Memories come in blotted-ink scrawls on paper napkins at Trincas. It’s my life, says the first request of the evening, scribbled in blue. Candice Gray, 40, looks at the paper napkin and then at us. “It’s the Dr Alban song, not the Bon Jovi number. People here live in the 1980s and 1990s,” she says, with a smile. Then she nods at bass guitarist Noel Martin (70), and walks up to the raised platform that is the stage of one of Kolkata’s most iconic restaurants. The night is young, and Candice, Cornel Bloud (singers), Noel, Gavin Keys (lead guitarist), Dibayan Banerjee (keyboard) and Nigel Gomes (drums), who comprise the oldest restaurant band of the city, Sweet Agitation, have a long evening with their patrons. In the days leading up to New Year’s eve, Trincas doesn’t sleep.
Way back in the 1960s, before the city was invaded by pubs, DJ sets and electronica, Trincas, much to the chagrin of the Bengali bhadralok, initiated the city to nights of music and dance. Noel Martin has seen it all, played all those notes of yesterday.
In the 1960s, when he started playing bass guitar at the Great Eastern Hotel, “a bottle of Coca Cola was about 50 paisa”. “I loved it, but it was too posh a place. It was frequented by the ambassadors and their wives. Park Street was where the party was,” says Martin, who has been with Trincas for more than three decades now. “I joined Trincas as the bass guitarist for a band called Flintstones, which was really popular then. After that I moved to other iconic restaurants on Park Street, like Blue Fox (which is closed now) and Mocambo,” says Martin.
Trincas is synonymous with the story of the live music scene of the city. In 1959, the Tea Room owned by the eponymous Mr Trincas got converted to a nightclub run by Om Prakash Puri and Ellis Joshua. It went on to become the launch pad for many acts of the Indian live music scene. Usha Uthup, Benny Rozario and Pam Crain were only some of them. Noel Martin played with most of them, he was loved by all of them.
“My first night in Trincas is still etched in my memory. I had turned up in a sari to perform here and was greeted with exasperated gasps. Noel was one of the very few people who made me completely comfortable. But once I started singing, there was no looking back,” says Uthup. Martin remembers the days when artistes had to procure a licence before they could perform. “Artistes like Usha Uthup and Pam could never sit at any table because a clause in the agreement I signed at Lalbazar forbade them to do so,” says Noel, with a laugh.
By the 1980s, most other restaurants gave up on live music due to spiralling costs. Trincas, however, would not let go. “That is why I have great respect for the institution. They were running at a loss, but they still kept the tradition alive,” says Martin.
In 1984, a new Trincas band, Sweet Agitation, was born with Martin and Preston Gomez (lead guitarist) and four other members. They mostly played covers of Eagles, Scorpions and Bruce Springsteen. “All my co-members are dead now, but we still play the same music,” says Martin. Today, as he walks past brightly-lit Park Street full of revellers, does Martin feel that there has been a resurgence of sorts? “This is a different crowd, they want Hindi songs. People who visit our restaurant enter a bubble of nostalgia,” says Martin.
Indeed, Tapan Ray Chaudhuri, 52, a businessman who has his office in nearby Chandi Chowk, has been a regular at Trincas for the past 30 years for only one reason. “I want to relive my youth here. I want to listen to songs of Abba and feel young again,” he says.