'Taj Mahal Foxtrot' author riffs on Mumbai's forgotten jazz age

Naresh Fernandes speaks at the Indian Summer Festival July 18 about India's history of jazz, a Cold War propaganda tool of the U.S. 

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Fernandes: No, that’s not entirely accurate; there was some bureaucratic hassle with the Dizzy Gillespie show; he performed again in the '80s. But American bands continued to come to India till the 1970s under this program.  

NN: One of the most fascinating anecdotes from Foxtrot was how the song, “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves” (a song every kid growing up in India is intimately familiar with) by Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) came to be. I had to google Anthony Gonsalves before I realized that he was actually a jazz musician who acculturated himself to Bollywood. What happened to the rest? Why isn’t Chic Chocolate as much of a household name as some of the other personages considering he was equally instrumental in creating the distinctive sound of Bollywood?    

Fernandes: You know the arrangers are always people in the background. And even in Hollywood, you know maybe the name John Williams and a few other guys but you don’t know who arranged the score. Except, in this case, the arrangement had a lot to do with the creation of the sound in a way that Hollywood music didn’t. Putting in those melodies to western swing sounds and orchestrating is as important and as vital a part of what makes those compositions so appealing. My friend Greg Booth who teaches in Auckland has written a book called Behind The Curtain which quotes Anthony Gonsalves saying, ‘We were all behind the curtain.’       

NN: That seems far more cogent than what I was thinking; I was under the impression that they were given a raw deal when their music was imbibed by Bollywood producers. And I thought this was because many of them belonged to linguistic and ethnic groups that had historically been at the margins of Indian society.

Fernandes: Actually, I don’t think that’s true. They made a lot of money from the whole thing which is why they were all doing this. It’s just that this was at a time when nobody really thought about credit. In fact, even their names were misspelt when they were given credit. And like how the Goans were treated well, African Americans were treated well too. They were paid handsomely. In fact, the Taj management had named a dessert after Teddy Weatherford and someone had asked, “Sir, why are you in India when you could be back home?” to which Teddy replied, ”They treat us white folks just fine." And they had retinues, servants and all the girls were often flocking to them. There was only one recorded incident of racism which I’ve written in my book: it was during a New Year’s party at the Taj where some fellow came up to these guys at the bar and said, “Get out of here! You and your bitches stink!” They got into an altercation and that guy turned out to be the U.S. vice-consul in Bombay at the time (chuckles). It was kind of ironic that it was an American who did that.         

NN: What is it about Mumbai that evokes such grand literary nostalgias; we’ve seen it in much of Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre, there’s Suketu Mehta’s book (Maximum City), there’s Vikram Chandra’s dazzling account of the Mumbai underworld (Sacred Games) and, more recently, Jeet Thayil’s oneiric recollections of the city’s opium dens (Narcopolis). There’s a general perception and we’ve heard Rushdie carp about it often — it’s that Mumbai is only a shadow of Bombay, its former cosmopolitan glory. Do you think your work, besides being a historical account of the city’s jazz age, is a sort of eulogy for Bombay? 

Fernandes: Hmmm…there was some of that. I wanted to explain to readers how Bombay became the place that it did and use jazz as a metaphor to explain how Bombay negotiated diversity — that and what cosmopolitanism means and what allows a city to be cosmopolitan. And jazz was a prism to look at these things.       

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