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Liner notes for Braz Gonsalves’ Devapriya

A few months ago, I received a request from the excellent Florian Pittner, who runs Hindustani Vinyl, the online record store that with the best collection of classic Indian and Pakistani pop you could ever hope to find. He and his friends at Ovular Records wanted to compile a bunch of Braz Gonsalves 45s as a 10-inch record, he said. Would I write the liner notes? How could I resist the offer?

The disc arrived in the mail this morning. Here, for what it’s worth, is the text on the back.


One freezing day in 1982, as Braz Gonsalves was making his way to a store in Munich, he went into a panic as he found himself skidding across a strip of black ice. He landed hard on the pavement, breaking his hand. Gonsalves began to cry bitterly. “In that moment, my conscience came out,” he said. All the transgressions he had ever committed flashed through his mind. He knelt down and began to pray. “Father, I’ve sinned against you and against heaven,” he sobbed. “Forgive me Father, forgive me.”
With that, India’s most innovative saxophonist effected an abrupt key change. Gonsalves gave up a 25-year career playing jazz and found solace in a Catholic prayer group, emerging only rarely to perform the American music genre that he had worked hard to give a specifically Indian form.

The reed player exited the stage when he was at the height of his powers. Though much of his career had been spent in India, he seemed to be on the cusp of international recognition. In fact, when he took his unfortunate toss on the ice, Gonsalves (b February 3, 1934) was in Europe to lay down the tracks for an album by the group Sangam. When it was released in 1983, Citylife would go on to gain a cult following. To jazz obsessives, it was the most seamless melding of South Indian Carnatic music with jazz that had yet been recorded. That wasn’t surprising. Gonsalves had been playing jazz in an Indian way for at least two decades by then.

Devapriya – which draws together tracks from several 45s and EPs that Gonsalves cut between 1970 and 1972 – refutes a misconception contained in many standard jazz history books. Most fans have been led to believe that John Coltrane in the mid-1960s was the first person to integrate elements of Indian music into jazz. In reality, such innovations had been underway in India for at least a decade before Coltrane began to study raga theory. Indian jazz musicians in Bombay had been inflecting their melodies with Hindustani touches since at least the mid-1940s, both in the concert hall and in tunes they recorded for Hindi film soundtracks.
Gonsalves, though, took those efforts to yet another level. A native of Goa, the territory in western India that was a Portuguese colony for 451 years until 1961, Gonsalves grew up studying Western classical music in his parish school. Curiously, his first job was in a circus band. But his talent was too enormous to be contained by a canvas tent and he was soon leading bands in prominent nightclubs in Bombay and Calcutta. He played tenor, alto and soprano saxophones (and sometimes the flute), earning gained the reputation for being India’s most accomplished reed player: his phrasing was impeccable, his improvisations startlingly inventive. One fan from the time wrote of Gonsalves’s music “rearing and swaying and striking like a serpent”. Another went into raptures about his “improvised jag…fuddled and wild”.
Gonsalves is best remembered for his quintet at Bombay’s Astoria Hotel in the mid-1960s and various formations in Calcutta in which he participated in the next decade, along with the pianist Louis Banks and the singer Pam Crain. These bands played a mixture of styles: post-bop, soul, funk and raga-based jazz. But because India’s recording industry was focussed on film music, very little of Gonsalves’s work from that time was actually preserved on wax. The tunes on the 45s he cut were probably picked as much for their commercial appeal as much for the creativity they display. Despite this, they present a glimpse of dynamism and originality that characterised the Indian jazz scene in the 1960s – and of the abundant talents of Gonsalves.
Jazz and gospel have long shared the same pew, so Gonsalves decision to devote himself to religious music may not be so unusual after all. In fact, a clue to his future may have been contained in the title of the track that headlines this collection: Devapriya – a Sanskrit word that means Beloved of God.


Braz Gonsalves’s Impulse


This week’s archival track: the excellent saxophonist Braz Gonsalves and his group playing an original, noirish composition called Impulse. It was recorded in 1972. The generous Kingshuk Niyogi found it in a second-hand store in Delhi and gave it to me. Many thanks, Niyogiji. Bonus:  a Mario sketch of Braz in full flow at a Jazz Yatra in the 1980s.

Braz impulse by naresh.fernandes



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Long Gone Blues

[An excerpt from Taj Mahal Foxtrot, which appears as the cover story in Mint/Lounge today.]

As a teenager in the Goan village of Curchorem, Franklin Fernandes spent long hours practising the trumpet with only one goal in mind: he wanted to “play like a negro”. It wasn’t an ambition his teacher, Maestro Diego Rodrigues, would have understood. Like all teachers in Goa’s parochial schools, Rodrigues coached his charges in musical theory and instructed them in the art of playing hymns and Western classical music. Fernandes was a precocious talent. His mastery of the violin was recognised early but the young man, to his teacher’s dismay, soon developed a fascination for the clear, ringing sounds of the trumpet. It wasn’t long before Fernandes became a regular member of the village marching band, playing at parish feasts, weddings and—in New Orleans style—at funerals too. However, unlike the New Orleans bands famed for their improvised flights of fancy, Fernandes’ village orchestra was, he recalled, a “paper band—they played what was written”.

Soon, even this was to become trickier as new instructions began to appear on the music scores: glissando, mute, attack. It was all very baffling. “But when we heard the records, we knew how to play the notes,” Fernandes said. The thick shellac records that set him off on his journey of discovery bore the names of Ellington, Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and Fernandes grew addicted to hot music. Jazz, he said, gave him “freedom of expression”. He still looked at the sheet music, of course, but he knew that it could take him only so far. “Like Indian music, jazz can’t be written,” he said. “You have to feel it. There are 12 bars, but each musician plays it differently. You play as you feel—morning you play different, evening you play different.”

[Complete  version here.]


The Original Turbanator

In the 1950s, Korla Pandit was the most prominent Indian in the US. Five days a week, Musical Adventures with Korla Pandit was beamed to millions of homes across America. Pandit would never speak, deigning only to gaze into the camera with his mystical eyes.  Over the decade, he cut 14 records, winning fans for a unique sound he described as  “exotic and mystic, moody hypnotic music as gentle as drifting as lotus blossoms, as savage as jungle drums”.


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A Brief History of Everything

[This appeared in Mint/Lounge.]

One day in 2007, as the historian Ramachandra Guha and I were making our way to a coffee shop in Colaba, we encountered Micky Correa outside his building on the Causeway. It was most serendipitous. The legendary musician had been the subject of the first conversation I’d had with Guha four years before, when I accosted him at a lecture at Mumbai’s Press Club.

I had just finished reading A Corner of a Foreign Field, Guha’s social history of Indian cricket, and had been gobsmacked by the breadth of his vision and the depth of his research. My admiration reached boiling point when Guha described the celebrations that followed Vijay Hazare​’s triple century in the finals of the Pentangular Tournament of 1943. At a reception organized by the Catholic Gymkhana to honour their co-religionist, Guha noted that “three hundred couples took to the floor, swaying to music by Micky Correa’s band…”.

Complete article here.




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