Between the Sword and the Pen, lies the Guitar
Nostalgia’s gripped people like never before – you read it in the papers, see it on TV, hear it in conversations and relive it in your reminiscences. American guitar-manufacturer, Fender, released a re-issue of their legendary Stratocaster electric guitar of the 70’s with the punch-line, “Accept it, you are nostalgic about the 70’s!” What date-stamp better than the music-genre of the period in question? When you listen to a song of days gone by, doesn’t it remind you of a particular incident of that time? Sometimes, it’s the other way round too – speak of the 60’s and you think of The Beatles but for most locals of Daman (a former Portuguese colony) over the age of 50, it’s about the Liberation.
It was morning, December 18 1961, but I thought it was night. All the windows of the house where my parents, as also the wounded Portuguese governor, Brig. Costa Pinto, had sought refuge from the bombers flying overhead, were shuttered and the electricity being cut off, candles provided the only light. During each of those bombing raids in the two-day siege, my parents shielded me with their bodies as they stood between a wardrobe and the inner wall of the house, as if clinging to their only possession while all the little boy in me could think of was a chance to have a peek at the fighter planes!
We soon got our freedom from the 400-year Portuguese rule and Damão became Daman (though Goa did not become Gowa and Diu did not become Div). People began to adopt the new system, adapt to mainland Indian culture and etiquette, and adjust with the new currency as they attempted to build a new life from what could be salvaged. But while the sound of guns continued to echo in our ears in the aftermath, I suddenly realized that there was a silence that was much louder than this din and which I thought only I could hear – it was the absence of music. That’s when I joined the elders in the search for lost possessions. I cannot forget that glorious moment when I finally found my treasure trove in the attic of my grandparents’ house – a hand-wound HMV gramophone with a huge stack of 78 rpm shellac records.
I would play the gramophone the first thing when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed. I used up box after box of styluses and dabbed the records with cotton buds dipped in kerosene oil to remove the grime that got into the grooves. One day, I did not go to school, staying home listening to records all day, trying to figure out the parts of the songs and identifying the instruments. And my parents as well as my class teacher, approved of it! That was my first taste of freedom.
It was only when I turned 15 that I found my music teacher – an old man who had been a church violinist before he took up to the bottle. He agreed to teach me European music theory. The sessions lasted the entire monsoon, ‘classes’ being held in the shelter of his umbrella under pouring rain as he supervised the transplantation of the rice crop in ankle-deep water. Notebook in hand, I soaked in the music. No, we did not have printed music sheets so he wrote melodies in ink in my notebook and made sure I got to sing pieces I had never heard or set eyes on before. When I could sing a difficult genre called ‘Motet’, he sent me off on my own with the advice to buy an instrument, preferably a violin, if I could afford one. It was here that my mother, who used to sing harmony in the church choir as a girl, stepped in and suggested that I take up the acoustic guitar. She said girls in her time loved guitar-playing ‘guys’ more than football-playing ‘boys’! That was when I got my first guitar, back then in the 70’s and I went on to acquire a line-up of 15 guitars along my road to freedom.
I have also done my share of songwriting – lyrics came first and then the melody, the guitar being my primary instrument for writing though I often use arranger keyboards for my OMB performances. I started writing songs in the late 80’s when I learnt that Stevie Wonder was blind and that the Beatles could not read music notation and that it was perfectly okay to write by ear. After all, music per se is written for the ears and notation, tabs, etc. are but means to an end. Music is a means of experiencing as well as expressing freedom and, the guitar is a celebration of this freedom.
Click here for part-2 (December, 2011)
Copyright © 2005 Noël Gama
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