Eulogy for the Music ?

One of the most gratifying outcomes from our preview screenings and focus groups  for our documentary film – Finding Carlton – Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India is the post viewing discussion. Its fascinating to hear how people react to the story, align with characters, and connect with the larger issues that the film attempts to communicate. It makes it all worthwhile..

We are frequently  asked “Is Jazz Alive in India? Is there a future for Jazz in the big cities of Bombay and Calcutta or Bangalore?   Is there hope for young musicians ?”

We often choose to answer this with a rhetorical response that results in more discussion…and now we have chanced upon this message from a professional musician in Mumbai …Read and decide….

“Just like a terminal cancer patient that has a few short years to live, most people in Mumbai don’t realize that ‘live’ western music as we know it has reached its final stage of termination.

Many factors have contributed to it’s demise. One is the government rule that loud speakers cannot be used after 10 pm, an invasion of disc jockeys that charge a small percentage of what a live band would charge, the gradual loss of our work places, foreign musicians taking our jobs, recording companies or record labels not interested in recording/encouraging original English songs, but the single most disastrous cause is the unreasonable, unfair and criminally insane licence fees/taxes imposed by an idiotic revenue department on ‘live’ entertainment.

Our main lifeline, the five star hotels, have been slowly weeding their Indian musicians out and bringing in Phillipinos, Russians, Cubans, Italians, Jamaicans, etc etc and giving them our jobs. Are we, humble musicians, powerful enough to stop or prevent this ? Do we poor musicians have the resources to fight a long legal battle ?

Music in Mumbai has never been a high paying job. Even when we were junior musicians, 30 years ago, salaries were not so high. We did it because it was fun, it was freedom and we loved it but as a doctor would encourage his child to be a doctor, we did not encourage our own children to take up music as a profession because we knew the dangers, the insecurity, the risks. Now 30 yrs later when almost all our avenues for earning as musicians have dried up – Where will we go ? What will we do? Does anybody out there give a damn?

So many little children are learning to play an instrument. Some go to (fly by night/licenced or unlicenced) music schools and some have private tutors who take them up for trinity college exams. I feel happy seeing the hope in their faces and sad when I realize that they will have nowhere to play when they graduate from those difficult exams. And what of the astronomical fees their parents have paid for their tuition? Is that like water down the drain?

All these years as musicians, besides being lowly paid, we were not even given the respect due to us. We were treated like the lowest of hotel staff – told to enter from the service entrance, told to eat in the staff cafeteria not in the restaurant, not allowed to enter a particular toilet, not allowed to sit with a guest/customer at his table, not given paid or sick leave, treated as staff or as a contractor whenever it suited the management. When we wanted to enter from the front gate, ‘sorry, you are staff – enter only from the security entrance’, when it came to giving all staff a box of diwali sweets – ‘ sorry, you are a contractor – not entitled to these sweets.’ A contract as a hotel musician was more like a prison sentence than a job. We did it because we loved music but also because there was no other alternative. It took years of work in the same hotel to get an upgrade in treatment or salary. We made great sacrifices. For all those years we were contracted to play at these hotels some 10, 20, 30 and even 40 yrs of continuous service with only one off day a week either Monday or Tuesday, life in the outside world passed us by. We could not attend family functions like weddings, first communions, engagements and sometimes even funerals. Our relatives got married and their children grew up without knowing who we were. We missed all the important family functions. I missed many Christmas nights during those wonder years, when my small children still believed in Santa Claus, longing to see the excitement on their faces as they opened their presents. I invariably arrived too late and they were already sleeping. Christmas night is big in hotels too and those days will never come back.

After making all these sacrifices and giving practically our whole adult lives to these hotels, what did they do? At the first sign of an increase in entertainment tax, they immediately terminated all their musicians contracts, wiped their hands clean and told the revenue department that they were not elegible to pay entertainment tax as they did not have ‘live’ music.

As for the brilliant einstine like thinkers/planners in the revenue department, that introduced this tax to target the dance bars that generate a lot of mumbai’s black money, dreaming of the crores they would earn are earning exactly zilch/nada/zero definitely much less than they were earning before this tax was introduced. The dance bars are still happily functioning with the blessing of some corrupt government officials and the crores that the revenue department is losing is going directly into the hands of these officials. Perhaps that’s what the revenue depart wanted in the first place.

And just when we thought that we have enough of problems, along come the bloodsucking leeches, the I.P.R.S. ( INDIAN PERFORMERS RIGHTS SOCIETY) and the P.P.L (PUBLIC PERFORMANCE LICENCE) department for their pound of flesh.

Let me foretell the future of western ‘live’ music In Mumbai. Finding a good violinist, sax player, flautist, double bass player, pianist, drummer, will be either impossible or very expensive. Perhaps, you may have to import them. The few of us that are left are going to the highest bidder. Mumbai is already full of “floppy disc/pen drive” artists that don’t bother to learn or can’t play a note so they download the backup track from the internet, load it onto a pen drive, stick it in the keyboard and press a button and the music flows. Do the listeners even know the difference between real ‘live’ music and a back up track? Do they even care? Did you pay for a live musician and get a karaoke machine?

And what about outspoken whistleblowers like me, that call a spade a spade and point out the fault wherever it lies – we get blacklisted. I haven’t done a gig in a 5 star hotel in years and I don’t miss it at all. The hassle of going through security, listing every item on a checklist, putting it all through an xray machine, getting a stamped pass that you are forced to wear around your neck, waiting endlessly for a crowded service lift that is shared by all the departments of the hotel, not being able to taste all the delicious snacks being served because you are working and finally a buffet that has been cleared before you have even eaten. I can certainly do without 5 star gigs.

Ten or fifteen years from now, when either the taxes, or old age has finally killed us all and there are no young musicians to take our places, who will you blame? The government, for their shortsightedness, or yourselves, for doing nothing while ‘live’ music was dying right before your eyes?

The government killed western live music in Calcutta 30 yrs ago, next to go will be Mumbai and then who? Goa ? the rest of india ?”

—-Ernest Joseph Flanagan – Eulogy for the Music

Are there other opinions ? we would welcome them…

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