Luxury items 

Pop Goes India – my suggestion to Rajiv Gandhi when he wanted to promote rock: Remo Fernandes


Pop star Remo Fernandes in his studio | Wikimedia Commons

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AAs my Indian Airlines flight was driving in place at Delhi Airport, I noticed an official white Ambassador car with a flashing red beacon on its roof rushing towards it. “We must have VIPs on board,” I thought to myself.

As I walked down the stairs of the plane with my handbag, my only piece of luggage, a soldier in full livery approached me and greeted me.

“Welcome to Delhi, Mr. Fernandes. My apologies, but due to the flight delay from Goa, the Prime Minister is asking you if you could come directly to his residence, instead of being driven to your hotel first? ‘

Sure. I changed my “Goa clothes” (Bermuda shorts, t-shirt and crocs) to the more formal clothes I wore in the back seat of the moving car.

When I walked in the hall was already full of who’s who of Indian rock, pop and jazz. I barely had time to say hello to everyone when Rajiv Gandhi walked in and, with a beaming smile, opened the meeting.

“It’s such a pleasure to meet you artists after all the politicians and bureaucrats I have to meet all day!” He greeted us.

Until then, apart from the Dresden Festival, India was officially represented in international events exclusively by classical and traditional folk artists. There was an upcoming festival of India in the USSR, and Rajiv wanted to project a young and vibrant image of India for the first time.

It worked wonders. Everywhere we performed people would tell us that they had no idea rock, pop and jazz even existed in India. I loved traveling to this huge country and, for the first time, I felt like a real rock star, with girls rushing on stage through the curtains at the end of my performances.

The Communist countries that I visited (first East Germany, then Bulgaria, then the USSR) were total revelations. It was easier and more popular to travel to capitalist Europe or the United States, and I did not expect to have the opportunity to see the “infamous” Communist world with my own eyes. My head was filled with images that the Western world had projected, and I was surprised that no one in cloak and dagger followed me on the first day.

But ah, I was assigned a personal interpreter / guide! She was certainly my spy in disguise, tasked with making sure I didn’t go to unwanted places that a visitor was not supposed to see… On the third day, I decided to test her.

I said, ‘Birgit, I won’t need you tomorrow. I’ll just go sightseeing on my own.

I expected her to do a double take and say it wouldn’t be advisable, that it was dangerous, that I could get lost, whatever… I can take a vacation! Have fun tomorrow then! ‘

Was she going to stay home and send the man with the cloak and dagger to follow me all day instead? No, I let my imagination run wild. It was my turn to do a double take: “No, on second thought, I think it would be great to go sightseeing with you. So please come on, Birgit.

She would however point out all the good things about her communist country that she could. She proudly told me once that their cars were made from a metal-like substance created from compressed cardboard in a very special process. She was not very happy when I asked her: “And what do you do with the cars in the event of an accident, the school books?”

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The capitalist countries (mainly the United States with its propaganda machine) happily gloated that the prices of televisions, cars and the like were sky-high in the communist world. They were. But that was because they were considered “luxury items”. What the capitalists failed to point out was that basic human necessities – housing, electricity, food, water, education, health services – were extremely cheap. Whereas in the capitalist world, it was exactly the opposite that reigned: unnecessary “luxury items” were distributed to the masses at low prices, while it was necessary to think twice and thrice before turning on the heating if necessary. in winter, before sending children for higher education, and before going to see a dentist. I know of doctors and even hospitals in Goa that have thrived on ‘medical tourism’, catering to people from the UK and other expensive European countries. They found it cheaper to buy a chartered plane ticket to Goa, to turn off the heating in their London apartment for two weeks, to stay in their chartered hotel on a warm beach with all meals included, to drink cheap Indian beer all day and learn new readings. glasses and their teeth attached to Panjim, than to just stay at home.

The interpreters / guides assigned to me in all the Communist countries were young women. And often, after a concert, a press conference or a guided tour, they would drop me off at my hotel and return alone to Moscow, East Berlin or Sofia, well after midnight.

When I asked if it was safe, they were really surprised. ‘Sure!’ they said in a down to earth way, and they left. America (and UK and France, etc.) haven’t talked about this aspect of the communist world and how dangerous – if not impossible – cities like New York, London and Paris for a lonely woman walking around. the night.

I am not saying that the communist world was ideal. I say he had many wonderful aspects that the capitalist world hid and ignored while highlighting and exaggerating the evil.

I’ve also done quite a few concerts for ICCR – it’s the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. While I guess they booked concert offers in cities like London and Paris for artists who didn’t hesitate to exert their influence and connections – and that I, who had lived in Europe for a few years and hadn’t only visited it on some crazy quickie ‘spree shopping overseas’, had no interest in revisiting – I was offered concert tours to countries like (besides the aforementioned communist countries) Kenya , Mozambique, Seychelles, Mauritius, etc. : offers that I avidly devoured. The ICCR offered honoraria and per diems that were negligible compared to what I was making in my concerts, but the way I viewed it, I was actually paid to travel to destinations that I would willingly have paid for. to visit !

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A few months later, Rajiv wanted to promote rock and pop more widely in India, and he again called rock and pop musicians at his residence for suggestions. A prime minister, or even just an average government authority, who asked young people for suggestions and advice was unheard of in India. We suggested a TV show and he offered to run a special show featuring a different artist every week. When it came time to name it, I suggested the ironic Pop Goes India. He and Mani Shankar Iyer saw through this and settled on gentleness and security
Pop Time instead.

Modern music was not the only thing Rajiv encouraged in India. My knowledge of politics and economics is meager, and was even more so at the time. But I knew he had big plans to open up the Indian economy, which had hitherto been stifled under the grip of a policy close to the Communist. India was a giant that begged to be free. And I knew that if we let them move forward, Rajiv’s new modern plans, which he had already started working on, could usher in a golden age for our country.

But suddenly all that was left of those golden plans was a pair of sneakers on a field in Sriperumbudur, near Chennai. Rajiv had detonated by a young Tamil girl of seventeen, a human bomb belonging to the LTTE.

Michele told me about the murder when I woke up. I didn’t say a word. I stayed in bed all morning feeling empty. Then I got up and silently went up to my studio and expressed my feelings in an instrumental piece that I named ‘May 21’. I also rewrote the lyrics to “Hello, Rajiv Gandhi” and named the new version “Goodbye, Rajiv Gandhi”. These were featured on an album called Politicians Don’t Know How to Rock and Roll.

My whole being was crying and suffering, not only for Rajiv, whom I had become very attached to, but for our country. Ironically, although guitar is my primary instrument, I haven’t been able to use one on any of my albums until now for the stupid reason that I didn’t have enough tracks to record. But now I had gone from my four-track Portastudio to an eight-track Fostex reel, I had just purchased a superb anniversary model of Jackson electric guitar, and with my acoustic guitar, I finally gave my life to my senses. favorite instrument on this album. By the way, it’s my son Noah’s favorite album.

This excerpt was published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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