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.
Some 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.
A recent report about Stanley Kubrick’s unmade film about the persecution jazz musicians faced in Nazi Germany reminded me of the man in white in the photo above, Creighton Thompson, who sang TajMahal Foxtrot, the tune from which this website and my book take their name. As regular readers of this site know, the tune was a perfect example of Bombay’s multiculturalism of the 1930s: it had been composed by a Bombay Jewish man named Mena Silas and recorded by a band led by the African-American trumpet player Crickett Smith. Chicago-born Creighton Thompson came to Bombay from Europe, where he had been performing since 1920. But early in the 1930s, he and other African-American performers were forced out of Germany as Nazi policies forbade non-Aryans from appearing on the radio and from theatres. more…
“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer (seated on the left) told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. In 1931, by the time he was 26, he was leading the house band at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was, in the words of his contemporaries, “the daddy of them all”. He simply couldn’t see why he needed a girl singer.
But his front man was persistent and brought over a singer he’d heard at the Harlem Opera House. The drummer was, of course, bowled over by the 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald and she spurred the Chick Webb band on to even greater success. Young Bardu Ali, who had discovered Fitzgerald, didn’t do badly either. He would go on to lead his own band, the Bardu Ali Orchestra, and eventually open a rhythm and blues club in Los Angeles. No one could quite have predicted this for the boy who had been born Bahadour Ali, the son of an adventurous embroidery trader from the Hoogly region in India. more…
This photo of mid-1930s Bombay was taken in the home of the Hutson Sisters, whom I wrote about here. It was sent to me by the wonderful Maxine Steller, a cousin to the Hutsons. She’s the little girl in the front row. Here’s what she says about the photo:
“When you see how small I was, you will realise why I don’t have many memories of those days. My Dad [Bill Taylor of the Bombay Police] is behind Sybil [Hutson], and Merlyn [Hutson] is under Sybil holding a witch (it must have been a Halloween party). Next to Merlyn is my Mum , then Mrs Hutson. Below them is my brother Desmond, myself and my brother Cedric. Young Billy Cooper is sitting next to Cedric. Billy’s mother is sitting above him.
Look at the clock, they had been telling ghost stories and frightening the life out of me.
The fourth gentleman in the row where Dad is standing (you can only see his glasses) is Mr Mollenoux, who was Thomas Edison’s apprentice when he invented the electric light. He came to our school, Christ Church High at Byculla and told us the story in a science class.
Bill Cooper Snr is up near the clock holding on to the window and [the African-American pianist] Teddy Weatherford is just below him.
Around that time, Mr Cooper made Dad a lamp shaped like a Bombay police sepoy standing under a light. His face is a coconut. Unfortunately, it is too large to post (about two feet high).”
To accompany the image, here are two Teddy Weatherford tunes from the Marco Pacci collection. The vocalist is Bob Lee, a US Air Force recruit who found himself in India during the war.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot was released at the Goa Literary Festival last week and will in the stores in a couple of days. The audio guide section of this website is now functional. It contains tracks that are discussed in the book. Each week, I’m going to highlight a different tune in this space. To begin with, here’s a recording by Leon Abby and the Savoy Bearcats called Stampede, which was made in 1926.
Regular readers of this site will know that Abbey, a violinist from Minnesota, caused a great deal of excitement when he performed in Bombay in 1935 because his outfit was the first “all-negro band” to play in India. Abbey didn’t make any recordings when he was in India, but here he is, directing his Savoy Bearcats a decade before he sailed for the subcontinent. The 1920s and ’30 were a period of rapid evolution for jazz, so his style had probably changed a great deal after this recording was made. He was the band’s director, which means that his violin isn’t heard here.
A few weeks ago, I received a message from Robert Evangelista, a retired electronics professional who now lives in the US, asking if I knew anything about Filipino bands that played in India in the 1920s. His father, Joaquin “Ivan” Evangelista, pictured above, was a violinist from Candaba town in the Pampanga province of the Philippines. He was part of a band that had arrived in India in 1924 and Evangelista stayed in the country until just past Independence.