My first musical instrument
When I was about four years old Father bought me a mouth organ. I guess it was the smallest, simplest musical instrument he could think of for a child. When he returned from the Fábrica (which is how we referred to his cold drink factory) that evening, he couldn’t find me. Mother told him I’d been sitting under the bed and crying for the last half hour, and that she couldn’t quite understand why. He found me there, the mouth organ in my lap.
“What’s wrong, son?” he asked.
“I can’t play this song!” I sobbed.
“Which one?” he asked, surprised.
I played the introduction to The Blue Tango, hit the wrong fourth note again, and sobbed louder in angry frustration.
Father understood immediately. His eyes shining with excitement, he told me to get dressed and get into the car. He drove me to Pedro Fernandes, who owned the one and only music shop that catered to the whole of musical Panjim and perhaps to the whole of north Goa, and asked for a professional chromatic Hohner mouth organ with a side button for sharps and flats. It came in a lovely box with red velvet lining inside.
Back home, Father explained how one attained the “hidden notes” by pressing the all-important button, and I was overjoyed at finally being able to play the tune.
“What made you choose The Blue Tango as your first piece on the mouth organ?” he asked.
I didn’t know. I just loved the melody. I love it still.
A few days into playing the mouth organ, I wanted to do something I’d seen someone do at a party: play it with one hand, while keeping rhythm with a maraca with the other. The maracas available were too big and heavy for me. Father improvised and found me a little metallic can; it was flat and circular, and he half-filled it with smooth green seeds of some sort. It made a great maraca-like sound, and I was in business.
I played for Mother and Father, who would be made to sit in the living room; I’d part the door curtains and come in as though I were stepping on to a stage; Mother and Father were prompted to clap, after which I would take a bow and sing and play. After that Mother and Father would clap again, I would take a final bow, part the curtains and walk out of the room/offstage.
I then played and sang at every family get-together and birthday party when asked to play, and I was always itching to be asked.
Music at home and in Goa
Father had bought a German Nordmende radiogram from the one and only Panjim dealer called Senhor Mungró. A radiogram was a handsome piece of highly polished teak or rosewood cabinet in which were housed, or almost concealed, several music-reproducing pieces of equipment.
The one Father bought comprised a valve radio in the centre, driven by a powerful high-quality amplifier. Beneath this was a superb set of loudspeakers camouflaged behind a rich woven cloth fixed behind an intricate wooden grill.
There were two loudspeakers on its sides too. On top there were two horizontal doors which opened upwards: one to reveal a four-speed Dual record changer, on which one could stack up to twelve records of all sizes, and the second door revealed a Telefunken spool tape recorder. In the front, on the left and right sides of the meuble, two handsome rounded doors opened to reveal compartments with vertical slots where one stored records.
The radiogram started off Father’s record collection. It was an eclectic mix of big brass dance bands, western classical symphonies, Brazilian baiãos, forró, bossa novas and sambas, South American solo singers and harmony groups such as Trio los Panchos and Trio los Paraguayos, popular Italian singers such as Renato Carosone and Caterina Valente, English and American singers whose names I don’t recall but whose songs I can still hear in my mind, a beautiful orchestral instrumental called Anastasia which always made me feel sad, happy Portuguese folk songs, plaintive Portuguese fados of which Amália Rodrigues was the all-time reigning queen, and of course the few and rare 78 RPM records which had been then made of lovely Goan Konkani mandos and popular songs.
Father loved Konkani songs, and I particularly remember one, Shivole, Sonar Khetti, Father’s favourite, as it was about Siolim, his beloved village; I was to re-record my version of it in 2021, as a tribute to Father and to its composer, Cruz Noronha. After the Goan mando and other folk songs, the fado came a close second in his personal chart list.
The first monsoon night that year, there was a particularly spectacular thunder and lightning storm. I was scared. Father decided to teach me how to appreciate the power of nature and not be frightened of it. He turned off all the lights, put on a classical symphony at a very loud volume, and sat me on his lap in the darkened veranda.
We felt the powerful spray of the rain on our faces; the whole black street lit up with bright silvery flashes of lightning every few minutes, revealing familiar trees bent in two by the wind, the flashes punctuated by deep and loud rolling thunder fit to shake the house to its foundations; and providing musical background to all this was Beethoven’s Fifth, since electricity hadn’t failed yet due to a fallen tree or branch. Father kept whispering softly and soothingly into my ear, trying to explain to a five- year-old the beauty and power of this scene.
Today I love sitting out on my veranda on stormy monsoon nights, enjoying the surround sound of some of the most vibrant energy in nature, smelling the wet Goan earth, and sipping a glass of something straight from the heart of the Goan soil. But that night I burst out crying. Upon Mother’s protests, Father gave up his very specialised lesson on music and nature appreciation, took me indoors and turned off the music. But the experience has stayed with me forever.
Every little party or gathering in Goa had music in those days. Not music playing out of a record player, but music played by the revellers themselves. Violins and mandolins would be brought out once the mood was right, the piano lid opened, and people coughed and tuned their voices which, smoothened by a few choice golden lubricants, rose in glorious song.
Instruments exchanged hands, different people would be coaxed to sing “their” songs, and by the third one, people got up to dance. The music, singing, dancing and drinking went on until the buffet was declared open – which was invariably delayed as much as possible, lest the guests think the host was being mean and miserly by bringing the festivities to a halt.
And then everyone, now hungry but still not willing to stop singing and dancing, marched in time to a popular marching tune, the couples arm-in-arm, right into the dining room and around and around the dining table, the guitarists and violinists and mandolin players following with their instruments. The piano player was invariably left playing alone in the hall.
Once the music ended and everyone gathered around the table, the most eloquent speaker of the gathering was asked to raise the indispensable extempore brinde or toast. In my parents’ circle, this task usually fell to Senhor Vasco Alvares, the large, portly, jolly but irreverent man who was one of the stalwarts of Panjim society, and a good friend and party buddy of Father’s.
His toasts were always a pleasure to listen to; they had just the right mixture of pathos, emotion, familial values, and most importantly, naughty humour which had everyone from us kids (whenever we understood it) to the oldest grandparents present in uncontrollable splits of laughter.
And then, before attacking the mandatory succulent piglet and turkey and giant kingfish and lobsters and fried rice, Parabens a voçê or Happy Birthday was sung in harmony by one and all, their enthusiasm heightened by their gratitude to the gracious host for this great feast, he in turn thanking the gathering for decades and even generations of their tried and tested warmth, love and friendship.
Once dinner was done with, the feast invariably came to an abrupt halt, a custom which anyone but a Goan would see as impolite; and everyone left soon thereafter, but not before long-drawn-out goodbyes with much hugging and kissing on both cheeks. Pleasantly tired from the singing and dancing, still humming a tune and feeling content from the great buffet, families walked in the moonlight and yellow street lights to their cars, and drove back to their homes where cool and comfortable beds awaited them.
Moonlight was a very important part of evenings and nights. Even in the cities where they existed, the street lamps were so dim, one could see and feel the full power of moonlight and starlight. Much more so in villages, where there was no electricity at all.
Music played a very important role in people’s daily lives. One didn’t need to consider oneself a musician or a singer in order to know how to play an instrument or sing a song – why, everyone knew how to do these things, they were as natural as talking or writing without considering oneself an orator or an author.
Once, at such a party at Tio Renato’s house on the way to Altinho, my cousin Jorge, who was then at least thirteen or fourteen years of age, got me drunk on champagne. I must have been all of six or seven. When he saw I was beginning to pass out, he panicked at the prospect of being found out by his parents and mine. He stealthily carried me down the stairs to our car, which was parked on the main road together with all the others, put me to sleep in the back seat, and left me there to sleep it off.
His “good deed of the day” was discovered a while later when Mother started looking for me. I believe he got more of a headache from his father’s slap the next morning than I did from my very first hangover – which, coming from French champagne, probably shows that I started off in style.
Excerpted with permission from Remo: The Autobiography of Remo Fernandes, HarperCollins India.