Beyond the beach, feni, and dance
Remo Fernandes is keeping to the music he knows best, even at a time when popular cultural expression requires that one has a firm footing in Hindi.
REMO FERNANDES is a man of many fascinating cultures. Equally fascinating is his musical journey – singing that famous Portuguese number, “My darling mother”, for his mother at the age of five, playing the guitar in subway stations in Europe, composing Konkani and Portuguese songs on that intensely mystified space, Goa, giving Bollywood the chartbuster, “Pyar Tho Hona Hi Tha”, getting to know something about French with the help of his wife Michelle… The man, in a way, mirrors the cultural make-up of Goa. And his training in architecture only adds to his versatility. For someone who began his career singing in hotels, his travel to the top of Indipop charts has been remarkable. He was in Bangalore last week reliving some of his songs, and there was just enough time to catch-up with the man who is symptomatic of a larger cultural change occurring in the world of music.
Excerpts from an interview:
You were one of the earliest Indipop artistes. Your early albums were in English and the Hindi songs came much later. You also came in at a time when satellite TV was not at its peak. Today, Hindi is the hegemonic language of music, and it is the time of the satellite TV. How do you reinvent yourself through these changes?
When I started out, there was no satellite, or private TV. By the time all this came in, the scene had shifted to Hindi pop, and coming from Goa, I felt pretty insecure about singing in that language. But the few film songs I subsequently sang gave me the confidence required, and I realised that people liked and accepted my accent for what it was so, I eventually did come out with one Hindi pop album, O Meri Munni, which went to number one in all the charts. As far as reinventing myself, I’d rather simply follow my musical instincts, and the reinventing takes care of itself. Like in my previous album, India Beyond, which shows a very introspective, contemplative, musically mature and serious side; and like my new album slated for release in November, which will show more of the above, but with spiritual leanings added to it.
Contemporary mythology about Goa is beach, feni and dance. But there is more to it, given its Portuguese history. The Latin American, French, and Indian (Konkani) touch to Goa makes it an interesting cultural composite. Does your music reflect this compositeness?
There certainly is more to Goa than even its Portuguese history. The French were never here, by the way, even though I certainly have my dose of both French “occupation and influence” having a French wife, and having lived in France.
and hitch-hiked around eight countries in Europe and North Africa, armed with haversack and tent and guitar, earning my way through by playing in pedestrian streets and underground stations and restaurants, and passing my hat around, for two and a half years before meeting her back here in Goa but that’s another story. Of course, all the influences you mention show in my music as do many others I picked along the way, during my journeys and exposures to different cultures, arts, peoples, and music. However, I hope these influences show as a seamless blend, not as fragmented intentional inserts, because I try to create fusion music through thoughtless instinct and intuition, not conscious labour and planning.
Many of your albums articulate social messages against corruption, drugs, the problem of Aids and sexual liberation, and the communal problem. At the time you composed these songs, what were your anticipations about their marketability? Because, we are told that a group even such as The Beatles had to struggle initially when recording companies were not keen to take them up. What inspired the move into the “social message genre” of music?
Ha… if my concern had been issues like “marketability”, I would never have got into original pop music at all, leave alone social messages, because original pop had no market or marketability in our country at the time.
Record companies didn’t give out contracts to non-filmi, non-disco artistes. Radio and TV were government monopolies, where the babus treated “pop” and “rock” as untouchable alien entities. I had to record and distribute my first albums on my own. Incidentally, there was no assured “marketability” in a 15-minute marathon song without lyrics when I created Jalwa either; and today, there is no assured “marketability” for albums such as India Beyond or the one I’m about to release. My prime concern has always been to please myself musically first – I mean, if my own music doesn’t please me fully, what’s the use of creating it? If after it pleases me, it pleases others as well, that’s a bonus. But I believe an artiste’s prime duty is to please oneself, be totally true to oneself, first and foremost. I know this sounds egocentric, but it isn’t. Ironically, being true to oneself is an artiste’s duty to the public.
How would you place yourself vis-†-vis artistes such as Shubha Mudgal, Hariharan and Lesley Lewis, and Daler Mehendi, who are now the stars of Indipop.
Interestingly, some among them have moved away from classical, having sensed a good market for Indipop.
I do not like to comment on fellow artistes, and I don’t like to “place myself” in relation to them. Each one has, or should have, his or her own identity; I mean, abroad, you don’t slot Britney Spears with Tracy Chapman, or Pavarotti with Ricky Martin. Its only here in India that we tend to dump everyone in the same common basket called Indipop.
Besides, being a “star” is something so maya-like; I mean, I’m a “star” when a hit song of mine is released, and during my intermittent creative hiatus, I’m not a “non-star” until the next hit is released. I’ve been through this cycle so many times in my life by now, I find it amusing to observe people’s differing attitudes towards me during the two swings of this eternal pendulum.
Being a “star”, I’ve learnt, is flimsy, temporary, dependent on the charts or on the people’s tastes of the moment. Being a musician, on the other hand, is forever.
And I’ve always seen myself as just a musician (albeit a complete musician, if I may be allowed a vanity,) not a “star”.
How original/specific is Indipop? There is a view that it has largely been imitative of Western pop. What is, in your view, Indian or original about Indipop, other than the fact the songs are sung in an Indianised version of English or in an Indian language itself?
Even though I don’t quite see myself as one of its proponents, I think it’s very unfair to say that Indipop has been imitative of Western pop. Hindi film music, yes, with music directors shamelessly lifting song after song, right from Raj Kapoor’s days. But most of Indipop, even in its most commercial and irritating avatar, certainly has found its own rhythms and grooves, and melodic lines, strongly based on Indian folk be it Bhangra, Banjara, Goan, Lavni, or Dandiya. A few Indian pop and rock acts do try to create songs consciously, excluding any Indian influences except for the language in which the lyrics are sung these songs are in purely Western styles like rock and country, and girl/boy-band pop, and hey, if that’s what they want to do, it’s cool. I think the worst thing to have in art is a rigid set of rules. I mean, The Beatles did purely Indian raag kind of songs without guitars and drums, with nothing but sitars and tables, and we all swelled with pride and applauded this why can’t we accept and appreciate it when things are done the other way round?
India Beyond is your most recent album. What does it signal about your immediate future?
In general, my albums signal a time which was “the present”, while the album was being recorded, not the future… One mercifully never knows what the future will bring, or else life and specially creativity would be boringly predictable.
The “present”, which India Beyond represents, is a desire to explore the calm, meditative side of life as against high-voltage energy, pure entertainment, or even socio-political involvement.
It is music to listen to while doing contemplative things like waking up in the morning, watching a sunset or a sunrise, walking on a lonely beach, driving in the countryside, having a hot scented bath with incense and candles burning around you, making sweet sensuous love… in other words, it is music for your soul.
Has your music gone into aspects of Konkani identity or nationality?
I am a Goan, and that means that the Konkani language and Goan music have always played a very important role in my formation. These inherent backgrounds show in every song of mine, be it in English or in Hindi again, I hope, in the undercurrents, not in obvious in-your-face ways other than a “taa” instead of a “thaa” in “Pyaar to hona hi….”
In Munni, though, I recorded a straightforward Goan folk song called “Maya ya”, and another from Daman, called “Maria pita che”. Besides, in India Beyond, I have recorded four ancient Goan temple chants sung by tribal women from the village where I live.
They have been singing these chants, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, in a temple in a coconut grove behind my house, in the same rough-cut, undiluted way for centuries.
I invited them to my studio one day; they sang the chants just the way they sing them in the temple, and I then added electronic dimensions the way I felt them. I also have an album called Old Goan Gold, made up of nothing but Konkani songs on one side, and Portuguese songs on the other songs I grew up listening to on Radio Goa and on my dad’s record collection as a kid. I’ve released Old Goan Gold, solely in Goa. Maybe I’ll release it nationwide one day.
Hindu On Net