Tribute: Benny Soans – The Man, The Music
Mumbai drummer Benoni Asher Soans’s sense of timing was so immaculate that even in his passing, he made a clean, precise break with life, much on his own terms
“How come nobody writes about me?” Mumbai-based jazz drummer/percussionist Benny Soans had asked me fairly recently. He was a frequent visitor to my home where we would listen to jazz and get into esoteric discussions about the music. I am so glad I asked him several questions about himself and his jazz journey in preparing to “write about Benny Soans.”
Without warning, Benny passed away on the morning of January 6th. As suggested by a friend, “Benny’s sense of timing was always immaculate; you never questioned it.” So also in his passing, he made a clean, precise break with life, much on his own terms. He was a truly blessed man who seemingly took on each day as a new adventure. Whereas most people are weighed down by their various responsibilities and agendas, Benny was a man who had put his chores behind him and was looking forward to the day with happy anticipation. This is how he appeared to his friends.
This aspect of his attitude was also evident in his playing. The musician in him was just an extension of who he was, positive and optimistic.
It was always evident that Benny was conscious of that which was “entertaining” in jazz and the part of jazz which is a pure art form. At heart, he was a jazz purist and the aspect of jazz dearest to him was ‘bebop,’ a fast paced intricate music pioneered by jazz genius Charlie Parker with Dizzy Gillespie. This music requires ample skill and dexterity and is a jazz connoisseur’s delight. Benny was a superb exponent of bebop but bemoaned the fact that he had limited opportunities to play it. “Not many people want to play bebop,” he said. “You need hard work and practice for it.” I asked him who were the exponents of bebop that he played with. “Noel and Ramona Borthwick played bebop well,” he said.
In the Nineties, Benny made a couple of recordings with them before the Borthwicks emigrated from India. Benny also had a humorous tale to tell. “There was this saxophone player I played with in Bombay who liked to include some bebop in our set. One day, he assembled the band to practice a new bebop tune he had written. During rehearsal, I recognized this new tune as being “Scrapple from the Apple” written by Charlie Parker.” With a laugh he said, “But our leader insisted he had written it and called it ‘bop re bop’!” Thereafter he would often say Bop Re Bop and break into laughter!
In 2015, the American saxophonist Greg Banaszak was in Mumbai to play a concert of ‘Bird with Strings,’ the great music of Charlie Parker. During his stay in Mumbai, there was a jazz night at a Mumbai restaurant. Benny was playing drums at the local gig and we had invited Banaszak to spend the evening at this jazz set. Banaszak not only came to the gig but joined in on a few numbers. At one point, he asked Benny to have a duet of sax and drums. They played a hectic version of “Donna Lee” for almost 15 minutes. Not missing a beat, Benny impressed Banaszak, matching him step for step; the following year when Banaszak brought a quartet from the US for his NCPA concert entitled ‘Bebop, Ballads and Beyond,’ he asked for Benny to be his drummer. Benny played with the Americans and impressed one and all.
Benny had also played a couple of bebop concerts with other musicians at the NCPA in the last four or five years but told me that the duet of “Donna Lee” with Banaszak was one of the most satisfying events in his playing career.
Benny was Louiz Banks’ regular drummer in an earlier era. He also played with classical music veterans Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan on a regular basis and had accompanied most jazz musicians in Mumbai and elsewhere in India. He was the drummer in Johnny Baptist’s big band in the Sixties and got nostalgic about that period of time in Mumbai. “If you walked around the streets of Bandra in the Fifties and Sixties, you could hear the music of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson and all the jazz greats coming out of homes. Jazz was so popular in those days.”
Benny was generous with his time and his talent, always available for the music zonals and local musical events; he volunteered his services to play and help without any fuss; he was always the team man.
Benoni Asher Soans has left a fair-sized vacuum in the Mumbai jazz scene. It will be a very hard void to fill. The ripples he has left behind will be around for a while yet. His talent will not be easy to duplicate in a hurry. The man and the musician will be missed.
The last gig on which Benny played is worthy of note. He was the drummer with Ash Chandler’s band Redux, playing in late December at Taj Land’s End in Bandra. The very last song on which Benny played was the beautiful, “What a Wonderful World.” A very appropriate finale, a cheerful farewell for a very fine drummer and a very fine gentleman.
Watch Benny Soans’ Swing And Bebop band at the NCPA Mumbai below: