Famous in Kochi

At David Hall, Fort Cochin

On Friday I played at David Hall in Fort Cochin.

David Hall was built in 1695 by the Dutch East India Company. It became residence of the Dutch governor, Hendrick Adrian Van Rheede tot Drakestein. The ‘David’ of David Hall comes from a later occupant, a Jewish businessman called David Koder.

Today David Hall is an art gallery, one of the venues of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. The garden outside, has a cafe that makes the best wood-fired pizzas in all of Cochin, and the stage on which I played.

There were about 150 people in the audience, some standing at the back after the chairs ran out. The next day, The Hindu carried a lovely interview. But the most unexpected part of the experience was walking around Fort Kochi and finding posters of myself on every street corner!

Famous in Kochi

Olive Bistro

I played again at Olive Bistro yesterday. Olive’s at the Poona Club and one of my favourite places to eat at in town.

The first time I played here was this February. It was a lovely evening, not too hot and not too cold, the way February in Pune is meant to be. It had been rained earlier that day. I called Darayus to find out whether the show was still on. Don’t worry, he said. They had a canopy and for some reason all of last month it had been raining every Wednesday. Not during the week, but on Wednesdays, the days they had a live gig outdoors.

Veda at Olive (Feb 2014)

That event was nice, but cut short. This time was better. Varsha and Karan came for it. And Varsha, went back home and updated her blog. (It’s nice to have writer friends!) Here’s what she wrote:

My Friend the Guitarist Veda

I remember when Veda was gifted her first guitar and all of us wanted to touch it. She was kind enough to let us touch it and we played with it, rather than playing it. Before we knew it, two years had passed, and Veda was the only girl in school who could play the guitar. As a result, she was taking part in The Merchant of Venice, performed by the 9th (or was it 10th) standard students. And before long, I could go to Veda’s house just to listen to her play.

Yesterday was magical.

Veda at Olive May 2014I went to Olive Bistro for the first time, just to listen to Veda play.

I had a fantastic evening. The guitar, melodious and gentle, in a place that is truly charming, transported me to a world where I was at peace. Sure, I had heard most of the pieces before. But it was something else to listen to live music in the open air on a beautiful night. The rain had left the evening deliciously cool, and Veda set the mood perfectly, softly and sweetly – yet enthusiastically. Ignore the music if you want, listen in if you want. Either way, it makes your evening.

Playing Guitar for Lou Majaw

After the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival, I travelled to Guwahati and Shillong with Anjali (and my Yamaha CG).
Cafe Shillong has a gig every Sunday. So, around Christmas, I played an improptu set.

When I got back, I wrote about it. Hindustan Times carried my piece on the weekend.

Playing Guitar for Lou Majaw

Lou Majaw was the first person we saw in Shillong.
We had just arrived, paid the taxi, checked in and were walking up and down Laitumkhrah looking for Cafe Shillong. We wanted lunch.

All of a sudden, he stepped out from what looked like a department store to cross the road. Long white hair, multi coloured cowboy boots, blue jeans – I knew it was him. He wasn’t facing our direction. We didn’t get a side profile. But I was sure.

“Look, that’s Lou Majaw,” I said to Anjali, perhaps louder than I had imagined.

“I think he’s noticed you,” she said. And he had, almost pausing as he crossed to acknowledge us. But I didn’t go up to him to introduce myself: Veda, from Pune, present every time you play in my city. I didn’t tell him that I was a classical guitarist, looking for other guitarists and that I wanted to interview him. I just watched him crossing the road, get into a taxi and leave.

The first time I heard Lou Majaw perform I knew it was a big deal because my friends from Tezpur and Gangtok told me so. A cult musician in the hills of North East India, Lou Majaw is most famous for the annual Bob Dylan festival he started in 1972. This concert in Pune, like most others, was also a Dylan tribute show. I reached late. The set was almost over, evident from the fact that Lou, in his short denim shorts, was now shirtless, rocking ‘Forever Young’. I didn’t get the hype. All I took away from that show in 2009 was the fact that I could now say with confidence to other friends from the North East that I had seen him live in concert.

The next time was different. I got there in time to stand up front, right by the stage. So close that with a small push, I could have touched his bright, striped socks. He began to play. “But isn’t Bob Dylan about acoustic music?” a 19-year-old next to me said to his 19-year-old friends. Somewhat disappointedly, they agreed.

A concert with Lou Majaw is almost always the same. The same set list, the same breaks in songs for the audience to sing along to, the same moment at which the shirt goes off. The truth is I have heard better musicians. But for me, that’s not the point. Lou Majaw has a passion that, if you let it, blasts through the standard cover band line up and a ‘greatest hits’ song selection. He was meant to perform. If you give yourself up to his performance, focus only on the stage, you may, for a moment or two, appreciate what it is to really love music. You may see a man who truly has a vocation. And begin to understand what it is to be a rock star.

It was Saturday at Cafe Shillong. There would be live music at 6pm tomorrow, Mercy told us. Mercy gave us free WiFi and took our orders for coffee. I wanted to give her a hug and ask her to take charge of my life. She would make sure I got things done.

“May I play on Sunday as well?” I asked. I was travelling from the Calcutta Classical Guitar Festival, my guitar, the nylon-stringed Yamaha I first learned to finger pick on, was in the guesthouse.

“You play the guitar?” she asked. “So nice. Why don’t you play something now? Entertain the customers?”

In a corner, near the Christmas tree, there was an acoustic guitar on a stand, an upright bongo, an amplifier and a mixer. The signed Les Paul on the wall had a mention in the Lonely Planet.

“Tomorrow,” I said, “I’ll play at 5.” We left in search of momos and rum.

After a few drinks, the realisation that I might never again see Lou Majaw in Shillong began to hit.

The next day I found out what it is to bask in the sun on a cold winter’s day in Shillong. Everything moved a little slower. The feeling of being thoughtful without having any thoughts, said Anjali after butter-soaked omelette and butter-soaked toast. I agreed. That sensation of being slightly stoned continued as long as the sun was out.

It wasn’t just the slow meditative mood or the clear sunlight. I had been feeling warm inside since early that morning when I had taken out my guitar and found that it sounded good without my having to try. The weather, the shape of my nails, I didn’t know what it was exactly, just that it had happened before, but not very often. A confluence of organic reasons, that remained mysterious, had happened to bring about perfect tone.

Then, I discovered Lou Majaw’s number on my phone. At first I thought perhaps I had interviewed him for the Pune Mirror. I later remembered a colleague asking him for it after his last show at High Spirits. I must have saved it when she did.

I dialled and was told it was out of service area.

We went back to Cafe Shillong for coffee. I walked around hoping to bump into him crossing the road again, stalking the jadoh stall he’s known to visit.

In the afternoon we left my guitar with Mercy, in the corner of Cafe Shillong.

“Tell me, does Lou Majaw live near? I saw him yesterday.” I asked her.

“Lou Majaw? He was here yesterday evening.” I cursed the momos and rum we had left in search of.

“We have live music today, he’ll come at 6,” she said.

“It’s starting at 5,” I reminded her. “I’m playing then. Tell him to come early?”

At 4.45 I was back. My guitar was in the same corner I had left it. And right by my guitar was Lou Majaw.

Mercy introduced us.

“How long have you been here?”
“We got in yesterday afternoon.”
“So you’ve already seen it all. Shillong’s a one-horse town.”
Mercy said I played the guitar.
“That’s my classical guitar,” I said.
“You left it there?” I got told off for leaving it like that. Someone could have kicked it and it could have got broken.
“Well, Mercy and I have an understanding,” I said. (It was kind of true. What she had said was, “If you don’t come back to collect the guitar, it’s mine.”)
“The world is full of idiots,” he said.
“Actually I was hoping to play something this evening,” I said and then added, “If I may?”
We walked to the mike that had been set up for the evening’s performance.
“Where’s your footstool?” Lou wanted to know.
Not wanting to lug it around, and sure of being able to borrow someone else’s at the festival, I hadn’t carried it.
“You should have brought it. It’s such a small thing to carry with you,” he said. He was right, of course.

I dragged a short stool to near the mic stand and sat down. Lou Majaw adjusted the microphone and then the mixer over a sound check doodle. The café was still nearly empty: there were just two men at another table.

I began with the Spanish Romance, a simple piece that allowed me to take notice of things like the stool I’m sitting on, the kind of people in the audience, and most importantly, to warm up. That Sunday evening was cold. My hands would never get warm enough.

The piece got over. Lou Majaw clapped. I played a few more: some preludes, two-minute sweets by Tarrega, Capricho Arabe, a couple of movements from La Cathedral. He paid close attention, clapping for each.

About five minutes in, Lou got up and came to the microphone. He introduced me to the others in the café, the one table with two men, and Anjali who was sitting outside in a meeting of her own. I tried hard to remember exactly what Lou said after he introduced me but those words evaporated almost immediately after he said them. What Lou Majaw stipulated was silence. He asked for less rattling from the kitchen, for quieter conversations and more attention to the guitarist who had come all the way from Pune.

I chose my next piece. BWV1007, Bach’s prelude from the first Cello Suite. “Whoa, that was intense,” he said. A couple of minutes later, the only other people in the café, the two men, got up and took their coffee outside. I continued playing. My first ever live show for an audience of one, made up of Lou Majaw.

Veda Aggarwal plays for Lou Majaw in Cafe Shillong

Mozart on the beach

When Samantha Chardin realized there are no outdoor opera music videos, she decided that the world needed one.

It all began when her friend approached her for a project. “I’d written and directed a play for us two years ago. I chose Don Giovanni because it’s one of the top ten most performed operas in the world and would be recognizable even to a non-opera crowd. She convinced me to sing an aria of my own and we thought we’d film my video if there was time,” Sam told me. The arias she chose to sing were of Donna Anna, the female lead Mozart set against Don Giovanni.

At the time Sam first got in touch, she had just had a baby. She was in New Zealand then and Paula had introduced us on email. Sam and her family have since moved away. They travelled in the month of August and now they’ve relocated to Edmonton, Canada.

Or sai, chi l’onore
is the moment Donna Anna recognizes Don Giovanni. He is the masked man who attacked her, raped her and killed her father. In the original Mozart, she cries out to her fiancé, begging him to seek vengeance. Sam plays it a little differently. This is just Donna Anna, no fiancé, calling out with fury, looking for more than justice, vowing to avenge her father’s death.

Here’s more about how the project began.

Don Giovanni in Aotearoa

A few months ago I got a mail from Sam saying she’s doing an opera music video and asked whether I’d be interested in playing guitar for it. The mail came with three attachments of an aria from Don Giovanni (Non Mi Dir) – one track with orchestral backing, one track with just vocal parts, and the orchestral score. “Don’t let the fact that it’s Mozart scare you off as it has some others I’ve approached!” she wrote.

Samantha Chardin is an opera singer. She was in New Zealand and friends with my friend Paula who gave her my email address. This project was something Sam and her friends were doing on an absolute shoe-string budget and I had complete musical freedom.

I hadn’t practiced for about a year and knew it was going to take me a while to get through the sheet music. I opened the score and found it was in F Major. Now, that’s not a big deal for most instruments. For an out-of-practice guitarist, it’s a bit like going to the gym for the first time in months and doing a 100 squats.

So I tuned the guitar up half a step, and started frantically looking for someone or a program or anything that would help me transcribe the score to my new tuning, rather than actually trying out the piece. The day of the deadline I gave up and just started recording.

I record at night. That’s when it’s most quiet outside. I switch off the fan, shut the doors and windows of my room and record. This track took about 7 hours and 4 litres of water – it was the middle of March. I turned off the mic when birds started waking up, rendered the mp3, emailed it and went to sleep.

Sam and her team shot the video in May. They filmed outdoors on the beach along New Zealand’s west coast, a setting unheard of for opera. Here’s the link to Don Giovanni in Aotearoa (Mozart in New Zealand): http://videos.samchardin.com/

And here’s how Non Mi Dir turned out: