When he first moved to the Calcutta of the ’60s from Shillong where he had dropped out of college, with not a penny in his pockets and only music on his mind, Lou Majaw was scared. “I was this village boy from the hills and here I was in the middle of Calcutta, without a job or anything else. I wanted to play music but I didn’t know anybody and a man’s got to live,” reminisces the 67-year-old Majaw over a telephone conversation. This living took the form of working as a daily labourer at construction sites and as an attendant at petrol pumps. By night he played the guitar and sang at cafes and restaurants with a four member outfit, the Oracle Bones. “Word got around, about us, about me, and all of us started playing with other bands and that’s how we started,” says Majaw, adding “It was tough, but Lou Majaw survived, thank God for that.”
It is in fact something tens of thousands thank their particular deities for, given Majaw’s cult status among the country’s musicians and music afficianados. The musician has now officially completed 50 years as a musician, a time that calls for much music and celebration. Majaw will be celebrating his music through an album launch at India Habitat Centre on April 14 (his birthday) at 6:30pm, through the release of a collective of his songs, including music by his band, Lou Majaw and Friends.
For Majaw, however, it all started innocuously enough. “It’s hard to remember since it’s been so many years, but I think I was 15 when I became convinced that music was my future. I used to listen to Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and fell in love with rock and roll,” he says. Like so many other virtuosos he taught himself to play the guitar (a friend’s, since his family couldn’t afford to buy him his own), among a host of other instruments, practicing his prowess with his school orchestra and exercising his vocal chords in his school choir. Apart from the guitar, he also learnt how to play the drums as well as the saxophone and trumpet. “I was never good at blowing into the damn things,” he says.
But the adult Majaw soon had an epiphany. It came when he was introduced to Bob Dylan. “Dylan opened the doors of my mind and my soul. Listening to him was a very personal experience. He influenced my music, my songwriting, everything.”, says Majaw, who held a grand Bob Dylan celebration on May 24, 1972, the modern bard’s birthday. Never meant to be anything but a celebration of Dylan’s music, the “party” soon evolved into an annual festival, held on the same day every year and gaining a label which Majaw is today uncomfortable with. “It was only meant as a celebration of Dylan’s art and his legacy in music, and not a proper festival. I started playing at it, after some years my friends joined me and somewhere along the line it became what it did,” says Majaw, referring to the Bob Dylan Festival in Shillong, which has now left an indelible imprint on the world music scene.
Today the world knows Bob Dylan Festival, held every year in Shillong, and everyone knows Lou Majaw as its creater. Curiously enough, the festival is a parable for Majaw’s own musical career, wherein he just wanted to make music but somewhere along the line became an influence, collaborating with every major musician in the country.
Talking about the current music scene in the country, he says, “I remember Uday Benegal telling me that after 20-plus years in the industry he was still considered middle of the rung. The fact is that so many Indian musicians are at par with their more successful international counterparts but they do not get an opportunity to showcase their skills. That needs to change.” He also believes that the commercial aspect of it is so important. “When we started making music in this country, it was just about the music. Now it’s about the money. And sure you need money to pay the bills and buy equipment but your craft needs to be the first priority, something I’ve always believed in. Art for art’s sake is what has kept Lou Majaw alive,” says Majaw, who seems to like making a reference to himself in third person.