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An anecdotal history of Karachi's jazz age, and its Goan stars: Read an excerpt from HM Naqvi's new book

The following excerpt is from DSC Prize Winner HM Naqvi's new novel, 'The Selected Works Of Abdullah The Cossack', and has been republished with due permission from the publishers, HarperCollins.

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ON THE JAZZ AGE OF KARACHI: AN ANECDOTAL HISTORY

ACCORDING TO MY FRIEND and former colleague, B Avari, proprietor of the world-famous Beach Luxury, jazz came to Currachee in ’53. He told me that when his parents were away in Beirut or Mauritius or someplace like that, he ‘booked this Dutch quartet, called several hundred people, many of them friends. They played all night. There was a traffic jam in the parking lot.’ When jazz came to the city, it caused traffic jams.

Old Goan rockers, however, will tell you that they were grooving to jazz even earlier. They will tell you that their forefathers had started trickling into Bombay, Calcutta and Currachee by the middle of the nineteenth century to escape the Portuguese, a dashed scourge in the Annals of the Colonial Enterprise. They were D’Souzas, Fernandeses, Rodrigueses, Lobos, Nazareths, erecting St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the Irish Fusiliers and the Currachee Goan Association not long after, organizing choirs at the former, staging Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the latter. Music, they will say, is in their blood.

Whilst the Anglos congregated at the Burt Institute and the gentry waltzed across the floors of the Gymkhana and Scinde Clubs, the Goans were doing the Lindy hop or cha-cha-cha to numbers strummed by the Carvalho Trio or the Janu Vaz Band at jam sessions at each other’s houses, in the backyards of Cincinnatus Town: somebody would bring a guitar, somebody else the drums, and horns became de rigueur by and by. And of course, everyone would bring liquor — Murree, caju feni, or Goan hooch and, if they could afford it, the foreign sauce: Dimple, Black & White, Vat 69. Before long, the legendary Eddie Carapiet began hosting the weekly radio show ‘The Hit Parade,’ injecting jazzy riffs into the bloodstream of the city. And one fine day Dizzy Gillespie rolled into town, cohort in tow, selling out the garden at the Metropole.

 An anecdotal history of Karachis jazz age, and its Goan stars: Read an excerpt from HM Naqvis new book

Cover for HM Naqvi's 'The Selected Works Of Abdullah The Cossack'. Courtesy HarperCollins

Although there was not much demand for what came to be known as Three Star Accommodation in the old days, there was the Killarney run by Mr Wyse, North Western, Marina, the Bristol on Sunny Side Lane, and the Olympus. Then the Parsees, consummate visionaries, entered the frame: C Framji Minwalla, for instance, transformed his guesthouse in Malir into the Hotel Grand, the only establishment that boasted a swimming pool. And when the city became the regional entrepôt—all flights, East to West, West to East, flew in and out of the city—the Dutch set up Midway House, and there was the Hostellerie de France, and with the advent of cabarets, the Taj, Lido, the hospitality landscape began to change. We had to compete. Run by my father, a Khoja, the Shadow Lounge at the Olympus was naturally tamer than establishments such as the Excelsior where Gul Pari bared all, or Roma Shabana where you would attend cabarets featuring the likes of the Stambuli Sisters, or ‘Carmen & Anita in French Cancan’. What you got at the Shadow Lounge were musicians who knew their Bird from their Beiderbecke. The stage was elevated and so spacious that you could fit a chamber orchestra on it. It faced a round, oak dance floor surrounded by tables draped with crimson tablecloths. There was a solid oak bar at the entrance and ferns everywhere, and on a good night, there would be close to a hundred aficionados, sipping cocktails, smoking 555s, nodding and snapping their fingers emphatically.

I knew all the musicians of the time because they were all regulars at the Olympus. They wore thin black ties and their black hair swept back: recall the Ay Jays, Bluebirds, Thunders, Keynotes. One night I came across this crazy, trumpet-playing cat, Felix Pinto, known to his audiences by his nom de tune: the Caliph of Cool. He possessed the shiniest trumpet this side of Saddar or, for that matter, the Suez. It has been said that the Caliph had a hand in the composition of the National Anthem, though the stories were apocryphal even then. When asked, Pinto would just grin mysteriously and raise a toast to the well-being of the country — a woolly, wily strategy. Some attribute the commission to the Caliph’s doppelgänger, old Dominic Gonsalves, but I believe that it belongs to Tollentine, or Tolly, Fonseca, the celebrated bandmaster known for original compositions that include the ‘Barcelona Waltz,’ ‘Officer’s March,’ and ‘Diwan-eKhaas’. I never had the opportunity to meet the man — he expired soon after the anthem was completed — but have come across his nieces at the Currachee Goan Association. Whatever the story, this much is certain: the Caliph of Cool was a legend in his time.

Although the Shadow Lounge was leafy, smoky and dim, you could always spot Felix Pinto: he sported a slick bouffant, a boxer’s jaw and thick-rimmed, shaded glasses, whether it was three in the
afternoon at Café Grand or three on a moonless morning at Clifton Beach. Verily, he was a dandy in a way that was only possible in Currachee in the Sixties. I would wager that he wore his glasses in the bath and to bed, sleeping or making love. Because they were glued to his nose, you would have never noticed his sunken blue vertiginous eyes. Ask me then: how do I know?

Pinto’s trademark frames were knocked off his face once and only once, one night at Le Gourmet circa ’59, when he was boffed in the face during a bar brawl with a young landowner known for his two-toned patent leather shoes. There was a dame involved, a sexy Anglo named Eleanor or something like that, and a spilt glass of wine. Although Pinto sported a black eye that night, he got his opponent in the bird’s nest. When the arriviste crumpled, I whisked the Caliph out via the kitchen. Otherwise he would have had to contend with the landowner’s thuggish entourage.

When said landowner was elected Prime Minister some years later, I helped Pinto escape to Australia. My friend knocked about down under during the Disco Era before returning to Currachee, but by then the Prime Minister had imposed prohibition in a gutless attempt to gain currency with the excitable religious rabble. The clubs, bars and cabarets were shut down soon after. Many Goans left.

It was the end of an age.

HM Naqvi is the bestselling author of 'Home Boy', which was awarded the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He has worked in the financial services industry, taught creative writing at Boston University and, and been an honorary fellow at the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa. He is based in Karachi.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 16:18:17 IST