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Remembering Guitar Maestro Derek Julien

The late musician had a long journey, beginning in 1967 and encompassing genres from rock, jazz and blues to fusion and pop

Narendra Kusnur Apr 25, 2021

Guitarist Derek Julien passed away on Sunday morning.

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Within India’s music-loving community, the tributes started flowing in. As word spread on Sunday morning that one of India’s best-known guitar players Derek Julien had passed away in Pune, fans and friends talked of his contribution. On WhatsApp, a flyer did the rounds, quoting a Rod Stewart line, “The angels needed a guitar man for their celestial blues band and took him home.”

For 70-year-old Julien, it had been a long musical journey, beginning in 1967 and encompassing genres from rock, jazz and blues to fusion and pop. He was with the Pune group Mystiks with bassist Mike Fay, and the band played in Africa. He then moved to Mumbai to play with the progressive rock group Waterfront, and then did a stint in New Delhi with the husband-wife team of drummer Steve Siquera and vocalist Kittu.

Later, Julien played with Azure Hades with UK-based Shri (Shrikant Sriram) on bass, flute, and tabla and Goan drummer Dennis Coelho. He had long stints with vocalist Gary Lawyer and the Atul Ahuja Band and played with bassist Colin D’Cruz in the groups Jazz Junction and Smoking Chutney. In Pune, he played with the Dragonette Project led by Roger Dragonette, bassist-singer, and former Waterfront bandmate, and also comprising guitarist Sanjay Joseph and drummer Saket.

Born on August 19th, 1950, Julien was a student of Campion School, Mumbai. He was brought up in Colaba and took up the guitar at age 14. A classmate recalls that he wasn’t an accomplished musician early on, but the virtuosity came later. He joined the Mystiks in Pune when he was 17. They got a contract to pay once a week in Somalia and would go out on safaris when free. They also played in Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya.

Julien saw a show by Waterfront in Mumbai and wanted to join the band, which was already undergoing some line-up changes. He joined in late 1972. The other members during his stint were Dragonette on bass, Ranjit Barot on drums, Soli Dastur on guitar and vocals, and Adil Battiwalla on keyboards, with percussionist Trilok Gurtu also playing with them regularly. The following year, the band toured Europe for a long period.

The group specialised in long songs, often beginning with standards, but also including covers of King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan. Dastur and Dragonette soon began writing original songs and built up a sizeable repertoire. If Waterfront presented both vocal and instrumental numbers, Azure Hades was primarily an instrumental group.

Soft-spoken by nature, Julien let his guitar do the talking. Vocalist Atul Ahuja, who got him into his band in 2013, says he brought in a unique tonality. He recalls, “He had that less-is-more style, something I feel only exceptional musicians can do. He perfectly believed in mine and the band’s philosophy that a song needs to breathe, a song needs its silences, and that each musician need not be a busy bee to showcase his talent.”

Singer Gary Lawyer remembers the days they played in Not Just Jazz By The Bay, Mumbai, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, besides various corporate events, the Independence Rock festival, the Osho ashram and even opening for British band Def Leppard’s show at the Leela Palaces hotel. He says, “Derek and I were together for 10 years. We were a happy bunch, and besides popular covers, we played my original songs like ‘Call Of The Wild’ and ‘Matters Of Heart’. He would come from Pune for our shows. Derek had this dark blue Carvin guitar, and he looked after it with utmost care, wiping it clean after each show.”

Rudy Wallang, guitarist of Shillong-based blues band Soulmate, talks of the time he met Julien at a festival in Kolkata in 1984. “I was with the band the Great Society then, and I met Derek and the other members of Waterfront backstage. He was a quiet guy with a soft and gentle smile, but the Derek I heard on stage that day totally blew me away. Years later, I met him and Dragonette in Pune over dinner and we kept in touch thereafter,” he points out.

Ahuja points out that Julien never used a plectrum. “Instead, he chose his carefully manicured fingernails of his right hand,” he explains. Likewise, Glenn Mascarenhas, former radio jockey and vocalist of the Mumbai band Full Monty, says, “His touch on the fretboard was just surreal, almost like an Angus Young where his fingers would glide rather than hammer the strings. He was always ready to impart knowledge about guitar licks, riffs and technique to younger musicians.”

Musicians say that though he didn’t speak much, he displayed a great sense of humor. Clearly, he was someone who enjoyed his music. Over the past few years, he had been playing a lot in both Pune and Goa, dazzling audiences with his brilliance. That stage presence will be missed.

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