In the early days of pop music, instrumental bands were a huge part of the scene. Think of The Shadows, The Ventures, The Tornadoes and later Booker T and MGs.
The epoch of these slick and slippery sounds was short, no more than a decade or so. Overnight, with the explosion of the British rock bands in the early 1960s, instrumental pop music went from cutting edge to embarrassment.
In the West, at least.
But in cinemas and dance halls all across India the instrumentalists kept going strong. An unforgettable part of my childhood memories was intermission at Picture Palace in Mussoorie. As we gnawed our aam paapar and sipped Fanta or Limca, the dank movie theatres would swell with the sounds of Hawaiian guitars, funky sitars and the tumbling chords of the accordion.
I often wondered about this music. I pegged it as British, perhaps because the other songs played in the intervals were mostly Cliff Richards. Little did I know, and then not until several decades later, that these were the sounds of Indian musicians – nameless and faceless to the average listener, but well known among the musical fraternities of Bombay and Calcutta.
This week we pay tribute to the intoxicating sounds of Indian pop instrumentalists.
Aao Twist Karein
What better way to begin then with an absolute rocker. Made in 1967, this version of the Manna Dey hit from Bhoot Bangla (Haunted House), captures everything that is rock n roll. Palatable excitement. Snappy rhythms. Fabulous guitar riffs and a hook that just won’t let up. That the player of this masterpiece is none other than the son of Kazi Nazarul Islam, Bangladesh’s national poet, makes this musical nugget all the more sweet. Kazi Aniruddha produced a number of albums of pop instrumentals of Hindi cinema hits before his untimely passing in 1974.
Hailing from Lucknow and a family of musicians, Valentine Van Shipley is among that group of "behind the scene’" instrumentalists who made the films of Bombay hum and rock. Blessed with Elvis-like good looks and a facility with violin as well as guitar, Van Shipley was made for a career in Bombay. In addition to gracing hundreds of filmi hits with his extraordinary playing, he toured regularly overseas with the likes of Mohammad Rafi and Talat Mahmood. In this emotional remake of Rafi’s massive hit from Gumnaam, a jazzy vibraphone fills in and supports Shipley’s incredible keening Hawaiian guitar.
Hamen Tumse Pyaar Kitna
Classically trained as a singer, Sunil Ganguly’s guitar style exudes a unique grace and fluidity. His tone is somewhat warmer than Shipley’s while his arrangements of film songs are marked by lush and layered orchestrations. Ganguly, who was born in Tripura, seems to have been among the more prolific of the non-filmi artists. His first record was released in 1957 when he was just 17 but his career continued up until his death in 1999. This reinterpretation of Kishores’ popular 1981 song is a stellar example of how he could make his guitar "sing".
Tumsa Nahin Dekha
Sammy Reuben was another multi-instrumentalist (accordion, keyboards) who worked mostly as an independent solo artist, but who got his initial kickstart in the film industry.
Raised and educated in Pune, Rueben, like so many other youngsters, headed to Bombay with big dreams. As luck would have it, he developed a friendship with a down-and-out Geeta Dutt, serving the great lady as confidant and sometime driver. When an opportunity came for her to sing once more, in the 1971 Sanjeev Kumar film Anubhav, she made sure Sammy played the keyboards on the lyrical Mujhe jaa na kaho meri jaan. Reuben went on to issue a couple of records under his own name, a tribute to Mukesh and one to Rafi. This track is from the latter.
A stalwart of the Bombay film orchestras Jayram Acharya played sitar on countless productions. And like so many of his ilk, he was an outstanding instrumentalist, on some occasions and by some singers, preferred to even Ravi Shankar.
In 1968 he issued an adventurous album of Bossa Nova music from which this Antonio Jobim classic is extracted. In recent years we’ve come to learn how many of these musicians harboured a love/hate relationship with the film industry. They relied on it for their living but found the formulaic music uninspiring and constricting. Perhaps this step into the wild side, far away from anything remotely connected to Hindi film, is a glimpse into the creative desperation of Acharya.
Interestingly, while Odeon originally released the record in India, the album attained cult status in Latin America where the Argentinian branch of EMI released it with Spanish liner notes!
We wind up our playlist with another moody, Latin-tinged track from the late great Charanjit Singh. Probably the best known of all this week’s musicians beyond the borders of India, Singh achieved iconic status before his recent passing in electro-beat circles for his album, 10 Ragas to a Disco Beat.
The cover and title of the album from which this track is taken are revealing. Laxmikant Pyarelal Present LP Of Charanjit Singh Hindi Film Songs. The fabled music directors are pictured blessing a young talented disciple. Empowering him to go forward and make his own music. That the economics of the Indian music industry once demanded such patronage seems almost inconceivable. And all the more impressive that these and other fabulous musicians were able to break free of it to do their own thing. Even if just for a few records.