Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rhythm and blues


Meeting a priest when he was a child and knocking on composer Naushad’s door in Mumbai changed the course of musician Jerry Amaldev’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

On Good Friday, the Tata Oil Mills Catholic Employees Association would conduct the ‘Way Of The Cross’ by foot from Chittoor to Fort Kochi. The participants would enter 14 churches (the equivalent of the stations of the Cross), to pray and sing hymns.

In 1947, Jerry Amaldev’s uncle, M.S. John, who worked for Tata, took the eight-year-old as the main singer. “At midnight I was singing in the St. Francis Assisi Cathedral,” says Jerry. “My boyish voice rang clear in the empty church.” The parish priest, Fr. Michael Panakal was musically inclined (many years later he would be the founder-director of Cochin Arts and Communications).

As Jerry finished singing a solo, Fr. Panakal told John, “This boy sings well, but he is losing a beat somewhere. Can you bring him tomorrow to my office?”

The next day Jerry met the priest who corrected the mistake. Later, after getting permission from his family, Fr. Panakal began training the boy. “It was a turning point for me,” says Jerry. “I had come into the hands of a good mentor.”

Later, again through Fr. Panakal, Jerry became the lead singer of the Bosco Kala Samithi orchestra. Once, at a function at Maharaja’s College, Jerry belted out several popular Hindi songs. “Soon, there was a thunderous applause,” he says. It was the day when many students had received medals for sports events and, in appreciation, several pinned them on Jerry’s shirt. “I got 52 medals that evening,” he says, with a smile.

When Jerry was fifteen years old he decided to become a priest. “My uncle, Fr. Joseph Moonjapilly, made a big impression on me,” he says. “He was a vivacious personality and walked so briskly his cassock used to fly behind him.”

Jerry joined the Society of the Divine Word in 1955 at Indore and came under the tutelage of German priests. For the next ten years, Jerry learnt the tabla, the piano, the organ, as well as north Indian classical vocal music: khayals, dhrupads, thumris and tappas.

Soon, he realised that priesthood was not his cup of tea. “And so I bade goodbye to my superiors who were gracious enough to understand my point of view,” he says. Thereafter, Jerry left for Mumbai.

One morning, he went to Carter Road and knocked on Hindi film composer Naushad’s door. “Naushad himself opened the door,” says Jerry. “I told him I was one of his greatest fans and had been singing his songs from childhood.”

Jerry began singing the songs one after the other. “He asked me whether I was a South Indian and I said yes,” says Jerry. “He was amazed that I sang so flawlessly.”

Naushad took a liking to Jerry, but when the young man said he wanted to sing for the movies, he laughed and said, “As long as Mohammed Rafi is around there is no chance.”

It would take a year before Jerry became Naushad’s assistant at a salary of Rs 100 per month in 1965. And he received some valuable tips from the master composer. “The life of the song is in the lyrics,” said Naushad. “When you know the words, you can give the melody. When you have the melody you can provide the instrumentation.”

After five years with Naushad, Jerry got a scholarship to study music at Cornell University in New York. After getting his master’s degree, Jerry spent several years teaching music before he decided to return to Kochi in 1980. Thereafter, through his brother-in-law, M.X. Joseph, he met the film producer Navodaya Appachan.

“He introduced me to Fasil, who asked me to compose the music for ‘Manjil Virinja Pookkal’,” says Jerry. After recording the songs, Jerry went to Mumbai to try his luck in Bollywood. “I stayed there for six months,” he says. “Many directors told me to hang around. But by then ‘Manjil’ had become a huge hit. So, lots of people were calling me from Kerala to give me work.”

Jerry understood the impact of ‘Manjil’ when he travelled by bus from Mumbai. “From Mangalore to Ernakulam, the songs of ‘Manjil’ were heard at all the major stops,” he says. Today, of course, these songs have become embedded in the consciousness of Malayalis.

Jerry went on to compose the music for 75 films. But his standing in the industry became shaky when he said in an interview to a Chennai newspaper that was an element of effeminacy in soft, romantic songs, as opposed to the heroic style in earlier films. “Someone, not well versed in English, told Yesudas that I said he had a girl’s voice,” says Jerry.

Thereafter, Jerry had a recording session with Yesudas, but he did not turn up. “When I called him, Yesudas replied that he would not come. ‘You said I have a feminine voice,’ he said. I replied, ‘Are you joking? Who can say you have a feminine voice? Even if you think I said that I beg your pardon one million times.’”

But Yesudas did not turn up.

Later, they made up, but a black shadow fell over Jerry’s career. Slowly, he got fewer and fewer assignments till it stopped altogether in 1995. Today, Jerry is the head of the music department of Choice school as well as the director of the popular choral group, ‘Rock of ages.’ A stoic Jerry says, “Life is like a river, and one has to learn to flow along.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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