The virtuoso’s book is a verbal album of his life as a musician par excellence and his stint in the Malayalam and Hindi film music industry
Does Jerry Amaldev, composer, conductor and award-winning music director, really need an introduction? Yes, because most of us know little about him, his music. Enikkellaam Sangeethamaanu, his autobiography, is an authoritative, comprehensive, honest narrative, studded with rare nuggets of information, which records his life and times.
Jerry has always been someone who is not obsessed about what peers or others think of him. He is what he is, never afraid to speak his mind, state his opinions even when his beliefs often go against the majority. Jerry’s willingness to stand out against the herd mentality makes him unique. His life story is not just a chronological recount of his life. It deeply explores various strands of music in Indian cinema, Christian music, his own film and non-film compositions, his firm beliefs, his relations and interactions with numerous luminaries, not just from the world of music.
The tightly edited narrative never shifts from the real to anything dreamy, shadowy. It takes just three short chapters for Jerry to lay bare the layered account of his childhood, his family and initiation to music. The early life — his parents, siblings, his family — is told with tenderness and reverence. Life in old Kochi, especially West Kochi, interesting characters, socio-economic-cultural conditions, Kochi’s music, musicians and music clubs come alive in these pages.
The young Jerry
Jerry recounts his upbringing with hardly any tangled narratives that often complicate many memoirs. He, instead, hinges firmly only on those that have some bearing in his growth as a musician. He talks about being fascinated by the Gregorian chant, the sublime sound of the church organ, turning music teacher at the age of seven and singing at a small function when India gained independence.
The book is interspersed with thoughts that Jerry associates with some unforgettable moments of his life. There is this one on singing on India’s first Independence Day. It was raining, he writes, and there were hardly 12 people in the audience. Jerry sang four stanzas from the complete song ‘Jana Gana Mana…’, which was published in a regional weekly.
Jerry quickly fast forwards to 1980. He says he felt ashamed when he saw a photograph in a newspaper of 500 or more people, all freedom fighters, standing in a queue for their pension.
Among other important childhood milestones are becoming a choir boy in a nearby church, singing for Bosco Kalasamithi, being flooded with silver medals for a faultless rendering of Lata Mangeshkar songs and his first attempt at music direction. Jerry also writes about his regret in not being able to sing along with Mohammed Rafi when the legend performed in Kochi.
A robust section of the book centres around Jerry’s life in seminaries and joining Naushad as his assistant. His seminary life, first at Indore and then at Pune, was eventful. It was here that he learned Latin, adopted the name Amaldev and was made choir master. In Pune he studied Hindustani music. Jerry completed his novitiate period and then graduated in Philosophy. Then came the turning point in his life. Jerry decided that music was his calling and quit the seminary.
Jerry critiques the church, about doubts regarding his faith. Like any religious believer in search of the ultimate truth he had painful doubts. He confesses on why and how he had to seek this truth elsewhere — in music.
Association with Naushad
Finding a job in Mumbai [then Bombay] was just an excuse to find a space for his music. Jerry walked to Naushad’s house one day, introduced himself as his ardent fan, got a chance to sing and impress the great composer. For the next few years Jerry did what he loved most. He wrote down notations for Naushad’s classic songs and taught singers like Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and others before the recording. Jerry became Naushad’s trusted assistant. There is an intimate portrait of Naushad, his family and mention of the many legends he met during those days.
There are some interesting snippets like Jerry’s reference to Lata’s marriage, playing the organ for Rafi on stage for a public performance and listening to Lata render the immortal ‘Aye mere watan ke logon…’ live. The reader gets a feel of Naushad’s recordings and meet some of the brilliant musicians in his orchestra and behind the scenes information about some melodious classics.
Another part of this high-spirited memoir traces Jerry’s life and times in the United States till he began composing for Malayalam films. The inspiration for learning Western music came from Lata Mangeshkar. She told Jerry about her magical experience singing Hindi songs with a Western orchestra in London. With a dash of grouse, she also added that our young musicians were not moving on.
Life in the US
Jerry joined and graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans. Here we glimpse the birth of a polished composer. He went on to secure his Masters from Cornell University. But more than the degrees or textbook knowledge, Jerry was exposed to the power of various forms of Western music. He recounts being part of a big choir backed by a symphony orchestra, an Oratorio that revealed the power of the human voice. During this US stint Jerry also worked as a tutor in Queen’s College, New York.
In simple prose and with finely detailed scenes Jerry recounts his US days — his debut as music director for the film The Girl From India, publishing a booklet titled India: Raga Music For The Piano, the copyright of which was bought by Warner Communications. He goes on to recall teaching Indian students, leading to the production of the music album, ‘Atma Ki Awaz.’ This album brought Jerry and KJ Yesudas together for the first time.
The oil crisis of the 1970s hit the US badly. Jerry, like many others, lost his job. He returned to India. In 1979 he was roped in to compose songs for the Malayalam film Mamatha. The songs were recorded and released but the film had another music director. Then came Manjil Virinja Pookal.
A major part of the book, three chapters, is about his experience as a music director in Malayalam films. Very bluntly, free of the kind of virtue-signalling and moralising, Jerry writes about the lyricists, singers, musicians, actors, producers and directors he came across in tinsel town. In fact, this part of the story is what most of us thought we knew, but there are some hitherto unknown facts — his opinions about his peers, the stand-off with Yesudas, some of his favourite lyricists, the long break and his big comeback with Action Hero Biju.
Jerry wraps up his memoir with chapters on his significant contributions to Church music and Christian devotionals. He also shares some intimate moments with his family. There is a pen portrait of his wife Jolly who stood with him through thick and thin, his three daughters, Meera, Dalia and Sangeetha. The printer’s devil does crop up once, so does some factual errors. However, slick editing makes for easy reading,
Jerry’s 280-page memoir is jammed with vivid verbal snapshots. There are some judiciously chosen photographs from Jerry’s personal collection and illustrations too. Each of these pages has Jerry’s imprint on it. Boldly he devotes a whole chapter to describe the travails of a music director in Malayalam films, especially if he is a perfectionist, not willing to compromise when a musician hits a false note. Jerry’s fastidiousness for pronunciation is also evident. Right through the book he corrects some common errors. The memoirs are also a primer for Indian and Western music. It is packed with his passion for them. If you have ever wondered how anyone could write about music, how to describe abstract sounds in words once every synonym has been exhausted, this is the answer.
Indulekha Pusthakam, ₹310