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, 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.
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.
Pam Crain, who passed away on Aug 14, was one of the finest jazz musicians India has produced. On stage and off, she displayed the generosity that is such an essential characteristic of jazz. Here’s what the writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi said on his Facbeook page: “Just heard Pam Crain moved on down the line. RIP Pam. Used to be awed watching her sing. Then, somehow got to know her and [her husband] Don [Saigal] when I was a teenager and I’d go to their house near the St.Xavier’s back gate [in Calcutta] and she’d lend me precious albums without any questions. “Just bring it back when you’re finished listening. Don’t add to the scratches.” Some unknown kid walking away with her rare jazz vinyl and that’s all she ever said to me.
The adman and musician Stanley Pinto had these recollections about the diva:
“In 1961 I was playing in a band at the Hotel Nataraj on Marine Drive, Bombay. One night, a European couple sitting at the far end perked up when we played a jazz standard, clapped, and started sending us one request after another for jazz ballads and songs. more…
In 2004, Rudresh Mahanthappa alchemised his exasperation into art. His album Mother Tongue that year was a witty, biting rely to the query often posed to subcontinental immigrants to the US, “Do you speak Indian?” or “Do you speak Hindu?”
The saxophonist, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, recorded Indian-American speakers of languages such as Kannada, Konkani and Gujarati explaining, “No, I do not speak Indian. There is no such language. I speak Gujarati. Having lived in America for almost 20 years, I also speak English.” Mahanthappa used the intonations of these sentences to create an album that went to No. 8 on the US jazz charts.
Since then, the 42-year-old musician has attempted toive jazz an Indian-American voice through a variety of formations: the Indo-Pak Coalition; Raw Materials, a duo with his soul brother, the pianist Vijay Iyer; the quintet Dual Identity; and most recently Gamak. His imaginative sonic adventures have earned him a warehouse of fellowships and awards: he was Downbeat magazine’s alto saxophonist of the year in 2011 and 2012 and bagged the same honour from the Jazz Journalists’ Association for four years from 2009.
“Jazz is a multicultural music at its heart from its roots and through its history of embracing other cultures and ideologies,” he said in an e-mail interview for a piece I did for Outlook recently. “My contribution is an apropos part of its journey.”
By the time he passed away in 1997, blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon had scored five Top Ten hits and made more than two dozen albums. He continued performing well into the 1990s, until he was diagnosed with throat cancer. As it turns out, the ace blues shouter had got his start in Calcutta, where he found himself as a member of the merchant marine during World War II.
“I don’t know why I started singing the blues,” he told one interviewer. “Blues was hardly allowed in my home. My mother was a very religious woman and so was my father. I don’t know what made me become a blues singer. I really think, had I not been in Calcutta, India, and just heard Teddy Weatherford, who had been in the East for years and was from Chicago, if I hadn’t heard him play Benny Goodman’s arrangement of Why Don’t You Do Right?, I don’t think I’d ever be singing the blues.”
He sat in with Weatherford’s band many other nights during his time in port. Witherspoon told another interviewer: “I sang with Teddy Weatherford’s band over there – Around the Clock, very risqué tune. Wynonie Harris recorded it. It was all suggestive blues.”
’ Spoon didn’t make any recordings in India, but his time in Calcutta seems to have left an impression on his family. His cousin, Diane Witherspoon, has performed in Bombay twice, in 2010 and 2012, and promises to return.
In 1939, as Britain entered World War II, it established ENSA – the Entertainment National Service Association – to keep the troops in good spirits. Singers like Vera Lynn and actors like Laurence Olivier toured Europe to perform for field units. In August 1942, three months after the Japanese had driven the British out of Burma, Calcutta was filled with Allied soldiers who had fled South East Asia and were attempting to regroup. That month, members of Calcutta’s British community decided to form BESA – the Bengal Entertainment Services Association. more…
Ever 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 Rabehere.]
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. more…
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. more…
As millions of Brazilians take to the streets to demand schools instead of stadiums, here are two musical reminders of that country’s intriguing links with India. The first is a clip of the adventurous Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti and his sideman, Nana Vasconcelos, attempting to find common ground with Indian musicians when they visited Bombay for the Jazz Yatra in 1984.
This piece from NPR is about a samba school from the northern city of Salvador do Bahaia that has long fascinated me: Filhos de Gandhy, or Sons of Gandhi. One of their most prominent members, the pop star Gilberto Gil, performed at Azad Maidan in Mumbai in 2004, as part of the World Social Forum. more…
With the passing of the reedman Joe Pereira this morning, Bombay’s jazz age has truly come to an end. Jazzy Joe, as he was known fondly to three generations of Indian fans, was the last of the musicians from the swing era. He was 86.
Pereira started performing in 1941, aged only 14, in a band in Lahore’s Stiffle’s Hotel fronted by his cousin, the legendary Sebastian D’Souza. After spending much of his career in Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta, Pereira returned to Bombay in the 1980s and helped train a bunch of enthusiastic hornmen (and hornwomen) who performed occasionally as the Jazz Junkeys.
Visiting Pereira at his home in Victory Blocks, right behind Bandra police station, was always enlightening. Until a couple of years ago when his health began to fail, Pereira could be counted on to recall slightly risqué stories about his encounters with cabaret dancers and to tell, in mock horror, about his shyness at their routine state of dishabille, even off stage. He would tell about his musical journeys through India and his trips to Europe, his eyes lighting up with memories of musicians he’d jammed with and places he’d seen. more…