|Naresh Fernandes tells the story of jazz that unfolds across five continents but began in Bandra
Talking about his book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot”, subtitled The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, (Roli Books, 2012), Naresh Fernandes says that it’s a “tale that unfolds across five continents.” But it began just down the road from where he lives in the Bombay suburb of Bandra.
He went to interview Frank Fernand, the musician-father of two of his college friends, and though Fernand had Parkinson’s disease, and conversation was a struggle, it soon became obvious, as Naresh says, “that I was speaking to one of the most important figures in India’s early jazz scene.”
Fernand talked about a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1946 which inspired him to play jazz in an Indian way, and his efforts to reinvent Goa’s Konkani’s folk traditions. He also talked about itinerant African-American musicians who had come to Bombay in the 1930s and mentored India’s first jazz musicians.
The book, which took eight years of research to write, works on many levels. For many who grew up hearing the names Chic Chocolate, Micky Correa, Vin Cummins and others, it gives shape to what may have remained random and insignificant memories, events and names.
It reminds us that artistes, in this case musicians, helped to form the original global village, through their enthusiastic absorption of new kinds of music which they blended with their own. Most importantly, it reminds us that Bombay was once a cosmopolitan city, open to new ideas, and that a one-dimensional approach to culture, religion, politics merely stultifies.
It isn’t a coincidence, Naresh remarks, “that almost all accounts left…remarked upon the diversity of their audiences in Bombay…As a port city, Bombay’s cosmopolitanism was only to be expected. But unlike in other colonial cities, such as Calcutta and Shanghai, affluent Indians in Bombay moved in European society with greater ease and lived in the same neighbourhoods as the British…”
The cross-pollination influenced Marathi and Gujarati musical theatre, and “spawned distinct cultural forms. One such genre was born in 1892, when a Goan named Lucazinho Ribeiro bought up the costumes and sets from a travelling Italian opera company that had completed its run.
He mixed Italian opera conventions with Konkani folk traditions, and “the form he devised rapidly evolved into the satirical Goan musical theatre tradition of tiatr.”
Again, “Goa’s swirl of cultures made it uncannily similar to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz…Goans knew Western classical music from school and church, the Portugese had introduced Iberian folk forms to the territory and the constant movement between Africa and Goa brought the music of that continent to the ears of Goan musicians.”
Aspects of African culture were brought to Goa through the slaves brought there from the 16th century. Thousands of Goans migrated to East Africa, and to the Portugese colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and to Brazil.
Goans were also “sucked into the creative whirlpool of the Hindi film industry. Their Western music training in the parochial schools established by the Portugese gave them a near-monopoly on the technical ability to merge the basic elements of Hindi film songs: Indian melody and Western harmony.”
They could also read and write musical notations, “arrange” music, and with their familiarity with so many different kinds of music “gave Bollywood music its promiscuous charm…Long before the term ‘world music’ had become a marketable category, it was being created in the Hindi film studios every day.”
Reading about so many names that swirled around in my growing-up years, I began to feel like a chunk of history myself. No matter. Reading Taj Mahal Foxtrot was worth it. It is an invaluable book, thoroughly researched, written with insight into a variety of cultures and issues, above all written with a profound passion for the subject.
Put the ‘story’ back in history
As a student of history and politics, I have long been a fan of stories based on the Mughals, even in fiction form. One of my favourites is Indu Sunderesan’s The Twentieth Wife, a beautifully told account of Mehrunissa, better known as Empress Noor Jahan, and her struggle to make her mark in a completely male-dominated era.
Despite the dry manner in which history is usually taught in our schools and colleges, bringing in poetry, the untold stories of women of that era complete the historical picture and put the ‘story’ back into history.
- Deeksha Surana