The Birth of Cool

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O
n a good night, there are options. The Moonglows are playing
mellow at the 21st Century nightclub. On the other side of
town, the Talismen are getting jittery at the Midway House. The
facsimile poster on the door promises that the band is “soft on a sweet
melody, swift on a fast beat.” But the crowd knows better. These guys are
notorious hipswingers. Still, the scene will stay at a simmer
today because it’s ladies’ night at the Discotheque. There, the
Black Jacks are unleashing their Discorbit Jolt: a little jivin’,
a little rockin’, a little twistin’ and a whole lotta lovin’. And
along the creek, Julius’s guitar snarls at the 007 Club while
lights flicker at the Horseshoe Bar and Restaurant. This could
be Las Vegas, New York or London. But this is Karachi in the
swinging 1960s. This is the birth of cool.
If Pakistani pop music has a history, Karachi’s quartets-
at-clubs scene is it. Indeed, the pre-Zia decade in the city
by the sea was a time of big bands, bopping beats and
bobby-pinned beehives. At night clubs and private parties
throughout the city, teenage Christian boys came together to play covers
of western pop hits, experiment with progressive jazz and bite down,
literally, on their guitar strings. Their antics were inspired by Radio
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The pop legacy of Christian big bands from the swinging
1960s endures even today
THE BIRTH
THE BIRTH
OF COOL
FLASHBACK
1
Anglos with Afros: (left to
right) Talismen members
Norman D’Souza, Colin
D’Souza, Charlie D’Souza
and Popart Lal
By Huma Yusuf
How times have
changed: Dominic
Gonzales playing
in a hotel lobby F
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They treated us good,” says Norman. The Punjab wasn’t immune to the
jumping and jiving either, as bands such as the Wanderers hit the big time
in Lahore: “The Wanderers ruled. They enjoyed real rock star treatment and
were real gurus,” exclaims EP’s drummer Salman Albert.
Better yet, this pop circuit was sanctioned by the authorities and media
alike. With regards to Christian bands playing live at the Pak-American
Cultural Centre, The Morning News wrote on January 27, 1968, that the gig
was the best example of “pop music nurtured locally without psycholic
stimulant — no LSD please.” No wonder then that Pakistan’s pop stars of
the 1980s drew their inspiration from the Anglos with Afros. Norman, for
one, remembers cavorting with Ahmed Rushdi and proudly announces that
Alamgir was a big fan of the In Crowd, a band formed in 1969. “Alamgir
used to follow the In Crowd’s shows in the hotels but he first jammed with
them at the Horseshoe Bar,” says Norman.
Thus thriving in a media void, playing live to fans each weekend,
Karachi’s Christian bands felt no need to promote or preserve their music.
After a hip-shaking, neck-jerking frenzied play-off at the 21
st
Century
in 1971, Norman’s band was offered a recording contract with EMI.
Surprisingly, they declined the offer. “We just weren’t interested. We didn’t
want to play on television and we didn’t want to record. None of it paid
off. All we wanted to do was play live. It was the singing and dancing that
mattered,” explains Norman.
While not all Christian musicians shared Norman’s viewpoint, most
were unable to record sessions even though they wanted to. The 1960s
was a pre-cassette era and recording was prohibitively expensive for most
performers. “We always knew how to compose but the Christians didn’t get
a chance because they had no money,” complains saxophonist Hilary. “Not
only was the system of recording terrible – recording live drums was next
to impossible – but we also couldn’t afford to rent the right studio or hire a
producer.” Noori’s current drummer Gumby adds that “musicians such as
Alamgir’s backup saxophonist Dominic Gonzales couldn’t become famous
because a music video cost 50,000 rupees just to air in the late 1970s, let
alone produce.”
Moreover, early appearances on Pakistan Television (PTV) could not
charm the big bands. Accustomed to earning about 500 rupees a month
while playing the nightclub circuit – a significant amount in the late 1960s
– band leaders were not willing to sign contracts with PTV that promised a
mere 150 rupees for each appearance. “PTV would call us without warning.
We had to play live, using our own equipment, without the help of sound
sets or play-back facilities,” remembers Norman.
Without having made inroads in television or snagged recording
contracts, Karachi’s swing bands were suddenly out of context when
Zia shut down nightclubs and slapped a ban on all things intoxicating in
1977. Overnight, live music in Pakistan became an anomaly and Christian
musicians were left without a job. Rather than being an entertainment
industry, Pakistani pop became the plaything of sleazy producers looking
to make a fast buck. As Fuzon’s lead guitarist Shallum Xavier puts it, “by
the time I had grown up, everyone from the band circuit had either died or
migrated. It was the death of a whole scene.”
While the majority of Christian musicians migrated to the US, UK, Canada
and even eastwards to Japan, Singapore or Malaysia, those that remained
experienced a crushing fall from grace. Hilary found himself teaching music
at a high school while playing backup sax for Mohammad Ali Shayki. For
his part, Norman briefly served as a waiter at the Holiday Inn Hotel before
returning to music and trying his hand at singing in Urdu. Of course, there
were some notable exceptions. In 1983, the Benjamin Sisters scored well
by performing popish remixes of old Noor Jehan hits on PTV. “It was very
nice singing together and touring in Canada and Singapore,” says Bina
Benjamin. The eldest sister Nerissa was even forced to move out of her home
for a month after acquiring a stalker from Hyderabad. But Hilary paints a
more accurate picture when he laments that “the Christians struggled a lot
in the 1980s and some guys just never made it.”
Now, Hilary is working on the soundtracks of various television dramas
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Pakistan’s daily broadcast by DJ
Edward Carrapiet of English twist-
and-shout numbers. And the bands’
performances often prompted
swingers from East Pakistan to
fly to Karachi just to party for the
weekend.
Seasoned saxophonist Hilary
Furtado remembers that “the scene
in the 1960s and 1970s used to be
very good. Everyone played live,
they didn’t need computers back
then.” Similarly, Talismen band
leader Norman D’Souza recalls
singing to crowds of up to 1,000
jivers on New Year’s Eve: “We
weren’t a rich bunch so we sang
without mikes. We used to yell our
guts out but everyone had a good
time. They just kept dancing.”
Even gigs in the lobbies of local
five-star hotels had panache back
then. “We’d play Santana all night
and then the hotel would send us
breakfast in bed in the morning.
Swinging sixties: the Talismen perform
at a Christmas party
Teddy boy: Norman D’Souza
boasting a solid
Sunday school
training and
inherent musicality
still get their groove
on more than most.
Former Talismen
member Malcolm
Govias, and later
Gumby, drummed
for Junoon.
Currently, Gumby
is the sticks-man for
Noori. Meanwhile,
Fuzon boasts Shallum and bassist
Russell – whose stint in the live
band circuit paid off well – in
their line-up. Allan Smith, who
played briefly with Norman as an
adolescent, is now drumming for
Karvan while EP’s Salman Albert
was trained by the Wanderers’
Noel Benjamin. Pakistan’s only
jazzy outfit the Mekaal Hasan Band
boasts the Christian-influenced
talents of Salman’s brother Farhan
Albert as well as Mekaal himself.
Even Pakistan’s undisputed guitar
virtuoso Aamir Zaki seduced his
guitar strings under the tutelage
of Alan Vanderlovin and Alan
Dias. The list is endless. As are the
possibilities. Anyone who thought
and recently did a jingle for a mobile phone
company. Norman has formed a new band that plays
the odd gig at private parties or at the Sunset Club.
Band members confined to playing in hotel lobbies
complain that the management has lost all respect for
Christian musicians. Apparently, hotels scrimp on the
food served to musicians and pay a band comprising
five musicians a mere 40,000 or 50,000 rupees a
month. Meanwhile, millennium pop stars such as
guitarist Shallum claim that the only lesson they’ve
learnt from the pioneers of pop is to avoid the same
fate: “Seeing talented Christian musicians play in
hotels is quite a sorry sight. I didn’t want my music
to be restricted to a lobby with people coming and
going as they pleased. I believed that I could be part of something bigger
— a rock band.”
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even after Zia,
Christian musicians have struggled for recognition. In 1992, Candi Pereira,
Allan Smith and John Sullivan, the son of former In Crowd member Edgar,
came together with several other aspiring musicians to form the Milestones.
“But no one really gave the Milestones the recognition they deserved. We
worked really hard to get our name out there but you need really good
connections in the music industry to survive,” admits Candi. Moreover,
Gumby believes that fewer Christian musicians will be joining the music
scene in the future: “My community is producing less musicians because
people think it’s sad to play at weddings and in hotels. They’ve lost the
essence of music.” Hilary concurs, adding that “since DJs are much cheaper,
the live band culture is dying out even at Christian weddings. No one has
the time or money for a band now.”
Still, it would be foolish to assume that Pakistan’s snazziest entertainers
have such a pathetic legacy. Just take a look at the bigwigs of the present-
day pop industry. Wherever there is a glimmer of talent, there’s bound to
be some influence from the Goan guitarists of yesteryear. And Christians
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Sibling power: the Benjamin Sisters
Seasoned saxophonist: Hilary Furtado
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fans – a catchy moniker, retro hairstyle, fondness for expletives, wizard-
like facility with his sticks and the knack to keep time – Gumby is a
virtuoso in the world of Paki pop.
Of course, looking at him, you’d never guess that he’s a drumming
dynamo. Although 28, Gumby could easily pass for 15. He rarely wears
anything other than faded jeans with an out-of-shape grey or white T-
shirt to mask his short, lanky frame. In profile, an uncorrected overbite is
discernible. But despite his appearance, Gumby exudes an obvious don’t-
piss-me-off-I’m-volatile aura. And it’s that attitude that gave him the
courage to quit drumming with Junoon when the group was at the height
of stardom.
But all that comes much later. It goes without saying that no drum rolls
announced Gumby’s emergence on the local music scene. Like many
musicians from the Christian community, the drummer has had to struggle
long and hard to make it big. “My environment was always musical and
musicians were seen as something great. At weddings, live Christian jazz
bands would look grand. And they really knew how to get people dancing,”
remembers Gumby. And so it was that five-year-old Louis John Pinto
– already rechristened Gumby by a neighbour – began imitating the “cool
guys” he saw wooing the crowds at parties and weddings.
Until 1986, when Gumby bought his first drum-kit, he used to observe
drummers on stage and later drum out a beat with his fingers on the kitchen
table while his mother sang along. “I wanted to be a drummer because
“I
enjoy casual flirting, it
keeps me busy.” With an
unapologetic arrogance,
Gumby describes the perks
of recent fame. Suddenly, his
cellphone rings. On the other
end is Gumby’s loyal roadie and
bodyguard of over six years who
may be delayed in collecting
his boss. If it seems strange that
Gumby has a bodyguard, think of
it this way: he’s the only musician
in the circuit to boast an imported,
custom-made drum-kit worth over
600,000 rupees. More importantly,
he’s one of few session musicians
to have transcended the
anonymity-on-stage conundrum
faced by those who don’t have the
face or flair to be a lead vocalist.
But make no mistake: Gumby is a
legend in his own right. Boasting
all the right ingredients to woo
By Huma Yusuf
Drumming
PROFILE
Drumming
live performances using shoddy
sound sets and erratic mikes were
not doing justice to his drumming.
“There I was playing my heart out
on a custom-made drum-kit and all
around me, mikes kept falling,” he
complains. But his decision to play
exclusively for recording sessions
was not meant to last.
In 2003, Gumby replaced Noori’s
first drummer and found himself
in a happy place within the big bad
world of desi pop. “Ali Noor is a
very talented musician and I think
his work is moving in the right
direction,” says Gumby. Moreover,
he is thrilled to be part of a politics-
free band. “Egos get inflated in this
business, well, at least mine did.”
For that reason, Gumby appreciates
the fact that Ali Noor treats him
not only as a band mate but also as
a member of his family: “Noor’s
parents treat me like a third son.”
Although Noori is currently
putting out their second album,
Gumby has far more ambitious
plans. “I’ve played lots of solos
and now I know what drums
are capable of, how they should
be tuned and how important
placement is. That’s why I would
ultimately like to manufacture
drums and really push the limits
of the instrument.” Until then, you
can count on Gumby turning the
beat around for local pop. n
drums were loud and visually happening,” explains Gumby half-seriously.
Copycat drumming paid off and by the time Gumby was 14 years old, he
was a regular in the Christian wedding circuit. One day, his friend Bosco
invited him to jam with a mysterious Zak. Without any preparation, Gumby
turned up for the gig, only to find himself playing with the legendary Aamir
Zaki along with a slew of pop stars. There and then, Gumby’s gradual
transition into mainstream professional drumming began.
Initially, in a throw-back to the live band culture of his community’s
preceding generation, Gumby spent two years drumming in the lobby of
the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi. “Those were the most productive years of
my life,” insists Gumby. Not only did he acquire his first fan following
among late-night ice-cream addicts but Gumby also refined his drumming
technique by playing live, night after night, to a discerning crowd. “In that
lobby, I picked up jazz, learned how to control the volume of my drumming
and play to an audience.” No wonder then, Gumby now feels entitled
to scoff at musicians who haven’t slaved as he has. “Music now is too
calculated and it’s all about money making. You have to learn the hard way,
you have to play to make a living and really put your heart into it before
you’re any good.”
Unfortunately, playing backup drums for Pakistan’s leading groups such
as Awaz and Junoon in the 1990s didn’t deliver instant fame and fortune to
Gumby’s doorstep. “It has been very frustrating being a drummer. There’s
no fame or recognition because everyone wants to keep you in the back
seat,” complains Gumby almost bitterly. And then there was the added
problem of latent racism: “There is racism in our society, I can tell people
often think that yeh to marasi hai.”
Still, on the several occasions that Awaz did not introduce Gumby in
concert, he chose not to confront them: “Back then, I was really dumb.” But
after Gumby’s performance in an international concert for Channel V went
unaccredited, he realised he had to be more aggressive. “I decided then to
shine bright on stage.” Now, Gumby shamelessly enjoys the power trip that
comes from knowing that he can throw off an entire band by mistiming only
one drumbeat and he doesn’t hesitate to remind others of that fact.
This self-confidence eventually led to Gumby quitting from Junoon
despite making a lot of money doing gigs for the band around the world.
“I started hating live performances and so I just left,” he says matter-of-
factly. As it happens, Gumby was particularly perturbed by the fact that
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