He's a bit of a legend in the North East and is celebrating 50 years of his music today. But almost an equal number of years ago Lou Majaw, widely recognised for his Bob Dylan tribute shows, was busy cleaning cars at a gas station on Kolkata's frenetic Park Circus-Karaya road crossing.
That's on days when he wasn't carrying heavy goods to and from various establishments in central Kolkata. He spent his evenings though, at some of the most popular bar-restaurants of Park Street in Calcutta- armed with a guitar, strumming up a storm to an enthusiastic crowd of old school live-music patrons.
"I was asked how I felt about my work as a labourer but I always said I felt no shame or embarrassment. 'I'm doing my job, yeah? I respect it', is what I said," says Majaw with a drawl.
Majaw's respect for Bob Dylan is equally well established. From 1972 onwards, he has been organising an annual concert to commemorate Dylan's birthday in Shillong. That's a hardcore fan right there!
"I was always captivated by his music," he says. Recalling the first time he heard Dylan, Majaw says, "It was at Moulin Rouge in Calcutta. We listened to the usual suspects: Elvis, Cliff Richards, Bill Hailey, The Beatles.
But one day an Anglo-Indian friend of ours got a big stack of records and played it." Perhaps a bit predictably, the first track happened to be Blowin' In The Wind from Dylan's 1963-released album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
"Who the hell is that?" says Majaw, when asked what his initial reaction was to the song. It wasn't so much the voice as it was the poetry that laced his lyrics, says Majaw.
Even today, Majaw feels that Dylan's songs helped him during his hard times in Calcutta. Difficult phases change people, usually. How did it affect Majaw?
"Calcutta taught me to survive, man! I live on hope and that's one thing I've learnt. I complete fifty years in music and a lot of people promised a lot of things, financial support and otherwise, for a concert, but they all backed out at the last minute," says Majaw but adds that he "doesn't give a damn anymore."
He's learnt, says Majaw philosphically, "that letdowns have always been there, and will be there in future... but Lou Majaw lives on hope that keeps him going."
Shelter From The Storm
Hope, yes. But Majaw also had a remarkable degree of tenacity to survive the odds in life. Born in Shillong, Majaw's father passed away when he was just a couple of months old.
His mother sent him to a boarding school in Shillong, Sacred Heart Boy's School, which took in a lot of underprivileged students. "It's like an orphanage," he says, "But going there was a blessing for me because that's where I saw the guitar for the first time!
I must have been about eight years old. And it was love at first sight!" remembers Majaw. But it belonged to the school and he hardly got to play it.
Not that he didn't try: "There used to be a recreation time at night for us of about forty minutes.... so I used to skip dinner sometimes to get hold of the guitar. Because the kid who got it first usually played the whole forty minutes!"
But his primary routine, like most other students there, revolved around the usual dose of academics, besides learning to grow vegetables in the school garden and cleaning the kitchen.
Only later when he switched schools to Don Bosco in Shillong, did Majaw start actively honing his music skills.
There were the school bands and a school orchestra as well, where Majaw learnt the guitar, with some help from his seniors: "They taught me the ropes and then I just played by the ear. I obviously couldn't afford music education so there was none of the "this is major, minor, augmented, flat, sharp" We just went with the flow and figured it out over time!"
I Shall Be Released…
Majaw's tenaciousness came to the fore soon, when he dropped out of high school and ran away to Calcutta in the mid-60s. What made him say no to formal education?
"I thought the whole system was a mess, yeah. Teachers telling you what to do and students abiding by it blindly... it pissed me off!" says Majaw with his trademark drawl again.
But it wasn't the old chestnut of going to the big city in search of a musical career: "I had no such aims at all, I just wanted to escape. Some of my friends were going to Calcutta and I decided to follow them."
Majaw ended up becoming a daily wage labourer in Ripon Street, close to Park street - where the city's music swirled up in heady notes post sundown, at least in the 60s.
"I worked at a petrol pump, and cleaned floors St Mary's School off Ripon Street, carried around utensils or whatever I could manage." How old was he when he was doing all this? "I don't know man! At that point I could only think of keeping my body and soul together, and making ends meet."
Majaw kept his soul together the only way he knew how to - through music. In the evenings, once he was done with his work, he played gigs with friends he made around town.
"I made some Anglo-Indian and Burmese friends, some Khasi guys too that I knew and we started playing. I had a friend called Richard who got me into his band, Little Richard and the Small Fry's, and we used to play at various events like parties etc," recollects Majaw.
Soon word got around of his music. "When Richard took me into his band, I really was a small fry! Later I played with a band called Oracle Bones at Moulin Rouge, and that was a good break. I also played at other places like Trincas." Unsurprisingly, these nightly gigs helped Majaw gain much more recognition, given that some of the city's most famous musicians - especially jazz and blues, including the indefatigable crooner Usha Uthup, performed at these establishments.
But what suddenly started getting Majaw a lot more attention was the Bob Dylan Tribute concert. The idea for such a concert came to him in 1972, says Majaw.
"I just wanted to do something to show my appreciation. First I thought I'll send him a card or write a letter but then I decided to just organise a concert instead to celebrate his birthday.
And that tradition just stuck. This is the 43rd year of the Dylan concert!" He didn't intend to be a huge party when it started out, insists Majaw. "I only started it out of respect for the man."
Majaw is almost always asked if Dylan will ever show up at his concert. In a New York Times article, Majaw had famously said: "Lou Majaw cannot bring him... Lou is broke as shattered glass, man."
Because Majaw has seen financial constraints up close, his views on the music industry - the corporatisation of music festivals, or tie-ups with private labels by artists - are different from what one may expect from an independent musician.
The corporates pay big bucks and Majaw says it's only practical to want to earn a decent livelihood.
What about the compromise on creative freedom that many musicians complain about? "All bullcrap! Corporate gigs pay decent money, so why not? I love Dylan but if someone asks me to play Elvis or Zappa I will happily oblige. You need money in life. For the food you eat and then to clean up the next day you need toilet paper, for both you need money! So the hypocrisy has to stop," says Majaw.
What's next for Lou Majaw at the ripe age of 68 when he is, as the cliche goes, been there done that already?
Majaw is quick to retort: "I'd like to correct that. For me it's not been there done that, like most people and the media say. It's been there done that... still doing it, always will."
From HT Brunch, May 24
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