INDIA GETS THE BLUES
MODERN BLUES WERE FIRST PERFORMED IN INDIA BY AFRICANAMERICAN GIs FROM LOUISIANA OR MICHIGAN
It’s not clear exactly when ‘the blues’ came to India, but jazz in its Swing-Big Band avatar was firmly established in the bigger hotels all over India by the end of the 1930s. What most of the Angrezi goras and local westernised posh folk may not have been acquainted with is the raw, working-class mother-cloud from which jazz stemmed. What we now know as ‘the blues’ or ‘rhythm and blues’ (not equal to contemporary R&B) moved out of the rural speakeasies of the African-American south, to find both urban roots and electric amplification in the northern American cities between the mid-’30s and late ’40s.
This blues—either a solo singer accompanying themselves on a guitar and maybe a mouth organ, or a small ensemble of four or five musicians ‘led’ by the singer—came to India via the backdoor, as the best things sometimes do. In late 1942, thousands of US troops landed in the subcontinent. Among them were a large number of black troops, shipped in to do the lower echelon jobs in support of the privileged white soldiers. The first time modern blues were heard in India was in the segregated barracks, when black soldiers from Louisiana or Michigan played their down-home, dirty, hollerin’ blues, with all the anger, longing, joy, sadness and open sexual reference that singing could project.
After the war, some of these ex-GI singers came back to tour India in the 1950s—most notably Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. But overall, the music now broadly known as ‘Chicago Blues’ sank below the radar, as the white rock stars it inspired—the Chuck Berrys and the Elvis Presleys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—captured the dancing feet and shaking booties of the new, ‘hep’ generation of westernised Indian youth. Indeed, as kids of my generation discovered popular rock and roll in the early ’70s, many a side-burned and bell-bottomed, hip dada talked down to us about Cream and the Grateful Dead without once mentioning Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. A few years later, when I first came across Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy, it was like being hit with a cleansing bucket of cold water. All the layers of lush orchestration and curlicues of ‘concept album-itis’ that plagued rock at the time were flushed aside by the mastery of these voices, by the jolting truth of their unadorned electric guitars. Soon, more and more Indians began to tune into this (by now) classic R&B. The fact that Billy Gibbons, axe-commander of ZZ Top, will be rocking his ginger beard at the Mahindra Blues festival is great news. I wish I could be there.
GIBBONS, BILLY as the known best and lead guitarist for ZZ Top, vocalist the headlining is Blues Mahindra Mumbai, in Festival Feb 11-12