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Wailing to be Heard

20 years after he quit the stage, Bertie da Silva makes a resounding comeback

Shamik Bag Jan 19, 2009
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Moments after Bertie da Silva stepped into the middle spotlight and introduced the opening lines of his song, ”˜Every Life,’ the hoopla surrounding the concert in Kolkata was down pat. Behind the long list of “don’ts” read out before the concert (mobiles to be switched off and not merely silenced, movement in the auditorium only after a song, no photography with or without the use of flash, etc) and the publicity overload (a splash in the print media even of his students; da Silva being the dean of arts at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College) is a thin but authoritative voice that easily woos attention. The music backing the voice is delectably acoustic, the mood wonderfully intimate. Even a sneeze here would jar.

One of the reasons for the November 18 concert at GD Birla Sabhaghar was to restore the cosy vibe of singer-songwriter auditorium concerts to a city where such gigs were once a critical part of the cultural parcel. Importantly, it was an effort by friends and fans to propel back to the stage one of the key voices from the era of Kolkata music that is being sought to be revived. Thus, after two earlier attempts at evening-hour pubs where beery babble and cheap thrills drowned the singing, when da Silva walked back to the stage wearing white shirt, trademark beret and a nervous energy, it was almost 20 years to the day since he left.

Back in the late Seventies, when da Silva was a vital cog in the pulsating rock & roll scene in Kolkata, he was living in a “little box” with the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, CSNY and New Riders of the Purple Sage. The entire West Coast deal has been at the heart of da Silva’s sound from his days with the Kolkata bands High and the Country Music Show and with musicians Cyrus Tata and Willie Sorrain and Mel and Fuzz. “I never rated Dylan as a great musician, but he wrote some pretty remarkable stuff,” begins da Silva. “Like him, I’ve studied the works of Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot and the French Symbolists. So maybe we share the same literary space. Neil Young though, as an icon of the Sixties and also the father of grunge, has been big in my life. For me, he’s the greatest musician of the century.”

Though by the mid-Eighties, da Silva was feeling “less stimulated” by the music he had been playing, ultimately leading to a day when the shows stopped altogether. “He had left an imprint,” regards Patrick Ghosh, longtime companion of da Silva and a prime mover behind the recent concert. In 1979, Ghose had organised the Blues in the Basement concert in Kolkata’s Kalamandir, a concert remembered not merely for the “insane” degree of audience participation but also for betting on original rock music. Along with bands like the Dilip Balakrishnan led High, the performance of da Silva, who was joined by musicians Mel and Fuzz, was a highpoint. “All around in the city, very competent musicians were performing covers. Bertie came in with his tortured, romantic poet vibe and great original songs. He got things moving,” says Ghose.

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If the time span of 20 years is what it takes for a child to be born, lettered, grow out of pimply skin, lose virginity, puff at the forbidden and nurse a distaste for dad’s point of view, a substantial portion of the period da Silva, 50, spent tapping into the young mind, as a professor in St Xavier’s and ringside observer. Specifically, he studied the sounds that shape young minds. “So there I was listening to VH1, grunge, alternative, heavy metal, thrash and all kinds of shit,” says da Silva, at home a couple of days after the concert, still carrying around the tousled appearance and the distant look with him. “Some of it was atrocious, some good. But I realised that this was the take of the younger generation and let this music wash over me. It has influenced me in the way I structure chords and tones.”

In between, a few years back, da Silva discovered the joys of the classical guitar, where “three guitars were being played on one fretboard and musicians were doing things which weren’t human” and a defining phase in his life in that classical music forced him out of the musical morass and complacency he had slipped into. “Classical freed me from my past and I learnt about composition, harmony and blending chords. I also learnt how little I knew of the guitar earlier.”

At his home in Central Kolkata, albums of Dylan, Roger Waters, Bach, Segovia’s classical guitar pieces, Traffic and CSN stack up with DVDs of Devil Wears Prada, Pather Panchali, James Blunt and Everest. Almost to underline the kedgeree of influences that has coloured his thinking, da Silva reaches out for the acoustic guitar and plays the opening bars of the strangely apocalyptic, ‘We All Fall Down,’ which is among the 60-odd songs that he has composed in the five years since he did a musical rethink. The progression does bear strong hints of heavy metal riffing played out within an acoustic foil, da Silva’s right hand technique providing a peep into his recent classical leanings.

Some of the most intense songs from his oeuvre, which he performed at the concert, find their raison d’être in powerful personal experiences. Though da Silva contends that “good art at any level is not just about recounting personal experiences,” the death of musician brother Willie has resulted in the sing-along ”˜Willie’s Song,’ among other numbers that explore the idea of mortality.

Behind the darkly premonitory nature of some of his songs, and the indeterminable symbolism inherent in them, is the riveting story of the 10 years da Silva had devoted earlier to studying the psychic life and occultism; “closely enough,” he says, “to feel scared.” “It was this intensely private world,” da Silva explains, trying to get to the roots of songs like the stridently rousing ”˜Rolling Thunder.’ “People give up the psychic life with adulthood, but I clung on. It altered my mind and opened me up to possibilities beyond the stark reality.”

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When his songs offer a direct take on reality it is usually just a ringside view through songs like the jazz-tinted ”˜La Dolce Vita,’ named after the popular music pub in central Kolkata where da Silva had gone to hear the Supersonics perform and returned with the picture of a young girl and a song (“Where you goin’, I don’t know/You’re soft and pretty in the neon glow”). In ‘Shuffle,’ it is about the rigmarole of modern young lives, where a me-too mentality drives kids to the next coffee shop, the next career stop, or even to the church once annually on Christmas. “I used to do the same thing, but now I think I’m old enough not to go through the sham,” says da Silva, who is backed by Amlanjyoti Singh on drums, Anindya Paul on vocals, Jonathan Ramgopal on keys and Willie Walters on bass, where other than the latter, the rest of the band are newcomers chosen by da Silva through audition and from among his students in St Xavier’s.

With ‘Working Man’s Blues (And Reds and Greens),’ a song where the reds and greens were added to the title, he says, as a wicked afterthought, the concert took a distinctly political turn with da Silva singing lines like “Freedom is the colour red”¦ I’ll put a bullet in your head/So your land is gone”¦ but the future’s secure”¦.” For the near-capacity audience at the concert, it was a protest song in fiery red (and blue and green). He disagrees. “I’m just a musician, not a protestor. Though the song might refer to contemporary issues it wasn’t political in my definition. I saw images of people dying, of a young girl lying dead. But it isn’t a song on Singur or Nandigram.”

In its finest moments, da Silva’s singing at the concert was a reflection of his admiration for Neil Young; the thematic range covered in his songs a nod towards the versatility of Dylan. At times, he let his voice dive to a whispery low, almost like he’s lulling a child to sleep with the gorgeous melodies, compelling imagery and minimal instrumentation. Equally effortless was the sudden soar, the nasal voice carrying the carefully handpicked band, the audience and the raw livid emotion to new heights. It’s a crusader’s wail that can’t be ignored. Informs Ghose: “After Kolkata, we want to take it out. Mumbai, possibly, is next. These songs need to be heard.”

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