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 ‘agulhas‘ (styluses) and cleaned the records with kerosene oil. One day I did not go to school, listening to records the whole day, trying to figure out 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 an old man, a former church violinist, who agreed to teach me music theory in the afternoons while he supervised the transplantation of the rice crop. Ankle-deep in water, in the shelter of his umbrella under the pouring rain, with notebook and pen in hand, I learned to read music notation. No, we did not have printed music sheets so he wrote melodies in ink in my notebook and made me sing pieces I had never heard before. When I could sing a difficult genre called ‘Motet’ in a matter of a few months, he sent me off on my own with the advice to buy an instrument, preferably a violin, if I could afford one.
It was at about this time that my mother, who used to sing harmony in the church choir as a girl, stepped in and suggested that I take up the guitar because girls in her time loved guitar-playing boys! To my good luck, a professional guitarist from Amsterdam came to India to learn to play the sitar and visited my hometown for a few weeks. He gave me seven guitar lessons that made the difference. That was my first guitar, back then in the 70s and I’ve had a line-up of 15 guitars along my road to freedom.
I have also done my share of song writing – I write the lyrics first and then the melody, using the acoustic guitar as my primary instrument though I use high-end arranger keyboards for my live shows. I started writing songs in the late 80s only when I learnt that Stevie Wonder was blind and that the Beatles did not know to read/write music notation when they started out.
I believe that music per se is written for the ears and notation, tabs, etc. are but means to an end.
I also believe that music is a means of experiencing as well as expressing freedom.
And most of all, I believe that the guitar is a celebration of this freedom because you are free to ‘do-your-own-thing, any-which-way’!