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Musical journeys

Print edition : Sep 25, 2020 T+T-
Dizzy Gillespie, during his India tour, with Louiz Banks.

Dizzy Gillespie, during his India tour, with Louiz Banks.

Through the prism of music, the writer subtly paints a picture of the sociocultural life of Kolkata down the years. A book for all lovers of music.

O NE evening in the mid 1980s, the immortal jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was playing at Dalhousie Institute when strains of the azaan came floating in from a nearby mosque. “Dizzy smiled. He listened for a while, picked up his signature bent trumpet and played along; joining instinctively as it were, the call to prayer.” He had on a whim created magic out of thin air. Blessed were those who were present on the lawns of Dalhousie Institute that evening to hear the man who was hailed as one of the greatest figures of 20th century music and who, along with Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Charlie Christian, created Bebop jazz and took the music to its next level of evolution.

Shantanu Datta’s book, Calling Elvis-Conversations with Some of Music’s Greatest: A Personal History has caught such forgotten moments in music and magic in India and preserved it for posterity. At first glance, the subtitle of the book may suggest a chronicling of encounters and interviews with some of the biggest international names in the business. But the book is much more than that. Alongside the interviews of legends, there is an exploration of the musical scene that had grown indigenously in this part of the world—a new kind of music born of the influence of those very legends interviewed in the book. Through the prism of music, Shantanu subtly paints a picture of the sociocultural life of Kolkata down the years.

As a journalist, and sometimes an extremely lucky person, Shantanu had the opportunity all music lovers and musicians would give their right arm for: to meet their “gods”. By choosing to write about music, he is not only walking middle-aged aficionados down memory lane but also connecting the youth who are seriously interested in music with a facet of history they may not be aware of. His experience is indeed an enviable one, yet what keeps the reader from feeling envious is the tone of his narration. It invites the reader to share his experience rather than gape in wonder.

The book captures the thrill of a young diehard fan of the Beatles suddenly bumping into George Harrison in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on a Sunday evening in January 1983 at a concert of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. All the three musical giants have passed, and all that remains is the memory of that evening when George Harrison was in Kolkata, and his autograph on a scrap of paper. This book is a preserver of such memories and times like when Dizzy Gillespie jammed with the musicians of Kolkata at Dalhousie Institute, and acknowledged the skills of the local boy Louiz Banks, who was accompanying him on the piano.

Interviews with legends such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jean Luc Ponty, Nubya Garcia, Billy Cobham, L. Subramaniam, the Rolling Stones, Pete Seegar, Mark Knopfler, John Mclaughlin, Deep Purple, Carlos Santana, Roger Waters, Sting, Arlo Gutherie and Jethro Tull provide a wealth of information and stories: one can find Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock talking about the generosity of Miles Davis; Roger Waters explaining his songwriting method; Subramaniam recalling how “Conversations”, his seminal album with the great Stephan Grappelli, came about; Jean Luc Ponty speaking about his experience of playing with Frank Zappa; and Keith Richards joking that he still cannot play Scotty Moore’s (Elvis Presley’s guitar player) solo in “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”.

Calling Elvis is replete with such interesting revelations and behind-the-scenes developments of some of the big musical events in the country. Little bits of trivia like the fact that the Rolling Stones tour in India was made possible by the former Indian Test cricketer Dilip Doshi make the book entertaining and informative. Doshi, who had known Mick Jagger, a cricket enthusiast, since the 1970s, had been trying to persuade the Stones to play in India for a long time. The “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World” decided to include Bengaluru and Mumbai in their grand Forty Licks tour across the world in 2002-03. They played in Bengaluru on April 4 and in Mumbai on April 7, 2003.

The book in equal measure deals with the music scene in the country, particularly in West Bengal—from jazz to rock; from contemporary Bengali folk rock to the traditional Rabindra Sangeet.

As the subtitle suggests, it is also a “personal history” of the writer’s musical journey down the years and his interactions with local musicians. Shantanu’s knowledge is deep and varied and not confined to particular genres or periods of music. Calling Elvis is as much a discourse on music as it is an anecdotal documentation of musical events and musical movements in the country, particularly that of Kolkata from the 1970s.

Home-grown music

What makes the book important from a sociocultural angle is that it chronicles the meandering path of the home-grown music scene. In the relatively recent past, this particular bit of history with its own legends is quickly fading in the collective memory, mainly because not much of its documented history has survived either in print or in audio/video recordings. While Shantanu has captured a fleeting moment of this period with the eye of a journalist and the heart of a musician, he has also shown a historian’s instinct in the manner in which he links the present with the fading past. and shows how the present music is a continuation and a regeneration rather than a sudden new development.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the vibrant rock music scene that was prevalent in Kolkata in the 1970s, with artistes such as singer-songwriter Dilip Balakrishnan with his band High and the path-breaking Bengali band Moheener Ghoraguli pushing the boundaries of creativity and challenging the audience to listen without prejudice. They lived for their music and made the audience sing along with them. More than 40 years later, a whole new generation of music lovers is still singing along to their songs from the very few recordings that survive.

Although Dilip has been dead for 30 years and legends such as Carlton Kitto and Pam Craine have quietly bowed out, with hardly any extant recordings for people to remember their genius by, their legacy lives on in the music that the next generation of musicians is playing. Bengali bands such as Bhoomi and guitar players such as Amyt Dutta have kept the tradition of original music alive in the city. It is difficult to say whether, in the book, the shadow of the giants looms over the story of musicians who were born of their art or the other way round.

This book tells the story of a time when technology and the Internet had not made music readily available at one’s fingertips; when Paradise for a music lover in Kolkata meant the line of old vinyl records shops on Free School Street; a time when home entertainment meant the family Garrard turntable and one’s favourite musical programme on All India Radio; when screenings in auditoriums with VHS tapes were the only exposure to videos of music concerts and events.

Shantanu talks of the time when censorship by ruling parties dictated culture and of the rebels who waged a quiet, persistent war against unwritten diktats so they can play and perform the music of their choice. He talks of shops and institutions that once thrived but are now on the decline and of musicians who disappeared unnoticed in the changing times. But somewhere down the line, the music never really goes away, and that is what Calling Elvis finally wants to say.

It is essentially a book by a passionate music lover, written as much for himself as for kindred spirits. It is a book for the serious listener as well as the enthusiast for whom music is not just something that plays in the background but an all-consuming passion to be lost in.