Lou Majaw was the first person we saw in Shillong. We had just arrived, paid the taxi, checked in and were walking up and down Laitumkhrah looking for Cafe Shillong. All of a sudden, he stepped out from what looked like a department store to cross the road. Long white hair, multi coloured cowboy boots, blue jeans – I knew it was him. He wasn't facing our direction. We didn't get a side profile. But I was sure.
The first time I heard Lou Majaw perform I knew it was a big deal because my friends from Tezpur and Gangtok told me so. A cult musician in the hills of North East India, Lou Majaw is most famous for the annual Bob Dylan festival he started in 1972. This concert in Pune, like most others, was also a Dylan tribute show. I reached late. The set was almost over, evident from the fact that Lou, in his short denim shorts, was now shirtless, rocking 'Forever Young'. I didn't get the hype. The next time, I got there in time to stand up front, right by the stage. So close that with a small push, I could have touched his bright, striped socks.
A concert with Lou Majaw is almost always the same. The same set list, the same breaks in songs for the audience to sing along to, the same moment at which the shirt goes off. The truth is I have heard better musicians. But for me, that's not the point. Lou Majaw has a passion that, if you let it, blasts through the standard cover band line up and a 'greatest hits' song selection. He was meant to perform.
It was Saturday at Cafe Shillong. There would be live music at 6pm tomorrow, Mercy told us. She gave us free WiFi and took our orders for coffee. "May I play on Sunday as well?" I asked. I was travelling from the Calcutta Classical Guitar Festival, my guitar, the nylon-stringed Yamaha I first learned to finger pick on, was in the guesthouse.
"You play the guitar?" she asked. "So nice. Why don't you play something now? Entertain the customers?"
In a corner, near the Christmas tree, there was an acoustic guitar on a stand, an upright bongo, an amplifier and a mixer. The signed Les Paul on the wall had a mention in the Lonely Planet.
"Tomorrow," I said, "I'll play at 5." We left in search of momos and rum. After a few drinks, the realisation that I might never again see Lou Majaw in Shillong began to hit.
The next day, I found out what it is to bask in the sun on a cold winter's day in Shillong. Everything moved a little slower. The feeling of being thoughtful without having any thoughts, said Anjali after butter-soaked omelette and butter-soaked toast. I agreed. That sensation of being slightly stoned continued as long as the sun was out. In the afternoon, we left my guitar with Mercy, in the corner of Cafe Shillong.
"Tell me, does Lou Majaw live near? I saw him yesterday." I asked her.
"Lou Majaw? He was here yesterday evening." I cursed the momos and rum we had left in search of.
"We have live music today, he'll come at 6," she said. "It's starting at 5," I reminded her. "I'm playing then. Tell him to come early?"
At 4.45 pm, I was back. My guitar was in the same corner I had left it. And right by my guitar was Lou Majaw. Mercy introduced us.
"How long have you been here?"
"We got in yesterday afternoon."
"So you've already seen it all. Shillong's a one-horse town."
Mercy said I played the guitar.
"That's my classical guitar," I said.
"You left it there?" I got told off for leaving it like that. Someone could have kicked it and it could have got broken.
"Well, Mercy and I have an understanding," I said. (It was kind of true. What she had said was, "If you don't come back to collect the guitar, it's mine.")
"Actually I was hoping to play something this evening," I said. We walked to the mike that had been set up for the evening's performance. "Where's your footstool?" Lou wanted to know. The café was still nearly empty: there were just two men at another table. I began with the Spanish Romance. Lou Majaw clapped. I played a few more: some preludes, two-minute sweets by Tarrega, a couple of movements from La Cathedral. He paid close attention, clapping for each. About five minutes in, Lou got up and came to the microphone. He asked for less rattling from the kitchen, for quieter conversations and more attention to the guitarist who had come all the way from Pune. I chose my next piece. BWV1007, Bach's prelude from the first Cello Suite. "Whoa, that was intense," he said.
A couple of minutes later, the only other people in the café, the two men, got up and took their coffee outside. I continued playing. My first ever live show for an audience of one, made up of Lou Majaw.
The author is a graphic artist and guitarist documenting the story of the classical guitar in India