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Asha Puthli Cuts Loose

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Mumbai in 2006.

Asha Puthli has a somewhat unorthodox relationship with time. When she’s asked about her age, for instance, the pop diva has often been known to declare, “I’m 6,000 years spiritually, I’m mentally 98, I emotionally five and chronologically in between.”

That unconventional sense of temporality has decisively defined the Mumbai-born musician’s 35-year-long career. Puthli first gained international attention in 1971 performing jazz – a form that encourages musicians to play with rhythm, to glide on top or below the beat rather than hitting it predictably in the middle. Her sultry vocals on avant garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album that year earned her the prestigious Downbeat critics poll award alongside Ella Fitzgerald.
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L Shankar shouts the blues

(This is the second part of the BBC documentary Bombay and Jazz. I wrote about the first part last fortnight here.)

Quite improbably, the maestro mispronounces his own name. “Hi,” he calls in an accent that emerges from the interstice between Mylapore and Miami. “I’m Shank-er.”

Jazz, that expression of iconoclastic individualism, is a lifelong quest for your own voice. Jazzmen are obsessed with finding a distinctive way to parse a phrase, with creating a characteristic way to sail just over the beat or under it, with blowing out notes in a tone that’s so unique the music proclaims: Behold, it is I.

Improvisational musician L. Shankar found the song of his soul early. The son of violinist V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, Shankar was a child prodigy. He started vocal lessons at two, began violin at five and gave his first concert at seven. In 1975, aged 25, he co-founded Shakti with British guitar player John McLaughlin and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Even if its three albums didn’t quite set the global charts afire, Shakti was a raging critical success. Shankar’s compositions were hailed for their maturity, for their assurance, for how effortlessly they projected his very own voice.

Unfortunately, he’s been stuttering in the Babel tower ever since.
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Don Cherry and his Bombay gumbo

On New Year’s Day in 1992, a few hundred Bombay fans gathered in the very new Priyadarshani Park on Nepean Sea Road to listen to an eclectic bunch of musicians play a concert that was being recorded for of a BBC documentary. It would later be titled Bombay and Jazz.

The film was directed by the bearded HO Nazareth, a boy from Dadar who had gone on to make his mark in England. In his youth, he’d published a book titled Lobo, with poems like ‘Bombay Gymkhana Grounds’ (“the women wear chandeliers for earrings”) and ‘Warden Road’ (“At Bhulabhai Institute/acquaintances discussed/canvasses, busts/ and brothels in which/they exercised their lust.”)

011I was just starting my career at The Times of India and, the day before the event, was assigned to interview the director, whose friends variously referred to him as either “Naz” or “HoHo” because of his initials. I arrived in the lobby of the SeaRock Hotel in Bandra, where the crew was staying, and waited for him in the reception area. No one there was dressed the way I imagined a film director would be. I called up to his room, but there was no reply.  I would later learn Hubert Nazareth was actually the scruffy chap in the kurta and chappals I’d seen leaning against the wall.  But that discovery would only come the next day. Filled with panic that I wouldn’t have a story to take back, I asked the operator to call the room of any musician who was still in. The first one I found was the beret-wearing maverick, Don Cherry.

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Sax adventures in South India

Despite the perception that it is a staid, uncompromising form, Carnatic classical music has been remarkably adventurous about incorporating new instruments into its fold. The violin seems to have made its appearance in Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century and, by 1824, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, south of Madurai, had appointed Baluswamy Dikshitar (younger brother of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar) as his court violinist.

sax-sisSince then, writes the musicologist Amanda Weidman, the violin not only become “a vehicle for conveying Carnatic music to modernity”, it’s also come to be seen as essential to preserving Carnatic music’s authenticity”.

Over the years, other Western instruments have made their way into Carnatic music, notably the mandolin, the guitar and the clarinet.

Though the sari-clad Saxophone Sisters — MS Lavanya and MS Subbalaxmi — have been attraction attention recently, the saxophone isn’t really capable of expressing the nuances of Carnatic classical music. The problem, as singer TM Krishna explains in his recent book, A Southern Music, is that the reed instrument isn’t able to render gamakas, or ornamentations, that characterise the form. “This has led to saxophone-using musicians rendering only ragas with relatively less gamaka, thus limiting their own exploration of the music,” he writes.

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Teddy Weatherford’s Cabin in the Sky


This recording by Teddy Weatherford and his band features three trumpet players. One of them is George Banks, father of the pianist Louis Banks. The other two hornmen, both Anglo-Indians, studied at St Mary’s School in Byculla: Bill McDermott (pictured above) and Pat Blake (who would later sit in with the Duke Ellington band when it toured India in 1962).

Thanks to Maxine Steller for this photo. This track is from the Marco Pacci collection. Kitty Walker is the vocalist.

Cabin in the Sky was the title song of a movie of the same name directed by Vincent Minelli. The plot was a variation on the story of Faust. It was a landmark film because it featured a cast that was entirely African-American. Perhaps the most popular tune from the film is the gently swinging Taking a Chance on Love.

Cabin in the Sky by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

The Sari-Clad Jazz Diva


lambert-hendricks-ross-492-lIn 1962, Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross were the most famous jazz vocal group in the world. They’d made their reputation launching bop classics at the audience with the speed of a rocket. Their trademark style was called vocalese: they sang the intricate solos that instrumentalists usually played on these songs, in quicksilver three-part harmony. For four years from 1959, they were voted the best jazz vocal group by Downbeat’s readers.  When Annie Ross left the group in 1962 because of health and personal problems, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert had to quickly find a replacement so that they could honour their concert commitments. Somewhat improbably, Ross’s substitute was a sari-clad woman: Yolande Bavan, a Sri Lankan Burgher as the descendents of the island’s former Dutch colonisers are known.

album2A few months later, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin St. East hit the stores. In the liner notes, producer George Avakian recounted how Bavan had come to the attention of her new band mates. “[Dave and Jon] met Yolande while she was in London and found that she was a fan of the group’s and had learned several of their intricate arrangements just for fun,” he wrote. “When a serious illness incapacitated Annie Ross a week or two later toward the end of their European tour, Dave and Jon returned to the States without her. After starting their U.S. engagement, they decided they had to take a chance on Yolande. She arrived just in time for a concert at Union College in Schenectady, New York.”

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‘She Sold a Million Records’

Mexican magic by KEN MAC by tajmahalfoxtrot1

temp2A few weeks ago, Christine Holmes left a note on my site that added more details to this article:

“Beryl Templeman was my mother-in-law. She died at age 62. Usually at private parties she sang for Aly Khan, Maharajah of of Cooch Behar and Nizam Hyderbad while in the East. The actor Jack Hawkins urged her to join ENSA. By then, she had already made over 100 records for HMV and had her own radio show with All India Radio.

“She was awarded the Burma Star by the Duke of Edinburgh. She also worked for the American Forces Radio Network in Germany.

“Returning from India she performed at the London Palladium with Ted Heath, toured with Roy Fox and appeared regularly with Jack Jackson at the famous Churchill’s Club in London and at that time was sharing a flat with her friend, Pearl Carr.
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Hindi Films, Angrezi Lyrics

The night before he was shabbily removed as editor of the Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan sent me a link to to this tune by Zohra Bai from the 1944 film, Jeevan. It’s called My Dear, I Love You. As Siddharth noted, it’s “slightly weird but quite charming”. It got me thinking about Hindi film songs that had lyrics in English. Here’s an arbitrary selection.

Perhaps the first Hindi film song in English was this rendition of the Longfellow poem A Psalm of Life by Shanta Apte. It’s from the 1937 film Duniya Na Mane.

In 1975, Preeti Sagar sang My Heart Is Beating in Julie. The music was composed by Rajesh Roshan and the lyrics were by Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

This song by Mohammad Rafi never actually made it into a film — it was only released on record. It’s a version of Hum Kale Hai Tu Kya Huwa Dilwa Hai, from the 1965 thriller Gumnaam. The music is by Shankar-Jaikishan and the lyrics are by Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

Singing for the Pope, 1964

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Eucharistic Congress recordings by tajmahalfoxtrot1

At 5.15 pm on December 2, 1964, Bombay poured into the streets to greet a famous visitor: Pope Paul VI. “Pilgrim of peace gets tumultuous welcome: 15-deep cheering crowds pack streets,” said the Times of India’s headline. Both Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Vice President Zakir Hussain were on the tarmac at Santa Cruz airport as the Pope stepped out of the plane, joining his hands to say “Namaste”.  As his open Ford convertible made its way south, passing through streets decorated with archways and bunting, more than a million people of lined his route.
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Teddy Weatherford in Shanghai

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Before the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford arrived in Bombay in 1935, he was a legend at the Canidrome Ballroom in Shanghai, a city whose nightlife, as evident from the clip above, was vibrant and had a famously notorious reputation across the world.

Shanghai was a thriving jazz centre, providing work for scores of bands from the US, Europe and across Asia. “Shanghai flames with millions of flashing jewels at midnight,” boasted the All About Shanghai guidebook, from which this ad is reproduced. “Joy, gin and jazz. There’s nothing puritanical about Shanghai.”

This recording is from the Marco Pacci collection. Weatherford plays piano and sings on this track. For more Weatherford recordings, click here.

How About You by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

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