This incredible urge to play a musical instrument or sing. Where the heck does it come from? I mean, how does one explain this urge when

  • You are not born into a Bengali family
  • When neither of your parents sing or play any instrument
  • You grew up in a small town at a time when there wasn’t much of a live concert experience to speak of

I attempt to answer this question.

Since music (like books and sports) is such a pleasurable activity that one gets the notion that “Hey, if it’s SO much fun to consume, how much more fun it would be to produce!”

“Guitar!” I said sometime in the early 80’s. Parents were easily appeased and got us (my sister and me) a Spanish guitar. While the rest of the world referred to it without the adjective, in India ‘Spanish’ refers to the classic version and Hawaiian guitar is what we referred to slide guitar (go figure!)

So off we went to the local music teacher (Jishu) in Sector 1 (in the great city of Bokaro in case you were wondering).

Spanish or Hawaiian? he asked us siblings. Almost in unison, we said Spanish. However, for Jishu sir there was only one right answer – Hawaiian! He gently told us that it was the ‘easier’ way to start and sold us the notion that Hawaiian to Spanish was an easier switch than the other way round.

A year of middling dispelled any fantasy that I was the next Knopfler, Rodrigo or Montgomery. Our humble beginnings were in Hindustani ragas actually: raag Bhairavi, raag Yaman, raag Peelu, raag Malkosh were some that I recall.

It was a lot of fun. Sure there was no danger of reaching virtuosity but it was satisfying as we ‘lite mastered’ them. We graduated to guitar renditions of light Indian music (Jaane man jaane man tere do nayan was one tune that I was able to master).

The big family move to Vizag placed my guitar aspirations indefinitely on hold.

Years later in college, after I discovered a bona fide rocker (Aditya), I gave the old ‘Spanish’ a fighting try. Aditya was generous with his time and taught me some chords. He warned me that my guitar’s neck was warped so I could expect severe distress to my fingers. My travails, insufficient talent and application, and a ready excuse of a sub-optimal instrument, meant that the guitar was safely returned home in a few semesters.

My bachelor years in Chicago would throw up act 2 of my creative aspiration. By this time I was a serious Jethro Tull groupie having amassed 90% of their discography.

This time the urge took shape as a silver flute – homage to Ian Anderson (obviously). The Old Town School of Folk Music wasn’t far from my apartment and I enrolled. A beautiful Gemeinhardt flute was procured. My ‘lucky’ teacher was Judith Johnson Brown, a graceful gray haired lady with a demeanor of a lady Jeeves, polite to a fault, and patient.

I had to learn to read sheet music — poco a poco crescendo, decrescendo, staccato, B-sharp, B-flat, and stuff like that.

I would practice. But not obsessively enough because I’d be stuck on the same piece for weeks. Sometimes for months.

Getting the embouchure right took some doing. My job was made all the more arduous because of a quirky epilogue sound with each breath. I was willing to ignore that sound but not Judith.

Plodded through some minuets and some lullabies (yes – some of them were really easy to learn).

I recall a conversation with Judith close to the 1 year mark.

Me (in a self critical mood): “I don’t think I’m making enough progress. I should probably quit.”

She: “Clearly you are getting something out of it because I see that you are practicing and I see you sincerely putting all this effort in class.”

I considered her assessment. Either she was being overly kind or felt I couldn’t handle the truth.

A recent acquisition of Jethro Tull’s sheet music (flute) scores had given a fresh fillip to my struggles.

Judith scanned the music and ruled it as too hard for me but, after seeing my crestfallen face, picked a piece that I could attempt.

My final months were a faithful grinding attempt at (maybe) Living in the Past (Tull fans will get this).

A weekend music workshop at the Old Town School kindled an interest in (arguably) the oldest wind blown instrument known to man – the Australian didgeridoo. The word “didgeridoo” is an onomatopoeia made up by the first British colonists. A more appropriate term (although hardly known in pop culture circles) is yidaki, which is one of the more common official aboriginal names for the instrument.

I was not a minimalist then but the fact that the didgeridoo was just a branch of a eucalyptus tree (hollowed-out by termites) and that the elemental drone would be produced just by vibrating lips greatly appealed to me.

A few years later, on a vacation to Australia, I purchased a didgeridoo. Over the years, dabbling with it, largely in an experimental fashion with the only guidance coming from YouTube videos, has been satisfying. I was able to produce a predictable drone and could also generate some funky sounds but hit the wall on circular breathing. The beautiful yidaki still lives with me and maybe someday it will demand that I pick it up again.

You can only dilettante thrice but hey.. maybe third time lucky, huh?

Closing notes:

  • After 23 years of disuse, I’m glad to mention that the Gemeinhardt has finally found a home – a home in a multi-instrumentalist’s house where finally somebody is putting the G through its paces. Thank you R.
  • If you haven’t seen or heard of the didgeridoo before, here are a few recommendations: this video of Yanni (which also features a captivating jugalbandi) or this insane performance by Xavier Rudd (where he is on percussion and yidaki simultaneously).
  • If I had seen this most excellent tutorial from David Hudson earlier, I’d have surely made more progress.