d been dragged here for mysterious reasons,” she says. “I went through a lot getting to Vegas. Now I had to find a way to survive. But what could I do? I had no skills except for performing.”


Food for the soul

Rather than get a gig in a casino, she used what cash she’d saved during her music career to invest in an Indian restaurant in Commercial Center called Namaste. As Rodrigues tells it, complications led to her partners pulling out of the business, leaving Rodrigues to hold the veritable bag.

But what a glorious bag. With the help of Chef David Dias, who makes some of the best butter chicken and garlic nan bread in town, Rodrigues, 35, has created a loyal following. Devoted diners show up frequently not just for the lunch buffet and dinner menu, but also the heartfelt music.

“From the moment I met Melque and learned she was a single woman with her own business, I became a huge supporter,” says Gina Quaranto, herself a single mom and small-business owner who runs an art gallery downtown. “I love to conduct business lunches in her place and hear her sing her beautiful Goan ballads.”

Back in L.A., Rodrigues had recorded an entire studio album’s worth of material written by her hero Chris Perry. “Americak Pauxi” (available for sale at Namaste) comprises 12 tracks of gorgeous pop sung in her native Konkani language. Most moving, perhaps, is “Muinem Vorsam,” a tune that laments the passing of time and how the bright light of day inevitably surrenders to darkness.

There’s added metaphorical resonance to Rodrigues’ battle to stay in the limelight of her own restaurant. She has been diagnosed with macular degeneration. In other words, she is slowly going blind at a very young age. Still, Rodrigues remains undeterred in her faith and in her mission to be a top musician — and to make Namaste thrive.

“God takes the prophet to a different land so he can find himself,” she says.

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