Amru Sani with the Mickey Correa band at Green's Hotel, Bombay, 1948-'49
Was Amru Sani the first Indian to make it in the exalted world of American show biz? In the 1950s, Sani had a brief streak of fame in the US, appearing in a Broadway revue and cutting a bunch of popular records. In 1953, when Sani was booked for an assignment in Hollywood nightclub called Ciro’s, the New Journal and Guide described her as “India’s Lena Horne”. It was clear that she’d made quite an impression her audience. “The Hollywood nightclub male habitués responded to this Indian love call – Bombay, India, that is – in such large numbers that Amru is assured of success on her American tour,” the paper gushed. It added her name meant “goddess of love”.
A few months earlier, Variety magazine was all praise for her stint at Statler’s Embassy Room in Washington. “She has a regal bearing and generally carries herself almost ramrod stiff with her arms at her sides and slightly bent backwards. Occasionally, she lifts her hands in clawlike motions for emphasis,” Variety wrote. “She is a sultry stylist, holding herself somewhat aloof from her audience and with a theatrical sophistication which should do well in class rooms like this. Voice is husky, often sinking to a low softness, sometimes rising to a shout.”
[An excerpt from Taj Mahal Foxtrot, which appears as the cover story in Mint/Lounge today.]
As a teenager in the Goan village of Curchorem, Franklin Fernandes spent long hours practising the trumpet with only one goal in mind: he wanted to “play like a negro”. It wasn’t an ambition his teacher, Maestro Diego Rodrigues, would have understood. Like all teachers in Goa’s parochial schools, Rodrigues coached his charges in musical theory and instructed them in the art of playing hymns and Western classical music. Fernandes was a precocious talent. His mastery of the violin was recognised early but the young man, to his teacher’s dismay, soon developed a fascination for the clear, ringing sounds of the trumpet. It wasn’t long before Fernandes became a regular member of the village marching band, playing at parish feasts, weddings and—in New Orleans style—at funerals too. However, unlike the New Orleans bands famed for their improvised flights of fancy, Fernandes’ village orchestra was, he recalled, a “paper band—they played what was written”.
Soon, even this was to become trickier as new instructions began to appear on the music scores: glissando, mute, attack. It was all very baffling. “But when we heard the records, we knew how to play the notes,” Fernandes said. The thick shellac records that set him off on his journey of discovery bore the names of Ellington, Armstrong and Cab Calloway, and Fernandes grew addicted to hot music. Jazz, he said, gave him “freedom of expression”. He still looked at the sheet music, of course, but he knew that it could take him only so far. “Like Indian music, jazz can’t be written,” he said. “You have to feel it. There are 12 bars, but each musician plays it differently. You play as you feel—morning you play different, evening you play different.”
[Complete version here.]
The bandleader Mickey Correa, the last link to an incredibly rich part of Bombay’s musical history, passed away today at the age of 98. This picture was probably shot around 1939, when Correa was hired to lead an orchestra at the Taj in Bombay. He stayed there until 1961. Over the decades, his band was a nursery for fresh talent. The musicians who emerged from his ensemble included the pianist Lucilla Pacheco, the saxophonists Johnny Baptist, Norman Mobsby and George Pacheco, and the trumpet players Chic Chocolate and Frank Fernand.
Over the course of my research, I’ve occasionally encountered names of performers in programme brochures and on record labels that have, frustratingly, remained little more than just that: names. None of the other musicians I have interviewed have been able to give me more than sketchy details about these performers, I haven’t been able to track down their families and there’s little about them in the news clips I’ve found. Among these tantalising phantoms are the Theodore brothers: Joe, Harry, George and Bertie aka Lups, who led one of the first Indian swing bands to play a stint at the Taj in the late 1930s.
Lucilla Pacheco plays the saxophone at Green’s Hotel. It wasn’t an instrument she usually played.
One evening in 2007, as I wrapped up a presentation at an art festival in Panjim on the role Goan jazz musicians had played in bringing swing to the Hindi film industry in the 1950s, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes. “You played a track with my mummy on it,” she said.
Her mother, I knew immediately, was the pioneering pianist Lucilla Pacheco. In the 1940s, Lucilla Pacheco was one of the few women on the Bombay jazz scene, playing in the all-star band of Mickey Correa at the Taj Mahal Hotel and with the Anglo-Indian band leader Ken Mac. She later joined the Hindi film industry, and performed regularly with the arranger Anthony Gonsalves. But she isn’t remembered merely for being a woman in a man’s world. In the 1960s, she introduced the Hindi films to their first electronic instrument: the Solovox.