The sound of music in Bengaluru
Set aside what you’ve heard about Bengaluru being a peaceful town 50 years ago for retired folk, whose small-town-small-talk was limited to how pleasant the weather was.
Bengaluru didn’t have much entertainment and live music was everything. Whether you loved Carnatic or Rock & Roll, there was something for all.
In the 1970s, there was a tiny but popular restaurant at the bottom of Brigade Road, called Chin Lung. It became the venue for concerts. Run by Kochil, who had his own band called BarberShop Harmony, it was popular among local bands like The Spartans, The Void and Human Bondage.
Those who couldn’t afford Chin Lung, chose instead to stand down in the St Patrick’s Complex area with their beers, listening to the music through the open windows.
The 3 Aces nightclub on M.G. Road hosted afternoon rock jam sessions and evening cabarets.
At age 16, guitarist Konarak Reddy arrived and blew the socks off everybody. By the end of the ’70s, Blues God, Konarak’s band, had gained numerous fans. All the above mentioned rock bands performed original music, the genesis of ‘indie’ music in India.
“Even if you weren’t a performing musician in the league of these bands, one often met with acoustic guitars for daytime jam sessions or to exchange music and music-talk over beers, at places like Koshys and The Only Place,” says music lover Sunil Abraham.
Bengalureans even organised their own Woodstock tribute at Cubbon Park. Regular concerts began to be held at Bal Bhavan. The Cubbon Park Bandstand had acoustic performances.
But these events caught the attention of the local authorities who perceived them to be western society, damaging our culture and so these outdoor gigs were discontinued.
All that jazz
Bengaluru contributed greatly to the Indian jazz music scene. Recreational clubs and restaurants had house bands and weekly gigs. Veteran mouth harp player, lover/collector of vintage cars, Silu Jamal proudly reminisces, “Bowring Institute had tenor saxophonist Bruce Gabriel and his big band. Catholic Club had guitarist Eddie and his Rhythm Stars. Pam Crain sang at 3 Aces, Vera and Sandy Holland at HBI (Hotel Bangalore International) and Sandy Burby at Napoli. Jewel Box (Koshys) had a band every Sunday and so did Kwality on Brigade Road.”
The early 1980s saw another non-profit effort to bolster the contemporary music scene with the creation of the Bangalore Music Strip. From 1983 to 1986 — at first on a little embankment at M.G. Road and then behind the Queen Victoria Statue at Cubbon Park — local bands like The Chronic Blues Band, Stylus, Hot Rain and Bharat Mata Nach Kud Baja a.k.a Mother India Jive Band delighted audiences.
By 1988-89 watering holes such as Take 5 on Race Course Road and Pecos on Brigade Road became retro-rock destinations. Take 5 even attracted international jazz bands that trickled into town after playing at the Delhi and Bombay Jazz Yatras. They’d perform on the rocks in Chitrakala Parishad and amble over for late-night beers and impromptu shutters-down-after hours concerts.
Around 1996, musicians Gopal and Geetha Navale with others made an effort to revive and renew live music with the first all-night, Freedom Jam [held on the eve of Independence Day], at Samsa — an outdoor space behind Ravindra Kalakshetra.
Meanwhile, Sunday jams were held on the first Sunday of every month. Local college bands found a platform and indie rock bands like Galeej Gurus and Thermal and a Quarter, and heavy metal bands like Threnody and Kryptos emerged. Bengaluru became known as the ‘metal Mecca’ of India.
Freedom Jam became an annual event supported by well-wishers but it was moved to the Navales’ farm, 30 kilometres out of the city. However, even this pristine venue could not escape the eye of the police, who visited the farm one concert night and ended the event abruptly. Bengalureans persevered and Freedom Jam was shifted across to The Club on Mysore Road, where it sustained till 2010.
The millennial years
The millennium brought in big changes. Watering holes, like Take-5, Tycoons and Black Cadillac, closed due to fire and safety regulations imposed in basement spaces.
But a lovely new space called Opus opened down Palace Road. Run by Carlton and Gina Braganza, it was a regular hangout for hundreds of bar flies, and brought back the sense of community that we Bengalureans always held close.
Opus hosted concerts but more significantly, Carlton’s showmanship and verve introduced karaoke to Bangalore. Their Kroaknights were legendary.
At the same time, on Race Course Road, my husband, Sunil Shetty, partnered with Chui [Sunil Deshpande] who owned Take-5. Sunil and a friend Viraj, decided to open a Take-5 in Indiranagar, and I began to curate monthly jazz and blues concerts.
The year 2005 saw the first ‘live music ban’ as it was called. In an attempt to curb the spread of dance bars, the police enforced a ban on live gigs. They associated live bands with dance bars where musicians used to accompany the dancing girls. There was no separate legislation for other places that hosted concerts.
Live music was under threat again so professional musicians and well-wishers took to mass protests under the Mahatma Gandhi statue on M.G. Road.
After a while, live gigs slowly returned.
The rise and fall
The amazing response from Indiranagar folks at our Take 5 gigs till 2008 inspired us to think ahead. So when Sunil and I decided to move on to greener pastures, we were very clear about our purpose. Our vision was to create a dedicated live music performance space in Bangalore. And so The bFLAT Bar was born in 2009.
Bengalureans deserved to choose between watching a concert either over a beer or in an auditorium. This was the beginning of a fantastic decade.
Soon other places opened like the lovely Humming Tree, which quickly carved a niche for itself under the focused efforts of proprietor Nikhil Baruah. There was Vapour, Loft, Monkey Bar, Hard Rock Cafe, Blue Frog, and more.
Many bands launched their careers from these venues. And then Indiranagar exploded. There was an increase in traffic, pollution, construction, population, retail, business and commerce. Unfortunately, many establishments came under the scanner, being on the fringe of a residential neighbourhood.
Eventually, resident associations protested and filed a PIL against the government for not looking into issues like noise pollution. Caught in the crossfire between a corrupt system and a government that didn’t support the arts enough to regularise the laws concerning licensing and live music, many businesses downed their shutters, unable to fulfil the formalities that were being asked of them.
And so it ended. Just like it had several times over the past five decades. Nothing new about that. But how do you explain the bouncing back of live performances decade after decade? It points to the unfailing reality that music is bigger than all of us.
And so it will return. To create. To perform. To entertain. To make a scene.