Sunday, October 26, 2008

And the music never died

The lizard scampers away across the wall as I wait for the liftman to return from his namaaz and pull a brass lever which will elevate me up to the 5th floor. Its one of those typical old buildings of Central Calcutta, a relic of British times, but fairly well maintained, plumb in the middle of Chandni Chowk. It mostly houses a hotel and a bar which has live music every evening. Appropriate perhaps, considering that three floors up from the bar, intense rehearsals are on for a different kind of live music to be performed in a month's time.

The live music playing in the bar on the first floor is so at odds with what is being rehearsed up here that they might as well be from another planet. I have never actually been to this bar, but every evening I hear the music blaring into the stairwell in the many keys of off that the keyboard player can conjure up, as the digital drum machine whacks out a beat that seems to have nothing to do with the tempo of the song. It is a lot of amplified noise with a disjointed melody sneaking through. The songs are sung by a surprisingly good female voice who just sings away, sounding like she's ignoring the band backing her. I'm pretty sure the male-only patrons of the bar watching her with alcohol-ridden lust in their eyes, are not particularly bothered about the quality of the music. The music is only as good as its familiarity with them, and also perhaps the associations they carry from the Hindi films they originate from.

Maybe I'm being a little unkind to these professional musicians. Perhaps I think too highly of the music my friend Bertie Da Silva is playing three floors up. Neither Bertie or I would ever dream about doing a daily gig in a down-market bar. Forget down market. The reason Bertie and I decided to return to doing a concert in an auditorium like in our old days is because we were (and are) pretty disillusioned about performing background music for a social evening at an upmarket pub or club. Not strangely, both kinds of market establishments promote their facilities on the basis of the live music. Bertie and band don't even have the ostensible advantage of a sexy woman in slinky clothes vamping it up frontstage with a microphone in her hand!

Are we “English music” aficionados snobbish and snooty about the music we prefer to hear live or otherwise? Is it because it has no mass appeal here, unlike the music being performed downstairs, so that our inverted snobbery is like a defence mechanism for a rarefied clique? Do we justify our stance by the “quality” of music we listen to, and the intellectual and aesthetic attractions, not forgetting the nostalgic sentiments, it holds for us? And what about the reputation of the performers?

Could be. Who knows? All I know now is that we are committed to doing our show in less than a month's time. Such questions could be distracting to what we want to achieve in our 'other' world. In my mind I wish the musicians in the bar all the best as the liftman swings open the collapsible iron gates for me at the fifth floor. From outside the door to Cyrus' home I hear Willy doing his bass solo in La Dolce Vita. With him, Jonathan's keys and Amlanjyoti's soft drums fill up this space I am now standing in, a world away from what's happening three floors down. And of course the tale the song tells is a true one, like many of Bertie's songs. It has the added flavour of my having been present during what he sings about, a slice of life that happened in an upmarket lounge bar where live music is also used to bring in customers. As an aside, the jazz inflections endear it to me as well.

I sit down quietly and watch Bertie and the band rehearse the 18th November concert material. They've been at it for more than two months now and I see it's only getting better. It should be. Because he planned it that way. Hand-picking the musicians, initially rehearsing with them in separate sessions, then bringing them together as a band just about twenty days ago, and now working hard at it so that everything falls into place. And it's surely looking like that, the way things are going.
We all have a suppressed excitement about the show. This really is Bertie's comeback concert. There are two reasons why I discount last year's reunion show with Mel and Fuzz at Princeton, and the two or three collaborative gigs he did with Pink Noise later in the year, as his comeback shows. Firstly, the one with Mel and Fuzz was a one-off, a sentimental get-together resulting from Fuzz's visit to Calcutta after almost 10 years, and a keen sense of nostalgia which naturally occurred. I'm sure the three of them would love to do another, properly rehearsed concert together, but it requires a major commitment level and relocation for Fuzz which presently seems impossible.

Secondly, the gigs with Pink Noise were good to hear since those guys are such experienced and talented musicians who perform and practice regularly, but their commitments beyond Bertie were not helping him to take his music exactly where he wanted to go with it. The inevitable was what he now has put together. A band playing exclusively with him, dedicating huge chunks of their time everyday to the music because they love it so much.

That's the other thing. His admirers and fans, very often students he has taught or still teaches English to. I'm constantly amazed at how quickly and easily they respond and volunteer to do any little thing to make this show by “Sir” a resounding success. Some of them are influential, some are not, yet the individual and collective, genuine admiration spans quite a few years and even a generation or so. In fact, both Jonathan and Anindya are ex-students of his and they along with Amlanjyoti who is the son of old friend Victor, have brought a youthful energy and drive, as well as fresh ideas to the entire sound. Nice!
Willy, a contemporary of Bertie's and mine, provides the been-there, done-that backing a band like this requires, but not at all in a cynical, jaded way. A neat, and you could even say optimal mix, to the music. Ever the one with a piquant, Anglo-Indian sense of humour, Willy is discussing with Bertie about a bass run that he needs to do in a song, which musicians call “doing a walk”, when he remembers a tale from long ago. A musician of Goan ethnicity who played upright acoustic bass was unfamiliar with the 'walking' term. When he was told to “do a walk” in a particular song, the other band members were surprised to find him pick up his huge and heavy instrument and start to walk around. Fortunately, this happened at a practice session and not on stage! We all have a good laugh. Then Cyrus brings in the tea and everyone takes five. Willy and Cyrus also go back a long way, and it's nice sometimes to hear them exchange memories. I really must start documenting these musician stories soon.
It's a pity Cyrus won't be able to play this gig. His reasons are solidly valid, but personally speaking I'll miss him being on stage after three decades or so. I remember being very blown away at a High concert when he played lead guitar with them. However, things are open with him for the next gig, which we must do soon, at least within the first three months of next year. I do want to hear him play live once again.

Post-rehearsal, Bertie and I go back to his house and sup on kati rolls and tea. We are tense with the thoughts of what the future will bring. Maybe trepidation is a better word. But we are optimistic. Things seem to be slowly falling into place, both musically and otherwise. The lack of a lead guitar is no longer noticeable after Bertie has tweaked and rearranged some of the tracks which would have used the part. People are already talking about the show even outside Calcutta, especially Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad. Tickets to the show are being sought, and though we have no sponsors yet, we are not unduly worried. The way things are moving, that too will happen. We have a very strong verbal commitment from a leading city newspaper and a FM radio station to write and talk about Bertie, this concert, and a whole lot besides.

We talk of the concert and the things still left to do. We are looking at this as a stepping stone to bigger and better. More shows in Calcutta and away. More shows with other musicians, organised specially for them, not necessarily featuring Bertie every time. All these shows will have one dominating criterion. They will feature original music performed by the musicians. Music that is never really given a fighting chance by the big labels, the music stores and the airwaves because it cannot be classified, set into little boxes which are convenient for sales. Live concerts are the only option left open to such dedicated musicians, and even there sponsors can be mean and stingy. These musicians pour their heart and soul into their music, often sacrificing much and compromising with too much to play what they want. And make you like it enough to want more.

The music never died. It never even faded away. It just orbited out of our ambit for awhile. Maybe we'll be able to bring it back to a space where you will come to listen to music for its sake alone.


Bertie Da Silva and the band perform in concert on Tuesday 18th November 2008 at G D Birla Sabhagar, Calcutta, from 7 to 9 pm. The first set will feature Bertie in a solo performance. After a short intermission, he will perform with the band, who are: Willy Walters on bass guitars, Jonathan Ramgopal on keyboards, Amlanjyoti Singh on drums and Anindya Sundar Paul on backing vocals. Yours truly will also be doing backing vocals for three songs when I'm not running around the premises acting frightfully busy.


Sue said...

Awesome! I shan't be in town but the husband will, and he'll be there, he says.

p@tr!(k said...

keno? kothai? chennai? make sure you get yourself the record!

Gordon-M said...

Here's wishing Bertie "Sir" & the band (which includes YOU and your voice) all the best for the 18th... Just wish I could be there after reading thru your blog. And I'm pretty sure you spoke of SAQI BAR! Or am I wrong?
Whichever, it's the music that matters and I honestly pray that you guys get sponsors by the dozen.

21speed said...

am moving slowly through the choked gurgaon-delhi connector as i type in the back seat. bertie, the saki bar, gd birla sabhagar are words i'm hearing after ages.
what is it about calcutta that fills me with longing, with light?
what a beautiful article, my friend. i won't be there on the 18th in person, but my spirit will be there right in the front row.
p.s. when are the delhi/bombay dates? will the concert be available on dvd at some point?

p@tr!(k said...

@Gordon: Thanks man! And no it's no0t Saqi, it's Majestic Hotel.

@21Speed: Shubho, many thanks! Mumbai and Delhi shows yet to be fixed though we are in talks. and yes, plan to bring out dvd and acd copies of the live concert recordings. will keep you informed.

Joles said...

What is the amount that one needs to put in the hat and where for this show? I need upfront seats!

No, its not about a certain snobbishness as you say it but just that a feeling of this-is-something-which-is-a-part-of-me-that-your-culture/music/style/variety-is-trying-to-take-away kind of feeling that can be used to describe this. I have grown up appreciating, ( while not understanding any bit) of music right from Ghazals to Sufi Music to Rock Bands to Pop Bands to Pink Noise and my take is that everyone is a professional in their own way and who are we to judge? But it obviously grates when pretenders to the throne or a few copycat and mechanical music hit copy wonders start calling their stuff "music" and horror of horrors, it starts appealing to the vox populi ! Then one gets that feeling of splendidly isolating oneself from this set ( and throw out all related bathwater babies) to stick to what we liked in the first place!
Inshallah, should be there !
SMS me who do I get in touch with for the tickets

p@tr!(k said...

joles! thanks for writing in. you make a pretty pertinent point while it is still quite moot. such discussion needs a face-to-face! let's meet 18th nov!

ǽ said...

Hi p@tr!(k : Are there tickets for the show? Where could one pick those up?

p@tr!(k said...

hi aeio...o! oops!! yes, in fact there actually are tickets for the show. surprise, surprise! and they cost 200 bucks apiece. and if one hurries down to vodafone stores on park street, 22 camac st, ideal plaza on sarat bose rd, south city mall or ec block salt lake city centre by tomorrow, 13 nov - guru nanak's birth anniv - then one may still find a ticket or more to buy. after that, no assurances. cheers!