It was a momentous August evening, and India’s most iconic dance floor was heaving. The air was thick with hope, humidity and exertion, condensing on the gilded walls of the Taj Mahal Hotel ballroom. Couples wearing the latest dance fashions were driven into celebratory abandon by an all-star orchestra drawn from Mumbai’s two most popular swing bands. As India experienced its first few hours of official freedom — it was the night of Aug. 15, 1947, after all — two jazz artists from Goa were in charge of the music: Chic Chocolate and Micky Correa.
Goa is a heady myth of a place, but it’s also a state in the modern Indian Republic and a boozy three-letter word piled high with expectations, a tropical vacation capital. And though it’s something of a cliché to reference dualities in India, there is without a doubt another side to Goa: somewhat separate and somehow nimbly aloof, a singular culture informed for better or worse by nearly five centuries of Portuguese influence.
By the time jazz became popular in India’s modern cultural capital during the 1920s and ’30s, Goan bandleaders, soloists and sidemen were ubiquitous.
With the Portuguese came Catholicism, and with the church came Western classical music. In parish schools, it was mandatory for boys to learn an instrument, staff notation and modal harmony. In terms of keeping up with the latest trends, they had a definite advantage over their peers — Hindu classical and folk musicians who couldn’t read the latest charts from America or sit in with dance orchestras. Goan music and Goan musicians became incredibly influential in Indian pop culture in a way that a casual visitor to Goa might never realize.
As early as the 1860s, Goans came to the fore on the nearby Mumbai music scene. They migrated up the Konkan Coast to earn higher wages in a more affluent place, and by the time jazz became popular in India’s modern cultural capital during the 1920s and ’30s, Goan bandleaders, soloists and sidemen were ubiquitous.
To supplement their meager incomes, they made their mark on the Bollywood soundtrack as session musicians, arrangers, composers and musical directors. They changed the sound of India, incorporating Western classical and jazz into the less harmonically driven music of the Hindustani classical tradition.
Bollywood music of the so-called Golden Years played an enormous role in shaping contemporary Indian culture. “These songs became the soundtrack of Indian life,” writes Naresh Fernandes in Taj Mahal Foxtrot. “The country didn’t have a pop music industry, but it didn’t seem to need one. Tunes from the movies put a bounce in India’s step, offered advice to the lovelorn, provided solace in moments of grief and lulled it to sleep on rainy nights.”
Laxmi Gonsalves, daughter of Anthony Gonsalves, a much-loved Goan composer, music director and teacher, explains the film score collaborations between Goans and their Hindu colleagues. At a baithak, or sitting, Hindu composers would elaborate a melody and a rhythmic structure by singing and/or playing Hindustani classical instruments. Goan colleagues, utilizing their Western training, would transcribe what they had just heard and embellish it with harmony — a perfect cadence here, a major seventh there — and the piece would begin to take shape. Then Goan Christians and (mainly) Marathi Hindus, using a combination of Western and Hindustani instruments, would record it in the studio.
Anthony Gonsalves in particular seemed to be fascinated by this new, cross-cultural collaboration. In 1958, he composed music for and directed a series of concerts at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai that featured playback singers (from the film industry) and musicians from both musical traditions, well before the term “world music” came into use. Lata Mangeshkar, one of Bollywood’s most prominent voices, exemplified the collaborative spirit of the concerts. “She sang in Hindi, Konkani [Goan language] and Latin,” explains Laxmi. “She never sang in Konkani for anyone, only for my father.”
Goan musicians even made the occasional cinematic guest appearance, as Chic Chocolate did in the 1951 film Albela, dancing effortlessly in a frilly shirt and punctuating the singer’s melody with a muted trumpet. Chic Chocolate was the stage name of one of India’s most famous jazz musicians, Antonio Xavier Vaz, who was born in Goa. He grew up in a Portuguese villa shaded by breadfruit trees and learned to play music at the local school. His son Philip, a bassist on the rock cover scene, still lives there, tending his pigeons and cooking the best pork vindaloo around. According to a family legend, Chic Chocolate had a few too many while onstage at the Taj Mahal Hotel ballroom — it was Christmas Eve — and lost his grip on the trumpet. It fell to the floor with a tremendous clang. Ever the professional showman, he pretended it was deliberate, sashayed over to the piano and started to solo.
So, what’s the musical legacy in a place with such a strong tradition? There are fewer players around these days, according to Laxmi. Since the Portuguese were made to “quit Goa” in 1961, learning an instrument is no longer compulsory. Hence, the journeyman at the beach shack, singing a lousy rendition of “Hotel California” while banging away at an old Casio.
Some Goans, though, like Braz Gonsalves, have made it big on the international circuit. There’s a jazz festival in Vasco da Gama, and places like Cantare in Saligao host live jazz every Friday night. But Café Jazz on the Candolim strip is more likely to play Ronan Keating than Sonny Rollins. Philip Vaz says the dominant aesthetic has changed. Goans are playing rock instruments and rock music, just like everybody else. The good stuff is still here, it’s just different than it used to be and perhaps a little farther from the beach.
Text by Sam Harrison; photos by Alice Carfrae.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the first photo of the slideshow.
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