Franco Vaz, Raj and Kishore Sodha have been expression to the extraordinary R.D. Burman's creative genius. The three remarkable musicians share their memories of the great composer

They have a couple of things in common. To begin with, Franco Vaz, Raj Sodha and Kishore Sodha are monstrous talents. All three of them worked closely with the maverick composer R.D. Burman for nearly two decades. They are extremely shy and would rather let music do all the talking. It's also true that they remain clueless of how important a link they are between ‘then' and ‘now' – when film music meant a large group of passionately committed musicians sitting down to endless hours of practice.

All these three musicians who were in Bangalore recently – Franco, Raj and Kishore – formed Pancham's core team and have played for films that altered the perception of film music in radical ways. They have been part of historical moments, worked in the studios with legendary artistes who remained behind the scenes throughout their lives, and of course have a whole treasure of stories. In fact, they could be a vital source to give history of film music a new dimension.

Like most musicians of the film industry, these three musicians also came from very diverse backgrounds. “Who knew that I would be playing Pancham's songs to the world even after his death?” says Franco Vaz, the gentleman drummer from Goa. His father Francis Vaz moved to Mumbai rather early and played the drums in five star hotels of Sixties Mumbai and eventually became a part of composer C. Ramachandra's team. “I constantly hung around with my father in the studios, at the cost of missing school,” recalls Franco of his early years, when he played the violin. By the early 70s, he had entered the industry as an independent musician and was working for music directors like Salil Choudhry and Vasant Desai, and played for jingles as well. It was during the latter half of 1974 — S.D. Burman saab had taken ill, and was completing the recording for the film “Warrant”. They needed a drummer and Franco was summoned to the Film Centre. “Pancham was already handling most of his father's recordings by then. I went as a substitute for one of the sessions and later forgot all about it.”

Out of the blue, one day Franco got a call from Pancham summoning him to the studios. He was recording for “Kasame Vaade” and gestured Franco to sit in the recording hall. “Looking at all those musicians – Maruti Rao Keer, Manohari Singh, Basu da...I got nervous. I gathered courage and managed to play for the recording without any hitches.” Later Pancham came up to Franco, gathered details about his training, his interest in rhythms and without any further delay had asked his secretary to book Franco for all his recordings.

“I am always intrigued by how Pancham chose his musicians. He had a fantastic team,” Kishore Sodha adds quietly. Kishore came into the industry after his two older brothers Rajinder Sodha who plays the swarleen and Raj Sodha who plays the alto sax and western flute. “I started work with Kalyanji-Anandji and came into Pancham's team much later,” says Raj, the actual “Don” who's played the haunting sax bits in all the three films. Kishore began with “Muqqadar Ka Sikander” but by the time “Shaan” happened he was with Pancham.

“We are from a small town in MP. It was our good fortune that we could learn instruments like sax and trumpet there. However, our orientation was mostly Indian classical. But once we landed in the industry, we began to reorient ourselves,” explains Kishore. Working with Pancham was a rich learning experience, he says. Every moment threw up a new challenge. He recalls how Manohari da, Pancham's right hand, would meticulously arrange music, and get the musicians ready for a recording. “Pancham would come, listen to us, and in minutes he would change it to create something dramatically different. It was unbelievable!”

But that hardly meant he was closed to ideas. Contrarily, he gave his musicians a lot of freedom. “My learning was mostly jazz. But he was very happy that I was bringing something new to the table. If he didn't like what I was doing, he would say, ‘Can we do something else?' He knew perfectly what was good for the song,” recalls Franco. He further explains how the team had the best of S.D. Burman's musicians like Maruti Rao, Manohari da, Basu da but also brought in people like Kersi Lord, Bhupinder Singh, Uttam Singh who understood Pancham's idiom from his own perspective. Pancham was a true blue musician. Wherever he went, he brought back an instrument. “Once, he came back from Rio, and put a cassette in my hand. ‘Listen to this and try out this instrument' he had said putting the cuica in my hand,” recalls Franco.

In Pancham's team, there was no hierarchy. “After a rehearsal at his home, he would cook for us. Pancham could remember everyone's favourite drink. He loved sports, loved entertaining people, and was so fun loving. He never displayed his emotions, was warm and generous. It was a fun team. But look at the irony. He was all alone in the end. That's probably what is called circle of life,” the three remember.