Band Baajaa Bharat
The few times we’ve met, Naresh Fernandes has always had a hot tip in his possession: like a listing in Time Out Mumbai (of which he was several years editor), only more cryptic, more far-fetched. He’d casually drop an address, a date—something that, who knows, might be interesting—and I’d wind up on a goosechase through Dongri or Dhobi Talao that I’d never forget.
Fernandes’ new book, his first solo attempt, operates in a familiar fashion. Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age is a prodigious archival effort masquerading as a romp through a century’s worth of ballrooms and bandstands. It escorts us into Mumbai’s hotels and clubs, through an unsuspected world beneath our very feet. Jazz is, after all, its own kind of esoteric knowledge.
Some of Bombay’s greatest jazz acts, like pianist Teddy Weatherford, who spent decades touring Asia, rarely recorded. (Surely I won’t be the first to remark that Weatherford, who appears in the book’s frontispiece, bears a passing resemblance to the author.) Other musicians found their way into the film studios and created a new genre, jazz-inflected but wholly other. From the sparse materials available, Fernandes weaves together a compelling storyline: how, exactly, did jazz find its way into India?
A turning point came in 1933, when French authorities instituted a “ten per cent rule” limiting the number of foreign musicians employed. Paris’ loss soon became the gain of Shanghai and Bombay, as African-American performers began to look eastward. A history of dance orchestras and minstrelsy in British India had prepared both local musicians and audiences for the primal rhythms of “hot” music. The style was adopted by a talented group of migrants from Goa, among them Frank Fernand, Chic Chocolate (né Antonio Xavier Vaz) and the original Anthony Gonsalves. It was these classically trained instrumentalists who were responsible, as Fernandes demonstrates, for the “promiscuous charm” of Bollywood music.
More on these colourful personalities would have been welcome. (The origin of “Chic” is discussed but as to “Chocolate” no theory is forthcoming.) Fernandes rarely lingers on a close-up; he is concerned more with the historical development of the musical scene, and less with the individual personalities. The main character, as in all of his work, is Bombay itself. His writing is fluid and his storytelling engaging. So why isn’t Taj Mahal Foxtrot more fun?
Its publisher, Roli Books, has done everything possible to sabotage our enjoyment. Foxtrot’s format makes it an awkward read: too bulky and heavy to curl up with, it frustrated my attempts to cosy up to the historical narrative. Yet it’s too small, and its cover too oddly anodyne, to sit conspicuously on a coffee table. Roli also published Bombay Then/Mumbai Now, a gorgeous photographic book with text from Fernandes that I admired from my first, languid flip through. Foxtrot, though crammed full of photographs, doesn’t give up its secrets so easily. At 192 well-illustrated pages, the text is all too brief, but poring through it, I often wished for a paperback.
Then there are the cringe-worthy production flaws. The designers’ half-hearted attempt at mimicking the era’s distinctive Art Deco style falls flat. Tacky vinyl-record clip art and poorly placed architectural vignettes add to a sense of clutter. Hard to ignore is the typo that starts off the book’s first sentence, not to mention the larger goofs that follow.
Foxtrot comes with a collection of songs that Fernandes’ diligent sleuthing has recovered from all over the world, from the bins of Chor Bazar to an antique store in Finland. The performances are charming, if not particularly inspired. But listening to them through tutored ears, with a sense for the setting and the richness of the musicians’ journeys, makes for a rewarding experience.
Of the track that gave the book its name, Fernandes notes that its lyrics deliberately remain ambiguous. For most listeners, “India’s mystic shrine” meant only the mausoleum in Agra. But for the aficionados who frequented the Symphonians’ performances in the ballroom of Colaba’s Taj Mahal Hotel, there could be no pilgrimage more sublime.
Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age by Naresh Fernandes, Roli Books, Rs1,295. Buy it from Flipkart.com.Tags: Book Review, book reviews, Books, jazz, Music, Naresh Fernandes, Taj Mahal Foxtrot, Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age