Remo got his first musical instrument when he was four years old. As his memoirs show, he never stopped since then
My first musical instrument
When I was about four years old, my father bought me a mouth organ. I guess it was the smallest and simplest musical instrument he could think of for a child. When he came back from the Fábrica (that’s what we called his cold drink factory) that night, he couldn’t find me. Mom told her that I had been sitting under the bed and crying for half an hour, and she couldn’t quite understand why. He found me there, the harmonica on my knees.
“What’s wrong, son?” ” He asked.
“I can’t play this song!” I sobbed.
“Which?” he asked, surprised.
I played the intro to The blue tangostruck the wrong fourth note again and sobbed louder in anger and frustration.
Father understood immediately. Eyes shining with excitement, he told me to get dressed and get in the car. He drove me to Pedro Fernandes, who had the one and only music shop that catered to all of Panjim musical and possibly all of North Goa, and asked for a Hohner mouth organ professional chromatic with a side button for sharps and flats. It came in a nice box with a red velvet lining inside.
Back home, my father explained to me how to reach the “hidden notes” by pressing the most important button, and I was delighted to finally be able to play the tune.
“What made you choose The blue tango like your first piece on the mouth organ? He asked.
I did not know. I just loved the melody. I still love him.
A few days after playing the mouth organ, I wanted to do something that I had seen someone do at a party: play it with one hand, while keeping the rhythm with a maraca on the other. The available maracas were too big and too heavy for me. Father improvised and found me a small metal box; it was flat and circular, and half filled with some smooth green seed. It made a great maraca sound, and I was in business.
I played for Mother and Father, who were seated in the living room; I parted the curtains of the door and entered as if I were entering a stage; Mother and father were invited to applaud, after which I bowed, sang and played. After that, Mother and Father clapped again, I bowed one last time, parted the curtains and left the room/off stage.
I then played and sang at every family gathering and birthday party when I was asked to play, and I always looked forward to being asked.
Music at home and in Goa
Father had bought a German radiogram from Nordmende from the one and only dealer in Panjim called Senhor Mungró. A radiogram was a beautiful piece of cupboard made of highly polished teak or rosewood in which were housed, or almost concealed, several devices reproducing music.
The one Father bought included a valve radio in the center, driven by a powerful, high-quality amplifier. Below was a superb array of speakers camouflaged behind rich woven fabric secured behind an intricate wooden grille.
There were also two speakers on its sides. Above were two horizontal doors which opened upwards: one to reveal a four-speed dual disc changer, on which up to twelve discs of any size could be stacked, and the second door revealed a Telefunken reel tape recorder. At the front, on the left and right sides of the cabinet, two attractive rounded doors opened onto compartments with vertical slots where discs were stored.
The radiogram started with Father’s record collection. It was an eclectic mix of great brass bands, western classical symphonies, Brazilian baiãos, forró, bossa novas and sambas, South American solo singers and harmony groups such as Trio los Panchos and Trio los Paraguayos, popular Italian singers such as Renato Carosone and Caterina Valente, English and American singers whose names I don’t remember but whose songs I still hear in my head, a beautiful orchestral instrument called Anastasia which always made me sad, cheerful Portuguese folk songs, plaintive Portuguese fados of which Amália Rodrigues was the reigning queen of all time, and of course the rare and rare 78 rpm records which had then been composed of beautiful Goan Konkani mandos and popular songs.
Father loved Konkani’s songs, and I particularly remember one, Shivole, Sonar Khetti, Father’s favourite, for it was Siolim, his beloved village; I was supposed to re-record my version of it in 2021, in tribute to Father and his composer, Cruz Noronha. After Goan mando and other folk songs, fado came second in his personal list.
On the first monsoon night of that year, there was a particularly spectacular thunder and lightning storm. I was afraid. Father decided to teach me to appreciate the power of nature and not be afraid of it. He turned off all the lights, put a classical symphony on a really loud volume, and sat me on his lap on the dark veranda.
We felt the powerful jet of rain on our faces; the whole dark street lit up with brilliant silver flashes every few minutes, revealing familiar trees bent double by the wind, the flashes punctuated by a deep roll of thunder well enough to shake the house to its foundations; and providing a musical background to all this was Beethoven’s Fifth, since the electricity had not yet failed from a fallen tree or branch. Father kept whispering softly and softly in my ear, trying to explain to a five year old the beauty and power of this scene.
Today I love sitting on my veranda on stormy monsoon nights, enjoying the surround sound of some of nature’s most vibrant energies, smelling the wet earth of Goa and sipping a glass of something straight from the heart. from the soil of Goa. But that night, I burst into tears. Upon Mother’s protests, Father abandoned his highly specialized lesson on music and nature appreciation, took me inside, and turned off the music. But the experience stayed with me forever.
Every small party or gathering in Goa had music at that time. No music played on a record player, but music played by the revelers themselves. Violins and mandolins came out once the mood was right, the piano lid opened, and people coughed and tuned their voices which, softened by a few choice golden lubricants, rose in glorious song.
The instruments exchanged hands, different people were brought in to sing “their” songs, and on the third, people got up to dance. The music, singing, dancing and drinking continued until the buffet was declared open – which was invariably delayed as long as possible, lest the guests think the host was mean and greedy in stopping the festivities.
And then everyone, now hungry but still unwilling to stop singing and dancing, marched in time to a popular marching tune, the couples arm in arm, straight into the dining room and around and around the dining table, guitarists and violinists and mandolin players following with their instruments. The pianist was invariably left to play alone in the room.
Once the music was over and everyone was gathered around the table, the most eloquent speaker in the assembly was invited to raise the indispensable sprig or improvised toast. In my parents’ circle, this task usually fell to Senhor Vasco Alvares, the tall, portly, jolly but irreverent man who was one of the pillars of Panjim society, and a good friend and Father’s Day buddy.
His toasts were always a delight to listen to; they had just the right mix of pathos, emotion, family values, and most importantly, naughty humor that had everyone from us kids (when we figured it out) to the oldest grandparents present in uncontrollable laughter.
And then, before attacking the obligatory succulent piglet and turkey and giant trevally and lobster and fried rice, Parabens a voçê Where Happy Birthday was sung in harmony by one and all, their enthusiasm heightened by their gratitude to the gracious host for this great feast, himself thanking the assembly for decades and even generations for their tried warmth, love and friendship .
After dinner was over, the feasting invariably stopped abruptly, a custom that anyone but a Goan would consider rude; and everyone left soon after, but not before a long goodbye with lots of hugs and kisses on both cheeks. Pleasantly weary from the singing and dancing, still humming a melody and feeling content with the grand buffet, the families walked by moonlight and yellow streetlights to their cars, and returned home where cool, comfortable beds were waiting for them.
Moonlight was a very important part of evenings and nights. Even in the cities where they existed, streetlights were so dim that you could see and feel the full power of moonlight and starlight. Many more in the villages, where there was no electricity at all.
Music played a very important role in people’s daily lives. You didn’t have to consider yourself a musician or a singer to know how to play an instrument or sing a song – why, everyone knew how to do these things, they were as natural as speaking or writing without considering yourself a speaker or author.
Once, at such a party at Tio Renato’s on the way to Altinho, my cousin Jorge, who was then at least thirteen or fourteen, got me drunk on champagne. I must have been six or seven years old. When he saw that I was starting to pass out, he panicked at the idea of being discovered by his parents and mine. He carried me stealthily up the stairs to our car, which was parked on the main road with all the others, put me to sleep in the back seat, and left me there to sleep.
His “good deed of the day” was discovered a little later when mom started looking for me. I believe he had more headaches from his father’s slap the next morning than I did from my very first hangover – which, coming from the French champagne, probably shows that I started in style.
Excerpted with permission from Remo: The Autobiography of Remo FernandesHarperCollins India.