Take a sad song, make it better
Ahead of a documentary on him being screened, we meet one of Mumbai's last surviving funeral musicians
We are waiting with another person for Joe Vessoakar outside his house in a tiny bylane off Bandra's Chapel Road when a lively, almost musical voice calls out saying, "Tanaz," our companion's name. Vessoakar is standing at the mouth of the narrow road wearing black trousers, a blue shirt, black waistcoat and a beaming smile that reveals his happiness at meeting her. There is a hat protecting his bald head from the sun and dark sunglasses covering his eyes. That's his uniform when he's at work, and the multi-instrumentalist - one of Mumbai's last remaining funeral musicians - has just returned from one that ended around noon, and we help him carry a large drum and a suitcase with a flugelhorn inside it while he leads us up a flight of steps to his cosy home.
A still from the film, What Man, Joe!
This home is known in the area as The Sound of Music. Four generations of musicians have been practising various types of instruments here over the years, their notes wafting into the houses of neighbours in the mornings. It was Vessoakar's father who first started the family legacy of playing at funerals, sensing a business opportunity there. So, of the 10 children he had, he inducted his sons into picking up instruments like the clarinet and snare drum, and formed a band with them that played music as funeral processions walked the streets of Mumbai from a deceased person's home to the church where the last rites would be performed. Vessoakar was only seven years old when he played his first such gig, and around seven decades later, he says, "Oh, I must have played at over one lakh funerals by now."
Rafeeq Ellias, the director
It's a strange space to inhabit within the world of music, one that must be the polar opposite of what it's like to be in a wedding band. It's also fascinating enough to be the subject of a documentary feature, called What Man, Joe! The film will be screened at a Khar café this evening, where Vessoakar will perform with his family band and other guest artistes. The event also doubles up as a belated birthday celebration for a man who has contributed to his craft so selflessly that he's brought succour to countless people faced with a crushing tragedy.
But the man himself feels that there is nothing unusual in being a funeral musician. On the contrary, he loves it. "I learnt a lot about the dynamics of music. See, when you play classical music in an orchestra, you are just one part of a bigger whole. You thus have to know exactly when to come in, and playing at funerals helped me learn how to count the bars and get my phrasings exactly right since you always have to get things perfect when you're playing in front of people in mourning," he tells us, compulsively singing notes out aloud mid-conversation when he's explaining their significance.
In fact, it's easy to feel the music that's pulsing through his veins. Vessoakar shows us a tattered, yellowed copy of a book with which he taught himself how to read music when he was still a child. He also tells us that he has a "golden chair" that he sits on at 9 am every day to practise his instruments, though when he later shows it to us, this chair turns out to be a ramshackle stool with a mattress on it that's placed against the facade of his neighbour's house.
But he adds that Mumbai's funeral musicians are a dying breed. Once upon a time, the entire neighbourhood had several families in this profession. Now, Joe Vessoakar and the Swinging Jazz Band is the only one of note that remains. Rafeeq Ellias, director of What Man, Joe! tells us over the phone that Daniela, Vessoakar's 18-year-old grand niece who also plays with him, is one of a handful from the younger lot who plays funeral music. "Something like this needs a different kind of commitment, and most people nowadays don't have that kind of time," Ellias says.
Vessoakar is thus one of the last men standing, and when we ask him about his thoughts on his own mortality, the deeply religious man tells us that he wakes up every morning and thanks God for giving him one more day. But there will come a time when his days are truly numbered, and it's people like Daniela who will ensure that Vessoakar's own funeral is one that includes all his favourite songs being played. In fact, it's people like her who will ensure that even after her grand uncle is no more, The Sound of Music will not fall silent.
ON: Tonight, 7 pm
AT: Metime Art Cafe, 14th Road, Khar West.
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