52 years, 5,000 songs: Kersi Lord


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With musician Kersi Lord’s death, we have lost a vital part of film history

Sometime in the midst of the swinging sixties, the great Naushad Ali realised the urgent need to re-invent himself. The astute music director, famed for his classical scores, knew what he needed to do: hire a new arranger, someone who could give a more contemporary feel to his melodies. Luckily for him, he didn’t have to look too far.

The young man Naushad turned to was a Parsi named Kersi Lord. Naushad had first noticed Kersi when, as a child, the latter would accompany his father Cawas Lord – an ex-jazz drummer who became one of the most respected percussionists in the film line – to the recording studios. After recordings, Naushad would often send the boy in his car to the nearest railway station so that he could reach school on time. Even 50 years later, Kersi would recall this gesture with fondness – as also the name of the driver, the car’s make and number!

A young Kersi Lord.
A young Kersi Lord.

Kersi literally grew up in the studios. Among his mentors was the legendary arranger Anthony Gonsalves, a tough taskmaster. “I have often cried on his sets. He would write difficult parts and if you could not play, he would sarcastically say, ‘Can’t play, huh? Don’t practice, go and watch movies!’ That forced me to practice, na.”

All those hours of practice stood him in good stead. Kersi started off as a percussionist, playing a whole range of smaller Latin percussion instruments (many of them introduced by his father). Gradually, he started playing bongos and congas in recordings, and later a series of mallet instruments – the vibraphone, the xylophone and the glockenspiel. (The glock is used to great effect in the famous lighter tune that occurs as an aural leitmotif in Hum Dono). And if it wasn’t enough that he played a series of percussion instruments with a certain level of dexterity, he was an ace accordionist to boot.

But it was one thing to be a first-rate instrumentalist. Could he also be a capable arranger to the formidable Naushad Ali? In an attempt to first assess the competence of the untested young man, he surprised Kersi by casually asking him to do the background score for a scene in Ram Aur Shyam (1967). The result seems to have pleased Naushad because Kersi was promptly hired to do his next film. Saathi (1968) stands out musically as a radical departure from Naushad’s earlier (substantial) oeuvre. In the film’s most famous song (see playlist below), Kersi channels his fondness for Carnatic percussion, especially the work of the great mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer, to elevate what is essentially a very simple central melody.

Kersi’s career as an arranger, however, was short-lived. He had always asked for a separate credit line, something not always forthcoming. (Arrangers were conventionally credited as Music Assistants and their names clubbed with assistants from other departments). And when he did not get credited for arranging the background score for Kamal Amrohi’s epic Pakeezah (1972), he decided to work only as an instrumentalist. But not before giving us at least two more great tracks. The bluesy Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho is a classic and no case needs to be made for it. Not as well known is the scorching instrumental theme from Feroz Khan’sDharmatma (1974). The track, which has been sampled a few times, is credited to composers Kalyanji-Anandji, but it was in fact composed, arranged and conducted by Kersi Lord.

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