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When Remo played the flute with god

In his autobiography, Remo Fernandes writes about the time he jammed with his idol, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull

Remo Fernandes is one of the most popular Indian rockers of his generation
Remo Fernandes is one of the most popular Indian rockers of his generation

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Meanwhile, the outside world kept turning, as it always does.

For me, it resumed its rotations when Jethro Tull’s Dubai concert promoter called out of the blue one day in 2005, saying Ian Anderson was intending to collaborate and perform with a contemporary Indian artist; would I be interested? I said yes – as though there was anything else I could or would have said – and that was that. An impossible dream which I hadn’t even dreamt was on its way to coming true.

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During the holidays in the ’70s my friends and I lazed and hung out the whole day, listening to and playing music most of the time. One of the main bands we listened to was Jethro Tull – Aqualung and Thick as a Brick being our favourite albums. If some clairvoyant were to tell me then that one day I’d play with Ian Anderson, I’d have told him to take two aspirins and lie down until the hallucination went away.

I was initially told we would jam on one of my songs, ‘The Flute Song’, and would I please send it to Ian Anderson on MP3. I did, and now here I was, exchanging emails with the man. He wrote back saying he wanted to hear more of my music. I was thrilled and flattered. I sent him four more songs, out of which he selected three to be performed live, with Jethro Tull backing me.

Jethro Tull backing me?! God, this dream was becoming more and more surreal; I was sure to wake up with a rather nasty bump on the head soon. 

Several emails later, during which we discussed song tempos and flute keys, I received one from Ian saying that Jethro Tull were now busy rehearsing ‘Maria Pita Che’, ‘Bombay City’, ‘O, Meri Munni’ and ‘The Flute Song’. I tried to imagine the sound of my songs filling a rehearsal room somewhere in England.

The big day came. Ian and I met in Dubai. I shook hands with the legend, looking into his fifty-six-year-old face and recreating in my mind the twenty-something young man who faced the world standing on one foot, colourful tights disappearing like a second skin into knee-high boots, tail coat and long fuzzy hair flying wild, fidgety hands clasping a huge silver flute to his mouth. I regained speech finally, felt the warmth and friendliness beneath his notorious eccentricity, and we headed for the press conference with our concert promoter driving us with one hand while screaming into his cell phone in the other. Ian and I exchanged glances and a resigned smile which said we’d keep conversation for later.

At the conference hall we caught up with Sivamani, India’s ace percussionist, who was going to jam with us as well. Eyeing Siva’s trademark bandana, Ian turned to me and said in a mock stage whisper loud enough for Siva to catch, ‘Never trust a man who wears his wife’s knickers on his head.’ He then proceeded to wear one himself at the concert. Throughout the press conference Ian’s weird version of Scottish humour was very much in evidence, especially when he sailed forth on a detailed account of his prostate problems, much to the journalists’ mixed embarrassment and amusement. We ribbed one another, had fun, and then picked up our instruments for the television crews present – and that was the first time I played the flute with god. 

'Remo', by Remo Fernandes, HarperCollins India, 508 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
'Remo', by Remo Fernandes, HarperCollins India, 508 pages, 799

We then had a quiet lunch together, just Ian and I. And I was able to hear him hold forth about ‘everything I ever wanted to know about the world rock scene in the ’70s and ’80s, but didn’t know who to ask’. I listened while he talked about his life, his music, the drug and alcohol scenes (given his freaked out and often trippy lyrics, I was surprised to learn from him that he had never partaken of either drugs or alcohol), his painting which he wanted to resume one day, his four trips to Goa, his adventures with vindaloo, and his friends Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd. Later in the car on my way to shopping in town I noted the conversation down while it was still fresh in my memory.

The next day our respective bands arrived: Jethro Tull, and The Microwave Papadums. We had a marathon rehearsal from 12 noon till 7 p.m., with just a half-hour coffee break in between. During almost the entire evening we did nothing but rehearse my songs. It turned out that three Jethro Tull members (Martin Barre, guitars; Andrew Giddings, keyboards; and Jonathan Noyce, bass) lived in totally different corners of England, while one (Doane Perry, drums) lived in the US. They had received MP3 files of my songs from Ian but had only worked on them individually until now. However, as they sat at their instruments it became clear that they’d each done their homework thoroughly. Out came the pages on which they’d noted down the arrangements, and the riffs and the chords were all perfectly in place. And they reconfirmed my belief that the higher you look into the echelons of professional success, the harder you see people work. Those who you think do not need preparation are those who prepare the most.

I’d heard from everyone that Ian could be quite eccentric and difficult to work with. He himself told me that his band could be quite difficult as well – they had put down their instruments and walked out of a rehearsal with a respected Indian ustad the year before. But we hit it off famously, and here they were, urging me to go on and on rehearsing, as they wanted to learn the finer aspects of the arrangements to my songs. These international superstars didn’t have to do this, but they came up and told me they really enjoyed playing ‘my catchy music with its exotic rhythms’. And I was grateful they went out of their way to make me feel at ease and at home. 

In the last half hour we ran through the four Tull songs on which I was going to jam, and we ended the evening exhausted but happily satisfied. 

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The next day we were to run through all my songs during the sound check. But as it often happens when the show itself is going to be good, the sound check started going all wrong. My electric guitar was giving out a hum which no one could trace; the source was discovered to be an earthing problem with the mixer, but not before a considerable lapse of time. We then had a bomb scare, and everyone dispersed back to the hotel, where Ian and I had a quiet cup of coffee in the lobby coffee shop. The ‘bomb scare’ turned out to be a routine security check. When we finally started the sound check we hardly had much time left, but Ian was as good as his word: we went through all of my songs without exceptions or shortcuts.

Came showtime. Was I nervous? Yes, I was: something which hardly ever happened to me. I was nervous about my guitars’ tuning, my stage placements, my costumes, the order of my songs and stage entries... The audience had come to listen to Tull, would they boo me off the stage? These and other such ‘pleasant’ pre-show musings floated around in my head.

And then they called out my name, I climbed up those steps, and that was it. No more space for nervousness. As soon as I announced that I was from Goa, there was a loud roar of approval from the multinational audience, and that set the ball rolling. They were soon singing ‘Maya Ya’, clapping their hands, dancing in the aisles; the ice was melted, the party had started. I was home.

Excerpted with permission from 'Remo', by Remo Fernandes, published by HarperCollins India.

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