Black Sounds Beautiful

Imagine a successful musician—the best in his country in fact, with a quarter century of playing an instrument behind him, keen to learn to play the same instrument afresh. Imagine such a celebrated musician, who in his early 40s finds a master who has arrived from abroad. The native wants to learn from the émigré, but the master warns that the student will have to first unlearn all that he has learnt over the years; only after he is totally deprogrammed will he be able to relearn the new way. This will take months, maybe years. Imagine now that the student agrees to this condition. What do you get to see here? You get to see passion and character in the student.

We are talking about the American Benny Goodman, perhaps the greatest jazz clarinettist ever, and his teacher the English clarinettist Reginald Kell, who had arrived from London after many prestigious assignments, including teaching at The Royal Academy of Music there. The techniques that the musician had learnt from his early days in a synagogue orchestra in Chicago had to be unlearnt, including the embouchure (way of using the mouth over the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument), and the fingering techniques. It is for this reason that Kell kept refusing Goodman for years, fearing American music connoisseurs may think Kell had ruined Goodman’s music.

As it turned out Benny Goodman continued to be a great clarinet player and an inspiration for musicians abroad. In India too, he had his devotees, none more than C Ramchandra, who brought a generous use of the clarinet in many of his western tunes. At this, Ramchandra was ably assisted by his arranger Johnny Gomes, who also played the instrument, and who also worshipped Goodman’s work. These songs made with a western feel by C Ramchandra featured the clarinet:

  • Aana meri jaan meri jaan Sunday ke Sunday (Shehnai, 1947)
  • Gore gore o baanke chhore (Samadhi, 1950)
  • Wo humse chup hain hum unse chup hain (Sargam, 1950)
  • Bholi surat dil ke khote (Albela, 1951)
  • Shola jo bhadke dil mera dhadke (Albela, 1951)
  • Ina meena deeka (Aasha, 1957)

C Ramchandra continued his romance with the clarinet in his non-western tunes too. Here’s a sampling:

  • Kehke bhi na aaye tum (Safar, 1947)
  • Tum kya jaano tumhaari yaad mein (Shin Shinaki Bubla Boo, 1952)
  • Shyamal shyamal baran (Navrang, 1959)

To OP Nayyar goes the credit for bringing the clarinet into our hearts, through his ghoda-gaadi songs but even otherwise, usually in an ensemble with other instruments, a point that’s made a bit later.  Recall these with charming use of the clarinet: Aye dil aye deewaane (Baaz, 1953), Jawaaniyaan ye mast mast (Tumsa Nahin Dekha, 1957), and Zara haule haule chalo more saajna (Saawan Ki Ghata, 1966).

In our films, the earliest appearance of the clarinet was in three films released in 1939:

  • Allah ho baaqi min kulle faani (Khemchand Prakash/Ghazi Salauddin)
  • Piya milan ko jaana (Pankaj Mullick/Kapalkundala)
  • Zindagi ka saaz bhi kya saaz hai (Mir Saheb/Pukaar)

Next year, maestro Anil Biswas introduced the waltz in our films, giving the honour of the intro music itself to a clarinet in Hum aur tum aur ye khushi (Alibaba, 1940). According to music historian Amrit Gangar, it was Naushad who first mixed the clarinet with the flute, though for this writer such ensembles are hard to find in Naushad’s early songs. Later on, such ensembles—also called tuttis—were made by Naushad, with charming results, even as these tuttis may have included traces of other wood instruments like the oboe, saxophone and bassoon. Think of the Asha Bhosle song in Kohinoor (1960): “Jaadugar qaatil” goes Asha, followed by a quick, clarinet-led woodwind bridge. “Haazir hai mera dil” she resumes, and the ensemble chases her for a second again, for her to pick up with “Tu dil mein bhar de pyaar bhala ho tera tujhko teri naujawaani ki qasam”.   

Here are a few songs by other composers, the clarinet featured in the intro music itself: Pyaar mein tumne dhoka seekha (SD Burman/Shabnam, 1949), Kisi ko banaana kisi ko mitaana (Ghulam Mohd./Sheesha, 1952), Mere gore gore gaal (Ravi/Dulhan, 1950), Akhiyaan bhool gayi hain sona (Vasant Desai/Goonj Utthi Shehnai, 1959), Mausam ye pukaare masti mein le chal (Chitragupt/Burma Road, 1962), Khanke to khanke kyoon khanke (Roshan/Wallah Kya Baat Hai, 1962), and Meri pyaari beheniya (Kalyanji-Anandji/Sachcha Jhoottha, 1970).

The clarinet is a single reed, typically 26” long wind instrument made of African Blackwood. It has a flared bell and an ebony mouthpiece. Metal clarinets exist too, as also the middle-priced ABS and the inexpensive plastic ones. Unlike other instruments, which date back a few thousand years, the clarinet is just over 300 years old. It was introduced to India around the end of the 18th century by the colonising English and charmed our shehnai players enough to straddle playing the new instrument as well. Over the years it became part of our musical firmament of classical, folk, and wedding band music. However, while it is somewhat alive in India and around the world, in the recording rooms of Hindi cinema and also stage shows, the instrument has almost vanished.

Kishore Desai, who played the mandolin or banjo or Oud in hundreds of songs knew all the clarinettists of the 50s and 60s. Johnny Gomes and his brother Joe Gomes. Abdul Umar and Master Ebrahim. Devilal Verma and Shankar Mirajkar, Manohari Singh and Gangaram. He too laments the disappearance of the clarinet players. No similar problem with players of other wind instruments, especially the saxophone and trumpet.

But the popularity of the instrument has waned abroad too. Why is that so? Many musicians hold the view that the sound of the instrument is associated with an olden period, especially of the Jazz age. So it is hardly fashionable to play it. It is not easy to play either, especially when compared to the saxophone, which is why the latter has become more important at the cost of the former. The clarinet sometimes runs into trouble with the rhythms, which the more fluid sax or trumpet don’t experience. That is why many musicians find it comfortable to go from a clarinet to a sax, rather than from the sax to the clarinet.

But around the world, the instrument finds a place in chamber music, in symphonies and jazz bands. The clarinet is used as an enchanting contrasting sound from other wind instruments like the oboe, sax, horn and trumpet, in Police and Military bands around the world. In India, we find an additional area of their use: marriage bands. In such bands, the line “Raja ki ayegi baraat rangeeli hogi raat magan main nachoongi”, could be on the clarinet, with the other wind instruments as if chorusing that with, “Ho o o magan main nachoongi” In other words, marriage bands often use the clarinet as a substitute for the singer, while the other wind instruments do the instrumental part or the phrase where the singer repeats himself.

As for Benny Goodman, they don’t make them like him anymore. But that is true of our own musicians too, C Ramchandra, Naushad and OP Nayyar among them.


Originally published on 15 April 2018 in DNA Jaipur (page 13)

Featured image above from Shola jo bhadke


12 thoughts on “Black Sounds Beautiful

  1. So much research and data collection for your articles and today for the charming clarinet is just astounding Manek! I’m amazed and floored and educated all at the same time. I didn’t realize so many of our songs had this wonderful instrument involved, some of them favorites too. Both Albela numbers, jawaniyaan yeh mast mast…zara haule haule chalo…akhiyan bhool gayi hain sona…khanke toh khanke…and so on. The inimitables CR and OP, the greats Anil Biswas and Naushad were all inspired by Benny Goodman and his clarinet, that is just wow! A very informative, interesting read, Thank you Sir ?

  2. What a soulful tribute to the clarinet. We are so fortunate that you give in to the call of music and times. We hear buts and pieces in passing. You give us wonderfully researched topics to digest without much effort. Rather like the smoothie we provide to my Mom, which gives her the benefits of fruit, sans the chewing, as she cannot handle solid food these days.

    Not only are you blessed with the talent to produce such informative and connected articles, but your drive is what we are thankful for. Kudos to you, Manek.. Keep the flag flying!

  3. A fine instrument well showcased ,Manek.Its use combined with the flute has been exploited by Dada in ‘Bachpan ke din bhi kya din the’,just after the 1st line of the antara.Salilda too has used it liberally.I think you’ve overlooked Chitragupt whose mainstay it was; he used it not shrilly as most others ,but made it growl the lower case notes. In fact, I feel he was a more prolific user of the instrument than Chitalkar.
    Wasn’t the Clarionet prominent in Mohammed Rafi’s ‘Parda hai Parda’,squealing away,like so many happy kids?
    Thanks a lot for giving this hallowed instrument its due place in the scheme of things,musical.

  4. Another stunning study on a musical instrument that has begun to vanish from the firmament. I loved the bringing in of Benny G and also the concluding observation that can only come from Manek Premchand with his acute observation: the clarinet at wedding band events takes the place of the singer, while the rest of the band plays the part of the instruments. Wow, what an observation that is!
    As always, my hat is doffed for you, Sir.
    If this is not love for the music of the golden era, what is?
    Play on, Sir, play on, in the adapted words of the Bard, “If Manek be the historian of music, play on, give me surfeit of it…”

    1. Lata, many moons ago, you explained a lot of Shakespeare to me, something that I cannot thank you enough for. Because that opened up a whole new world for me! I still remain awed by the man’s imagination and language…but better minds than mine are in such awe of him 🙂 I had no idea then that you would tweak Shakespeare this way for me, one day…profound gratitude _()_ 🙂

  5. Manek, I am stunned by the kind of research and the passion with which you conduct it each week! This is an extremely informative article. Complex information presented simply enough to engage even the less musically inclined reader. My deepest respects. For your knowledge, your passion and your skill.

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