Archive for » May, 2013 «

Assam Blues

The blues, as fans well know, come from a place of pain, but few performers have to face hazards like these on the way to a concert:  “Sweltering heat, fever, wild tigers, Jap snipers, leeches and other insects that latch onto the skin so tight, the only way they can be removed is by burning them off.” Sometimes, she’d have to step over decaying bodies and there was always the prospect of bomb raids.

hunterassamThese were the circumstances in which Alberta Hunter belted out the blues in Assam in 1944, as she attempted to cheer up US troops building the snaking Ledo Road in the C-B-I region between China, Burma and India.

By the same she died at the age of 89 in 1984, Alberta Hunter was a genuine legend – an elegant granny who would sing bawdy blues tunes with the poise of a minister leading a church choir. She’d toured Europe in 1917, started recording prolifically in the 1920s, and in 1928, performed with the great Paul Robeson in the London version of Showboat. So it isn’t surprising that she caused a storm in Assam, when she showed up with a troupe of musicians in the middle of the Second World War to entertain the African-American soldiers who were constructing a snaking road in the jungle from north-eastern India to Kunming in China.

A Nazi Refugee in Bombay


Taj Mahal Foxtrot by naresh.fernandes

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 Taj Mahal 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.

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