Thank you for the music

Venues that are small and informal work better as intimate spaces where musicians come to play for the joy of it.

Venues that are small and informal work better as intimate spaces where musicians come to play for the joy of it.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Cheap, intimate, visceral live music: where can we find it?

Live music didn’t mean very much to me when I was growing up. In the loose, middle-class ghetto of our small Gujarati community in Kolkata there were regular bhajans and Lakshminarayan paaths which involved some religious singing; there were sugam sangeet evenings, small concerts of light Gujarati music, which bored me to tears and into surreptitiously reading Enid Blyton while sitting in the audience. My father would occasionally go to proper, classical music baithaks, but again, these seemed to me an opaque, uninteresting world where people gargled for hours on end or went plinka-plonk on their sitars.

At some point I discovered rock and pop and I clearly remember the first concert I went to. It was on the big proscenium stage at the new Kala Mandir theatre and the fronting band was something called Great Bear. I was about 11, somehow allowed to go alone, and around me the audience was of people much older that me, ancients, between 18 and 30 of age.

Main act and more

The lights dimmed, the spots came in, the band started with a crash of sound and I was transported. I think they played ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘In a Gada da Vida’, but this could be a completely false memory. The guys looked impossibly cool, bell-bottoms and headbands and the kind of crazy unkempt long hair that would get you expelled from school.

There was a short break while the band’s paraphernalia was removed and the stage prepared for the main act. A microphone (one of those chunky steel ones that looked like a small Soviet satellite) on a stand was placed in front of a high stool front and centre of stage. The lights dimmed and went off. There was a susurration of anticipation in the crowd, especially from the female part of it, and then the first chords of an acoustic guitar riffled across the black silence. A spot came on, shining down on a good-looking man with tidy, medium-length hair. The girls screamed ‘Ajit! Ajit!’ and the man smiled back, clearly very pleased with himself. Ajit Singh’s set consisted of mellow songs of smooth self-satisfaction, perhaps Glen Campbell, perhaps some folk material, and then Ajit’s greatest hit, his cover of Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely?’, the libretto of which all the girls seemed to know by heart, since they sang along with him, even making him sing it twice. It was mysterious, it was dramatic and romantic, and though I didn’t understand it at the time, it was sexy. By the time I sidled out from under all the taller people, I knew I wanted more of this thrill, this live music.

Across the 70s, with Yaadon ki Baraat and other Hindi movies incorporating quasi-rock/ folk performances and disco, my idea of live music changed. A bit later, I even began my life-long passion for live Indian classical, that gargling and plink-plonking suddenly making sense, my slow mind opening up to the wonderful intricacies. By the time the first Jazz Yatra hit Bombay in 1977, a couple of school friends and I were jazz and rock freaks and watching legends like Sonny Rollins and Joe Williams in the open air was a huge blast.

Blown away

I left for college in the U.S. having seen many gigs by Indian rock bands as well as films like Woodstock and I carried a clear notion of what a live rock performance should be. All this got blown away when I landed in the small college in Vermont. By the late 70s, in various parts of America including New England and the eastern seaboard, classic 60s and early 70s rock was taking a beating. Punk, new wave and the previously sneered-at disco were the cool sounds.

The first ‘concert’ I attended in college was by a band from college, The Objects. The fluorescent lights in the cafeteria were fully on, no attempt at false drama with spotlights and suchlike, and a wall of noise hit the head as soon as the band started to play. The music was straight, the presentation without affectation and the interaction between band and audience palpable. These gigs exposed me to a very different live music experience: cheap, dirty, far from perfect, but intimate, small-scale, visceral and immediate. Later, I would connect this backwards to the speakeasies and blues bars of the American South and Chicago as well as to the small, electrifying baul performances I was lucky enough to stumble into in rural Bengal and Kolkata.

Traditional venues

In India, live music has traditional arenas in the villages and small towns, in country fairs and religious melas as well as in the big cities. These may or may not involve people sitting in circles or loose groupings, mostly on the ground or the floor. Then there are what one may call the ‘face front’ venues, where rows of people sit on seats or stand facing the performers. Then there are the smaller, more social situations that can be very informal or highly structured and monetised. Any way you look at it, there are now lots of different venues for live music, both Western and Indian, far more than when I was in my teens.

It may be that I haven’t travelled enough or explored the different corners of the country enough, but something in me still searches for the ideal, small music place.

Intimate space

I’ve not been to the Northeast and I can believe that many such places exist there, but leaving that region aside, I don’t know of too many joints where the following elements come together: an intimate, small-scale music performance space where there is good, reasonably priced food and alcohol; a place that does not discriminate at the entrance, filtering for Anglicised elite, urban, middle-class customers; a place where women can come on their own and feel safe enough to drink and laugh and dance without unwanted attention; a place where musicians come to play for the sheer joy of it, without an eye on fame or money or any other extraneous thing, where they come for what the Spanish call duende, magical performative exchange.

These things come slowly, and perhaps we are getting there by circuitous routes that are outside one person’s limited knowledge and imagination, but high on the shopping list of what I want for our society. Close on the heels of the eradication of starvation, and the proper healthcare and education, safe and ecologically sustainable transport network, comes small musical sanctuaries where a new culture of love and laughter can proliferate. We may need the transport infrastructure, the net of healthcare, a minimum level of education in order to live well, but beyond all this we also need to nourish what we are living for, and in that the pulse of live music and song — transmitted and received and the appreciation transmitted back — is something that’s hard to match.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary. He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:54:34 PM |

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