Naresh Fernandes blames his laziness for the genesis of his book Taj Mahal Foxtrot. Fernandes laughs his way through the origin story, which began as an essay focused on Goan crooner Lorna Cordeiro and bandleader Chris Perry’s scandalous love affair in 1960s Bombay, but soon changed when he met Frank Fernand.
Musician Sonny Rollins poses with jazz aficionado Jehangir Dalal (left) and Niranjan Jhaveri (right).
Story by Rumnique Nannar; Photography: Courtesy
Fernand, who coincidentally lived up the road from Fernandes, recalled his time playing at the Taj Hotel, and the African-American jazz musicians that he’d played with. As Fernandes dug deeper, he discovered that the Taj Hotel was the epicentre of the burgeoning jazz scene, which included a high-profile roster of eminent guests like pioneer Leon Abbey, who brought the first African-American jazz band to the hotel in 1935, and Teddy Weatherford, Louis Armstrong’s pianist and a Chicago jazz icon. These musicians left a deep imprint on the Goan musicians who played under them, who then created their own melange of swing and jazz music that soon shaped Hindi film music.
Zipping through history and introducing us to wild characters like Anthony Gonsalves, a skilled arranger for Bollywood soundtracks, to Chic Chocolate, India’s self-styled answer to Louis Armstrong, the book is the definitive answer to anyone skeptical of jazz’s far-reaching influence in the world.
We called up Fernandes to chat about his creative process, the safety net Bombay provided for African-American musicians, and the iconic Bollywood soundtracks that were shaped by Goan arrangers.
Did the Taj Mahal Foxtrot evolve from the essay in Bombay Meri Jaan, which was published in 2003?
It did, because I’m a lazy person there’s about a 10-year gap between the two of them. My friend asked Jerry Pinto and I to do this anthology, and I decided I’d use my editor’s prerogative to write this piece about the Goan migration to Bombay through music. All of these intriguing things came up about these African-Americans who’d come to Bombay and taught local musicians how to play jazz, and then how those guys influenced Hindi film music. Actually, I don’t think this Taj Mahal Foxtrot could’ve happened any quicker, because what happened in those 10 years was that growth of the Internet. This story actually got pieced together literally on all the continents of the planet, because the people who had taken part in that story in Bombay in the 30s, 40s, and 50s had emigrated. I would have never been able to track them down without the Internet, so this astonishing thing has begun to happen I got a lot of material for my book. So I started the website, because I thought I should put up an audio listening guide and then I started to put up the stories that didn’t fit in the book there.
What was your research process like for the book, because you mentioned in the foreword that you were reluctant to get started?
My research process has been gossiping with old men and women! (Laughs) Which is a certain way to go about it. You know, India has terrible archives so there wasn’t very much I could do by way of researching. The other wonderful thing I realized was that the rest of the world has public libraries in Chicago, New York, and London where librarians were willing to scan stuff and send it for free to this idiot in Bombay who’s just written to the website. That was the other way information began to come in. It also happened that a lot of these musicians had migrated to Australia, Canada, and America, which were exactly places where my cousins had migrated to so then I called in some family favours. So my cousins were landing up at the doorsteps of people in Melbourne saying, “My cousin Naresh has asked me to scan your scrapbooks at 500 BPI!” (Laughs)
An advertisement for a Chic Chocolate show at the Taj Mahal Hotel
Being a Bombay native, was the project born out of nostalgia for a Bombay that was more multicultural and pluralized?
I think more than nostalgia, I was trying to find lessons for what was specific to those Bombay social dynamics at that time that created this world and trying to figure out what lessons it holds for us now. I think was what really drove me. Why was there this celebration of enfolding minority influences of all sorts into this culture, and whether this still exists? Ironically, the age of globalization and the speeding up of globalization with all these technologies seems to have led to a homogenization of cultures around the world in a way that previously we took these specific impulses from around the world and turn them into something specifically our own.
You go through a real cast of characters from Chic Chocolate to Teddy Weatherford, and Frank Fernand, who were some of the characters you have a soft spot for?
Actually, the guy I had the softest spot was the guy who lived down the street from me and who I was able to talk to: Frank Fernand. He had started his life as Frank Fernandes, and I ran into him completely by coincidence, because I knew his daughter. When I wanted to talk about this stuff, I said, “Your father was a musician, I wanna come talk to him now!” He turned out quite magically to be one of the key figures, and he led me through those early stages of the African-American musicians coming and then into the Hindi film studios. He had Parkinson’s disease, so it was a real effort for him to talk, but his mind was all there so we had several conversations. I wish I had interviewed him for longer, but I kept thinking that it was such a physical strain that I would just feel guilty about talking to him longer than we had. The other thing that happened, because of the Internet was that record collectors around the world began to pop up. Not very much of this stuff was recorded, but a guy called Marco Pacci from Florence, Italy suddenly sent me a hundred recordings of this music. Then that allowed me to imagine what they sort of sounded like.
I liked that you detail that symbiotic relationship between the African-American musicians and their Indian players, how did that relationship evolve?
I think there was something so vital about African-American music and about jazz that for 150 years, it’s inspired the imaginations of people across the planet. The other thing that happened is that because I had cousins in all these countries, each of them when they come to see me now bring me the equivalent of Taj Mahal Foxtrot written in their country. For instance, my cousin from Australia brought a book called, “Black Roots, White Flowers” about jazz in Australia, and then I have a book called “Yellow Music” about jazz in China. So it wasn’t just in India, there’s something about African-American music that just sparks such creativity around the world and India was among the places that it happened.
Duke Ellington shakes hands with Goan saxophonist and bandleader, Rudy Cotton.
Did you find that the African-American musicians found a refuge from the segregation and racism in Bombay?
Yeah, definitely. In colonial society in which Indians, even upper class Indians were segregated, so African Americans were seen as different. One of the lines I really like by Teddy Weatherford, he was asked why continued to stay in India all these years later, he said, “But, they treat us white folks fine!”
It’s interesting how they navigated that so easily. But, you also touch on the colourism angle with Goan bandleader Ken Mac, who was light-skinned, could tell us a bit more about that?
Ken Mac advertised himself as the premiere European band in India, by which he meant the mixed-race Anglo-Indians. So he managed to corner the markets in all of those segregated white social spaces like the gymkhanas, and country clubs. Someone told me a very funny story where a guy called Bill McDermott, who’d lived in Calcutta, and Ken Mac had tried to offer him a job and said, “I’d like you to join my band. Are you white or otherwise?” He said, “I’m otherwise.” After Independence, when the racial barriers began to crumble and there weren’t enough white musicians to play anymore, Ken Mac called Bill McDermott to offer him a job again. And Bill McDermott said, “I’m still otherwise!” (Laughs) They all tell the story of how when Ken Mac began to employ his first Goan musicians, he would hide them behind a screen or right at the back.
Has the process of writing this book changed you as a listener at all?
It’s made me realize the things that I thought were specific to India that the same dynamics were actually working there way out in different ways across the world. The Chinese were also trying to develop a Chinese jazz scene, and the Egyptians were trying to find an Egyptian jazz. There is something about jazz that’s so open-ended that its inspired musicians from around the world to try to create local versions of it.
Violinist Leon Abbey and his band
You touch on how the Goan musicians were like the unsung heroes of most Hindi film soundtracks back in the 40s and 50s, did they view it as perhaps a lesser art-form or as more of a day job?
Yeah! This is the weird thing is that millions of Indians adore these songs and know them by heart, and the guys who orchestrated, played the instruments, and even composed some of them didn’t view this highly at all. This was the thing they did when they weren’t able to play jazz. (Laughs) It was a great paradox.
Was there a decline in their services once disco and rock ‘n’ roll came through?
What happened was that many of them made the transition to rock ‘n’ roll, but it required fewer instruments. But what was really the death knell for all of this during the 70s and early 80s was the invention of the synthesizer, which meant that one instrument could recreate the sounds of everything. That really put everybody out of jobs, which was a very traumatic period for them.
Pakhawaj player Narayan Koli explains a technicality to the Dave Brubeck quartet and others.
You talk about jazz being an upper class art form, did it finally reach an equal space when it shaped Hindi film music?
Here’s the thing, it would only be certain sorts of people who knew the word jazz, but then tens of millions of people knew the sound of jazz, even without calling it that. I suppose that’s one of the strange paradoxes of the way it played out in India is that they would recognize a jazz song even without being able to call it by its name.