More Ego Strokes, Calcutta, Goa-The Hawaii of India, and Why, Perhaps, The Poor Seem to Remain Happier Than We (Dallas Smith’s Last Entry on His India Trip)

February 1, 2008

Bombay airport enroute to GoaI had to awaken at 4:30 this morning in order to take the rather long drive to the Calcutta airport for a 6:50 flight. Manish booked my flights with a three hour layover in Bombay, in case my flight was delayed. Sure enough, the flight departed an hour late out of Calcutta. I still had all the time necessary. I was changing airlines and terminals for the flight to Goa…there was no interlinking of the different Indian domestic airlines…just like Southwest Airlines. So I had to go through security again, etc., but now I have a short wait before boarding. The computer shows free wireless, but for some reason, I’m unable to join the network.

Final Mynta concert

Yesterday’s final concert of the tour was a good send-off. We were the second band at the opening concert of a three day annual jazz festival. The opening band was an interesting Canadian group from Montreal. They were led by a lady playing bansuri (Indian bamboo flute) accompanied by guitar, bass, drums, and tabla. It was quite a similar lineup to Mynta’s, as well as the music being similarly influenced by Indian classical music. Indeed, the lady is a student of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, India’s most famous flutist. She was a great bamboo flutist. Unfortunately, her musical set just did not turn on the crowd. The response was lukewarm.

In contrast, Mynta was very well received. After taking our final bows, we were called back with screams for an encore. It’s really a great ego stroke when young people are lined up after the concert to get autographs. (Though if I were a regular “big star”, it would soon get tiring.) Christian and I recorded two television interviews. One print interviewer had met us last year. I had gifted Susan’s and my New Times Good Times CD to the festival president (more about him in a minute). He gave it to the soundman to play as people were coming in and exiting after the concert. So Susan was almost in India…at least she was there musically.

I had met the president of the festival during Mynta’s Calcutta visit last year. He has a thriving IT business and organizes the jazz festival just for the love of it. Indeed, all the organizers were simply jazz lovers who volunteer their time to organize the festival. The concert was outdoors with free admission and was attended by perhaps a thousand people. The long shot coincident is that the jazz society president, nicknamed Tubby, realized after our having met last year, that he had bought Susan’s and my Summit CD (now retitled Magic Garden) in Singapore ten or more years ago. He still remembered it musically. He correctly recognized one of my tunes in last night’s concert, Flight 343, as being on Summit. [Summit was released on the ProJazz label, a disgusting company from which we never were paid any royalties beyond the advance, nor were we aware that they were marketing our albums in Asia.] Anyway, it was a good conversation topic between Tubby and me. Tubby plays the Yamaha wind synthesizer (different from my Akai EWI). So he is a real longtime fan in far-off Calcutta.

I had been told by two Indian musician friends that Calcutta audiences are the best appreciators of music. It was borne out in my experience of the warm reception we were given, being wined and dined before soundcheck and after the performance. It was explained to me that Calcutta in the old days was not only the British capital for India but for all the British colonies in Asia (Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong, etc.) During WWII, many American naval ships docked there. The visiting Americans brought their American big band and traditional jazz with them. In fact, I was told that Duke Ellington had entertained the troops in Calcutta. Therefore, the people have a well-honed taste for jazz. Thus, we hope to be able to repeat our performance next year.

It’s a crazy world on this relatively affluent entertainment circuit that we’ve plugged into here. Manish was already offered a booking for Mynta at the end of February with a $20k budget, enough for all our plane tickets and expenses. But it’s too short notice…we wouldn’t come back just for one gig…we wish these concert presentors would go ahead and book us for next year, as the anchor date that assures our expenses were paid. Now my understanding is that our Bangalore bank gig paid us the similar $20k, but Shankar received half of it. I learned that he actually can command $30k personally for big concerts. This is why he can’t afford to be a member of Mynta anymore. Nonetheless, he told Christian that he will sing with us whenever he can, when he’s not touring with Shakti, recording in the Hindi film studios, or pursuing his own illustrious solo career. That means that we’ll be lucky if he can ever fit us in. But that’s okay…congratulations to him for his success. Christian met him when he was only 19 (around 20 years ago), and he performed with Mynta for small audiences in the most remote villages of northern Sweden.

Thoughts at large about Calcutta

1. Though there are new highrises going up outside of town, downtown Calcutta still has that “old India” feel. For example, Calcutta still has the human-powered rickshaws…just skinny guys running in the street pulling two wheeled sedan chairs.

2. I did not see as many people sleeping on the streets as in Bombay, though I was assured that there are plenty. I didn’t see the large slums either, but perhaps I simply did not see that part of town.

3. The center of Calcutta still has many old buildings built by the British. There’s a large memorial to Queen Victoria, modeled after the Taj Mahal. There is also a large Indian military base, occupying the former British grounds. There are old tanks in the park, remnants of the war with Pakistan that resulted in the establishment of Bangla Desh.

4. There is a main road, call the Red Road, that during British times was off-limits to Indians. In other words, the best, newest, broadest, straightest road was for use by the British only. The only place that I know of this phenomenon now is in Israel, where certain roads to Israeli settlements surrounded by Palestinians are off-limits to the Palestinians. One can only imagine this being a constant source of enmity and resentment, which is why I think Israel will have to eventually back down from its expansion into what are ostensibly Palestinian lands. Otherwise, there will never be any hope of peace for Israel…just a continuing war of attrition.

5. There has been an occurrence of bird flu (virulent avian virus) in the rural area close to Calcutta. Whole flocks are being preventatively destroyed in the areas surrounding the outbreak. We had been warned prior to traveling to Calcutta that we shouldn’t eat any chicken. The amazing thing is that all of Calcutta seemed to have heeded that warning. There was no chicken curry, or tandouri, or cutlets of any kind for sale in Calcutta. In its place, there was a preponderance of beef curry as well as steaks being offered to us Westerners. When I questioned the Hindu prohibition against eating beef (sacred cows and all that), I received an unexpected answer. I was told that there was no stated prohibition against eating beef, but rather, it was a custom borne of the central role that cows play in rural lives. They are a source of milk and fuel (from the burning of dried dung). And so, I was told it is similar to the fact that Americans wouldn’t want to eat dog meat. Dogs are our pets. Cows are theirs. I was also told that there is some episode in the Vedic scriptures which addresses the necessity of eating beef to preserve human life, only that it should be done in a humane way. And so, I can only assume that the Calcutta beef curries, kabobs, and steaks are Hindu “kosher”.

6. Something I like about India in general, is that it’s possible to find an Islamic mosque next to a Hindu temple next to a Christian church. For the most part, all the varying sects live harmoniously together. There have been notable exceptions to this communal harmony, such as anti-Sikh violence when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by one of her Sikh bodyguards. The most recent episode was when a conflict over a temple ground historically used by both Moslems and Hindus led first, to the killing of Hindu pilgrims in a burned train. This was followed by widespread massacres of Moslems by Hindus, though this violence was limited to one particular area, not all over India. There are still articles in the paper about the payment of reparations by the government to those Moslems whose homes and businesses were senselessly burned. As usual, it is the religious fundamentalists who stir up the enmity and hatred. In this crowded country, the average person, no matter what his religion, is simply trying to “live and let live”.

February 2, 2008

My visit in Goa

Goa is the formerly Portugese enclave on the West coast of India. It received its independence from Portugal in 1961, joining India proper, which had been independent from the British since 1948. It is the only state with a majority Christian population, though there are Hindus and Moslems as well. There are many Christian shrines, churches, and schools to be seen. It is a longtime vacation destination for Western travelers, and so could be termed the “Hawaii of India” (my designation).

I am visiting my old friend, Remo Fernandes, whom I first met in 1982-83. Remo is a very successful singer, having achieved his fame by writing his own songs as well as singing pop song for the movies. He is an excellent composer, guitarist, singer, and producer. Remo had prepared some backing tracks for me, and so I spent several hours with him in his studio, overdubbing on his pre-produced tracks. We also had great conversations, catching up on the last 25 years. I had run into him very briefly on Mynta’s India tour one year ago. Originally, Mynta had been scheduled to perform in Goa on this tour. But when that concert fell through, I decided that I would extend my stay by a couple of days and visit Remo.

I had only one full day in Goa. The morning was spent in his recording studio. The afternoon was spent in the main city of Panjim, attending the big Carnival/Mardi Gras parade. The Carnival celebration is a legacy of the Portugese heritage. The parade consisted of many elaborate floats, dancers, and costumed characters. (However, there was no bare breast-flashing, as has become the tradition in New Orleans.) It was nevertheless a real spectacle. There were also quite a few Westerners in attendance, more than I’d seen elsewhere in India. Remo ran into a friend of his who was able to give us access to a second floor vantage point in a building on the parade route. From there I was able to video much of the parade, which lasted over two hours. The traffic was horrendous before and after the celebration.

Final words

Tomorrow, I will have a leisurely morning with Remo. Then, I’ll take the hour-long taxi drive to the airport and fly back to Delhi. I’ll spend tomorrow evening with my friend, Kirit, and then day after tomorrow in the early morning, I fly back to the states, via Munich.

This has been a very quick tour, barely two weeks. There was never any real “down time.” So it was a work trip, not a vacation. At the same time, it was a great time to renew old friendships and to perform in concert, being treated “as the stars we always knew we were.” My thanks goes to Christian Paulin, Mynta’s band leader, “Papa”, who herded the “cats” of Mynta to make the tour happen. It also would not have happened without the efforts of our Indian manager, Manish Savant, who didn’t get rich off our tour either. But he is investing his time and energy as a true fan of our music and as a personal friend of ours. We are lucky to work with him.

Some other things that make a tour like this so much fun: I love the food. (And I’ve managed to avoid any kind of upset stomach, unlike some previous trips.) The people are basically joyful and friendly. It seems that some of the poorest people living on the streets with no personal possessions have a more joyful demeanor than most Americans or Europeans. Could it be the hot weather? The spicy food? Who knows? It’s just one of the very appealing aspects of this country. It you can visit India and not be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, crowds, and chaos, then you’ll feel very enlivened just by coping with the challenges of day to day life. Every little thing that we take for granted at home, like a trip to the store, or to the airport, or to some government office, becomes a potentially complicated adventure in India. Part of the joy is just in surviving and overcoming. Maybe that’s the secret joy of the poor street people, the triumph of having just survived from one day to the next.

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