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Indian Jazzmeisters and Valaida Snow

NARESH FERNANDES on Indian Jazz Greats Anthony Gonsalves and Chocolate Chic:

In this, Gonsalves’ ambition outstripped that of his contemporaries. Goan musicians had been sought after by film composers since the ’40s, when A.B. Alburquerque and Peter Dorado teamed up with a Sikh saxophone player named Ram Singh to form the ARP Party – an acronym that in those uneasy years also stood for Air Raid Police. The source of their appeal lay across a yawning musical chasm: while Indian classical music has a melodic basis, western classical music – in which Goans had been rigorously trained in parish schools established by the Portuguese who had ruled their home state since 1510 – has a harmonic foundation. To wit, all the performers at an Indian classical music concert reiterate the same melodic line, but western classical ensembles play different notes of related pitches.

When Hindi film music entered a period of rapid evolution during the Second World War, composers realised that the small groups they’d previously used could not effectively convey the drama unfolding on screen. So they formed large orchestras that ranged dholaks and sitars along with banks of violins, swathes of trumpets and a Hawaiian guitar or two. Since not many musicians from other communities knew how to play saxophones or clarinets, Goans came to form the bulk of the orchestras. But they also had another, rather more influential role. Until then, composers would rehearse their groups (which usually had fewer than 10 musicians) until they’d memorised their parts before leading them into recording sessions. But if the members of an orchestra were to play in unison and the tone colour of their instruments was to be employed most effectively, they needed to read the notes off scores, with each musician’s role clearly laid out. Few Hindi film composers, most of whom were trained in the Hindustani classical tradition, knew how to score music for the new ensembles. That task was performed by a Goan ‘arranger’.

Typically, the work proceeded thus. The producer would organise a ‘sitting’ (as the Goans came to call the baithaks) at which the composer (most often a Hindu), the lyricist (usually an Urdu-speaking Muslim) and the arranger would flop down on comfortable cushions to listen to the director narrate the plot. When the director indicated the point at which a song was necessary, the composer would hum out a melody or pick it out on his harmonium. It was the arranger’s task to note down these fragments, which the composer would later piece together into an entire song.

But even then, the composer would craft only the verse and the chorus. The arranger was responsible for fashioning the melodic bridges, for shaping the parts for individual instruments and often even wrote the background music. The arranger wasn’t merely a secretary. As I discovered while researching a previous essay, the Goans drew on their bicultural heritage to give Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Long before fusion music became fashionable, it was being performed every day in Bombay’s film studios.

Other jazz articles: Terry Teachout on Louis Armstrong. Recently I bought my first CD in years–a 2 CD collection of jazz trumpetist Valaida Snow. She is amazing. (See also the redhotjazz section, which curiously is missing a bio).