Interview May 2, 2013
HIP DEEP INTERVIEW: Naresh Fernandes on Bombay’s Jazz Age
Naresh Fernandes is one of the experts we spoke for for our recent Hip Deep episode African Sounds of the Indian Subcontinent. He’s a journalist and author, and writer of the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot – the definitive history of Bombay’s jazz age from the 1930s-1960s. In his words the book is about “listening to the city through the ears of its jazz fans and its jazz musicians.” The book, illustrated with stunning sepia pictures of Bombay’s historic locales and dance bands, draws readers into the fascinating world of the African American jazzmen who found themselves living and working in Bombay in the early 20th century. But Naresh argues that India’s jazz age is not just a oddball footnote to Indian music history – it was fundamental to the creation of Hindi film music (a.k.a Bollywood music), India’s great pop music tradition, and a multi billion dollar export industry today. Below, read a transcript of our full interview with Naresh Fernandes. Listen to him on our show here, and learn more on Naresh’s fantastic web site for Taj Mahal Foxtrot, which is constantly being updated with new tunes and stories of India’s jazz age. Marlon Bishop: How did you become interested in the story of Bombay’s jazz scene to begin with? Naresh Fernandes: You know it happened because I like to gossip with old men. And I was talking to the father of a friend who lived down the street from me, named Frank Fernand. He told me about how he came to Bombay in the 30s from the Portuguese colony of Goa to play in Bombay's famous jazz bands, and how he and his peers at that time were completely taken by this new sound that was sweeping through the world, a sound called jazz. Bombay in the 1930s was filled with African American musicians who were playing at Bombay's big luxury hotel, the Taj Mahal. And every boy from Goa who came to Bombay wanting to be a musician dreamt of playing alongside these legends. As I began to talk to Frank Fernand, I realized that not only had he lived through an astonishing period of learning to play jazz from African American masters, but that a few years later, he and his friends would take the same spirit of improvisation and swing into the Hindi film studios. And they would create a whole sub-genre of Hindi film music, the most popular music India has ever known - a real sort of jazz-based, swing-based vernacular form of pop, that continues to persist in the subcontinent. M.B.: So help us set the scene - what was Bombay like in the 1930s N.F.: In the 1930s, India’s freedom struggle against the British had reached a crucial stage. The effects of the Great Depression were just being rolled away and by the mid-1930s, Bombay was coming into its own as a confident global port city. Across Bombay, buildings were rising again in the art deco style, with Indian characteristics. And alongside this, was also a great sense of political freedom, which was being transmitted into the arts. There was the first burst of Indian writing in English, both in poetry and in the novel. And this is the backdrop against which jazz then became very popular. M.B.: What was life in Bombay like for these musicians? N.F.: By the 1930s Bombay had probably two dozen African Americans living here, in various formulations, coming and going, mainly centered around the Taj, but also playing in a couple of sort of country clubs where the elite congregated. To many of these African American musicians they were escaping racism at home and they were treated magnificently in Bombay. Dishes were named after them at the Taj Mahal. When Teddy Weatherford, who was a stride pianist who spent many years in India was asked why he chose to live in Bombay, he said, 'Ah, that's because they treat us white folks fine here.' M.B.: So there wasn’t any racism in India? I understand that in Hindu society, caste correlates somewhat to skin color. N.F.: You know in a strange way Indians are very racist, ]but the African Americans seemed to transcend that sort of discrimination I think because they were American: they sort of cut a style and had a glamour about them. And also - because they were playing in sort of elite spaces And so I think rather like they managed to transcend the racism in France, they also transcended racism in India. M.B.: Your book, Taj Mahal Foxtrot is named after a jazz song that was played at the Taj Mahal. What’s the story behind that song? India doesn't have a sound archive so the tracks I put together were essentially rescued from various flea markets and cleaned up, so they're very scratchy and they bear the mark of the passage of the years, that's for sure. I really delighted in that song when I found it because I thought that it really brought together a story of Bombay. It is a song that's performed by Crickett Smith and his Symphonians, a bunch of African American musicians, mainly, but also with a guy from Martinique and perhaps a musician from the Philippines, which really spoke to the internationalism of jazz in Bombay in the mid-1930s. But it was composed by a guy named Mena Silas, a composer from Bombay, who was actually a Jewish man whose family had lived in Bombay for many generations. I love the fact that the first real ‘hot song’ that I've been able to trace, was performed by African Americans but composed by an Indian. “Taj Mahal Foxtrot,” Crickett Smith and His Symphonians
Cricket Smith and his SymphoniansM.B.: So, tell me about Indian jazz musicians who arose during this time. N.F.: Well, among the characters who completely fascinated me was the man who set me off on this quest, Frank Fernand. He had a keen ear for the changes in the global music world but was also deeply interested in what was happening in India. In the 1940s, when he was playing at a resort in Mussoorie, Gandhi happened to be passing through. Gandhi gave discourses and lectures everyday. Frank Fernand listened to one of them, and it completely changed his life. He went away trying to find a way to play jazz in an Indian way. And he succeeded, or, at least we think he succeeded because there are no scores or recordings of what he did, but we know that by the late 1940s, he is listed in concert notes as playing jazz with an Indian theme. And so long before people like John Coltrane were introducing Indian elements into jazz, Indian jazz musicians were trying to find a way to root jazz into their context, to say that jazz was a global language that could be spoken in many different ways. And while Frank Fernand was doing that on the concert stage, he and his friends were trying to find a way to play Hindi film music, the greatest pop music India had ever known, and to introduce jazz elements into that M.B.: How did jazz end up having an impact on Hindi film music? N.F.: I think that jazz and Hindi film music really became the sound of this new India. We had a notion of ‘Unity in Diversity,’ which was the phrase of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and this was really sort of reflected in the way Hindi film music got created in the studios every day. A lot of the melodies were crafted by men who were Hindu, with training in the Hindustani classical tradition. But their best lyrics were crafted by Urdu-speaking Muslims. And in order, then, for this to be performed by orchestras, the arrangers were jazz musicians from the Portuguese colony of Goa. And every day these guys would sit together in the studios. Often they didn't even have much to do with each other in real life. But in the studios they found a way to bring their strengths together and create this sort of music that then all Indians then grew to love. So this was, in the Hindi film studios every day, a vision of Nehru's India being created.