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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.

After Shakti was disbanded, Shankar attempted to learn a new vocabulary. He wanted to be a pop star. It’s a blustery morning in 2002. Outside his Bandra hotel window, the Arabian Sea roars with grey monsoon fury. Shankar has finally emerged from his slumbers, well deserved after an energetic performance the previous evening. Even this early, he’s wearing a black turtleneck exactly like the one he wears in his publicity photos. His hair is fashionably tousled. And in a confused creole that echoes his melodic muddleheadedness, Shank-er—who has lived in the US since 1969—hold forth on his most profound musical influence: Mahatma Gandhi.

“He like is one of the guy who sacrificed so much, he had so much struggle, but he is one of the strongest person I have ever met. He has had so much difficulty with the British army and everybody else but they couldn’t shut him up really and he really sacrificed himself. He didn’t want a post and he did it for the struggle and whatever he believed in the cause. He could have been the prime minister. He doesn’t like any of the stuff. He really believes in India. But many of the time people misinterpret it and politics is politics and that’s different stuff but he really believed in it to free people. He buy one man did what no one could do previously. He fred India. Just like that, I want total freedom in my music,’’ Shankar proclaims.

sangIn this latest avatar, Shankar (he’s long dropped the L) is attempting to capitalise on the current vogue for alluring female violinists who also tug at the heart strings. It’s a craze that was sparked by the sultry Vanessa Mae and given impetus by the Dixie Chicks. Shankar has attempted to clamber onto the bandwagon by enlisting the services of Gingger, with a double G – the Los Angeles-born daughter of his brother, L Subramaniam. The duo recently did a five-city tour through India, accompanied by percussionists Shafaat Ahmed and Sivamani.  To hear Shankar tell it, he and Gingger are all the toast of the West. They’re No 1 on the Billboard charts, he says. What he fails to emphasise is that he’s talking about the digital video disc chart, scarcely an accurately indication of musical popularity.

Shankar is given to frequent name-dropping. The ghosts of Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bono Van Morrison hover in the hotel room. Again, there’s some economy with the truth. Shankar has merely featured these rock legends as guest artists on his albums or has been a minor sideman on their’s; the extent of these collaborations, for the most, has been minor.

Still, it would be boorish to dismiss Shankar out of hand.  For one, he’s worked hard to try to establish his double-violin as more than just a curiosity. He devised the space-age instrument, a wondrously gleaming thing with two necks, in 1978, soon after producing an album for Zappa Records. He needed to overdub a whole range of string-instruments, from double-bass to violin. Because he couldn’t find sessions musicians who could render the Indian ornaments and styles he wanted, Shankar ended up having to play all the instruments himself. This implied having to haul them around, too. There was also the problem of sound engineering at outdoor concerts. In an attempt to mask the whistle of the wind, audio technicians would cut out higher frequencies – and alter some of the most achingly beautiful notes Shankar coaxed out of his violin.

shankar2Shankar took four years to solve the puzzle Then he pasted together a cardboard model of the contraption, which he coaxed instrument maker Ken Parker to turn into metal-and-steel reality. Shankar cancelled all his engagements for two months. He and Parker worked ten hours a day in his New York studio, experimenting with different materials and shapes before he was satisfied. In addition to giving Shankar a range of 5 ½ octaves, the double violin has an array of harmonic devices that allow him to sound like a full orchestra. His task didn’t end there. Shankar had to develop new techniques for playing his new instrument. It’s heavier than a conventional violin, so playing it is physically tiring. Because of the greater angle, the bowing is different. “It’s like playing two violins at the same time,’’ says Shankar.  But he adds: “It’s musically more satisfying.”

But he’s more than the designer of a new instrument. Shankar is a living critique of the notion of purity that rightwing political parties are attempting to burden us with. Shankar refuses to subscribe to the idea that Indian music is the most advanced in the world, or that it should be guardedly pristine. His music has doesn’t yearn for some imagined Golden Age. Instead, his musical cosmopolitanism struggles to demonstrate that one can’t rewind to the future. “Obsessing about purity springs from fear of freedom,’’ Shanker pronounces. “It results in being arrestment of your ideas.” He’s got the tone right. So what if the syntax isn’t?

Here are links to the rest of Bombay and Jazz: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

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.


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

‘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.

JJ Rodriguez, RIP

38 Tango Demo 1

For more than 50 years, Joao Joaquim Rodriguez and his school, Cours de Danse, have been teaching Bombay to step out in style. Long before the Latin dance revival, Rodriguez, was showing eager aspirants how to do the cha cha, the mambo, the jive and every other style you can think of, working from a wooden-floored studio in Colaba’s Sethna House.
The excellent dance writer Suhani Singh just messaged to say Rodriguez waltzed off to the Great Ballroom in the Sky this morning. Here’s a piece she wrote about him in Time Out a few years ago. Click here.
To accompany him on his final journey, here’s the Rangoon Gymkhana Club Orchestra performing Melancholy Baby.
Melancholy Baby by naresh fernandes

Category: Bombay

Singing for the Pope, 1964


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.

Fado Bombaim

One night on a recent trip to Lisbon, I heard a flute playing somewhere near the flat in which I was staying. I followed my ears and was delighted to find myself at a performance by Rao Kyao, whom I had seen in Bombay in the early 1990s.

Rao_Kyao_2Rao, who plays the saxophone and the flute, has been a frequent visitor to India — and to Bombay. The first time he came to India was in 1980, to perform at the Jazz Yatra. He became so entranced by the sound of the bansuri that he became a student of Raghunath Seth and spent a lot of time in Bombay over the next decade.

He used his lessons to enhance the sonic textures of fado, the emotion-drenched song-form beloved in Lisbon, adding the bansuri to the standard ensemble of Portuguese and Spanish guitar. He has also attempted to foreground fado’s Eastern influences, especially its Arab and Indian traces. This tune, with the vocalist Deolinda Bernardo, is called Canta-se o Fado.

About a decade before this track, though, Rao Kyao recorded this tribute to the city that decisively changed his musical direction — Bombaim.

Here, meanwhile, is a diary I wrote for Outlook about my trip.


Iraq and Roll: Bollywood’s Jewish Sounds

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

The dulcet ring of the oud is impossible to miss on the soundtrack of Yahudi, Bimal Roy’s unlikely Bollywood historical made in 1958 about the persecution of Jews in ancient Rome. The background score, composed by Shankar and Jaikishan, has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to it and as the plot twists and turns, it often falls to the versatile Arabian stringed instrument to signal the swirling emotions. As massacres are ordered, betrayals ensue and Dilip Kumar falls in love with Meena Kumari, the oud sobs, sighs and sings to enhance the mood on screen. It could easily have descended into kitsch. Perhaps the reason it didn’t was the fact that the man plucking the strings, Isaac David, was well acquainted with Middle Eastern music. David was Jewish himself and in the early years of the last century, he had polished his art by playing with an ensemble in Mumbai that recorded four discs of Iraqi Jewish tunes for the Hebrew Record label.

shirhodu-front-bSome of those tunes can be heard on a collection called Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ’30s, which offers a fascinating reminder of the city’s cosmopolitan heritage. The 15 archival tracks on the album have been painstakingly put together by Sara Manasseh, a Bombay-born Iraqi Jewish ethnomusicologist who now lives in London. During the 1930s, Bombay was “a musical kaleidoscope”, Manasseh says in her liner notes, and the pieces included music and Jewish prayer chants in Hebrew.


Goering Had Two (But Very Small)


V Day in Bandra, 1945

untitledEver so often, the still of the Bandra night is broken by a raucous party somewhere in the distance bursting into song. A guitar jangles, someone sits down at the piano and a boisterous chorus repeats an item of World War II propaganda regarding the anatomical inadequacies of the Nazi high command.

“Hitler, he has only one ball,” insist the lyrics, sung to the tune of Colonel Bogey’s March. “Goering has two, but very small. Himmler had something similar, and Goebbels has no balls at all (pa pa pa pa pa pum…)” [A version from the film John Rabe here.]

Last weekend, as I listened to a group of my neighbours celebrate a birthday, I realised that several Bandra favourites date back to the World Wars. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, for instance, is a tune from the Great War that expressed the homesickness of Irish troops from that town in central Ireland. Sentimental Journey, released in 1945, became a homecoming anthem for returning soldiers.

Mandela’s Music


All these decades later, the most vivid image of the anti-apartheid struggle I carry in my head is the TV clips of protestors doing the toyi toyi in a mist of tear-gas, singing defiantly to phalanxes of riot policemen. As the true successors to Gandhi, South Africans proved that it was possible to shame their oppressors by holding steadfastly to truth – and music.

In 2003, to celebrate a decade of freedom and to thank India for its support in the struggle, the South African government gave Bombay a joyful gift: a trio of concerts by three of its most accomplished musicians. The apartheid regime had forced trumpet player Hugh Masakela, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and vocalist Letta Mbulu into exile and they’d spent years as cultural warriors, touring the world to enlist support for their cause. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, they all returned home and rolled up their sleeves to get down to the hard task of building a new nation. I had the good fortune to interview all of them.

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