© Legendary Musicians of Karachi
“Six-hundred and fifty dollars and I’ll have that baby playing like new for you”. Thomas Doorward spoke to me gently in his small shop the Halifax Folklore Center. Somehow, immediately I had complete faith and trust in this man. I handed him back the neck of the old 1964 Gibson but I held on to the body a while longer. I stepped outside and blew hard to get some dust off it. A cloud of dust and a “Whhhompnnnn”. The sound created by my breath over the sound-hole lingered and resonated.
The old wood tugged on my heart strings. I’d love to understand these moments of cosmic connections and remember that mid-twenty year old invincibility when I believed I would.. Know and do everything – eventually, that is. I went back in and handed him six crisp 100 dollar bills. I was elated. In a couple of weeks I would have a guitar again. It had been over two years since I left home and missed my guitars. Sure I missed my mum and dad, my sister, my dog, my motor-cycle. But more than anything, I wanted to play a guitar again.
Dad had an old guitar, an F-Hole Kay. It just leaned up against a corner in the living room for the most part. Every once in a while, a birthday, some guest, or a pint of Gymkhana whiskey, would wake it up for another round of Beautiful Beautiful Brown Eyes and a new pick scratch or two. Then one day the radio came alive with the Shadow’s hit song Apache. I became obsessed. I must have known a few chords like C, F, and G7 already. I was ready and determined to find all the notes of the song and sat by the radio picking on the big ol’ Kay in my scrawny little lap waiting for my song to play on the radio. It did. The Ventures had a hit song too. It was called Pipeline and it had an amazing guitar introduction like you had never heard before. With little natural talent and loads of persistent passion I was playing lead guitar and soon bugging mum and dad for guitar lessons. I think I had to endure piano lessons first, for good foundations in theory – I suppose. But before long I was learning from Joe in Fatima Parish. He was the only one I knew teaching guitar then.
Dad came home from a business trip abroad with an electric guitar along with a really sweet tweed Gibson amplifier. Uncle Eugene, who was practising medicine in Cleveland, contributed to the gift. I was amazed that I could produce the exact same sound as the Shadows on Apache with this gear.
Next thing I knew, I was in a band, The Strollers. We stencilled on the name in the Monkeys guitar shaped logo fashion, on Noel Rodrigues’ bass drum. Carlyle Rocha and I were really good friends, he and Lourdes played guitars. I lost a coin flip and was playing bass in the band.
There was also Stephen. I loved this guy Stephen Silvera who we introduced as our manager. He was completely crazy. He blew fire with whiskey and did other stuff that made him my fearless hero. Then one day I saw him crushed. The Strollers were playing a show at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Stephen, I should mention looked different from us. He may have been adopted into the Silvera family, because he looked Pushtun. He was well dressed sitting tall and proud as he usually did at one end of the stage while we played. The Master of Ceremonies of the concert was my math tutor. He yells out to Stephen in Urdu, obviously mistaken him for a servant boy, to go out back and fetch some more chairs. A simple mistake. Amidst all the chaos of the concert and the adrenaline of the performance, I watched Stephen completely broken, sheepishly he hangs his head and goes to fetch the chairs. What else could he do?
We played a lot of shows for St. Patrick’s school and Christ the King church. I had a real bass guitar now, it was a strange looking bass. A Hofner with black pick guard covered in pink plastic. Dad brought home a bass amplifier from England – just the parts without the cabinet, in a duffel bag. He was good to me when it came to musical equipment, and so resourceful as a manager at the airport. He had just left his carry-on an amplifier in pieces in the aircraft. Growing up, my playground was aircraft hangers and flight simulators made from the cockpits of real planes. Had I not been away in Murree with the boy scouts, I would have had a personal meeting with The Beatles when they visited Karachi. I did not think it was a big deal at the time but I did like “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”
I was not too impressed with the gift until Dad’s friend, the electronics man Schwartz, made the cabinet for the VOX bass amp. You could not tell that it was not the original cabinet. It looked identical to the real thing with the triangles on the cloth and all. This guy Schwartz was amazing, he was the only one I know making and fixing amplifiers. The bass in the band sounded great now.
The music was okay, at least the instrumentals, but there was no real vocal talent in the band, but everyone loved the drum solo on Wipeout so we got invited to play concerts and parties. The band split up after playing a house party. The boys in No.2 became vulgar with whiskey and insulted the PECHS kids including sisters and girlfriends resulting in a rift in the band. It is an age old thing, ‘women obstacles’ to boy bands.
I was at the Cobler shop the other day and noticed his guitar case leaning up in the corner. His wife let’s him play in church, he says, it keeps him going. After exchanging a few poor-me stories we struck upon an idea. We are starting a big Internet group for husbands and fathers prevented by their wives, children, bosses, jobs, life, weakness, …whatever, preventing them from playing live music with friends. Play live wherever and whenever possible. Ha! That was an entertaining discussion.
I’m always asking about the dusty case in the corner. One had a beautiful Ovation inside. It was in Lakeland, Florida. He was exhausted and sweaty after a long day over an open pizza oven, but he took off his apron and handed it to me. Ruby red-burst Celebrity Deluxe with the most beautiful Mother-of-Pearl inlays I have ever seen. The built in tuner showed that it was in perfect tune and I began plucking and man! Blackbird played all by itself as the busy pizzeria grew really quiet. Every evening after work I’d eat pizza there. The case was all shiny now and with new strings through an acoustic amp it sounded even sweeter. When it was time to head back home to Toronto, we both knew the Ovation was defecting to Canada with me.
The Beatles have connected us through the generations. Mum loved to hear me sing “Yesterday”. Dad was always proudly telling his friends how I figured out all the chords from the record, by ear, by myself. The band was rehearsing in the Garage and there was lots of adult advice available. Dr. Peer Mohamed would always extol the virtues of Sitar the greatest instrument on earth. Others were not so kind. I remember being challenged. “Why would people pay you 500 rupees when they could hire The Bugs for 600”. I don’t know why, but they did! Maybe the Bugs were busy that night.
These guys were legendary. I had heard them practice from outside in the street. They had the vocal talent we lacked. They also looked way cool. They wore iconic striped bell bottom pants, long hair, everything. They probably had the best damn black hash in the city too. Come on, let me be honest, drugs were an influence on the lives of many of us in Karachi then. I am not sure what the protocol for writers is but if they have to kill me now, I will die laughing remembering some of the pranks we played when we got high after work when the bars all closed. I wonder how many of us still think about that time we took a bike ride up to the Tower of Silence.
The Taj Hotel was my first regular musician job. I was sixteen. It was not a band. I was more like a session bassist. I remember well the mellow Saxophone sound of the legendary uncle Alex Rodrigues blowing standards like The Girl from Ipanema and Desifinado. There was this guy on Trumpet that worked at my high school. St. Patrick’s High must have had a policy prohibiting staff from moonlighting because he would nearly shit himself every time he saw me in the office, which lucky for him was not very often. His boss, Rev. Todd and I were related. I remember thinking that I could blackmail him. The funny thing is that we would both completely forget about it when we were on stage. It was as though our daytime and night time lives were completely insulated from each other, in different time and space dimensions. I decided to avoid the school office.
I think the musicians went on to form a band at The Palace Hotel. Uncle Alex led “The Inner Lights“ with Ken Fialoh, Alex Gomes, Francis Fernandes, and Clarence Andrades. Alex and Ken were both good vocalist. Beatles music prevailed I loved doing three-part harmony for the flip side of Abbey Road with these guys. When it came to music theory, I was out of my element. I remember when a singer handed us all music charts. Uncle Alex carried us for a few bars but before long she realized that I was illiterate. I was nervous as ever but she was pretty cool about it and we went on with popular tunes, like Somewhere over the Rainbow and I Left my Heart in San Francisco.
There were some artist we became good friends with, like Danny the Limbo King. It was exciting playing Limbo Rock as he slid under fire burning merely an inch from his nose. There was some good live entertainment at the Palace Hotel.
Ann was once a very pretty talented girl who became addicted to hard drugs. She was still working at the Palace Hotel when she would sell her beautiful clothes in the daytime to any passerby on the street. I barely recognized her, she looked like a poor servant girl just a few years later living in a restaurant hotel in the bazaar.
I’m not sure what events led to the fade of Inner Lights at The Palace Hotel, if it was the band or the establishment. If we were fired it could have been for several reasons, misuse of the band change room, polluting the kitchen facilities, tormenting the drunken patrons after closing time. Once Dad showed up there with a couple of his buddies from work. Not much was said “Thought you were at the Boat Club”, “No that’s next Friday”. It was a stalemate and my night life continued to roll along. I had been playing burlesque secretly for two years already.
The Inner Lights played at The Midway House with Norman Braganza on guitar. `Brag`-an-za, yes Norman had earned bragging rights in the band, but that is another story. That gig only lasted a few months. Perhaps, the manager carried a grudge against me from when, as a young rebel I visited my Uncle who worked and lived at the Midway House hotel. There are a few stories here, but the last act of defiance when the new swimming pool was just filled, but not open as yet. Over the fence and in we jumped! My cousins stayed in with me for an hour it seemed. All the managers and security screaming their heads off at us while we chanted mockingly “come and get us”. Finally settled for free French Fries. I think my Aunt secretly admired me for pulling that off.
But I’m not sure what he had against Alex Gomes but the manager of The Midway House offered to keep the band if they changed their front-line. I took it lightly suggesting that the two of us could move to the back of the stage, but no one laughed. The next time I took the stage at The Midway House was years later one night when I filled in for the regular bassist. The house band was playing a Uriah Heap song which I had mastered with my regular band. The singer was the legendary Norman Dsouza whom I held in reverence. One of my best stage memories, his jaw dropped in disbelief hearing those very cool bass lines played note-for-note to the original. I had worked for hours upon hours on this. The rest of the night was probably mediocre.
The International Hotel was the other Karachi airport venue I played at. The manager there liked me, He called me “the bayonet master” for my stage style of attacking the audience with the bass. It was a fun band with the legendary David (Daood) Fernandes in front. There was Steve (Buddah) Griffin on drums, Karim Pirani on guitar, and there were other members too. We had a guy Humma play Sitar with us. There was not much appreciation for Indian Classical music in the band but he was related to the Hotel manager so we had him in the band. Heck! we had a guitar player in the band once because he had a big ol’ Chevy to get around in. That was a band I was in with my good friend and neighbour Noel Ferreira. I love Noel and wish for time with musicians and people like him.
There was another guitar player in the hotel staff too. He was not anywhere as good as Karim Pirani. Karim was the most talented, gifted, and creative guitar player that I have played with. But different. He never learned any licks, he would just ad-lib through everything and thus never gained any admiration from other guitar players. But one week he worked out all the riffs on the Santana songs we played. I thought I was dreaming listening to that guitar wail out like Carlos, note for note, every bend, every expression. Yes.
Clarence Andrades played keyboards. I remember travelling by car all day with him and the band to play a wedding. It was the most surreal show I’ve ever played. It was a royal wedding, at least that is what we were told. When we took the stage there were only a few guests occupying a couple of tables in the front part of a very long courtyard. There were what seemed like miles of tables and chairs set up for guest. As we played a quiet lounge set and the waiter brought a tray, the tables were gradually loaded up with roast goats and trimmings. Later our audience, maybe prince and princess, all moved to the upper balconies. Then the courtyard gates were opened and then the entire village descended like a cloud of locust upon the feast.
We were outdoors with not much for amplification but we cranked up the volume to a tempo rising rendition of Shabaz-Kalander. Our audience had never heard electric music but of course they knew the song. A Pakistani traditional folk song that dates back two thousand years. Then, from the crowd one tall man, a Sufi dancer, in a trance, seemingly floats to the front. He spirals, his ragged robes flared in a bell. He begins to spin. With each turn he looks at us with challenge as if to say “Is that all you got boys?” so we go again, faster. His blue eyes cutting through to me in a staccato every time he goes whirling around. We go again even faster, and again but we had maxed out in tempo now. Still we kept on at this till his friends came up and coddled him off the floor, I almost collapsed. What an experience that was. We got paid well and enjoyed some northern cultural experiences before we head on back to the city.
I hung around at the Disco in Karachi a lot. I loved the band, the In-Crowd, and was good friends with my neighbour Noel Ferreira, the bass player. I was glad to be mistaken for a band member once. There were two guys coming up the stairs, one of them pulls a gun on me “your money or your life”, he delivers his well rehearsed line. The other guy came to my rescue saying, “he’s a band guy, let’s get the next sucker”. I took off as fast as I could, stuttering `Ya – Yeah, I`m in the band, man“.
Once a gang of four or five guys came in looking for a fight. I saw them coming and quietly moved quickly from the table and slid up beside the stage because I’m sure they would have kicked my ass out of my comfy spot at a front table. They picked a fight with friends of ours, the Colony No.2 Park Boys. Unlike most Disco patrons, the boys wore traditional clothes shalwar khameez like the gangsters did, but they were just simple folk. We loved to play psychedelic music like King Crimson and Pink Floyd for them in my garage. This was the first time we decided to invite them to hear the band. I had stepped out for a smoke and was coming back into the club when this guy runs up with this little gun which he was waving like he was trying to yank open a door handle. He poked the gun in my face yelling in a high-pitched voice “hands up”, “hands up”. I just shrugged and said “I’m in the band, man”, and kept on walking. What a great life saving line that was, “I’m in the band, man”
We found out later from our gangster friend and neighbour Aman, that the gang was one of the most powerful in the city. Even he would not mess with these bad guys. Once I heard of a big gang fight that took place at Hawkes Bay between this gang and the boys from in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, who were also a gang not to be messed with. I saw them in action once, they took on the entire Beach Luxury staff. I did not fight and I am still sorry that I mentioned the kebab skewers which turned the fist fight into a bloody mess, before the cops showed up.
There was good live music and entertainment at the Beach Luxury Hotel at the dances and shows. The legendary Thadeus Pinto playing in the lounge there. He had this neat way of tuning his drum kit so he could bang really really hard but still it was not loud at all. The most memorable show for me at the Beach Luxury was the White Tigers of Siegfried and Roy.
One night during Christmas time I drank too much and in spite of all the guys in the band coaxing me, I attempted to ride home myself. I made it around the hotel block to the circle and then lost control. Gear shift pedal through my right foot, ouch! I used a hockey stick to get around for the next few weeks.
That is when I first met Tuppy MacDonald. I remember limping up the driveway with the hockey stick to his garage to audition for Irving`s Error. Frankie Saxby had introduced us and was with me carrying my bass. Urooj Malik played drums and Irfan Bawani, keyboard. Tuppy, Urooj, and I grew to be good friends. The band had fun and played school parties dances and as much as Irfan would agree to. I was not happy with Irfan once. He made us turn down a week night house party because of school the next day yet he stays all night at the party. Solid band all talented and bent on covering material as close as possible to the recording. Tuppy was really good. We covered Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin and others well.
We played a staff party once and Tuppy’s generous Mum had us all outfitted in patent leather boots and blue suede pants, bell-bottom of course. We looked great but the show did not go as planned the pre-party drink to calm the nerves worked so well; some of us had trouble staying standing up on the stage.
Those were fun days, we had a good entourage with Brian Arahna, Terry Lobo, Tamur Odho, and Junaid Kutchi. There was so much of booze that party bottles kept showing up weeks later in our amplifier cases. The only other shows I saw with so much liquor were at the Canadian nuclear reactor parties. Well… there was also the Tarbela Dam project. North Americans working in Karachi, I suppose.
I graduated in Civil Engineering from Jinnah Polytechnic Institute. An institute of my own choosing mainly because it was close to the beach. Hanging out with the hippies, as they were known, was how I spent most of my time during college years. There were some very talented accomplished people out there. I remember well the bass player from the Toronto cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. We had access to great music, inspiration, and even more new experience, and new life perspectives. Jefferson Airplane became a favourite band of mine. I was in love with Gracie Slick. I remember seeing her live at The Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto from the very front of the stage.
Another guitar player I played with in Karachi was Jimmy, a very cool guy. He played guitar well and rode a motorbike that he chopped up himself. Karim who played guitar usually, played drums in a three-piece project with me and Jimmy. Our signature piece was King Crimson’s 21st. Century Schidzoid Man. Then one day Jimmy believed that Karim threw the competition to the band that Karim was playing guitar with and that was it. I met up with Jimmy in London when I left Karachi. What a guy. We stopped the cab at Trafalgar Square on the way to the tenement flat where he was squatting. He jumps out and starts busking out watches from an overcoat with success too! What a way to start my new life. A whole week with Jimmy in London, a few hundred dollars in cash that I was given to start a new life in Canada with. Well, I managed fine with twenty bucks.
Jimmy and I had driven our bikes along the beach as far as the road took us. It was a beautiful spot at the foot of hills with caves in the sea and miles away from the tea hut where we usually hung out. I had dad’s old Kay and we were composing some original material over a picnic. There were four or five of us and we decided to go for a swim. We were pretty brave and were out quite deep when suddenly a great big wave lifted us way up high. I watched it break over the picnic and to my horror engulfed the Kay and pulled it into the steep drop to the sea. Then something much worse happened. The back current held me captive. I was swimming with all my might but just stayed in place. I pushed harder for my life. I looked over my shoulder and saw that we were all in the same peril fighting to get back to shore. Then finally – when the sea let go it felt like I was spit out the mouth of a great big whale. We all survived. There was a change inside me. It was the first, “holy shit, I could have died” moment, a first tear in the invincibility shield of youth.
I think it was then that I set sights on going abroad to live.