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