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):

And here’s how Non Mi Dir turned out:

The sneezes


I got up in the morning with a sneeze that wouldn’t go away. I blew my way through a roll of toilet paper roll and several handkerchiefs. Now I’m exhausted.

The Road to Command Hospital

In which I was cycling home and a javaan in uniform, on a bicycle, asked me for directions.

“Where is the Command Hospital?”
“Take the next left, right at the circle and straight past the traffic light.”
“You’ve been cycling around all morning, haven’t you?”
“Not really.”
“What do you do?”
“Erm… business.”
“You’re an engineer, aren’t you?”
“No no. I’m not an engineer.”
“Tell me, if someone is doing a degree from a polytechnic institute, what sort of job can he get?”
“I really don’t know. It depends on what he’s studying and where he applies, I guess.”
“Mechanical. He’s studying mechanical. You must be earning about a lakh, na?”
“No. I’m not.”
“Are you cycling to lose weight?”
“No, I’m cycling to get to places.”
“You know if you want to lose weight, I know the best way. It has guaranteed results.”
“Soak your clothes in hot water, put them on and then go for a long, fast run. It works.”


Lost and found

This morning I walked to the office to pick up my cycle and couldn’t find it anywhere. The boy from the shop downstairs was moving other cycles and motorcycles to the side.

It turns out there is no night watchman.

The office parking is like the parking of any building. There is a gate, but anyone can climb over. It doesn’t take that much effort to cut the lock and steal a cycle.

We decided to file an FIR.

I carried a few extra visiting cards with me to give small cycle shops on the way. Most of them know me anyway – wave ‘Hi!” when I ride by. It had to be a local thief and my plan was to give each shop my visiting card, telling them to call when they see my cycle. At some point, whoever stole it would have to take it to the shop, if only to fill air.

We stopped at the office on the way to the police station. The watchman was there.

“What time did you get here?”
“What time did you leave last night?”
“Did you see my cycle then?”
“Yes. I put it inside the building and locked up before I left.”

And there it was. Inside the building.


Pieces of pie

the pink and the orange

When I was younger, we used to play an old UK edition of Trivial Pursuit and everyone hated the entertainment questions because they were usually about Eurovision pop songs and Coronation Street in the 80s.

But just in case the answer was Attenborough’s Gandhi or The Beatles or Pink Panther and I did win a pink piece of pie, I NEVER put it near the orange piece – my mother always claimed she’d have a seizure if the colours were ever next to each other.

Blue Skies Ahead

The skies had been cloudy for days. Perfect weather, they felt. It was perfect for a lot of things. Hot chocoate, tea and fried snacks, snuggling under the covers with a book.

Overcast skies, temperature not hot but not cold at all. Treks and weekend getaways turned romantic — movies, songs and other popular conventions demanded that.

Why do we have to work on beautiful days like these, said friends stepping out for coffee breaks more often than would be recommended. It remained like that. With rain clouds shadowing the sky, but no rain.

The dams didn’t fill and crops waited. The occasional drizzle didn’t really count.

In another part of the city, a girl put on a new helmet (a gift from friends who wanted her safe), got on a bicyle and hoped it would stay like that until she got to work.

Published as part of Veda Yada, a Sunday humour column with the Pune Mirror. 

The memory remains

Sometimes even before it begins you know it’s going to be great. And then the only worry is what if it isn’t, because it usually never is. Metallica was different. It only got better.

We walked in at 7. The gates had opened at 3, but “you have to get there when the band starts,” Francis had said.

It was half past six and pouring. We were in a cab on the way to the show cursing the weather. Saurav had been drenched before waiting for Cradle of Filth to perform. This time he had a change of clothes with him in the car and a cover for his mobile phone.
“Just imagine those poor fuckers who got here at 3pm,” he said. “I heard the line was already a half kilometre line at 11 in the morning!” I told him.

I had been part of such a line before when Iron Maiden played at the MMRDA Grounds and for Aerosmith. The Iron Maiden wait resulted in one of the best concerts ever with an added bonus of a cameo on the Flight 666 video and possibly a 2% loss of hearing. Aerosmith was crowded and sweaty right through with a view of the stage that was almost as big a let down as the concert itself.

This time was different. Francis and Saurav had hired the car for the day and I was lucky to be around and enjoy their hospitality.

That day, everyone was a friend. Right from lunch time at Guzzlers, Francis had been high fiving and hugging random people in Metallica t-shirts. It only got friendlier. And it wasn’t just Francis being himself. “Hi, I’m Leena, by the way,” said a girl standing next to me. She declared her love for Metallica, headbanged her way through the concert, cried once and took care of me when Francis was away for a few minutes.


That day, I found out that Metallica has a surprisingly large female fan base.

I also found out that knowing the lyrics to most of the songs gives you an edge, but knowing them with certainty and refusing to sing along to Nothing Else Matters proves that you truly love the band.

I found out that phone lines get jammed during a large show. So you better coordinate with your driver otherwise you’ll be waiting at the side of the road for at least an hour later without water or food, but with thousands of others in black t-shirts humming bits of the show and re-living the best part of their evening as they walk past you in single file.

I found out that a drinking binge before the event can cause even the best prepared (with a ziplock protected mobile, change of clothes and an ID proof) to be stranded without money, looking for their friends for a large part of the evening, all for a roll (non-veg and “not even that great”).

I found out that it’s never ok to wear a John Lennon t-shirt to a Metallica show, even if it is black.

But it is ok to bring your kids along. There was a 13-year-old girl next to me singing along to Enter Sandman. Earlier in the evening, her father had head banged to Ride the Lightening.

And it doesn’t matter if you can’t see the stage because you’ll never again be in a crowd of 40,000 singing the guitar solo of The Memory Remains even louder than Metallica could play it.