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Interview with Rex Rosario


WTS: Rex, tell us about your experiences from your childhood and your tryst with music, how did it all begin?

Rex: I don’t remember exactly when I started learning, music is a traditional thing for us – it came from my grandfather, to my father and to me – and it keeps on going. I started learning the rudiments of music around the age of 13. My father had a band, Jakes Rosario and his Feet Warmers, and he inducted my brother and me into it at that tender age when we knew nothing about music. He made us play parts in it – my brother was a trumpet player and I was put on the clarinet. Later on we bought an old soprano sax and I used to play on that for some time.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: Tell us more about your father Jacob Rosario.

Rex: Dad was very famous – he had played at the Taj hotel in Bombay and was among the first Indians to tap dance while playing the trumpet. He was also a hockey player, and was a part of the team that was the winner of the 1944 Maharaja gold cup. They went for an exhibition match in Mysore and on the way they met with an accident, and about nine of them died in that accident – my father was spared but he had to amputate his right leg. Just imagine his plight when he was a dancer and a hockey player to lose one of his legs. After that he was not into music much but he joined the studios later in Madras and he has played for many films. Dad was a Louis Armstrong fan, sometimes when he played in Bombay they used to call him the Louis Armstrong of India – great showmanship with the aluminium bowler hat!

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

WTS: Tell us more about your father’s background.

Rex: Very little of his background is known. He told me that he and his brother learnt from my grandfather Samuel. My grandfather used to be transferred often, sometimes they were in Jamshedpur and sometimes in Bhadravati… in the bargain his education got hampered. My father wasn’t very educated, he then joined the Auxiliary Force of India (AFI) and used to play in the AFI band and he’d skip that and would sneak out to play in the dances and come back later in the night as if nothing happened (laughs) – he’d jump over the fences and get inside. He learnt things the hard way but learnt it very well. Army people are well-trained and whoever they teach, they teach in the right way. That was the advantage that I didn’t have. I had to struggle a lot, to understand itself was a struggle – the theory part of it. My father did teach me the basics very well but by the time I could learn to some extent that would help me go further, he passed away. Dad put us on the right track and the fundamentals were taught very correctly – this is how you have to learn, this is how you have to play, this is how you have to practice. But he was very rude and I wasn’t interested in learning. After he passed away, I thought I wouldn’t play this anymore. I was so against it. Then I said, “No, this is my dad’s tradition, my family’s tradition, forget about what happened to me. I’m going to do something with this.” That’s what I’ve been doing.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

Interview with Rex Rosario

WTS: So you come from a family of musicians?

Rex: Yes, my father and his elder brother Paul Rosario were very popular musicians. My father’s elder brother’s sons have also become very famous. One of them, Benny Rosario, has played with Bappi Lahiri and a lot of artistes all over the world and the other one, Lester Rosario, became one of the best drummers in India, he is still in Goa. He’s got a band called Lester and his Swingsters. 

WTS: How did your journey as a musician continue from there?

Rex: We were not so frequent with playing initially because we had to find a job and take care of the family so there was a lot of gap in between. Later, I joined LRDE (Electronics & Radar Development Establishment) and there I joined an orchestra that used to play Indian music. Very eminent players were a part of it like Mysore Ananthasami Rao who was a very popular music director, Violin Srinivas who is a very good violinist, Mr. Pawa he’s a great qawwali and ghazal singer. These were the people I worked with – I was just a bachcha who knew nothing but the A B Cs of music. Then I picked up a lot of Indian classical music through Mr. Pawa, he used to guide me and tell me everything about what note to hit, how powerful it is, which note is important, which raga, how to come to it and all such things.

By the time I was 19-20 years there wasn’t much going on with jazz music but I took a liking to it, because right from the beginning, there was jazz music being played in the house. I was very fond of melody. I’d catch up any melody and I used to tell my dad this tune is like that and he’ll write it down and play it. So that sort of a liking I had towards melodies. I was very attracted to jazz music. I realized that time that there’s nothing like this, but we were handicapped without proper schools and material to learn music. Then somehow we had to gather material from here and there.

Finding time to practice was quite tough that time. I got married very early, you can understand after that what will happen (laughs); it was chaos after that. So many things came in between and music became secondary. The most important thing was there was no scope for this kind of music. Whenever we played it wasn’t liked much by the younger generation, but anyway I stuck on to it. I said this is my love and I will die with this, whatever happens.

Earlier to that, I played with orchestras, where they have Hindi music, which had interludes, preludes… I used to write down from the record – transcribe and then play it. That’s when I developed my ear for transcribing. Later I said this is not my kind of music, I’m wasting all my time -till 1978 I was stuck in this. Then I realized it cannot be like this. Slowly I gave up that also. Then we started playing at birthdays, weddings with anybody and everybody. Till 1985 I did this and then said I can’t go on like this. Even if I don’t find the right kind of musicians to play with, I’ll start off with anybody. Then I started The Rex Rozario Quintet in 1985. So I got along with some talented guys and we practiced for 10 days, I took leave and then we did a show at Chowdaiah Hall – that was organized by Deccan Herald. I’ve preserved all those newspaper clippings!

After that, that also broke up. They played for cabarets and all that, you know, because it was their livelihood, and if they didn’t play there was no money in the house. There were a lot of these cabaret restaurants back then. Whenever I was short of money for school fees I’d go and play for 2-3 months and once I had enough money I’d say bye-bye. I didn’t like it, I was forced to do it, you know, I didn’t like to play for somebody who was stripping and all that.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: What were the music trends during your father’s time?

Rex: That time there was a trend for this kind of music at hotels because all the Britishers were there and these musicians would be hired to play there based on contracts for 3 or 6 months to one year. Those days they had the real dancing crowd. They’d play this plus the improvisations while the music goes on. Like Duke Kellington’s band is danceable but still they would do this out of the way stuff. Each one had to read music and read parts to the dot, because it is harmony and you can’t go wrong. If its melody it’s adjustable – you can take any note and it’ll come off somewhere (laughs) – with harmony you can’t do all that – each one’s break is connected like a computer. Especially those western, US or European bands, if you hear them you’ll be amazed how these guys can do the same thing, all of them! If you hear them, all will give that drop, that bend, all will sound the same as if there’s one instrument playing! That kind of skill and talent you won’t get anymore, it’s finished, because the trend is like that. There is too much easy learning and things are easily available on the computer and the internet but you don’t have that human get together and understanding. You’re-inspired-by-me-I’m-inspired-by-you sort of playing and that sort of music is not there anymore. It’s too technical with a lot of shortcuts. It doesn’t work anymore, it won’t work.

WTS: What happened after you put together The Rex Rozario Quintet?

Rex: I knew very little about jazz and the others knew nothing, I said no, come on let’s do it. Somewhere it has to start! After starting that band we felt that we are not up to the level for playing jazz. So we needed a lot of practice, which was a problem for us, because getting a place to practice, getting the instruments, equipment etc. everything was a problem. It was not going the way we wanted it to go. So I had to resign my job in order to pursue music. I had a very good job, I was a class-one officer, a very wanted person and was nominated for National award in my field, but I gave it up. I said music is my first love.

Another thing was that I was not able to get a good saxophone. There was nothing available here and I had to go to Singapore to buy a saxophone. I quit my job, took the money I got from the encashment of my leaves and got about Rs. 60,000. I took that money and went to Singapore, bought a saxophone and came back – that was a student model. I started playing here and there and tried to continue playing jazz music. There was the Jazz Revival Group  Dr. Tom Chandy’s band – we encouraged him and we were the ones to launch it – Bruce, Vinoo and Victor, and I played for this band. Our first show was a show called ‘Swing Time Jazz’. From that time I was in the scene and till now I’m still there, although many other people have come and gone. Denzel Bentley died- when we were just trying to get into the thing in our band, after that he got sick and he died. He was a very good trumpet player; I was very fond of him. For jazz, we need two front-line musicians it’s very important, to weave some harmonies into the music but we cannot do that now. Unless the two of you have that taste and that phrasing idea for jazz, it’s chaos. It’s always been a compromising story throughout.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: What happened after you guys started playing together?

Rex: Even then I wasn’t able to find a nice band. I was with all these guys, each one will come for some time and then they’ll say I’ve got a band. They’d say first preference is for my band, whenever I have a show I won’t come for you. I had no other choice but to say okay whenever you’re free please come and play. Jagdeesh was playing with The Styluses and once I met him at a jam session with Peter Isaac’s band and I asked him, “Would you like to play the kind of music I’m playing?” He said, “If it is challenging I’ll take it up,” and I said, “You come and try it.” Then he stuck on with me, for 2-3 years he played. But it was always a struggle, every time I had to search for musicians. I had to put an ad there at the Peacock hotel – musicians wanted to play for this band. Nobody turned up.

It somehow went on, till now something is happening. It’s not totally off the scene. A lot of jazz programs used to happen those days – foreign bands used to come, now for the past 10 years nothing is happening. They had these yatras – they used to land up first in Calcutta, Bombay, then go to Madras and then come to Bangalore, the last in the circuit. The decline is because rock and metal has taken over. Who wants to sit and study the scale and the chord? They just want to go on the stage. My grandson was telling me one of his cousins says the best part of playing the guitar is going on the stage and breaking it. It’s terrible! It’s laughable but very serious. If such things get into children’s minds, what will they do later?

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Vamsi Krishna

WTS: How was it trying to learn songs back in those days when you just had vinyl?

Rex: We had gramophones, the LPs – 78 rpm things, and later the tapes came into the scene. We had two gramophones. Dad would mostly play Louis Armstrong, and would write down some parts – it’s called transcribing – you hear it and you write it. Dad used to sit and write parts for everybody – tenor, trombonist, pianist, bass players – those days we had the acoustic bass right – double bass, he wrote parts for everybody except the drummer, and each one had to play their own parts. It was well organized. People who knew music only could sit there and play. My father was a very harsh man, he’d get angry and start shouting and using these bad words (laughs). They used to fear to play with him, he was very strict.

WTS: How would the band rehearse a new song?

Rex: We used to get score sheets- written music, leaflets as well as booklets. Each leaflet would cost about Rs. 20 – all from England or the USA. Nobody from India did anything like that. Those days every band would need to get new numbers, each one will try to beat the other. So they’d get the score for all the Elvis Presley songs, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sara Vaughn – all their scores would come in leaflets or booklets. Leaflets would have only 2 leaves, booklets would have about 5-10 songs in each book. The scores, words and piano parts would be there; from there they would try to do their own arrangements.

WTS: How have you seen the live music scene evolve over the course of 30-40 years from hotels in Bombay to orchestras to the jazz music scene to today?

Rex: In the field of jazz, nothing much has happened despite the good talent. There’s nobody to channelize them into this field, there are no good schools to study jazz, no good bands coming in and trying to influence them. To get a good band you need a lot of money and some big company has to sponsor it, it’s a very costly affair. These are the main reason why jazz is not progressing. Those days we had jazz bands playing for weddings, now even that has gone to dogs. Hotels these days want 2-3 piece bands because of various rules and restrictions. So based on this, music is not really doing well except for rock and metal. And DJs have taken over now. Then there were so many dance bands that died after the 70s. Dance bands like Fred Hitchcock Band, Eddie and the Rhythm Stars, Bruce Gabrielli Band, these were the prominent bands in Bangalore that played some decent music – the jazz standards, plus improvising, all that was there. But after that it slowly dwindled down to bands like The Human Bondage and things like that playing only rock and Beatles kind of music. So there’s nothing much in the jazz scene since then, and it is sad to say that after all these years.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: How can one bring music back into musicians?

Rex: That’s a good question, worth pondering over. First of all they should be dedicated – they should have an aim – “I must reach that level”. To reach that level you can get any amount of material now. All that matters is time and dedication, if you have that you can bring in real good stuff because very talented and intelligent guys are there now. It’s easier for them to come to that level faster than the earlier days. You get all the things on the internet, all that you have to do is remember and utilize it in the place where it’s required.

The other day Robert (Xavier) had an iPod and he played a minor 7 flat 5 chord and he switched it on and on the screen that chord window came up with all their alphabetical names, plus if you want to hear the sound, you can press a button and get all the sounds! What more do you want, eh? Got my point? You don’t have to struggle and say “I don’t know what the sound of the minor 7th chord is”. There it was! I said my, this is amazing. We played some tune, very fantastic – it’s by the Nassimento group. He played the tune; I didn’t know the name of the tune. He just switched on the internet and by hearing that sound getting through this equipment – it says the tune is so and so. I said this is magic! It’s like telling your fortune or what are you or what are you thinking! So much is the technological advancement; it’s so easy to get material to your ears. Those days to understand one chord I had to search, ask ten people before I came to know what that was. Where to go and ask first of all? Even if they knew they won’t tell you or they don’t know how to teach. To teach is another gift, everybody cannot teach – my father had the least gift for teaching. He cannot stand nonsense or accept one mistake no matter what your age is or what your level is. So you can’t learn anything, what happens is your interest and inquisitiveness is suppressed. Nowadays a lot of scope is there to do good music; they have to be dedicated and honest. You have to reach your destination, you’ll reach it somehow.

Interview with Rex Rosario

Photo Credits: Jerome Mascarenhas

WTS: Is there any hope for revival?

Rex: Hope is there unless these youngsters are brought back and channelized into it. They’re like these flocks scattered everywhere and we need a lot of ranchers. (laughs) You can imagine that scene no – all are going in different directions and you need to bring them into one direction. It’s tough, it’s not impossible but it’s very difficult. To divert the youngsters mind to the right direction is very difficult. Because everywhere you see there’s only heavy music – jumping and skipping.

But they are not to be blamed, it is the family, the way he’s brought up, what he’s exposed to – that is important. Somewhere in the corner one person is exposed to the right stuff, he comes up well. You can’t blame these kids. You show all the things and say don’t choose it, what is he going to do? That is the mindset, children will do anything to get anything they want you can’t control them or lie to them.

You youngsters think of some way to bring back the old, original stuff. Without an audience we are nothing. Back then we had a proper audience and residents, there was no infiltration, no people coming in from different cultures, those people bring their culture, slowly they get onto the stage and have many shows and our children are affected, you are forced to go into that. Everything is adulterated or diluted; it’s not the original and the real stuff. Bangalore folks are very good in music. All the orthodox Hindus stick to Carnatic music and the Marathis are very good in Hindustani. They are superb, you cannot beat the Marathis in Hindustani classical music, they stick to that and they are excellent in that. If such people are exposed to jazz music, they’ll do very well. Now they are trying to do fusion and all that. Fusion is not happening the real way now. If you want to do fusion you must know one thing very well, either you know Hindustani music or you know western classical or jazz or you know Carnatic, then you can combine it some other form of music and call it fusion. Taking some music and mixing it up then everybody starts jamming – that’s not fusion. You have to know something very well before you can mix something else with that.

Everyone after learning a few things in music wants to go on the stage and get applause. Music is not about going on stage. It’s about expressing what’s inside you and treating the people. Your expression should be accepted – that is reciprocation – music is you play, I listen – that’s it. If I like it, I’ll clap if I don’t like it I’ll walk out. That audience-performer relationship should be maintained very well, you have to do justice there; otherwise it’s a flop show.

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Priyanka Shetty

Priyanka Shetty is the founder of What's The Scene? Follow Priyanka on Twitter @priyanka_shetty


Interview with Srinivas Rajagopal at Bangalore Bistro


WTS had a talk with Srinivas Rajagopal about his earliest memories of live music in India and what followed was a journey through the live music scene right from the British Raj to the present day – here’s one of our best and most memorable interviews with a humble musician from Bangalore who has a lot to share from his experiences and a story to tell.

WTS: Srinivas, let’s talk about all that you know about the history of the live music scene in India. As far as you can remember, when did it all begin and how did it take shape over the years?

Srinivas: Ok, I think I should start with my own experiences… I studied in Bangalore in Clarence High School; since I went to a regular Anglo Indian school, I was always interested in western music. I come from a very Anglicized family – my father was an air force officer and my mother was very much into music and she had an MA in Indian classical music, but on the other hand she had a very wide knowledge of western music. My father joined the Royal Indian Airforce which was a very westernized air force at that time, with a lot of western music, parties and dinner dances. Both my father and mother were quite knowledgeable about music; we always had music in our house.

I remember as a small kid, our house had those old, ancient gramophones; we’d wind it up and play all these 78 rpm records. In fact, during the war my father made friends with a gentleman by the name of Spike Mulligan, who was a very famous writer and comedian in the old days. There used to be during the war a thing known as ENSA Calling which was a services entertainment kind of company, his job was to go and entertain troops all over the place and that’s how my dad came across him during his service career and later on during the early fifties Spike Mulligan had come and he gave my father a whole set of almost a hundred of these 78 rpm records of those times- jazz, be-bop, popular music of those days. Today, I still play a lot of that music which I heard as a young boy for example Danny Kay, Bill Crosby, Frank Sinatra… I still play a lot of those songs.

When I came to college was when the music scene was just getting on, people were forming bands… I joined college around 1968, but I knew that a scene like this existed way before that. In fact, I remember in 1966 just after I finished my tenth standard, I had gone to Delhi. I remember there were these Christmas jam sessions. When I went there, the first thing my sister told me was “We’re going for a jam session today”. At first I thought “What is this jam session? Maybe its some bread and butter and jam” – I didn’t know the concept of a jam session.

Then I went there and I saw two bands there one of the bands performing there was Raja Andrews and The Sisters. Raja Andrews was another gentleman who retired from the airforce, probably a musician in the airforce and he formed one of the earliest bands and probably one of the earliest recordings during those days. Raja Andrews and The Nawabs was what they used to be called and at this show he came with his sisters – their band was known as Raja Andrews and The Sisters.They did a lot of western music, the girls were also singing.

There were lots of bands. In 1973, I went to Allahabad which is a typical North Indian small town, and I went there and joined a band – an Anglo Indian band and there was this guy called Larry French who used to play saxophone in our band and his father used to play in a band and his grandmother used to sing with a band, all in India, all in Allahabad. And they had a club there called ‘The Thornhill Club’ which was this ancient old club of Anglo Indians and Larry used to tell me that my grandmother used to play in the same hall that we played in we had done quite a few shows there.

I remember a lot of bands that played during the time and I have brought them into my memoirs. I’ve been slowly plodding over it and it has already gone up to about 45-50,000 words. I’ve only come as far as 1977, and I’ve still got lots more to write. The first show that I saw was of Raja Andrews and The Sisters which was a band doing pop numbers of the time and at that show there was another band of young guys called The Beathovens and they were doing Rock n’ Roll and they were really piling into it, and the whole thing was so fascinating – it was my first experience. And that’s when I decided that this is what I want to do in life.(laughs)

Promptly, when I joined college I joined a band and then learnt to play the guitar – that was another very strange thing… I got a bass guitar and joined as a bass guitarist. In those days, the western bands they referred to as Skiffle bands – small college bands. There used to be this thing of skiffle music you know, if you see the Creedence Clearwater Revival album cover called Willie and the Poor Boys you’ll get the idea – this is how the boys used to get together with a washboard or string bass, the washboard is actually a western type rattle-board they washed clothes on – CCR used that as a percussion instrument, and then you had this string bass which is actually just a tea-chest with a stick and a single string , and then you go thump thump thump – thump like a double bass on that… I’ve played that too, very nice, we used to play that in Victoria Hotel where the Bangalore Central is now. And then I came back, I heard other bands –  I heard a band called Pebbles from Delhi, and later on I came to know those people, because one of them came to Bangalore to form a band called The Void.

WTS: So this whole culture of attending gigs was there even back then?

Srinivas: Yes, very much. In fact, I think it was around 1964-65 that the first attempt at popularizing these bands in some way started with the Simla Beat Contest, there was this thing called Simla cigarettes- it was a cigarette company which organized this Beat Contest where bands would participate and they would be selected and would go on to finals… and this used to happen in Bombay, Delhi Calcutta, and a few places like that – so that was there, and there were what later on came to be known as “discos” like Raspberry Rhinoceros in Bombay, Trincas in Calcutta, a very famous place that still exists. I remember one of the most famous singers Pam Craine was from there.

The earliest band which I came across, I used to see them practice near my grandfather’s house in Benson town, and that was The Trojans – the band that Biddu Appaiah used to play with. In 1965-66, Biddu Appaiah made his first album Under My Thumb and there were two songs in that. There was another band called The Mustangs from Chennai – it was an, instrumental band like The Ventures and The Shadows and all that, who made a record called Escape. Generally, there was a music scene going on, there weren’t many music teachers but we used to get together and hear other musicians play and slowly learn. By the time I had come to my final year in college, the Simla Beat contest didn’t happen for some reason that year but another company Estrella Batteries organized a big Beat Contest and we played for that contest, I had my own band called Stone Package from Central college, another band was from St. Josephs college, and another band from RC College.

I remember the first Simla Beat contest I went to, the bands from Bangalore were Pacesetters, Mojos, The Devil Beats – very good musicians. In fact one of the people whom I used to consider as my own inspiration, the person we learnt a lot from was a gentleman called Gussie Rickye. There was a band called Silencers which came from Chennai – they were very good, the first organized band which decided to make music a career which almost every old musician in India knows about was a band called The Human Bondage -they were very good. Super drummer, super guitarist, very good singers, a very fantastic bass guitarist who eventually went away to Israel, they were the band that laid the standard for everybody else, did a lot of rock and all the numbers that we wanted to do. This was the scene, and by the time I went from Bangalore, around 1973 there would be a band playing almost everywhere. If you went to a place like Frazer town or Austin town, on any Sunday or Saturday if you walked through these places you would find at least 3 or 4 bands practicing at home, it used to be quite a big thing.

WTS: Has it gone down over the years?

Srinivas: It has gone down in the sense that in those days there were no DJs. For example, I play in a place where people who come still want to listen to retro music, there’s a market for that kind of music because it has lasted over the years. Today’s music has not lasted – it won’t last. Six months down the line you’ll ask what happened to this singer, he’s nowhere. You should also understand that there’s a very big relationship between the music industry and the technology… as it kept growing, it just expanded exponentially and as each innovation came, it got bigger and bigger.

Edison invented the phonograph and his original phonograph lost out the market to RCA’s platters, Edison thought of cylinders but RCA said no we’ll take a platter with a spiraling groove, and put the vibrations onto that – it’s an entirely mechanical device, there’s no electronics in it – the needle goes and sits there and the vibrations are picked up and amplified… I don’t know if you have seen any of those old gramophones. And that’s when the electronics came, the radio came and then it got bigger and bigger. If you see most of the old songs are about three minutes long only because you could only put three minutes of music on that. Today it’s not the case, but that’s more or less become the thing – people are used to a 3 minutes song, people are generally not used to a 15 minute song. That came with the LPs which came round about the 50s when it went from Bakelite to Vinyl and then you got stereo and all these things that came up,then you got cassettes, then it went to CDs and from CDs to one matchbox-sized thing and you can put 4000 songs in it.

I would say the peak of it came probably in the late 70s and people were really into it. The turnout was not much, not with Indian bands. You get some vague white fellows, and put them together and say this band is from Finland, nobody’s heard of them – even in Finland nobody’s heard of them – you’ll get around 2000 people. (Smiles amusedly) But if one of the local bands is playing you’ll probably get a few hundreds, and there would be a few hundreds trying to gatecrash in, or wondering “let’s see how we can get in without buying a ticket”. We used to do that, there used to be these shows in Town Hall and we had worked out a way to scale up to the roof and come down through it and every show we used to do that. The whole gang used to go and there was this huge tree that reached over to the roof. We used to climb up the tree, get on to the roof and from the roof to one of the top windows and climb down and see shows like that.

It used to be fairly small scale. We organized a kind of a… a Woodstock event in 1972; it was called Thursday because it was on a Thursday. We used to run a magazine called Rot magazine in college, it became very famous in college – it was a one of those markers in the history of Bangalore University. Bangalore University sponsored a group of students who came up with a magazine called Retort – The Essence of Student Life so we said we’ll go against it so we came up with a magazine called Rot – The Nonsense of Student Life that generally lampooned everybody and we wrote whatever we wanted against anybody we wanted and then we put up this show – an all-day show and believe you me, we got bands from Chennai, we got bands from Bombay and we managed to keep it going the whole day from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and we charged 5 rupees per head, that’s all, which was a big figure in those days, we can’t dream of that kind of thing now. But it was okay because out of all that if a band made 500 rupees for themselves it was a big figure then.

WTS: If we had to trace the evolution of western live music in India where would we begin?

Srinivas: Western live music came as a tradition with the British, they had these dances and balls and things like that. I think the tradition more or less took off in probably the early 1800s, I think it was round about 1830s when the British government decided that too many of these British men were taking Indian wives and all kinds of complications – many of them had wives in England and all that.

So, from the 1830s apparently the British worked out a scheme – all the ships had to come from England and they used to travel on the monsoon winds, so the ships could only come during monsoons and  return during the next monsoon because they were all wind-driven. Generally they used to send out these girls, they sponsored these girls who otherwise couldn’t get themselves hitched or they didn’t have families, or the families couldn’t afford them so they sent them out to Calcutta and in Calcutta a group of local ladies organized for them to go and visit various British cantonments where there would be parties going on – they were called debutante parties, and the British officers referred to them as the ‘”fishing fleet”, they came out to fish like you know, fish for husbands and they had just these 3-4 months in the summer, so all these things used to be organized, particularly after the British decided to move the capital to Shimla, the British capital was in Calcutta and the capital used to move every summer to Shimla for 4-5 months – a big operation by itself . So they used to go to Shimla where there was a lot of dance halls and everything like that. It started like that and they used to have live musicians. Generally the live musicians were mostly from India, within India, there used to be Anglo Indians, Goans who generally played with military bands – it was usually the military bands that used to go and perform in these things. Many musicians have heir background from military bands. So it probably started with them, and at the end of the season some of these girls wouldn’t get married, they couldn’t find their husbands and they had to go back in the ships – they were known as the “Returned Empties”. This is all a bit of the Raj history. This road was very famous (referring to Brigade Road in Bangalore). I have seen for myself , there used to be a regular British inn called The Old Bull and Bush, it was here. Then there used to be a place called Boscos. Then the Deccan Herald building – it was originally a dance hall; the old building – if you go up and see it has got a full wooden floor, it was a dance hall. There were lots of places like that – Liberty Theatre used to be an old dance hall doubling as a theatre. In fact during the war, apparently some of these areas were out of bounds for Indians and only the Tommies were allowed there; there were a lot of American soldiers at that time particularly during the Burma campaign. At that time there was a lot of music, a lot of activity going on. If you look up some old Raj literature you’ll find a lot of photos of these parties. 

WTS: You have witnessed the scene unfold, what do you have to say about the way it has evolved over the years to what it is today?

Srinivas: With the way it has evolved, for the real live musicians playing western pop music maybe it’s seeing a phase of dying out; one thing is for sure – it’s not going to be easy to find musicians who know the kind of old songs that people like me know – we’re becoming a slowly vanishing breed, I know lots and lots of songs which you people would have not even heard; I get any request I say I know this and I’ll do it and of course now I’m helped with the internet and all that, so even if I don’t have the words or anything in a minute I’ll download it on my computer and I’ll do the songs. If I haven’t heard the songs at all I can’t do it but I’ve been able to do almost 95% of all requests I get. The quality of sound is definitely improving; it’s getting better and better. When we started we had some real terrible sound, we had home made guitars and we used to take apart old valve radios and use them and these days the amount of things you get on the net is amazing. Actually today everything is easy. I have been practicing a few songs since yesterday morning with a young boy who’s here, so I told him “Come on you do some of the newer songs which I’m not doing”, a lot of new songs from Green Day, and I could immediately download the MIDI file, download the words, download the chords and done, finished. When we started with our band, we used to come to Brigade road there used to be a Koshy’s which had a jukebox and that jukebox just had some hundred songs, 50 records, hundred songs and we said “OK we’ve got to learn this song, lets go and hear it” and the 5 members of the band come here, convince that fellow to give us a 3 by 5 coffee and the coffee used to cost 1 rupee 25 paise which was a huge amount those days and we used to have that and then each of us used to put together 5 paise and go and get a 25 paise coin, and go to the jukebox, insert that coin and press that button. And this thing would go slowly and pick out that record and put it in, and we’d say you listen to your part and once the song plays, 25 paise gone and at the end of it one of the fellows says no man, I didn’t get my part and we’d say yeah yeah, you put 25 paise we’ll all listen for free. (laughs) I remember going and asking, some guitarist saying “Man, teach me the chords for this song” and that guy would then hem and haw and all that and then I’d bring him out, take him to the canteen, buy him a masala dosa and all that and seriously get it like that! (laughs) Today,with a click you can download guitar tabs but what I find is – I find a lot of young musicians play some old songs, they like the songs they play it, they play it perfectly. How they do that is they have taken down the guitar tablatures from the internet and they have totally learnt it up you know, mugged the whole thing up and play it, but if you ask them to improvise they can’t, they cant just take off. You know what we call as 3 chord blues, which is basically the foundation of Rock n’ Roll and R&B and all that – it kind of comes naturally to us, it doesn’t come to a lot of younger people and they’re not able to do that. We have spent hours jamming like this.

WTS: How did you get your musical instruments back then? Where did you buy them from?

Srinivas: Oh really terrible instruments – abba! We bought some terrible local instruments; we never had the kind of money to go buy a Fender or an Ibanez or a Hofner. Those days we used to buy Calcutta made instruments. There’s this guy who owns N. Lewis and Son, a very old company – a very good friend of mine – a wonderful man but terrible guitars. But I bought my guitars from him and he has custom made guitars for me over the years, and he unbelievably still makes guitars.  I have a guitar which is over 35 years old and I’m still using it – somebody bought it and it has gone through 101 changes, some fellow tried to do some engineering, put a tremolo arm- it’s not supposed to have a tremolo, it’s actually a Les Paul semi-solid from the 1950-60s but now you get very good Chinese stuff, I don’t have any fancy Fender or an Ibanez I use all Chinese made instruments – I use a Java which is a Fender imitation – I got it for 4 grand, I use a Pluto – 12 string , mostly I use a 12 string when I sing solo – it has a richer sound you know and it cost me about 5 grand. I have owned my sound, everything. To tell you the truth, over the last 3 or 4 years I have been realizing dreams that I had when I was 19 years old, only thing it has come at this age, at the age of 59-60 but it’s OK, this is nice. Sometimes my daughters tell me “What is this you’re rocking and rolling like this!”… it’s OK, I won’t think of age. (laughs)

WTS: What made you take up music as a career and a source of livelihood?

Srinivas: To tell you the truth, I have not really taken up music a career – I have always wanted to do that. But I have done it full time also – in fact there was a time when this was the only job I had, I had lost my other job due to various problems I had. I started my career in advertising, I studied my BSc. Honorary in Physics and then I dropped out of college, then I went and did a course in journalism because of which I got into advertising which was in 1971 –  it wasn’t the industry it is now. The total billing in Bangalore in 1971 was about 50 lakhs – totally all the companies put together and about 2 dozen ad agencies had to survive on that. Ad agencies would get 15% agency commission on that billing, that’s how they survived. I was in advertising, I became the Senior Market Research Manager and then I tried to set up my own ad agency, lost a lot of money and finally thought about what to do and I decided to go and play music. Now I need to play everyday so I started playing in the night clubs, in those days there were cabaret hotels all over the place.I played in every Cabaret hotel in Bangalore – they were not very respectable. There would be strip shows and anyway it was a job to do so I just did it, for 6-7 years I played in the cabaret hotels till it closed. Then the police came and closed everything. Once they closed everything, I had to look for another job. Then somebody told me there’s a fashion and apparel college and they need somebody to take a few classes on fashion marketing. I said okay I know something about marketing; I’ll go and take those classes so I went ahead and joined that company and the gentleman there said ‘no you’re an advertising man’; I need someone to look after the company advertising so I joined there full time. Then I got involved in the apparel and garment industry, slowly started learning it up and got trained by the Japanese and today I’m some kind of an expert on that. I have written a textbook on apparel manufacturing. I even teach, at one time I was teaching in about 4 colleges in Bangalore,now I only teach in Garden City College as a visiting faculty. At this college I also became the Vice Principal. Still, about 50% of my work is on apparel. I have, for example… right now I have 12 students from Nagpur who have come here and are doing their internship in Bangalore. I’m a consultant for the university in Nagpur. I arrange the internships for them… I contact garment factories in Bangalore, I have a lot of industry-wide contacts, and I arrange their internship that they have to do as part of their course… they come here and then I take classes for 2 weeks for them, update their industry knowledge and put them in the internship and monitor them… they are doing well. Most of them get jobs too. Slowly that has also been growing the number of people in the industry who were my students… they are very grateful to me. Now they have all reached the top level of general managers and are doing well.

WTS: With regard to your music, what bands would you consider as your major influences?

Srinivas: The Beatles! The Beatles because of the chords… in the beginning, our thing was based on chords…. we used to have this thing when we started learning – we got the idea that we should be able to listen to a song and be able to work out the chords. I said, “how do you do that”, so we used to have this thing where one fellow will sit with the guitar and the other fellow would turn around… ok I’m playing this what’s the chord, so we got used to do that. Today, as the song goes I can keep playing the chords. When I play with Indian orchestras, this happens a lot – that fellow will just take off, he won’t tell you the key or if he tells you the key he’ll say 2 and a half, or he’ll say rend re, or say eraduvare. Two and a half means E flat, you have to know that then you just hold E Flat and you see minor or major you have to still figure that out. I hear the song within the second bar I know how the progression goes and I’m playing. Many songs I’ve haven’t even heard – I play everything, Indian movies, western, classical… I play everything.

WTS: When you compare the time you started playing music first to now, what are the main differences, positive or negative?

Srinivas: Well the positive thing is there are more and more places to perform, there is more money being paid for it, it’s reasonable now it wasn’t reasonable in those days, you know the first show we played was for my grandfather’s tenant who was upstairs and he had a baby naming ceremony and then we somehow conned him and told him “Sir, we’ll play with the band” and he agreed and said, “I’ll pay you 50 rupees” “ this was supposed to be for the sound system and the transport. So, promptly we agreed to that and we caught hold of one of our friends, borrowed a sound system, borrowed the guitar, loaded it into our cycles and scooters brought it to the venue and then we got 50 rupees, we felt very great about ourselves (laughs) and we went out and had our own little party after that.  If you’ve got 40-50 rupees each it was considered good. The negatives are that there has been a lot of hard work, a lot of struggle, lot of dreams being broken in a way and in another way when you really get down to it you realize, you’ll find that a lot of young people who play music will get into bad ways, drugs etc. Two reasons for that – one reason is that music is supposed to be associated with all this. The second thing is that the frustration which sets in, the average young fellow these days thinks that he can buy a guitar, learn three chords today and tomorrow he’ll become a rockstar. It doesn’t work that way. That’s what I had to learn in my whole life. Today I’m very satisfied with what I’m doing. I have played 245 shows this year, today I think it’s the 353rd day of the year that makes it more than 2 shows in 3 days, I’m very happy. I’m not a great musician, I’m not a great guitarist, I could have become one, I also went to sleep for a long time, I played in the night clubs and there instead of improving my music I went completely into debauchery, that’s all I can say. Because everything was available – booze was flowing like water. I got out of all this; it has been about 6-7 years now.

WTS: Was there ever a point when you thought you should give up music?

Srinivas: No I didn’t want to give up; my family was against it they still haven’t reconciled. Now it’s successful but they haven’t reconciled to it. Their point was that because of this you’ll go drink, get into all these problems. I have had a full life with its ups, downs, joys, sorrows everything. Mostly musicians these days will give up. There are two things: if they don’t set their targets too high and they take what is coming, they will do well if they are realistic not only about what they can play but about what the market can take… they will do well… this is where a lot of young people think “Oh that fellow is getting 3000 rupees per night so I should also get 3000 rupees per night.” Why? “Because I play better than him”. That’s not the criteria;there are at least a thousand guitarists in Bangalore much better than me but I have got the shows- why? Because people know they can depend on me – I have built that up slowly. They know I don’t drink, many of them know I used to drink but they know that now I don’t. I’m very dependable – I come on time, I come nicely dressed, I do my show. Two to three principles I have set for myself. One is go on time, start on time. Go early, set up, check everything out and start. For me now, just to play solo takes me about 40 minutes to connect up, I have to connect my guitar, my guitar gadget, my mixer, my laptop, the output speakers, all the power supply connections, cables running all around, and balance everything, tune up everything and be ready – it takes about 35-40 minutes to set up, and if I have to set up with a bigger band then its even more important. Then finish playing, roll up all the cables – each cable separately. If you just quickly roll them all up, within two days something will give way and at the show it will give trouble – they are all electronic stuff you know – something, a small thing goes wrong and it will give out a weird howl or a weird buzz. I’ve got used to it… I do it all by myself. I do my own soldering, I know my whole technology that is involved. A lot of young people don’t want to learn, they think “Playing is important, it’s not important to do it myself. I’ll leave it to the other fellows.” Then where will you go? Over the last three years I decided not to hire any sound, I must have my own sound. Now I have acquired more than enough.

Second thing is go properly dressed, go nicely dressed. Most of the places we play in are good A-class restaurants, 5 star hotels where you’re expected to go formally. Go dressed for the occasion. “I must look freaky.” Why? “I’m a rock musician, I must look freaky. So I’ll wear some chains, buttons and all those things, some torn jean and go.” –  No I don’t need that. I can wear the most formal dress and still look freaky – I have got my long hair. I look freaky enough! Today this long hair is no heavy Goa beach philosophy or anything it’s just a part of my image, that’s one thing and the other thing is that I still have my own hair. Whenever my wife’s asked me I tell her you look at your two son-in-laws they both are losing their hair! (laughs)

The third principle is very important, now with so many shows coming obviously you’ll get a chance to perform somewhere and some other show will come up – never give up one show, when you’re committed, go and do that show. Just because some other show is giving more money, don’t go for that. I won’t do that. Many times I used to play with these Indian band orchestras – these roadside orchestras where you get 700-800 rupees just to play bass guitar. Suddenly somebody says “No man, I want a solo guitarist. I’ll pay you 2500, I’ll pay 3000 rupees”. I’d say “No boss, I’m booked. I’ll give you my friend’s contact”. Having these principles is very important and it has paid off. The other thing is people ask me, “How much do you charge per hour?” I don’t charge per hour, I charge per show. You get me a show, I’ll come for that show and charge for that show. Now you tell me show that the show is going to start from 8:00 p.m. and will be over by 10:00 p.m. And then everyone’s enjoying the music – at 10:00 p.m they are getting higher and higher and the thing goes on till 11:30 -12:00 p.m. till the cops come and close the place down. I’m not going to charge you anything I’m just going to consider it as a compliment to my music, and I’m telling you at least in town, the cops are going to show up at 10:00 p.m. because some neighbor will complain.

WTS: Which are the best venues in the city where you have played?

Srinivas: As far as regular restaurants go, I like this place (referring to Bangalore Bistro), there is not much of a crowd but he crowd that comes wants old music. In this place you get the old, traditional Bangaloreans who really like old music. Another place is Italia – that’s always full I don’t know how. That’s a vegetarian Italian restaurant and you may ask me what is a vegetarian Italian restaurant you know (laughs) but it is always full I don’t know how… they’ve got a waiting room like you have in MTR.

WTS: What message do you have for all the young musicians these days?

Srinivas: There’s a reason why I’ve been writing my memoirs – I started writing my memoirs to bring it back home to younger people. For a typical youngster these days who wants to pick up a guitar, learn three chords and wants to become a rockstar. And tell him it’s not like that, it’s not how it works. See my own life how it has gone through. So you have to be a little realistic. I’ll tell you for example, my daughter is with Balaji Telefilms she’s a Vice President Production or something like that, both my daughters are very terrific career women.  And before that when she was with Rakesh Mehra during the filming of Rang De Basanti, she was the Casting Director at that time and she had to interact a lot with A.R. Rahman and I believe he asked her “How come you know so much about old music of the 70s?” She said that my father is some kind of a guitarist, so her asked her where does your father play and she said he used to play in the cabaret hotels. A few days later, when they were going together she came across Siva Mani and Rahman told Siva Mani “Siva see this girl, her father used to play in the cabaret and I think you must be knowing her father”. So he asked her what’s your father name and my daughter told him and he said yes I know him and he told her don’t look down upon it that your father played in the cabaret. He said, “Like me there may be hundreds of very good percussionists but that I have made it is a matter of luck”. Not everybody can become a superstar and it’s very important for people to realize. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with whatever you do, I’m satisfied that I can make a livelihood out of this. I learnt this when I was in the cabaret… whatever it is I’m playing every night. Several other things I learnt in the cabaret, particularly, you’ll be surprised – I learnt to respect women there because they were our colleagues. They used to dance, they used to strip and we used to play but then we got to know them as people you know. It’s a profession – at that time my daughters could not go and tell in the school what is their dad doing, and my daughters have gone to my school where everybody knew what my profession was, so sometimes it becomes something to be looked down upon. I never felt bad. I have always been very honest with myself. At least I can do this, you know.

I have no illusions – I don’t compose music or write my own songs, I have no illusions about that. I have no illusions about making my own album and making it a bestseller and all that – no. I have a job to do, it’s just another job. Like you are doing your job, like a bank manager does his job, like a train ticket collector does his job. Many people start making airs about it – “Oh I’m different. I’m from Mars the rest of the people are from the earth.” It becomes like that. It’s very easy for musicians to become like that. But in my own experience, I have seen that the best musicians from India – I’ve known some of them personally, the really good and great musicians are very, very humble people. Like Siva Mani, like A.R. Rahman also, personally if you meet him and talk to him, a very humble person. Take someone like Kadri Gopinath, the saxophonist – they are very nice people to meet. I really appreciate that.

WTS: What was the highest moment of your journey?

Srinivas: I suppose it’s still coming! I must confess some of my misdemeanors but please don’t read too much into that, OK? There was a show we did in Kanpur… I was in Allahabad and my friend called me and said “Come, I have got a show in Kanpur”. So I caught a train and went to Kanpur – that fellow was in the railways so I called his uncle who told the train driver “Take this fellow and bring him to Kanpur”. So I got into the engine and came to Kanpur. it was a steam engine and by the time I landed in Kanpur I was fully black! I went to his house, took a bath and everything and on the way to the show, it was getting late so I didn’t eat anything. I came across one of these bhang thekas… in those days bhang was legal and you’d get it in government kind of thekas. So I said “I must have some bhaang!” Then what happened was that I went to the show and I had had this big glass of bhang and started the first song – I have heard that LP so many times you know. I started the first song and then I blanked out, I didn’t know what I was doing and believe you me, I played the whole LP – song after song because that was in my subconscious, I knew all the songs, I knew all the chords!

I played for about almost for an hour you know and suddenly I came out of it – cold sweat and everything, and that fellow said “Okay, Okay… go relax. We’ll do something”. I came down, I was shaking, the energy got completely drained and I asked “What did I do ya?”, and he said “Man, you played the whole LP ya!” And I asked “Did it come out OK?” And he said “No it came out mast like!” (laughs)The drummer guy, he’s in touch with me and he’s as old as I am and he also remembers the incident – it was crazy. That was a “high” point but really to see my highest point, I’m hoping it will come around.

I must do my magnum opus show. I have kept this guitar, an old guitar, the same one I told you about. My ambition is that on my magnum opus show, I must set it on fire and smash it – that is what I want to do. (laughs) I have a little bit of advice for guitarists – one thing I want to tell them is – don’t get drowned into the quagmire of technique. Keep your soul. Music is about soul, it must come from your soul not from your fingertips… don’t worry about technique. The guitar is a very personalized instrument – your guitar playing is like your handwriting, everybody’s handwriting is different. You know, me and a lot of us guitarists when we come across a place where somebody’s playing the guitar – from outside we can say it’s this person because you know his style. Have your own style; style doesn’t come out of perfection. Style comes out of your imperfections, how you play that song, that’s very important. There’s no such thing as correct chords, if you are comfortable with that chord, it’s OK.

There are too many of these dyed in the wool jazz fellows who will come and tell me, ‘man you should have played this you should have played that’, but the song came out, no? That’s important, that’s the way I do it. That’s very important to understand, do it in your own way. It’s a way of expressing yourself. You don’t want to express like Eric Clapton because you’re not Eric Clapton. At one point of time, I thought I should play like Eric Clapton. Worked out everything, Clapton uses only his three fingers; he doesn’t use his little finger!

WTS: Any message do you have for our team?

Srinivas: You know I think I don’t need to give any advice to you guys because you’re already doing what I would have advised you. I have been trying to tell people – come and cover musicians like me. I call myself a bread and butter musician, we’re the ordinary musicians – see I’m playing 245 shows in a year already and I’ll end this year with 260 shows you know. Raghu Dixit doesn’t do so many shows, but his name is all over the place! But I cannot deny that he has become a commercial success, I’m not a commercial success but it doesn’t make me feel bad. I’m very happy with all that I have. I have become very spiritual over these 5-6 years. There is a higher power above, which has given me something, maybe it has come at a late stage in life but it has come – I’m happy. There’s a band called The Unknowns, you must go and talk to Mr. Sridhar, he is one of the most fantastic guitarists in India. I had a band called Feedback and then the first thing you’d get when you switched everything on was horrible feedback! (laughs) That’s how the show would start you know! So I told him “Why did you call your band The Unknowns? You are still unknown”. It’s good to go and see these musicians who are making a livelihood out of this. There are session musicians – drummers, singers who play with whoever calls them. They are making some kind of a livelihood.

Photo Credits: Uday Shanker

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Priyanka Shetty

Priyanka Shetty is the founder of What's The Scene? Follow Priyanka on Twitter @priyanka_shetty