Dallas Smith's Blog

Making Music in Mumbai

Mumbai 2024 Blog #2


For the first time, Susan has her own harp to play.  During previous visits, she was forced to play a Russian-made rental harp, far inferior to her American-made Lyon & Healy harp.  She intends to leave it here in Mumbai to be available for our future musical visits. (She has two of her original L&H harps in Reno).  This third harp was purchased from Susan’s teacher, Liz Ilku, former harpist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and one of Susan’s important teachers.  All of Susan’s harps are electro-acoustic, with a piezo-electric pickup on each of the harp’s forty-seven strings.  Additionally, Susan has a custom pre-amp designed by Reno electronic design genius Ron Van Robinson.  The resulting instrument is the best-sounding harp in the world.  My opinion is totally objective of course.  I’ve never heard a harp played live or on recordings that sounded better than Susan’s.  Thank you Ron!

Another vital enabling factor in our successful Mumbai visit is “India’s harp guy” Vijay Pandean.  Vijay rented Susan the Russian harp which she played in Mumbai concerts in 2018 and 2020.  Vijay’s wife, Meagan, is already one of India’s best concert harpists.  She has been playing for ten years, which included one study period in Germany, learning classical style.  But Susan has been teaching Meagan lessons online regularly for the last year.  Meagan is learning to improvise under Susan’s tutelage.  Meagan is the most in-demand harpist for gigs in Mumbai, including corporate and social events.  She also teaches Indian harp students.  During our visit, Meagan has come to visit practically every other day to take lessons with Susan.  She has also attended the gigs and concerts that Susan and I have played.  A vital role has been filled by Meagan’s husband Vijay, who has tirelessly transported Susan’s harp to and from all our engagements, several of which were booked by Vijay. 


It's funny that while Susan and I consider ourselves to be “retired,” we have been working harder musically here in Mumbai than when we’re at home in Reno.  We have two collaborating Indian musicians with whom we perform, Kathak dancer Aditi Bhagwat and tabla-player Unmesh Banerjee.  Both these musicians performed with us in Reno in our home concerts and at Reno Little Theater during the past several years.

Susan and her new harp have been very well received by our audiences.  Harp is rarely heard in general.  Most people are hearing a harp for the first time.  Little do they know that Susan’s harp is the best sounding electro-acoustic harp in the world, being played by the best jazz harpist in the world.  The audience response has been nonetheless ecstatic.

In addition to Susan’s and my performances with these and other Indian musicians, I am playing as part of a jazz quartet in local jazz clubs with my longtime jazz buddies.  Foremost among them is Dee Wood, an American bass player who has lived continuously in India for the past thirty years.  I’ve known Dee for ten years at least, and he has opened many jazz opportunities for me over the years.  Dee and his partner, drummer Rajesh Punjabi, formed the Bombay Jazz Club, dedicated to promoting local and visiting jazz artists in Mumbai jazz clubs and concert halls.  Several Indian pianists collaborate at the invitation of the Bombay Jazz Club, which also has been the source of at least one playing opportunity per week for me during our time here. 


Last but not least is my musical friendship with the “Godfather of Indian Jazz,” pianist/composer Louiz Banks.  I was introduced to Louiz by Zakir Hussain in 1982 when I traveled to India on tour with the late Kathak dance master Chitresh Das.  Besides playing in the jazz quartet format with Louiz, he took me into the Bollywood film industry where I had the pleasure and honor of working with perhaps the most famous Bollywood producer of all time, R.D. Burman.  For the Bollywood sessions, I played the Lyricon wind synthesizer, which meant that I was not taking work away from any of the Indian woodwinds players. 

My Bollywood experiences would warrant a blog dedicated just to them.  But the main point for this blog is that Louiz Banks is a world-class pianist, composer, and band leader.  He toured the US most recently with Zakir Hussain’s group Crosscurrents.  In his studio, Louiz has a photo of himself with Herbie Hancock.  Louiz generously made a guest appearance at our recent theater concert.  He received a standing ovation when he entered the stage.  Next week, I’ll play in a quartet setting with Louis, his son Gino Banks on drums, and star bassist Sheldon D’Silva.  It was Louiz’s first time to hear Susan.  He declared as we listened backstage to Susan’s opening solo that “Susan is the best in the world!”


This is a musical “vacation” insofar as our having the opportunity to rehearse or perform every day with few distractions.  Otherwise, our social calendar is quite full, meeting various friends for social evenings together.  Every meal is an adventure.  We love the food.  All the spices used are fresh, not like the months-old dried spices we get in the US.  The fruits are amazing, including the best mangos and papayas that I’ve ever eaten.  Other fruits include bananas, passion fruits, grapes, oranges, coconuts, etc.  India is a fruit paradise.  The one benefit of visiting after the cooler winter season is that the fruits get sweeter in the hotter weather.

Susan had booked our apartment from Reno through AirB&B.  In a small-world coincidence, our apartment is owned by a singer with whom Susan and I have numerous common friends on Facebook, including Louiz.  The apartment is in an affluent suburb of Mumbai named Bandra. Our apartment is only a short walk from a market filled with a mix of all kinds of people, from rich to poor.  The market has many upscale restaurants and shops.  But it also has a street scene of subsistence vendors, street food purveyors, and some beggars.  

India demonstrates the triumph of capitalism.  Somehow, millions of people find ways to survive by either selling something, making something, working as manual laborers, becoming servants to richer people, or by simply begging.  I’m amazed that the thousands of small specialty shops are able to compete and survive.  Greater Mumbai is home to over twenty million people.  Only a small proportion of its population own vehicles.  Most people live their lives in a local area, working, shopping, buying, and selling in “villages” within the city. 

Mumbai is a city of contrasts.  Downtown Mumbai is like New York…upscale, sophisticated, and modern.  The number of highrise buildings is impressive.  But a short distance from the downtown area are small communities of different religions and economic classes, including many poor villagers from rural India who come to Mumbai looking for jobs.  Adjacent to central Mumbai is Dharavi, reputedly the world’s largest slum, housing over a million people. 

Mumbai’s terrible traffic deserves mentioning.  Congestion means that traveling a distance that might only take half an hour in the middle of the night can easily take ninety minutes to two hours during high-traffic periods.  My joke is:  Telling a visitor to Mumbai that they might experience some traffic, is like telling Titanic passengers that they might experience some moisture.


I have two close friends with whom I’ve had political discussions.  (They’ve only met each other briefly.)  I was surprised to find that they expressed a shared idea:  that Narendra Moti, India’s Hindu-centric prime minister has done a fantastic job in furthering Indian progress.  They don’t agree with “Hindutva,” the movement that seeks to recast India as a Hindu nation as opposed to a multi-religious democracy.  Hindutva can be prepared with the Christian-Nationalist movement in the US that wants to redesign the US government according to their “Christian” ideas. 

The numerous ambitious construction projects in Mumbai initiated under Moti’s rule are undoubtedly a sign of his success.  Mumbai has modernized significantly since my early visits.  There are countless new road construction projects, including “flyovers,” elevated highways being constructed above the crowded urban areas. 

Another idea shared by my friends is that the other political parties were so corrupt, that they could never accomplish anything, unlike Moti, who is not corrupt.  (This is not to say that other Indian politicians currently in power under Moti are not as corrupt as the politicians in the previous government.)  The anti-Islamic communal violence that has occurred recently is not as bad as that in years past. 

The original partition of 1948 resulting in Pakistan’s founding as a Moslem country led to the largest migration/ethnic cleansing in history, affecting millions of people, as Hindus fled Pakistan for India, and Moslems fled India for Pakistan.  Yet, India is still home to over a hundred million Moslems, who generally co-exist peaceably within the dominant Hindu society.  Almost all Hindus were forced out of Pakistan during the 1948 partition, just as the Jews were forced out of the surrounding Arab countries when Israel was created during the same period.  The dissolution of the British colonial empire after World War II spawned many of the conflicts that continue to this day in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  When longstanding conflicts persist without solutions, the common explanation is:  It’s the Brits’ fault!

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