The Mumbai-based author and journalist Naresh Fernandes stumbled upon the idea for his latest book by accident, while investigating a long-forgotten scandal that had once gripped the city’s music scene. As titillating as this tale must have been, it ended up as nothing compared to a single chat with the veteran Indian musician Frank Fernand. In fact, one brief exchange with this ageing jazzman ended up sowing the seeds for an intricate, enchanting and truly original historical work.
The result of painstaking research and many more such conversations, Taj Mahal Foxtrot focuses on Bombay (now Mumbai) between the 1930s and the 1950s. At this point the city’s social scene centred on the Taj Palace Hotel, populated by a cast of well-to-do Indians and louchely glamorous expatriates. Although the subcontinent was geographically distant from the western world and poles apart in terms of culture there existed one common theme. Just like London and New York, the freewheeling sound of big-band dance music echoed through the Taj’s ballroom, providing the perfect soundtrack for a changing city buzzing with political, economic and artistic possibilities.
If early 20th-century Bombay sounds rather like the prevailing view of 21st-century India – thrustingly ambitious, brimming with potential and eager to take its place on the world stage – that is no coincidence. Fernandes delights in making such links. Most engaging of all is his astute and finely nuanced examination of the connection between jazz and the pursuit of freedom, both in the United States and its adopted Indian home. Given that the genre’s cornerstone is a certain structural liberation, how could it not appeal to members of any group seeking personal and/or national empowerment?
roducing a company of delightfully named artists – including the trumpeter Chic Chocolate and the saxophonist Johnny Baptist – Taj Mahal Foxtrot is essentially a loving homage to the massive contribution made by migrant Goan musicians to the city’s musical landscape. However, perhaps its most intriguing story is that of the first forays into India by black American artists – not to mention their own unlikely predecessors.
It is strange to consider that the dubious tradition of blackface minstrelsy should have been a
particularly popular strand of entertainment in Bombay at any time. Yet certain chords of colonial relevance appear to have been struck by American performers such as Dave Carson in the mid 19th century. Reportedly, audiences comprising both Indians and Europeans adored him, and his act gradually evolved into a series of satires of “native life” that, according to one newspaper critic of the time, made “the Parsee laugh at his caricature of the Hindoo, while the Hindoo is convulsed by his clever skits on the Parsee”.
Fortunately, although African-American culture was introduced to the subcontinent in this uncomfortably mediated manner, by the time artists such as the violinist Leon Abbey and his band arrived in Bombay in 1935 the city was ready for the real thing. Their performances went down a storm, influencing a generation of bandleaders and musicians and, as Fernandes notes, discrimination was rare. Still, the fact that Bombay offered a better experience than Jim Crow-era America is presented as only natural. After all, it is often stated that The Taj Palace, where Abbey’s band enjoyed a residency, was founded as a brilliantly ostentatious reaction to colonial prejudice. Legend has it that the industrialist Jamsetji Tata set about building the institution after being refused entry to the stuffy, racially segregated Pyrkes Apollo Hotel in the early 1900s. Regardless of how apocryphal this story may be, Fernandes explains that Tata made his views on matters of race exceedingly clear to his guests, writing that “he later hung a notice in the lobby forbidding entry to South Africans and dogs”.
This spirit of openness and the significance of big-band music in India are both convincingly explained. For a start, a compelling dialogue existed between India and black America throughout the interwar years – a number of prominent US-based thinkers and publications had been busy exploring the ways in which Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, could be employed in their own fight against racism. Given that both were port cities with a history of European colonisation and have acted as staging posts in separate struggles for freedom, it is also possible to draw certain parallels between Bombay and New Orleans – the very birthplace of.