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India's First Jazz Giants: Behind the Scenes of Hindi Film Music

<The Piano Man Jazz Club’s evening act and iconic trumpet chandelier entertain a packed house. Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi. 2016. Source:>

Delhi's Piano Man Jazz Club radically changed the game for New Delhi's music scene. With performances every night and a diverse set of afternoon programming, as well, TPMJC has re-energized not only the jazz scene but the city’s entire independent music community. Nowhere else can you find a venue dedicated to fostering an appreciation for the music as well as the performers; and the club continues to expand its scope to all performing arts including dance and theatre.

With everything that TPMJC does to foster Delhi’s musicians today, the venue excites partly for the way it puts Delhi on the map as a site of great talent and innovation. What it also does that might be less obvious, however, is pick up the mantle of India’s own legacy of a booming jazz scene starting in the 1940s and extending into the 1960s. That significant time of transition from the British Raj to an independent nation affected the arts greatly. The fall of the Raj meant the disappearance of patrons of orchestras and jazz bands that populated the hotels of the 20's, 30's, and 40's. With this sudden lack of work, Indian jazz musicians flocked to Mumbai to get what work they could in the booming film industry. What resulted would define the sound of a new nation.

Many people know that jazz was first popularized within India through Hindi films. However, thanks to the commitment of researchers and authors such as Naresh Fernandes, author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot, about the beginnings of jazz in Bombay, we are now able to access insights into the personal histories of the musicians responsible for the breakout of jazz in the 1940s and 50s.

The hit Gore Gore Banke Chhore from Hindi film Samadhi (1950) is known to most as another popular composition of C Ramachandran, the prolific melodic lyricist, singer, actor, and producer for Hindi and Marathi cinema in the 50s. Lesser known, however, is that the arrangement, featuring swing rhythms and instrumentation (listen to that accordion, clarinet, percussion), was done by a man who went by the name of Chic Chocolate.

Chic was a Goan-born trumpeter endearingly referred to as the 'Louis Armstrong of India.' He arranged many of the film hits of Ramachandran such as Gore Gore Banke Chhore (above) and Shola jo Bhadke and he was one of the first jazz musicians who was responsible for creating what would come to be a national sound.

<Chic Chocolate - the ‘Louise Armstrong of India’ - performed regularly with his group Chic Chocolate and the Music Makers at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. Source:>

Many of those responsible for revolutionising Hindi film music were born and educated in Goa. Goa functioned as a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years from 1510-1961. Originally, Portuguese colonisers saw to it that their Christian Jesuit rule dominated the landscape. The Goan Inquisition, which allowed the church to punish converted Christians suspected of maintaining practices from their Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish roots, lasted nearly 250 years (1560-1812) more than half of their entire rule. The Portuguese, however, also brought educational institutions including Asia's first medical college, as well as church seminaries where many of the early Goan jazz musicians received Western musical training.

<St Thomas church (1596) and its bandstand. Aldona village, Northern Goa. Birthplace of Antonio Xavier Vaz aka Chic Chocolate. Source: Wikipedia>

Goan musicians’ exposure to the jazz performers of Europe, Australia, and America banking on the shores of Goa in the early 1900′s, combined with their cultural music the Portuguese fado heard in their homes, and the western music training they received from church schools, all synthesized an acoustic sensibility that was soon to become the young nation’s sound. Even as the newly-independent Indian government pushed for exclusive promotion of what they saw as traditional Indian arts in order to create a unified Indian national identity after so many years of colonial subjugation and fragmentation, these artists independently contributed to a national sound born from India’s multi-cultural history.

When India gained independence, many of the European elite patrons of the music clubs in cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata returned to their home countries. Furthermore, Partition saw the destabilization of the Bengali film industry forcing Kolkata musicians to try their luck in Mumbai’s market. Once these main platforms and institutions for working musicians disintegrated, the Hindi film industry in Mumbai became the center for musical opportunities.

<Sebastian D’Souza (left) taking notes in a session with Shankar (melodic lyricist of Shankar-Jaikishan duo), Raj Kapoor (director/producer/actor), and Shailendra (Hindi lyricist). Source: “Shankarjaikishan music” blog>

It comes as no surprise to musicians today to hear that performers flocked to the film industry for financial stability. Then as it is now, directors and producers were looking for a new, the newest, sound. Composers, usually Hindu and of Indian classical and folk musical backgrounds, worked with Hindi lyricists or Muslim Urdu-speaking lyricists and, now, mostly Goan-Christian arrangers. Bringing western classical, Portuguese, and swing music knowledge to the writing rooms radically shifted the film music industry. The history of India's Hindi film sound of this era is one of great multi-culturalism as a result of both colonial influences, post-colonial circumstances, and more conventionally Indian folk and classical traditions.

Which brings us back to Chic - as well as trumpeter Frank Fernand, violinist Anthony Gonsalves, and violinist/pianist Sebastian D'Souza, all Goan-born musicians who were responsible for transforming Hindi film music. Sebastian D'Souza arranged for the famous composer duo Shankar-Jaikishan and is responsible for introducing western conventions such as counter melody (a secondary melody part played simultaneously with the main melody) and for arranging hits such as Sun Sun Sun Sun ZalimaMera Naam Chin Chin Choo, and Aja Sanam.

Interestingly, for many of India’s early jazz musicians, working with the mainly Indian-classically trained composers in the film industry piqued their interest in studying Hindustani and Carnatic traditions more deeply. Jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation and free musical exploration became an entry into classical improvised music. D’Souza had to become familiar with the various ragas in order to arrange for the melodies the seasoned composers were singing or playing out on harmonium. These explorations would lead to the first “fusion” projects, of which I will report more on in a future post.

<Sebastian D’Souza, one of the most highly praised arrangers for early Hindi film music, was the main arranger for composer team Shankari-Jaikishan. Source: “Shankarjaikishan music” blog.>

Much of the information I’m reporting on comes from Naresh Fernandes’ research (see links above). One can get lost following the fascinating stories and recordings he has uncovered through his passionate research. Taking account of this history and experiencing the living history of TPMJC, you’re bound to find, as I have, a new appreciation for what we have right here in Delhi.

<Naresh Fernandes' book Taj Mahal Foxtrot on Bombay's golden age of jazz. Lustre Press, Roli Books, 2012.>


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