Goan Dance Bands of Yesteryear: Some Personal Reflections.
This is a spontaneous piece on hearing of the death, at ninety-four of Artie Shaw in America. Shaw was an outstanding clarinettist and big band leader. Also, a contemporary of Benny Goodman, an equally brilliant fellow American clarinettist and a big band leader too. I was able to recall tunes made famous by Shaw such as Begin the Beguine, Lady Be Good, Moonglow, and Frenesi among so many other tunes he played. These were also the tunes that generations of Goan musicians played in Goa, Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta, Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Iringa, Colombo, and on the high seas on many ocean liners. However, any composite picture of the many outstanding Goan musicians, including classical and film musicians, has yet to be produced and it is my hope that an article like this will provide some impetus to a musically inclined Goan, or other historian to generate a much needed account of this area. Indeed, earlier posts on Goanet, stemming from Tony Barros in New Jersey, indicated much interest in this theme, and hopefully, this will be boosted further.
It has often been said that music runs in Goan veins. I agree of course, but want to add that it has flowed with much sentimentality and nostalgia for 'Goaness'. Early training in Goan villages on the violin, and in hymnal singing generated and supported a distinctive Goan musicality and sociability in my view and also created a productive symbiosis between the musicians, in a group, and those enjoying what they generated. This has also been true for sport where many Goans have excelled, then and now, but perhaps more may be on record for sport, because of greater press availability, than for music, but hopefully, this anomaly will be rectified in the near future.
Every one of the places mentioned above has a narrative to tell and if only we could delve deeper into memory lane, what a lovely story we would be able to tell of so many musicians who gave and have continued to give so much pleasure to fellow Goans and others.
In the little town of Mombasa, where I was brought up, I recall Goan amateur bands from Abel Correa and his Toe Ticklers, Neves Pereira and his Pieces of Eight, Raul da Costa and his Luar Blues, Edmund Silveira and his jazz trio, and Nelson Pereira and his Gay Caballeros i.e before the word gay took on modern connotations!
Interspersed with the above bands, was my group, the Melody Dance Band (MDB) between 1957 and 1961 but we musicians did play in support of each other when necessary, and I personally played the saxophone and clarinet across three bands. Additionally, as Mombasa was a major port, we had the good fortune of having periodic visits from large ocean liners like the SS Kenya, SS Karanja and SS Kampala which variously plied between India, East and South Africa, the Meditteranean and the UK. On board these ships were outstanding Goan professional musicians who played alongside the local Goan bands from time to time when their ships docked. Further, Goan dance bands between neighbouring East African countries like Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda helped to add variety too.
Until about 1960, wind instruments like the saxophone, trumpet and clarinet dominated the dance band scene with the support of rhythm, percussion and other instruments. Subsequently, a major change came about with the electric, lead, rhythm and bass guitar and these effectively replaced the traditional lead wind instruments. Phillip Mascarenhas and his Shiftas, in Mombasa, represented this transition which was undoubtedly related to developments in the technology of amplification and the new found immense versatility of stringed instruments including the keyboard, and changing taste of course. For instance, in all my playing in Kenya, I had never once blown my saxophone, into a microphone. The explanation for this was simple--we had access to just one mike, provided by the organisers of a dance and intended primarily for the master of ceremonies (MC) to make necessary announcements. When possible, we would use the single microphone to amplify our pianist's best efforts. For the rest of the time the wind instrumentalists blew as hard as they could, and particularly exhaustingly, if a dance was held in the open air as on a tennis court bedecked with palm fronds and lighting.
Our single (rhythm) guitarist had built a most basic amplifier, with the help of an electrician, and which was housed in a plywood box shaped liked a little coffin! This would be manoevoured with utmost care to avoid any disruption to the delicate wiring and the valves (yes valves!) which were in general use in radios before the advent of transistors. What I say may sound pitiable today but one distinct advantage at that time was that every musician could actually hear what he/she was playing. I point this out if only to indicate that when I subsequently played in London with a large band which invariably carted a ton or more of sophisticated electronic equipment around in the 1970s, I could barely hear what I was playing, let alone the others in the band as the sound output had increased so exponentially. This crazy situation was only rectified when inward located speakers became available for individual musicians to hear a bit of themselves!
In Mombasa and elsewhere, with the advent of rock, disco (a little later), and new tempos and rhythms there was the demise of romantic ballads generally played at a slower pace. Mellower and melodic music of the romantic 1950s suddenly gave way but it is worth recording some of the micro dynamics of the earlier period on the dance floor. It was sometimes quite hilarious.
From the stage, the musicians invariably had the advantage of observing,minutely, the goings on in an arena of overt and subtle behaviour between the sexes. After all, at the time, the dance floor was the 'approved' venue for partners to meet each other and the rituals were clear. All the women in their best gear sat around a hall. Now of course, sitting at a dance tends to be in set groups at tables and I feel that the function of meeting more than the people one came to the dance with has been a form of closure and somewhat disadvantagous. In the past, the men generally stood around within close proximity of the bar. Basically, they were working up enough courage to get on to the floor, especially if they were new to dancing. The extent to which the younger men were initially fearful of asking for a dance now seems odd but it was a huge burden that had to be got over with for many! Procrastination at putting one's best foot forward was therefore common.
Generally, a dance or large ball would be scheduled to start at 9 p.m., but what was known as "Portuguese time" invariably prevailed. The musicians, having tuned their instruments endlessly, would face an empty hall until about 10 p.m., and the dance would only begin to pick up at about 11 p.m. But when the dance was to end at 2 a.m., nobody, but nobody, among the revellers felt that they had had enough and it was normal to go on until around 4 a.m. Indeed, many a time, a band played on until sunrise!
The space between the start and finnish at a dance was filled with sets of dances with three or four pieces. Each set stuck to a particular beat or rhythm except when there was a medley. After each dance set, the men chivalrously led a partner to their seat and offered to obtain a drink as well as to book the next dance or two.
Unlike today, when dancing has largely given way to individuals doing their own thing and one can be entirely creative in what steps one tries, unencumbered by the need to hold a partner, Goan men in the 1950s were pretty stressed out (and perhaps the women too) about following the correct dance steps from the waltz to the tango, other Latin American steps and the jive. As there were no dancing schools, all had to do some self-learning but with the help of old hands who could sometimes be disingenuous and teach some wrong steps for their own amusement. Further, a careful decision had to be made about the choice of a dance beat. In taking the slower choice, would it be a waltz or a slow foxtrot? As booking for a dance was necessary, the next step was for some negotiation with the band to play what was manageable for the novice on the floor. This was not too difficult and a round of drinks for the band was guaranteed for the promise of a particular dance set with a particular lady! Endless reassurances were therefore the norm, but things could go wrong.
I recall one that went badly wrong when a friend (subsequently, an extremely well known personality), was keen to dance with a particular lady when he could just about cope with the steps for a slow waltz only. However, just before we could start what was promised, the MC asked the band to play some swing, and specifically, Glen Miller's, In the Mood. Frantically, I signalled to my friend at the back of the hall that "it was not this one". He completely misunderstood me and signalled back his thanks for keeping my word on the waltz as promised! It thus became most painful to see the guy do the waltz when most others jived. When I later apologised profusely for a situation beyond my control he simply said. " Yes, I found that waltz a bit difficult, you know, after all the practice I had for that beat!" He hadn't quite taken in what had happened and insisted we have a round of drinks in thanks. Indeed the close ties between the musicians and those on the floor was such that, drinks, in appreciation, were plied to the musicians in such quantity that there was no alternative to pouring the surplus Tusker Lager into the giant bouganvillea tubs by the stage. I am however, prepared to swear that the plants did very well and that the flowers bloomed beautifully red.
Unspoken messages between the men and the women were often transmitted in complex ways but often through the choice of tunes (which I may not have noted here exactly), like Have I told you lately that I love you? This was an earlier version, incidentally, and not the more recent one. Other tunes in absolute demand from the band were Love Letters in the Sand, Sail along Silvery Moon, Unforgettable, Always, Eternally, There's a gold mine in the sky, Never on a Sunday, Patricia, True Love, Fascination, Harbour Lights and every latest romantic tune heard on Radio Ceylon! But there were forlorn messages too in the case of thwarted love with consequent requests for tunes like Blue Moon, and Return to Me. There was an expectation that we musicians, as friends, could play every request at a drop of a hat. This was not always possible of course, but we became quite adapt at playing by ear as sheet music was expensive and not widely and quickly available. Nor were tape-recorders available except for some very large expensive machines. Indeed, younger readers would find it difficult to believe that I encountered my first recording machine in 1956 and that it comprised a large wooden box with actual recording on a reeled silver wire! This perhaps could be seen in a museum today but this was well before the reel to reel magnetic tape and the cassette which came about even later.
Dance bands like mine played at least twice at weekends, at weddings, and the occasional Konkani concert. However, although we played Swahili tunes, and Mary Jan, the only Hindi number we knew, the call for Goan/Konkani numbers was small. Consequently, the mando, dulpod and the lancer were played rather rarely.
Kenya was residentially segregated and the three 'races' (Asian, African, European) lived quite separately but met in working situations in towns. Although there were a few African bands, Goan bands had virtually no competition from other community groups and therefore played for the Ismaili, Seychelles, and European communities. As I was politically aware quite early but lived with little or no power in a colonial situation, I had absolutely no compunctions about charging the Europeans as much as I could squeeze out of them but often played free for deserving Goan and other cases. The Indian community, as such, thought of us Goans as an odd Indian lot who loved dancing so much. They did not dance publicly then, but haven't they changed so much and perhaps even outdone the Goans through Bangra and other raucous dances now?
For me and the musicians I played with, I can really say that we just lived for the music we played and that regular work was only a means towards that end! It was immensely satisfying to provide dancing pleasure to so many, and especially, when partners were secured in the dance hall with the view to marriage. While it has often been said that half of all Americans were conceived to the strains of Frank Sinatra, I can attest that our Goan bands provided fully to the vertical expression of horizontal desire! The Goan dance band (as with sport) was thus in some senses, the cement that held the community together. It promoted much internal harmony and integration. Strangely, this has not been lost even though the Goan community from Mombasa (as elsewhere) is widely dispersed today. London today, has a sizeable population from East Africa. Many are now pensioners but significant numbers meet at least on a monthly basis at day socials organised by Goans but subsidised by the local authorities. At such dances, nobody asks for disco or the salsa. All they want is those old tunes we played fifty odd years ago, and they had so loved, especially, from many a revitalised musician of old. We have come full circle in this respect and the old Goan dance band truly lives on.
I'd like to end this long, one sitting, stream of consciousness with a plea for people to tell us about Goan bands in some of the places I named. I especially would like to know about those from the old Portuguese East Africa and also, before my time in Mombasa itself. Somehow, we could compile information received through Goanet and also include all those bands of more recent times.
And finally, a little dedication to Fred Pinto Morris, my co-saxophonist, who recently moved, in retirement, to Sangolda. In his heyday he played those Artie Shaw numbers, mentioned above, on sax and clarinet, possibly as well as, if not better, than Artie Shaw himself!