Willy Schwarz on his work and long-standing relationship with India

From working with the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar to recently composing for the 1925 silent film Prem Sanyas, musician Willy Schwarz has had a 50-year-long career in music

Willy Schwarz is terribly jet lagged — Everyone warns as the legendary musician who has had a taste of almost every genre in his 50-year-long illustrious career, walks into Goethe-Institut in small, quick steps after a presumably long day. He is no less fun, though — as one would discover within minutes of a conversation sprinkled with musical interludes. As he sits down to talk with Helmut Schippert, director of the Goethe Institut, a treasure trove of tales emerges. Schippert rightly says, “The man is full of stories.”

A few minutes later, Schwarz confirms this as he takes us through his life, work and long-standing relationship with India and its people, through anecdotes. The veteran who is also an award-winning theatre musician — he has been concentrating on the stage lately — was in the city as part of the multi-event festival convened by Goethe-Institut, Light of Asia: Enchanted Networks.

Wielding over 22 instruments is an everyday affair for Schwarz — as he proved with the musical interludes he composed for the German-Indian silent film of 1925, Prem Sanyas, which was screened at the festival. Ask him about the film, and he takes a trip down memory lane. “I have been a musician since I was 14, and among the many diverse tasks I have had as a teenager, was accompanying 1890s melodramas on stage. So when I was called to compose interludes for this film, I was reminded of that,” the 70-year-old says, in a detailed narration before deviating to another trail of conversation with Schippert. This was one of the early films that brought the lesser known cultural aspects of German-Indian relations, in focus.

Willy Schwarz on his work and long-standing relationship with India

Schwarz knew his calling early on in life. He takes me through his earliest memory associated with music: “It is of my mother playing a melody on her harmonica,” and breaks into the song without warning — a soothing rendition of the German hymn follows. “Interestingly, the song was also a praise to music itself, a baroque melody of the 18th Century.” Schwarz’s parents were Jewish refugees who were forced to leave their hometowns. He was born in 1949 — “I grew up in the wildly repressed ‘50s in America and it was also the time of inane music of Pat Boone singing about his ‘White Buck Shoes’. All of a sudden came Elvis Presley. Meanwhile, my elder sister fell in love with Hillbilly music: the music of people from West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and so on; and introduced me to it too,” says Schwarz, adding that he grew up in a family that carefully followed different genres of music from across the globe. He recalls, “My sister and mother would harmonise and sing all these Hillbilly songs,” and again breaks into a vivacious take on ‘In the pines, In the Pines, Where the Sun Never Shines’. His delightful voice ricochets off the walls; still intact. “I wanted to hear everything that was out there.” The fact that he was exposed to different kinds of music, also helped him to form as a 21-piece ‘All American Immigrant Orchestra’, which featured artistes from Brazil, Puerto Rico, China, India, Poland, Hungary, Quebec and Armenia.

As a teenager, he would spend hours in the library unearthing old bad quality records of “Eskimos singing into each others mouths, in incredibly fast tempo” or “the throat singing of Mongolians”. Schwarz would then think, “Woah! This is from outer space!” Indian music too, came like a “boom”. “I heard it first when I was 16 or 17, with my brothers.” Little did he know then, that he would work with legends such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustaad Ali Akbar Khan. The very first recording he did for Indian music was with them. Later came a call that once again took him by surprise. “‘Is this Willy Schwarz?’, ‘Yes’, ‘Can you play the tanpura?’ [Pause…] Sure, why not?’ I had no idea, but I jumped in. The very same Ustaad Ali Akbar Khan’s son, Asheesh Khan was coming to Michigan to perform.” Schwarz narrates. Schwarz was 20 then. Thus began a long, successful tryst with Indian musical stalwarts: YouTube videos of him wielding the chitraveena, is only a glimpse. “Through a series of events, I decided to go to India to study — in Lucknow, Bareilly, Delhi etc,” says the musician, who eventually took a few lessons with Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Now, sitting in the conference room, he drifts off to more anecdotes — which spans subjects ranging from Josef Wirsching and Franz Osten to the Woodstock festival — with Schippert. “I have been talking all day, I should really stop now,” he laughs.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 7:03:04 PM |

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