Striking a chord

Print edition : November 02, 2007

Simplicity marks Bertram Da Silvas compositions, and that keeps the audience from wanting to hear anything other than his own songs. - SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Professor Bertram Da Silva is back on stage after two decades and his music has taken Kolkata by storm again.

Simplicity marks Bertram

More than 22 years ago the English popular music scene in Kolkata lost an extremely talented singer-songwriter-guitar player to the academic world. It has not been the same since; traditionally it is a long way from the classroom to the rock n roll stage and traditionally, too, the marriage of the twain is inconceivable. So, for the stiff-collared ones it came as a culture shock when Bertram Da Silva, Dean of Arts, St. Xaviers College, Kolkata, picked up his battered but seasoned acoustic 12-string Yamaha guitar a few months ago and, with a tight band backing him, announced his comeback to the approving roar of music lovers in the city.

When Da Silva swapped the stage for the classroom, he was the last of a brood of original musicians who played their own compositions rather than opt for the easier option of doing covers of international stars and popular hits of the day. His comeback has, in fact, provided a much-needed fillip to those few musicians in the city who are struggling to break the mould and play their own songs. Their effort is as much to bring original music back as to condition the audience to listen to new music and not just hum along, tap or dance to familiar tunes.

The idea is to make people sing along with our tunes. If they want to listen to The Rolling Stones or CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival], they dont have to hear it from us, they can always buy the CD, said Ananda Sen, the creative force behind the young and precociously talented band The Supersonics, which refuses to play anything other than its own music and in the last couple of years has managed to create a niche audience for itself. With just a few shows behind him, people are already singing along with Da Silvas new repertoire of songs.

It all started again with two school friends of mine, with whom I used to play when I was in college, wanting a last ovation before fading back into middle-aged respectability, Da Silva told Frontline. From the first show itself, it was clear that Da Silvas long absence from the stage had done little to diminish his following.

His comeback was bound to make a few heads turn, but the way it has caught the city by storm is unprecedented. It cannot simply be dismissed as a novelty after all, it is a rarity to see a crowd swaying to the guitar of a middle-aged professor of English because a novelty by itself does not keep bringing people back to it. To explain the Da Silva phenomenon it is important to get into the music of the man and his songs rather than the fact that he is one of the most respected teachers in the city.

Essentially, a good song is one in which the lyrics, the melody and the structure are in complete harmony so as to reflect the theme or the mood of the song. The absence of any one these components will result in an unsuccessful attempt at song writing. A successful composition follows an inexorable logic that is difficult to define, yet completely accessible to appreciation. Why else would standards by the Gershwin brothers composed in the 1920s still be relevant in popular music and intact in their appeal? Or, getting a little more contemporary, what other explanation can there be for the timelessness and undiminished popularity of the Lennon-McCartney compositions nearly 40 years after the Beatles broke up and 27 years after John Lennon was assassinated?

But perhaps one of the earliest, and certainly the most definitive, endeavours of such unity in lyric and melody can be found in Elizabethan songs. A case in example being the ever-popular Greensleeves; the sublime poignancy of the song lies in the perfect marriage of the bitter-sad lyrics to the melancholy sweetness of the melody each accentuating the power of the other, and the result is a completeness in the song which later musicians and interpreters, including John Coltrane and, more recently, Loreena Mckennitt have left largely untouched.

Hegel hit the nail right on the head when he said bad poetry comes about when a poet begins with a thought and then adds poetical images and rhymes to it. For a good poem, these must be in an undivided unity.

It is not much different for music, or in this case, song a perfect marriage of language and music, syllables and phrases, to musical notes. That is what makes Da Silvas music distinct. Ananda Sen says, They are great songs. The genre of music that he is doing with its acoustic base is not being done anywhere in the country. I want to hear more, everybody wants to hear more. It is actually a huge thing to be able to find an audience for ones own music, as Bertram Da Silva has done. And it is fantastic for the scene in Kolkata.

Da Silvas literary background has a lot to do with the uniqueness of his songs and his artistic sensibility. His ability with the guitar is extraordinary. Alongside his teaching career, he never really stopped playing the guitar. Over the years he has been honing his skills and exploring new avenues and styles, ranging from bluegrass to classical. All these find expression in his compositions.

He does not follow any set pattern in composing. A chord progression or a melody line may inspire the lyrics or vice versa; but the end-product has a completeness about it, which makes any attempt to touch its source a redundant exercise.

This quality extends to it a universality, which many Kolkata musicians unfortunately lack. Though technically most of them are sound with their respective instruments, in their effort to stand out from the crowd, they forget the larger picture, that is, the music itself, and fall prey to their own vanity. They lose contact with the audience and end up playing only for themselves, and when the crowd starts thinning at their shows, they fall back to doing covers of crowd favourites.

Simplicity is what marks Da Silvas compositions, and that is what keeps the audience from wanting to hear anything other than his own songs. His simplicity does not mean a lack of subtlety or aesthetic quality. It means he can express himself music is after all self-expression if nothing else to those hearing him, and make himself be understood.

So where does all this lead to? Da Silva has the answer: My songs arent ever going to be played in stadiums, nor will they be featured on radio. But as long as I can make even one person stop and listen, then a little bit of magic has been created in which the singer and the listener become one.

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