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The taste of live music

In India, we’ve always believed that food and music do mix. But is the golden age of live music at restaurants over, wonders Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Nov 29, 2014 17:13 IST
Vir Sanghvi

There are few countries in the world in which it is acceptable to play live music during dinner at a serious restaurant. In France, most Michelin-starred chefs would shoot any musician who dared perform while guests were enjoying dinner. At the Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon, a guy used to come and play the accordion at the end of the dinner service – and even this became a source of controversy.

In India, however, we have always taken the line that food and music do mix. In the Bombay of my childhood, nearly every restaurant had a band, usually of Goan or Anglo-Indian origin (Sweet Lorraine at the microphone) and the fancy hotels splashed out on mini-orchestras led by the likes of legendary bandleader, Goody Seervai.

The Indian food was nearly always accompanied by (depending on how pretentious the restaurant was), classical dance, ghazals or film songs.

By the Seventies as chefs came of age, they began to resent the musicians. When the Bombay Taj re-opened the legendary Rendezvous French (well, kind of French) restaurant on the roof of its new Tower Wing in 1973, it included a stage so that bands could perform. Not all of these bands played the bland muzak you might expect.

I remember Nandu Bhende singing Riders On The Storm as waiters rushed around with plates of Lobster Thermidor. Eventually, the chefs had their way and the band was exiled. But sales dropped so drastically that they had to recall the musicians. (One popular band of that era was called The Phantom Revival. When its music proved indispensable, the kitchen took to snidely referring to it as The Frantic Survival).

And often the music was very good. The best singer in Bombay (and, I imagine, Calcutta, where she moved) was Usha Uthup who showed up the Lorraines in their slinky dresses by wearing South Indian saris on stage and belting out Santana songs with great abandon. (Evil Ways was one early favourite).

I never lived in Calcutta in the Seventies but even when I got there in the Eighties, long after Park Street had ceased to rock, everyone still raved about Pam Crain and Braz Gonsalves.

One reason why people liked to go to restaurants with live music was that, in the old days, a night out was relatively rare and so couples wanted a bit of everything: eating, drinking, singing-along and dancing.

The big hotels had rooftop nightclubs (Café Chinois at the Delhi Oberoi and The Supper Club at the Bombay Oberoi) where well-known singers (Sharon Prabhakar, for instance) and second-rate foreign imports like Freddie Tira and Penny Lane would perform even as guests squirted the garlic butter from their Chicken Kievs on to their shirts.

Peter Mehta has a versatile voice and can switch from Neil Diamond to Don Henley in a beat .

In Delhi, Bali Hi was a legend. Mike Fay ran the city’s best known group and among the musicians who played in the restaurant was the great Loy Mendonsa, now of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Brian Silas played Hindi film songs on the piano, downstairs at Mayur, and also had a dedicated following.

These days, some restaurants follow the Western principle of restricting live music to the bars – you will hardly ever find a band at a fancy Oberoi or Taj restaurant. But some chains, such as ITC, keep the music coming, providing employment to musicians and singers at all their hotels.

I can understand why haute cuisine and live music do not necessarily mix. But I do love listening to a good singer. For instance, the main reason I go to West View at the Maurya is to hear Peter Mehta sing.

Peter has been doing this for a long time, first as part of a band and then as a solo guitar-playing singer. He has one of those versatile voices that can switch from Neil Diamond to Don Henley in a beat and now, as guests want funkier music, he plays an electronic keyboard and rocks the place most nights.

Some experiences call for a gentler sound. The Taj Palace’s formula for The Orient Express has always been to allow a (usually white) female singer and a (usually brown) pianist to play in the bar so that while guests in the restaurant cannot always see the musicians they can hear the music.

The singers tend to be of variable quality but the sound is held together by pianist Lawrence Ireland. And often, I actually prefer it when the singer takes a break and Lawrence plays alone.

A solo show: The singers at The Orient Express tend be of variable quality but the sound is held together by pianist Lawrence Ireland.

Guys like Peter and Lawrence do this because of their love of music. They don’t necessarily make a great living out of it. Peter used to take music lessons as a way of supplementing his earnings and Lawrence says that only after Taljinder Singh took over as general manager and raised his payment can he make ends meets.

But how satisfying can it be to sing in a restaurant where many of the guests pay no attention to your performance at all? The truth is that Indians are the most graceless listeners.

We ignore the musicians. We rarely applaud, even when they’ve sung particularly well. We shout and talk loudly when they are performing. And few of us ever bother to do what would be considered entirely natural in the West: buy the singer a drink if we’ve liked the performance.

Understandably most musicians are reluctant to say anything that might be interpreted as being rude about the guests. But you can tell that, at some deep level, they are hurt by our insensitivity and indifference. They rationalise it to themselves.

One musician told me he thought of his restaurant performances as practice sessions. Lawrence says he loves the piano so much (he is classically trained) that the music keeps him going. And Peter is much too tactful to say very much on the subject.

But my guess is that the guys have it easier than the girls. As you have probably noticed, many (if not most) of the female singers in Delhi are from the North East and they have learnt how to live with the boorishness of the national mainstream. They are used to being called ‘Chinks’ or worse and are often just glad for the opportunity to perform.

Valentina Gangte (above) has a great blues voice, which she honed in a church choir in Manipur.

I asked Valentina Gangte, who has a great blues voice, how she learned to sing. The answer was that as a Mizo who was partly brought up in Manipur, she took her religion seriously and joined the church choir. Once her voice was trained, it was easy to move on to other kinds of music.

Angpache (yes, I know; they call her Rini) comes from a family of Mizo preachers and she too perfected her skills in church. But because her parents were hooked on to the music of the Sixties and the Seventies, she grew up on a diet of Janis Joplin, Carole King and Carly Simon.

That is still the music she loves but she is professional enough to give her audiences whatever they want to hear when she performs at Delhi’s Le Meridien.

Angpache grew up on a diet of Janis Joplin and Carole King.

And what do people want to hear? All singers are agreed that cable TV and the Internet have created a new generation of well-informed and savvy listeners who want to hear the latest songs.

No longer can you get away with endless repeats of

I Will Survive

(just as well; it is my least favourite song in the world) or play

Tequila Sunrise


Ain’t No Sunshine

for middle-aged bores like me. You need to play what’s popular and current.

And yet, though the North-East sends us more good pop singers each week than the rest of India throws up all year, I do believe that the golden age of live music is behind us.

Strange laws make it difficult for singers to perform in many cities (Bombay, for instance) and audiences are unwilling to pay even a little more for dinner to accommodate the cost of a live band. We are happy to hear live music but we won’t pay for it or give the musicians the respect they deserve.

So all of the North Easterners who sing are very young (Rini started when she was 18) and will drift into other better-paid professions when they can.

And we’ll be left with the likes of Lawrence and Peter who do it for the sake of the music. When they retire, the era will come to a complete end. And sadly, it’s piped muzak that will take over.

From HT Brunch, November 30
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