Staying fairly unnoticed, uncelebrated and unsung is usually considered vain in show business or for that matter, any business. Being respected and revered still, is extremely rare. And if it’s a genre like Jazz in the 50’s in India, it’d be considered progressive and avant-garde. A ‘rare ahead-of-her-time futile gem’? Is that what she’d be remembered as?
Pam Crain. It’s not that I knew her as a performer or person till early 2003, when I first heard that she even existed. It was then that Kolkata had hosted the ‘Blue Moon’ concert and I remember seeing the navy and lagoon blue poster outside the G D Birla Sabhagar. I missed it. But my musician friends who attended were simply blown away by one voice. That voice was Pam Crain’s. Even though I wanted to, since then, I’ve not been able to attend any Pam Crain concert, not because I couldn’t… but, even more painfully, not a single one has taken place ever since. From what I’d heard, the living legend wouldn’t give up the comfort and choice of her self-exile and reclusiveness for anything, even performing. Was it a statement that she was making, or was it merely the fact that the soles of her feet were blistered and tired from walking on the thorns of an Indian reality… a reality that wouldn’t ‘invest’ in the ‘progressive’ and where contemporary remained a snobbish niche.
My band Insomnia has been performing in Park Street’s ‘Someplace Else’, the existence of which is probably attributed to the struggles and efforts of Pam and others back in the 50’s. For about five years now, where, as musicians, we’ve become jaded, playing requests of the intoxicated bourgeois. But that’s the only way musicians will survive and hence, the music will. Pam probably had to face the same when she was on stage half a century back on the same street. She was the hammer on this anvil called Park Street, which was tempered by every blow that she made at every performance. The hammer was finally tired. The anvil remained harder and the banal cream of society kept pouring in, sour and viscous. She wanted more. She once said, “If you have a voice, want to say, surely something will compel you to sing.” So yes, we sing… whether through our songs, our blogs, our columns, our art or whatever that catches one’s fancy. Pam did it as an Anglo-Indian woman singing at nightclubs in India half a century ago.
The legendary Louiz Banks had to say, “Pam Crain will go down in history as being the greatest jazz singer of India, bar none. I had the pleasure of working with her for several years and it has been a wonderful experience. Pam is the original singing diva of India. She was truly world class; she could sing anything; from pop, rock, soul, r n b to hard core jazz… and she always looked stunning in her performances. A beautiful woman, a dedicated artist, always original and innovative and very versatile, Pam had a gift of writing great lyrics to songs. We have collaborated as a songwriting team on many original compositions. What can I say? I have worked with many fine singers… but Pam was the best singer that I have worked with. I am sure she will inspire a lot of aspiring singers… my mission, now, is to get her to sing again. No luck so far.”
May be now, Pam Crain sings a song that wouldn’t be heard on stage, MySpace or iTunes. And may be, that would make the lyrics even clearer and the song more profound and eternal, however silent. May be, that void would inspire generations of contemporary musicians and thinkers in this country and teach them more about its landscape. One such stalwart, experimental jazz band ‘Pink Noise’ vocalist, Jayshree Singh recalls her lessons from Pam, “The biggest lesson I learnt from her was to ‘listen’ to music. She was crazy about music, even when she was back in her school in the hills, I don’t know if it was in Kalimpong or Darjeeling. Bold and daring is how I’d describe her. She brought style and sophistication to jazz. Back then, in late 50’s, most nightclubs played popular music. She brought beauty, glamour and an incredible stage personality to jazz. She brought her own personality to jazz. But inspite of all this, she was untouched by adulation. Never was she critical of other people singing or their views. There has and never will be anybody like her. She experimented. She explored. She kept evolving. She was never stuck in a rut. Even now she loves listening to new age music… anything from rock to the blues. Pam Crain was perhaps the queen of crooners… and her contribution to jazz will remain intangible.”
Pam gave birth to the idea of a contemporary nation. Of at least one of the Indias. The elusive one. The one that doesn’t have space on page 3 or in the rooms of ‘Big Boss’. The one that doesn’t shy away from that which is taboo, and threatens every rivet of the clamp holding us all, yet remaining individual and free.