The Lost History of India's Relationship to Jazz

On August 10, 2016

By Sarah Sahim

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(image via Meridian)

The 1920’s were a turbulent time for people of color, and more specifically, black people in America. Struggling with navigating a world where racism was rampant wherever they turned, African Americans could not feel welcome nor safe. This decade also brought about the Jazz era— a time of ostentation, prohibition, and new money. During this era and in later years, iconic Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington would tour the world with their backing bands in tow. The places they performed would surprise you; Afghanistan and India were burgeoning hotspots for an Eastern Jazz fan. Unfortunately, recordings of Ellington’s performance in Afghanistan have since been destroyed by the Taliban, but the remnants of its swing and fighting spirit are still salient.

India, in particular, grew a particular fondness for Jazz, and African American touring musicians felt welcomed by this scene. In order to escape the constant persecution faced in the United States, Black Jazz musicians decided to make India their new home, and with them the roots of Indian and African American musical collaboration were born. Mumbai’s infamous luxury hotel, The Taj Mahal even went as far as soliciting Black Minnesotan violinist, Leon Abbey to form a nine piece resident jazz band in 1935. Prior to this, Abbey had been a staple in Paris’s Jazz scene for six months, and he established the first all-black band to play Jazz in India. They played to the elite crowds of Mumbai in the Taj’s opulent and extravagant art-deco ballroom. Watching a Jazz band perform was an event; giant pillars graced the room and a revolving stage made sure the Taj Mahal hotel was the home to Mumbai’s most exuberant musicians.

Jazz also made its way to India in part due to the Cold War. Russia and the United States exposed India to what they perceived to be their greatest art so as to win their allegiance. While the Russians sent the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky Ballet) on a cross-country tour, Americans were intent on making Jazz the object of India’s affections. Dave Brubeck was one of the first musicians to be chosen by the CIA to tour and as a result, he started to jam with many local musicians. This in turn led to Indians who might not have expanded beyond their traditional comfort zone experimenting with an interpretation of a concept they were already familiar with: improvisation. One of Brubeck’s favourite jammers was Micky Correa who went on to have a fruitful career that lasted over 30 years. The African American musicians that followed on this quasi-political tour also followed suit and their influence was sentient across contemporary Indian pop culture. Jazz also permeated India however through discovery. As a Portuguese colony, Roman Catholic Goans were especially receptive of Jazz because they had a vested interest in Western music and culture. More often than not, Goan Catholics have European names and it was Goan musicians who turned out to be the legends in Mumbai’s Jazz scene, like Frank Fernand or Anthony Gonsalves. Gonsalves became a household name by default due to this, he was name-checked in 1977 comedy Amar Akbar Anthony in the song “My Name Is Anthony Gonsalves.” This speaks volumes to the sheer influence of these Jazz musicians.

In India, African-American jazz musicians were greeted with warmth, welcomeness, and acceptance; something unfamiliar in what they had called home. And out of the many African American Jazz musicians settling in India and collaborating with native musicians grew Indian Jazz. Another resident band for the Taj Mahal Hotel was a collaborative effort with Black, Indian, and White musicians; the band was headed by Teddy Weatherford on piano, and Cricket Smith on cornet, and saw Indian Jazz develop its own sense of style beyond more traditional American Jazz. The sheer notion of the genre might seem dichotomous at first, but makes more sense and aligns smoothly when assessing and deciphering its compositional roots. Classical Indian music is inherently improvisational, relying on freeform vocals, complemented by sparkling sitars and ebullient tablas. Jazz artists of Indian ethnic origin were taking improvisation—a concept they were well versed in—and applying it to pentatonic scales as opposed to ragas (Indian scales), playing on woodwind and brass as opposed to the shehnai, and Western percussion instead of the tabla and dhol. This union of cultures allowed Indian musicians to diversify and expand their musical inspirations, but birthed careers for some of the most iconic Indian musicians in history.

The Indian Jazz scene has unfortunately mostly been forgotten in India despite being an integral part of its aura. The vastness of Jazz’s permeance demonstrates just how much Mumbai was a multicultural and truly global city on par with New York. Its similarities lay in their being port cities and their ability to be pragmatic and take influences. In fact, Jazz is so vital to the modern Indian spirit that when India gained Independence from Britain on 15 August 1947, the richest of the rich celebrated at the Taj with none other than Jazz music. Though Independence Day is commemorated by the patriotic 1882 Bengali poem-turned-song “Vande Mataram”, this musical partnership symbolised freedom and creativity for both black and brown musicians suppressed by white people. Unfortunately the longest living Indian Jazz musician, Micky Correa, passed away recently, so no one remains to tell firsthand eye-witness accounts from the ballroom of the Taj Mahal hotel. What’s worse is that there were no interviews conducted with these musicians either, and we can only rely on their influence captured in pop culture to explore the story of Indian Jazz.

Bollywood producers and musical directors caught wind of the Jazz trend amongst India’s elite, and needed something, or more specifically, someone to modernise their soon-to-be outdated sound. That someone was a man who is perhaps synonymous with Indian Jazz, Antonio Xavier Vaz, better known as Chic Chocolate. Perhaps the most famous Jazz musician you've never heard of, Chic was a multi-instrumentalist from Goa who managed to make it big by playing trumpet on many Bollywood soundtracks. Chic was heavily inspired by Louis Armstrong and was often referred to as the “Louis Armstrong of Bombay,” even going as far as sporting the signature handkerchief and singing and in that guttural and throaty style.

He started out in Mumbai leading an eleven piece band at the Taj Mahal Hotel. His work was prolific, his influence is perennial, and the nature of his composition and performance frames the basis of this marriage of cultures that Indian Jazz promoted. Watching Chic Chocolate perform was more than just an average concert, he ensured his audience were subject to an experience they would never forget. He had a loud and charming personality that enchanted strangers and regulars alike; he could work a crowd with his witty personality and his love of performing was palpable. He even developed such a strong relationship with his regulars that he would play their favourite songs as soon as they walked into the room. This liveliness is definitely evident in his music, listening to old recordings of his solo work you find yourself captivated by his trumpet playing. His trumpet possessed this gruffness and grittiness particularly on the track “Contessa”, it almost had a life of personality of its own and it commanded everyone’s attention. Chic had played the trumpet since he was 25 and managed to achieve an unparalleled level of virtuosity. Though he was primarily known as a trumpeter, his dexterity meant that he additionally played saxophone, violin, and several rhythm instruments, and became an arranger and conductor.

Jazz’s influence was so sonorous that it made its way to Bollywood and Chic Chocolate has been credited with introducing Western music to Indian music directors. C. Ramchandra, a prolific Bollywood composer, was particularly influenced by Jazz and sought to incorporate that into his output. Ramchandra worked very closely with Chic to hone a style and pay homage to Jazz in a very Indian fashion. espite its permeance amongst the elite and in luxury hotels, Jazz’s infusion with Bollywood—basically India’s answer to pop music—enabled it to be accessible to all regardless of class or caste. The Bollywood movie Albela which came out in 1951 was a soft introduction to Chic Chocolate. At its core the soundtrack is very sweet, soft, and contemporary, but the Chic Chocolate’s trumpet soaring through these otherwise very Indian tracks served as a gateway to Jazz. Such a track is “Eena Meena Deeka” from the 1957 film Aasha which became so famous it’s been featured in international commercials. This song saw Ramchandra figuring out how to interpret Jazz in a distinctly Indian way while still sounding traditionally like African American Jazz. The lyrics “maka naka” is Konkani for “I don’t want”, what we saw was a fusion of Goan, Portuguese, and African American influences mashed into one unique sonic experience. Ultimately it was a fun, nonsensical song that encapsulated Chic’s live spirit and like every single other song he is credited for, it demonstrates his musical and geographical genre-spanning pragmatics perfectly. Bollywood music has long since had a history of taking from trends and incorporating it with traditional Indian elements, most notably with Bappi Lahiri’s interpretation of disco.

Unfortunately in the 60’s—the decade that marked the height of Jazz’s popularity—the allure of the genre had started to wind down. As composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal had started to make waves in Bollywood with their reclamation of psychedelia from the west and more heavier, electronic instruments and Rock n Roll were starting to take priority, after a somewhat 40 year reign spanning two generations, Jazz was no longer cool. The importance of Indian Jazz however, lies not only in its final product, but the racial solidarity and collaboration that was born out of: two discriminated against groups of people of colour by white people; India by colonialism, and African Americans by slavery, lending their land; their music to each other and crafting something so incredibly unique. What seems to be an almost unfathomable clash of cultures to those unfamiliar is actually an insightful exploration into how music's malleability creates beauty and idiosyncratic talent.

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