Tambourine Man of the Shillong hills

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Ageless Lou’s music has surpassed decades
Ageless Lou’s music has surpassed decades

Gyrating on stage ecstatically is a man comfortably clothed in denim shorts, red socks and white long hair. Lou Majaw, the last performer for the night at the North East festival held in IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts) in central Delhi, has an infectious energy that unsettles the cameramen upfront. Like the rest of the crowd, the man who is supposed to helm the camera is beside himself when he sees Lou remove his shirt in the most free-spirited manner.

As a performer, Lou has this rare knack — of enjoying one’s own act so much so that he becomes more than just an artiste. He is a part of the audience, a performer par excellence. Perhaps, it must be his 50-year long music career that has made him so comfortable in his skin. Or it must be because he has seen it all — the roots of rock and roll planted in the 1960s and their subsequent spread through the country.

At The Pianoman, an upmarket jazz bar in Safdarjung Enclave, south Delhi, Lou has slipped into a different avatar. It has only been a day since his electrifying performance at the IGNCA and he does not show any sign of fatigue. He arrives on time with his incredibly talented band Lou Majaw and friends, to do the sound check before they play their set for the evening. Still clad in his trademark ensemble of tight denim shorts with red socks and sneakers, Lou is unconcerned about the hype around his clothing. “It’s purely for comfort that I choose to wear what I wear, although you can call it a style statement if you wish,” he says with a grin.

Amidst a loud sound check, Lou pauses to make a few replies. For Lou, these interruptions are hardly a disturbance in between his preparations. Going back and forth between his sound check and the conversations, Lou speaks with natural ease and instinctive wisdom when he looks back at his career. “I must say that I have learnt a lot. But a lot is still left to be learnt. When I look back at my journey, what can I say? It has been exciting. Maybe, a rollercoaster ride?”

In the 1950s when Elvis was on everyone’s mind, a young Lou found his way to his first guitar in Shillong. Instantly drawn to its magic, Lou began playing for his school band. However, this tryst with his boarding school did not last for long. Unlike the musicians of his time who were shifting out to cities where the rock scene was thriving, Lou wasn’t keen about building a music career. But in a classic rock star style, Lou dropped out of high school and headed for Calcutta when the school had become a shackle to his adventurous spirit. Thus, an instinctive urge to escape the authoritarian environment at school, led to the beginning of a life-long journey.

At the Pianoman, the small group of technicians handling the sound check cheers as Lou Majaw and Friends belt one of their popular numbers. It is a lively blues number that makes the few present in the bar foot tap to its beats. As the song nears its end, Lou raises his arm like a music conductor and signals the band to stop playing. Asking for a drink of warm water to soothe his vocal chords and recalling the many ups and downs of his career, Lou says, “Each individual deals with it differently. I stuck on to it because of my love for music. I mean, once you are on the road, there are no two ways to go about it. For me, music just makes sense. It is meaningful.”

During his initial years in Calcutta, Lou had to face plenty of hardships. From day jobs at petrol pumps to cleaning floors and carrying goods for various establishments, he had to make ends meet somehow. Undaunted, Lou would frequent the pubs in the city with his guitar in the evenings. Eventually, he began playing with numerous bands and built a reputation for himself.

It was also in one of these pubs that he heard his first Bob Dylan song. Dylan left an indelible mark on Lou who was only six years younger than his inspiration. “What is unique about Bob Dylan’s songs are their depth. They are relevant even today and will be relevant tomorrow,” says Lou while tuning his guitar. In 1972, a few years down the line, Lou organised a concert in Shillong to celebrate Dylan’s birthday. Since then, Shillong has celebrated 43 birthdays of Bob Dylan, all thanks to Lou. The annual Dylan concert is now a mecca for Dylan fans all over India. In their 43-year-long bond, both Dylan and Lou have evolved as musicians and struck an abstract yet powerful bond through music — even though they haven’t met even once. But that does not bother Lou. “It doesn’t matter if I get to meet him or not. It’s the music that is important.”

As soon as Lou stops speaking, the band is ready to play yet another song, the last one for the sound check. In a style typical of Lou, he explains how music has always had the power to transcend boundaries with its overwhelming passion. “It helps people cope with life struggles all over the world. Similarly, it acts as, what should I say, a ‘relaxant’. In the North East, for instance, it is a kind of escape from our everyday struggles.”

“When the government imposes bandhs across the North East on 15 August and 26 January, the authorities curb the freedom of the people. But me and my band, hold music concerts so that people can come together to enjoy music. They [the government] do their thing while we do ours,” he adds.

When the sound check gets over, Lou and his band members are ready to leave. He answers one last question — about his favourite song. Lou answers, “If there has to be one, it has to be the song for times — Blowing in the wind”. He seems to have connected to the song at many levels; the lyrics to his own song, ‘Across the sea of sorrow’ reflect one such connection,

I’ve known hunger since I was ten
And loneliness was my good friend
I learnt to smile, when I felt sad
And the good times turnin’ bad
Yes I’m on the other side now
Across the sea of sorrow
Yes I can see the light now,
I know which way the wind blows

martand.badoni@tehelka.com

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