This sleepy town in Bihar was once the hub of jazz

On World Jazz Day, Shillpi A Singh revisits Jamalpur, a railway town in Bihar, and relives those moments and memories when once upon a time it reverberated with the strains of jazz music

We all know that Mumbai has a strong jazz culture. Even today connoisseurs can be seen lurking on the tables of restaurants which play jazz, or assembling at the concerts organised by few high-class event managers. But Jamalpur and jazz? The thought would invite the disdain of naysayers. A few others would be amused. Some others would be wondering if they heard it right. How can a sleepy town in Bihar claim to be the hub of jazz? It is an unbelievable truth not known to many. But once upon a time, it surely was.

And for the ‘up-country innocents’ who have to look at the map to find Jamalpur, here’s an important piece of history to share — it was the headquarters of the East India Railway, and the first full-fledged railway workshop was established here a couple of years after the Mutiny, on February 8, 1862.

It was because of this workshop that the Anglo-Indian community came here in hordes to live and work, and they brought jazz along to keep themselves entertained as ‘the songs made lives of the railway folk pleasant’. Years later, the magic of jazz still casts a spell on those who belong to this place, and call it their own.

Past perfect
“If you hear something once, and it moves you, it becomes a part of you,” says Salif Keita, Malian Afro-pop singer to sum up the universality of music. Delhi-based fashion designer Samant Chauhan couldn’t agree less with Keita’s thought. As a young boy, who grew up in Jamalpur, Chauhan was surrounded by everything ‘unadulteratedly’ Railway — the ringing, roaring, rattling workshops — and lived with the ubiquitous presence of the British Raj — houses made of brick and stone, roads named after King, Prince, Queen, the St. Mary’s Church, a swimming pool, a library of several thousand books, half-a-dozen tennis courts, and the Gymkhana Club. “The Club was out of bounds for us, but we were curious to find out what lay beyond those closed doors and its lit windows for we heard lots of laughter and songs,” he says.

Memories revisited
Recollecting and reliving those once upon a time tales, Chauhan refers to the history of Jamalpur from Rudyard Kipling’s account of the railway town in his book, From Sea to Sea, and says, “Best and prettiest of the many good and pretty things in Jamalpur was when the Volunteer Band headed by a Filippino jazz player Ivan Evangelista played at the Institute (Railway Institute).” He visits Jamalpur, sometimes in real, but often in his dreams, and says, “Some places exist in memory. No epitaphs are required because they remain a mystery and belong only to a particular time.”

Sound of Music
Evangelista was violinist from Candaba town in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, and part of a community of about 20 Filipino musicians who had arrived in India in 1924 and left the country soon after Independence. The band led by Evangelista used to perform all over the country during the 1920s. Kolkata-based Raymond Francisco narrates an interesting story behind Filipino singers’ love for jazz. “The Filipinos called themselves the Italians of the East but were heavily influenced by the American popular culture. They took quickly to Western music. Several of them were thought to have settled in New Orleans, US, the birthplace of jazz. The Filipinos settled there are said to have taken the music back to the Philippines. And that’s how jazz moved to the Philippines.” The country had become a US protectorate in 1898 after the Spanish-American war and only won independence in 1946.

Note worthy
When you think of jazz, you go back to Afro-Americans, isn’t it? “But that seemed a difficult proposition for the Anglo-Indians. The cheap and best substitute for them turned out to be the Filipinos who knew their business of music well enough, were ready to perform at gigs for less money and were foreign so to say,” says Francisco on why Filipinos found India an appealing destination, adding, “Music is in their blood.”

In India, Evangelista travelled across the length and breadth of the country for gigs. In 1938, he moved to Jamalpur, which was home to an East Indian Railway workshop. His Volunteer Band played at the Railway Institute in Jamalpur on Fridays. “The Anglo-Indian community was fond of music and dance. They used to organise balls to celebrate every occasion, be it Diwali, Holi, Easter, Christmas or any festival, and had one in a month,” says Francisco, adding that another popular jazz singer of those times Pan Crain also performed at Jamalpur. “She died three years ago, but was a regular feature at Jamalpur Railway Institute and later married Kolkata’s famous jazz singer Don Segal,” says Francisco. The rest of the week, the band travelled up and down the rail line playing for the Anglo-Indian communities.

Family Matters
In 1926, Evangelista met Calcutta-born Winifred Mabel Henderson, who went on to play the ukulele and sing in his band. The couple had eight children — Yvonne, Raymond, Aveline, Shirley, Pearl, Jimmy and Rudy. Their youngest son Robert was born in the Philippines. Winifred had earlier been married to a drummer named Elino Francisco and had two children — Anita and Mervyn, and Raymond is Mervyn’s son.

“My father Mervyn was a famous drummer of his times. He used to be booked two years in advance as foreign jazz musicians used to be a big craze then,” he says, adding that “he hasn’t taken up after his dad and is not fond of drumming at all.”

After the Independence, the gigs got scarce in India, and the Evangelistas left and settled in the Philippines. Evangelista breathed his last in California in 1982. Mervyn’s family chose to stay back in Kolkata though he moved to the Philippines later in the 70s and died there.

Nostalgic track  
Even though Chauhan wasn’t born when Evangelista came, lived, played music in Jamalpur and left, but those songs are the ones that have stayed back with him somehow, etched in his memory, and are an indispensable part of his life and being. “For me, jazz is more than music. It is nostalgia. It is a force of its own. It transports me to the land that I come from; it takes me to the past when some odd thousand people left their motherland (the Great Britain) and came to live here, and gave us a lot to talk about,” he says.
No wonder, jazz music is omnipresent. The beautiful, seductive and swinging melodies live through the distinct strains of the woodwind instruments — trombone, trumpet, saxophone and clarinet along with the piano, guitar and drums — everywhere.

Jazzing up Bollywood  
Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo (Howrah Bridge)
Gore Gore O Banke Chhore (Samadhi)
Shola Jo Bhadke (Albela)
Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni Phir Kahan (Jaal)
Babuji Dheere Chalna (Aar Paar)
Aaiye Meherbaan (Howrah Bridge)
Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si (Chalti ka Naam Gaadi)
Dil Deke Dekho (Dil Deke Dekho)
Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja (Caravan)
Jaata Kahan Hai Deewane (C.I.D.)
Dil Ko Hazaar Baar Roka (Murder)

This sleepy town in Bihar was once the hub of jazz

Kaisi Paheli Zindagani (Parineeta)
Jab Bhi Cigarette (No Smoking)
Jaane Tu… (Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na)

This sleepy town in Bihar was once the hub of jazz

Behka Main Behka (Ghajini)

This sleepy town in Bihar was once the hub of jazz

Masakali Masakali (Delhi 6)

This sleepy town in Bihar was once the hub of jazz

Khwabon Ke Parindey (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara)
Sheher Mera (One By Two)
Aise Na Dekho (Raanjhanaa)
Muskaanein Jhooti Hai (Talaash)
Aunty Ji (Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu)
Koi Yeh Bata De Ki Kya Hai Mohabaat (Ekk Deewana Tha)
Hosanna (Ekk Deewana Tha)
Aise Na Dekho (Raanjhanaa)
Girls like to swing (Dil Dhadakne Do)
Mohabbat Buri Bimari (Bombay Velvet)

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