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A Goan music saga

Saxophonist Braz Gonsalves is a music powerhouse. And so is the rest of his family. A look at how the family has been instrumental in contributing to Goa’s rich music culture

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT NETWORK

There’s still a good 40 minutes to go before the concert begins. But the foyer of Kala Academy, Panaji is already packed. Quite a departure from the usual Goan habit of reaching a venue after the scheduled time. Tickets for the concert have long sold out. Titled ‘Raga Rock’, the evening is already turning out to be a fitting celebration of the life of a great Goan musician…

How it all began

And indeed saxophonist Braz Gonsalves has come a long way since those early childhood days spent learning music in a parochial school in his village of Neura. Coming from a family of seven children, Braz, whose father was a music teacher (‘mestri’) himself, was the only son to pick up and follow music seriously.

“Every parish in Goa had this parochial school with a ‘mestri’ during Portuguese time. Here, we had to learn to read and sing the ‘solfegio’ (music scales), and various other aspects of music theory. Once we had learned this, we then had to sing in the church in voices,” says Braz, who credits this strong base for helping him succeed in the music world. “‘Solfegio’ is very important. Today, anywhere you go in the world they will ask you if you can read music. If you don’t know this, there is only so far that you can go. To go higher, your roots must be strong,” he says. And many early musicians who made it big in the music world have done so because of this strong base of learning in the parochial schools, he says.

From singing, the youngsters in the school then progressed to learning music instruments with Braz first picking up the violin and the clarinet. “While some learned but did not continue, others had the talent in them and that’s how we became musicians,” says Braz, who later picked up the saxophone, which became his main musical instrument.

Early strides in music

Goa however had nothing much to offer musicians other than playing at events like weddings and funerals, says Braz. And hence he began looking outside. His first stint was at a circus. “Unlike now, where they play recorded music, at that time, circuses used to hire live bands,” he says. Braz was part of this circus for a year and then later got a job in a band in Delhi.

At that time Braz was staying at the St Francis Xavier Club in Delhi. Along with him was a trumpet player. “He used to observe me practising everyday and then suggested my name for his band which was in need of a saxophone player,” says Braz. It was with this band that Braz then travelled to Kashmir and remembers playing in the Srinagar Club established during the British times. “Although the British had left by then, this club was still there. And every night the colonels and their wives would come there to dine and dance,” he says.

From there on Braz journeyed to cities like Kolkatta and Mumbai, where he met and collaborated with many jazz greats including Louiz Banks and Karl Peters, slowly making a name for himself in the jazz world. “In those days, Park Street in Kolkatta was full of restaurants with live music going on,” he says. Now, though, he adds, none of this remains.

Forming ‘Sangam’, a jazz fusion band

Braz was also part of a band with Louiz Banks. In fact together with him and the rest, they formed ‘Sangam’, a unique jazz fusion band. “We were to perform at the ‘Jazz Yatra’ in 1980 which had some great bands coming in from places like the UK, Germany, and Poland. Niranjan Zaveri who used to organise this music festival then told us that he wanted us to play jazz together with Indian classical music,” says Braz, admitting that he had previously had this thought himself having studied a little bit of Indian ragas. Zaveri also mentioned to them that he had gone to a Carnatic music concert recently and suggested they get in touch with the singer. The musicians got together and later performed at the event to an overwhelming response, getting some good reviews in magazines like DownBeat. Zaveri later booked ‘Sangam’ for concerts in countries like Poland, Yugoslavia, Budapest, Germany, Portugal, Russia, and China.

A devotion to music

This was however not Braz’s first visit to China, having previously been invited to play in the Asian All Star Band in 1977 where he was the only Indian. He was also invited to play for the Cascais Jazz Festival in Portugal in 1978, and later returned to Macao, China for another concert in 1983. It was at this concert that Braz played one of his original tunes which went on to gather a lot of attention.

“The performance was at the ruins of a church and at the end of the concert I played a tune which until that time I had not named. After the concert, a lot of people came up to me telling me that it was very touching and wanted to know its name. I named it ‘I Love Jesus and Mary’,” he says.

Braz later performed this tune at a Goan association in Canada in 1988. It so happened that another Goan music great Chris Perry also happened to hear the tune. “He told me that I should play the tune at his funeral. Of course I didn’t take him seriously then,” he says. However, years later, when Chris Perry passed away, Braz did play the tune at his funeral upon Chris Perry’s sons’ insistence. “Recently too during the naming of the street after him in Margao, I played the tune again,” says Braz.

In fact, today Braz only plays gospel music, usually at retreats and at church. The turning point happened in Canada when a broken hand made him rethink his life. “The Holy Spirit has been my teacher, whatever I have learned and whatever I am is because of the Holy Spirit,” he says.

Love and romance

And while Braz Gonsalves is certainly a name one thinks about when it comes to jazz, his wife Yvonne has also created an indelible mark in the jazz music world.

Daughter of noted Goan musician Chic Chocolate, Yvonne met Braz through her father. At that time, Braz was slowly making a name for himself, playing in jazz clubs around Mumbai. Taking a liking for the young musician, Chic Chocolate decided to invite Braz to his home. But it was only later at a relative’s wedding that the romance blossomed. “I was one of the bridesmaids and he came and picked me up for a dance. He didn’t really know how to dance and we were just strolling around on the dance floor,” says Yvonne and continues, “During the dance, he didn’t propose to me, but he straight away told me that he was going to marry me!” The couple got engaged in 1966 on Yvonne’s birthday and married a year later.

A jazz singer arrives

And while she hadn’t been singing much all this time, apart from doing a few shows with her dad, Yvonne had of course grown up with music all around her.

“My sisters and I would often sing around the house. While there were no CDs or cassettes at that time, we used to tune in to the radio and listen to the ‘Voice of America’. Also when daddy used to have his rehearsals in the house we used to watch the singer and later use our hair brushes and pretend to imitate her,” she recalls chuckling. Yvonne and her sisters also filled out plenty of notebooks with song lyrics. “I must have had close to 30 song books,” she says.

It was only after her daughters Sharon and Laura, grew up a bit that Yvonne began singing professionally around the year 1978. She performed at hotels like Holiday and The Oberoi in Mumbai and sang with Braz and company too. “We didn’t stick to jazz, we also did RnB, performing tunes from Diana Ross to Michael Jackson, Cindy Lauper and even Madonna,” she says.

Some of her siblings too have been a part of the music scene like Philip Vaz, a bass guitarist, late Ervin Vaz who was a drummer, singer Kitu Sequeira who is married to Steve Sequeira, a drummer and keyboardist. Till date, Yvonne still performs at a few places around Goa like Cantare in Saligao.

Music in her blood

While both their daughters sing, Sharon in particular has made a name for herself in the Goan music scene as well.

“Growing up there was always music in the house. Every Monday, which used to be their off day, my dad, Louiz Banks and the rest of the band would jam up in the apartment in Kolkatta and later in Mumbai,” she says.

She also recalls watching her mother performing in hotels. “She used to sing with a band at Holiday which film stars often frequented. In fact, I think she has one of the biggest repertoires of jazz songs.”

But Sharon herself wasn’t too keen on the stage. She had learned the piano and participated regularly in choral groups and school talent shows but that was about it. In class 11 though, she was part of a local band in her parish ward, which continued right through her college years. But the singing was just as a hobby, she admits. Side by side she also took gigs for back up singing in the Bollywood film industry.

“After graduating I began working and alongside became the founding member of the band ‘Aqua Flow’ in 1990, which went on to become a popular band in Mumbai. The founder of the band was Tony Dias who later went on to form the ‘Cascades,’” she says. It was here that she met her husband Darryl Rodrigues, who was the pianist.

After being a part of a few other bands, the couple today are part of the noted Goan band ‘The Syndicate’, and Sharon remains active in the music space. She is however more into the pop genre and barring a six month contract at a hotel, she hasn’t done much jazz singing. “But eventually I would like to do that at some point,” she says smiling.

In his grandfather’s footsteps

Of the three children that she and Darryl have, the eldest Jarryd is already making waves in the Goan music scene. He has also taken up after his grandfather on the saxophone, charming one and all with his talent.

But Jarryd admits that for a long time he had no idea about his grandfather’s jazz legacy. “When I was growing up ‘papa’ was already in his renewal phase. He was only playing gospel music and mainly in church. Although I had heard a lot of people talking about how good he was, I never really got to hear him play jazz,” he says.

However in the final year of mass media course in college, Jarryd worked on a documentary on his grandfather for his final year project. “It was then that I began learning his story, about all the people that he had worked with and all that he had accomplished,” he says. Having previously been divided between becoming a music producer or an instrumentalist, his grandfather’s tale sealed the choice for him. And although he previously played the piano, having been coached by his father, Jarryd decided to take lessons in saxophone from his grandfather about four years ago.

Three years ago, Jarryd began performing professionally. “The first person who gave me the opportunity was Bosco D’Souza, father of Rhys D’Souza, also a saxophonist. In fact it was Rhys who suggested that his father give me a chance to play with him at Cavala in Baga where he was the resident pianist,” says Jarryd, who played with him every Sunday for over a year. “I got more in touch with the instrument and also learned from him. He taught me to play a lot of songs, not just jazz but also rock n roll, blues and pop,” he says. Apart from also performing with his parents’ band sometimes and also playing as a duo with Jonathan Furtado at Rice Mill in Morjim, Jarryd then joined a group of youngsters who formed the band The Coffee Cats. The band does a lot of jazz funk and Stevie Wonder. “We try and make it more interesting for the audience by picking up tracks that are more upbeat and groovy,” he says. But he admits that they don’t get as many gigs as other popular bands in Goa. “Of course they have more experience but it is also the style of music that they do like retro, pop, and Bollywood which is more in demand as opposed to jazz,” he says.

As a saxophonist though, Jarryd is open to trying out new genres. “I do a lot of Michael Jackson and also pop music. I also do a lot of new stuff like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran. I’m open to playing anything whether Bollywood or Hip Hop. It is of course a challenge as with different genres the style varies, especially when you are not used to it. But then it is interesting and I take it more as a learning of something new outside my comfort zone and I enjoy the challenge,” he says.

But there aren’t many takers for the saxophone today, and Jarryd puts it down to lack of sufficient teachers for this instrument. “Also, not many people know about this instrument. Everybody wants to learn the guitar or keyboard or drums as those are the instruments that they are used to listening to. If they were to come across this instrument more often then maybe they would take it up,” he says.

And Braz has nothing but words of praise for his grandson. “He is so busy with his practices. He knows that he has to reach that level. I am surprised at how far he has come in such a short time. He was indeed born to be a musician,” says Braz.

Jarryd meanwhile is hoping he can emulate his grandfather not just in music but also with regards to his approach to life. “The thing I want to pick up from him is his humility. Despite all that he has accomplished, he remains so humble. And I think that is one of the reasons I didn’t know about his success for so long,” he says. “If I could be even one tenth the person that he is I will be happy.”

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