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

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