‘When a musician hits a false note, I will not compromise’

Jerry Amaldev   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Manjil Virinja Pookkal (1980) was a game changer for many – for Mohanlal who made his mark with this film, for Fazil making his directorial début, for actors Shankar and Poornima Jayaram making their début in Malayalam. It also marked a ‘first’ for Jerry Amaldev, a music composer whose sounds and timbre were refreshingly different from anything heard in Malayalam music prior to those songs. All his songs turned runaway hits, winning him the Kerala State Award for the Best Music Director for his début work in Malayalam cinema.

This film was also a crunch point in Jerry’s life. He found himself in a place where he did not exactly want to be. Looking back, it was both unsettling and frustrating, but realising that the roller-coaster was moving, he decided to fasten himself to it. And that made all the difference.

Composer Jerry Amaldev

Composer Jerry Amaldev   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

“I had returned from the US, was planning a transit in Kochi and leave for Bombay [Mumbai], where I had worked as an assistant to (composer) Naushad (Ali) saab. I also had contacts, which I hoped would help. But a lot of things happened in between. I got married, Manjil Virinja Pookkal happened and a string of offers followed. My Bombay dreams, which I thought could be shelved, albeit temporarily, did not happen at all,” reveals Jerry, who turned 80 on April 15 this year.

Début work

Prior to this film, Jerry had, in 1978, composed, orchestrated, recorded and distributed an LP record, Atma Ki Awaz, featuring eight songs by KJ Yesudas, the composer’s first major work. He had also composed music for the English film Girl From India, directed by Harbance Kumar. “Atma Ki Awaz has an interesting story. I used to teach piano to a Gujarati boy in New Jersey, whose father, one Mr Govani, was a rich businessman. One evening, he asked me if I could sing a Hindi song for him. I sang a song I had composed, ‘Hazari yaadein’. He thought it was by Naushad saab and was hugely impressed when I said it was mine. He agreed to fund an album of mine. Initially, I thought of having Mohammad Rafi to sing the songs. That was the time when Yesudas and his songs from Chitchor had become a sensation. Govani asked me if we could get Yesudas on board and that’s how the album happened.”

What’s what
  • The name Jerome Thomas Veleeparambil was shortened and Indianised to Jerry Amaldev when the priest at the Indore seminary could not fit it in his diary.
  • Composed his first song for a play when he was 14 and went on to lead the Bosco Kalasamithy Orchestra.
  • After high school, Jerry joined the seminary first in Indore and then in Pune.
  • Trained in Hindustani vocal by Madhusoodan Patwardhan in Pune and then by SCR Bhat and KG Ginde in Bombay.
  • Bachelor of Music from Xavier University of Louisana, New Orleans, and Masters from Cornell University, New York.
  • Teacher at Queen’s College, New York, Stella Maris College and American International, Chennai and Choice School, Kochi.
  • Won three Kerala State awards for music direction: Manjil Virinja Pookal (1980), Aparaahnam (1990) and Kazhakam (1995).
  • Composed and conducted the background score for the Tamil and Malayalam versions of Franco Zefirelli’s film Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Conducted the choir comprising 500 singers and over 40 musicians when Pope John Paul II visited Kochi in 1986.

It was recorded in Yesudas’ studio in Chennai and mastered in New York, where Jerry was based then. “Somehow, the album went largely unnoticed and we could not officially release it in India. I did use some of these tunes in my later Malayalam films though.”

Girl from India was a flop. “I think it came out with another title later, A Man From Africa; it had a Hindi version in which Vedpal Verma composed the music. The English lyrics, and it was why I would like to remember this film, were penned by renowned poet Harindranath Chattopadhyay.”

Incidentally, the first Malayalam film for which Jerry composed was Mamatha (1979). “I had just returned home when some of my friends and cousins who were involved in films got me into this movie. N Sankaran Nair was the director. ONV Kurup and I spent a couple of days at Bharat Tourist Home, Ernakulam, composing four songs. I then realised that the director wanted (composer) Salil Chowdhury and not me. The producer met me one day and said the director was adamant about that. I told him it was absolutely fine and withdrew. A music company had by then got the rights and released the songs.” Jerry later used one of the tunes in the song ‘Atham poovum nulli’ for the film Punnaram Cholli Cholli (1985), which was, incidentally, penned by ONV.

Composer Jerry Amaldev at Jerry Amaldev Foundation in Kochi

Composer Jerry Amaldev at Jerry Amaldev Foundation in Kochi   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

In the three years between Manjil Virinja Pookkal and his next big hit, Ente Mammattikuttiyammakku (1983), he realised that a music score and songs, whether dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, was just part of the fabric of a film. “If a film did not do well at the box-office, the songs, however good, were not heard except by a few music aficionados. In my case, after my first Malayalam film, I did create some lovely songs for films such as Dhanya, Kaattupothu, Oru Vilippaadakale and Pooviriyum Pulari. But these films either flopped or never saw the light of day.” Of the 65 Malayalam films for which Jerry composed, around 35 remain unreleased.

Home-made music

Ente Mammattikuttiyammakku was special for Jerry in many ways. It was the first film to be fully recorded in Kerala with completely ‘home-grown’ musicians. And the Jerry magic worked wonders again. “After the big-budget Padayottam, (Navodaya) Appachan decided to make a small, simple film with songs like those of Manjil Virinja Pookal. Fazil was back at the helm. Yesudas wanted the recording to be at Tharangini in Thiruvananthapuram. Appachan asked if we could have musicians from the State, which would help cut down the expense of bringing them from Madras [Chennai]. I agreed and gathered a band of brilliant musicians from Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam. The studio had state-of-the-art Otari eight-track tape machine and a two-track mastering system from Switzerland. The results were spectacular.”

Melodious scores
  • ‘Poovalla poonthaliralla’ Kaattupothu
  • ‘Noopurametho kadha paranju’ Dhanya
  • ‘Ellam ormmakal’ Oru Vilippaadakale
  • ‘Iniyumethu theeram’ Pooviriyum Pulari
  • ‘Vaachalam en mounavum’ Koodum Thedi
  • ‘Penninte chenchundil’ Guruji Oru Vaakku
  • ‘Arayarayo kinginiyo’ Punnaram Chollicholli
  • ‘Pavizhamalli’ Sanmanassullavarku Samadhanam
  • ‘Poovattaka thattichinni’ Ennennum Kannettante
  • ‘Mele mele maanam’ No.1 Snehatheeram Bangalore North

For more than a decade, Jerry’s music ruled. His mastery of eastern and western music traditions and its clever blending in his melodies and orchestration had his identity stamped all over it. He was, as many musicians concede, ‘the complete musician’ — one who could write down the notes for each part of the tune, compose, orchestrate and conduct. The melodic motifs — singable melodies with sophisticated harmonic movement and cool chord progressions — made his music popular. Every tune of his could be sung. Jerry always preferred melody to complexity.

“As a music director, you hardly get four hours to create a hit. That’s all the time you get in a studio. I found this a bit tough in the beginning because with Naushad saab, it was different. When the songs were composed, I was asked to take down the notes, the singers and musicians were given their parts and they rehearsed for more than a week. They came to the studio fully prepared, which meant the recording took very little time and the songs were so perfect that those became immortal melodies.”

Jerry worked for Naushad for four years (1965-1969) after he left the seminary to pursue a career in music. In those years, he assisted the virtuoso musician in films such as Aadmi, Palki, Ram Aur Shyam, Sanghursh, Dil Diya Dard Liya and Saathi. “Working in Bombay, I noticed that most of the musicians, most of them Goans, were very talented but their training was incomplete. Western music had become an inexorable part of Indian film music and it needed to be studied scientifically. It was this quest that took me to the US.”

Gaining exposure

It was not just his Masters in Music Composition from Cornell University that Jerry acquired from his US sojourn. He was exposed to teaching music and, more importantly, to the power of choral music. “In New Orleans, for Christmas, there was this big choir of 1,000 singers backed by a symphony orchestra. I was one of the singers. We performed George Frideric Handel’s most famous composition ‘Messiah’. It is an Oratorio, a dramatic work that tells a story, but without staging or acting. I was amazed by the power and impact of the human voice.”

This inspired him to launch Sing India With Jerry Amaldev, a secular choral group that renders songs spanning different cultures, languages and ages, accompanied by instruments in the best choral tradition. “Recently, I have helped hone the skills of about 40 singers based in Thiruvananthapuram. The group will be called The Trivandrum Chorus. We already had the inaugural performance. Poet K Jayakumar has penned the title song of the group for which I have composed the music.”

After a rather long hiatus of nearly 20 years, following No.1 Snehatheeram Bangalore North (1995), Jerry made a comeback with Action Hero Biju (2016). The film and songs turned hits. He is now awaiting the response for his songs in the film A For Apple, which is set for release. It has lyrics by Sreekumaran Thampi and has three songs sung by KS Chitra, Chinmayi, Vijay Yesudas and Abhijith Kollam.

Devotional tracks

Jerry’s contribution to Christian music in India is immense. He has composed songs for liturgies and commercial Christian devotionals. He must be the only composer who is well-informed about the art of the grand tradition of Gregorian chants.

Jerry has also composed the Hindi version of the famous Latin chant, ‘Exsultet’, which musicologists consider a classic melody that is thoroughly Indian. This one composition, they believe, must give him a place in the history of world music.

Composer Jerry Amaldev at Jerry Amaldev Foundation in Kochi

Composer Jerry Amaldev at Jerry Amaldev Foundation in Kochi   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu

However, Jerry has been grossly underutilised and unrecognised. Many of those who have worked with him say he is too forthright, and a man of no compromises, qualities that are alien to an industry he worked in.

“I’ve always been like that. When I was asked why I left the seminary, I told them I had a lot of doubts about my faith. I had read The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross who wrote that his search for God, for Truth, continued. If it happened to a great saint like him, I thought I better seek it elsewhere, perhaps in music. And I have made so many compromises; so many producers still owe me money...(laughs). But when a singer or musician hits a false note, I will not compromise. I have my position.”

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 8:02:47 PM |

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