Saturday, February 18, 2012

Musical Band Box on All India Radio

Glen Campbell’s felicitation at the recent Grammy awards brought memories of Musical Band Box, the All India Radio program out of Calcutta in the 1970s and 80s.  A niche program that catered to the city’s Anglo-Indian residents and a handful of “western” music aficionados (everything from rock to pop to jazz was lumped into this category), it ran on a lazy Sunday afternoon at 1 pm sharp, when the city stooped to rest after lunch while the trams creaked under the blazing sun.  That one hour—the only time on All India Radio that you could hear rock or pop—was dedicated to the romantics: Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Merle Haggard, Karen Carpenter, and the Anglo Indian community’s prodigal sons—Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck who had made their way out of Lucknow and Madras.  The songs were in response to listener requests—birthday, christmas, marriage wishes to relatives and friends in Lucknow, Australia, Britain and America. 

Layered inbetween these crooners, would be bands like Abba and Bread, but generally nothing stronger (with the exception of an occasional Rolling Stones).   About the most potent they would get was when Cliff Richard came out with Devil Woman with its driving guitar backing.  Seldom Clapton, never Chuck Berry, never Freddie Mercury though he too, was in some ways a prodigal son, seldom Santana whose Black Magic Woman/ Oye Como Va single I had to dig out from a second hand store on Free School Street.  There were steady instrumental favorites—the Ventures, and to a lesser extent, Cliff Richard’s backing band, The Shadows

The Beatles over-rode any genre bias that this program had and were featured prominently, but there were also funk bands that were enormously popular that had little bearing in the West—the British-African Osibisa and their hit number Woyaya, cemented their stature in India with a concert tour in the 80s; Mandrill, another obscure band with “Beast from the East”. Boney M was the rage for a while-- their 33 & 1/3 albums with racy cover photos graced the displays of music stores such as Melody on Rashbehari, and Bambino in Gariahat.  Then, when Saturday Night Fever hit (American influence throbbed in like piston bursts with movies such as Rocky and SNF), the Bees Gees burst out of the gates.

All India Radio’s Band Box was part of a small but intense community of “Western” music fans, that was supported at that time by a now defunct magazine called Junior Statesman, that in hindsight was way ahead of its times. With the exception of bands such as the remarkable mid-seventies era Mohiner Ghoraguli who sang in Bengali and were anchored by the talented Goutam Mukhopadhyay (for one of his rare live performances see, most of these bands were cover bands, faithful in their mimicry down to the last note on the riffs. It would be years until Indian bands played their own music, beginning with Indus Creed in the mid 90s (who had their own lyrics, but on imitative arrangements) to Avial or Mother Jane today. Other than small pockets in the North East such as Shillong, it was, and still is an acquired music in the rest of India, and it shows.  Even today, there are county level musicians in New York who have better technique than most of the best Indian guitarists.  It is the same rationale by which George Harrison, while a great guitarist, never turned out to be a first rate sitar player--to the extent that many doubted that he could have played the sitar lines in Norwegian Wood.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article - I was also a big listener of such AIR programmes including Lunchtime Variety - the person you mentioned on Mohiner Ghoraguli is Gautam Chattopadhyay...