Illustration: Shyam G Menon

One talent that is a blessing in times of lockdown is the ability to play music.

Ahead of COVID-19, the world was a very busy place. Not having time for anything other than work was perceived as sign of person’s success or potential for success. As lockdown took hold, many of us were thrust into the unfamiliar territory of having time, not knowing what to do with it and even if you did repeating some routine or the other, not knowing how to manage the monotony. Being creative – like being able to compose music – can be a gift for such challenging times. It keeps you engaged.

In early April, Mumbai-based rock climber Franco Linhares, shared a video of him essaying bouldering moves using the furniture at his house. Given their appetite for climbing moves and tendency to infuse daily view of world with hunt for such possibility, climbers have been known to ascend the outside of buildings (it is called buildering) and attempt complicated moves on chairs and tables. It is a way of challenging oneself and having some fun. Franco, 69, titled his simple video devoid of any background score: Lockdown Blues.

The name begged music for not only is the blues an engaging genre of music but the present times of people restricted to their homes for weeks to prevent infection is a study in pathos. It is perfect substratum for the blues. Decades ago, the genre was born from the suffering of people working the plantations and railroads of the US. Few styles in western music pour forth human emotion and feelings, likes the blues does. No matter how politically correct you wish to be about lockdown, there is no denying the human experience as you sit cooped up in your house, weathering the hours and days while a virus stalks the spaces beyond, you once roamed. Why not sing about it?

Late that evening, Franco sent across one more video. This time, it was Ernest Flanagan singing Lockdown Blues, lyrics credited to Prabhakar Mundkur. A subsequent search on the Internet yielded further perspective. Lockdown Blues appeared to be a generic series inspired by pandemic with plenty of versions and no genuinely convincing beginning to the trend (to borrow virus jargon: it may have an index case but I couldn’t trace it). The versions available ranged from raw, bare and personal in the tradition of the blues, like Prabhakar’s (uploaded on YouTube April 5, 2020) and Ernest’s (uploaded on YouTube April 10, 2020) to humorous, reflective and musical-like as Dominic Frisby’s (premiered March 31, 2020) to upbeat, sounding like a band and close to studio quality as the version performed by Shannon Rains (uploaded on YouTube, April 3, 2020). Plus the search yielded a Wikipedia page for a song called “ Lockdown Blues’’ by Danish band Iceage but it released on April 2, 2020, by when thousands of people had already endured lockdown for weeks in various parts of the world, some of them likely singing about it too. In fact, on April 9, 2020 Tamil rapper Arivu posted a feisty number titled “ Vanakkam Virus,” his take on the lockdown and its impact on the economically disadvantaged. By mid-April major names in the music industry overseas, were also getting into the act of connecting with world under lockdown. There was the One World: Together at Home Concert organized in collaboration with Lady Gaga that saw many artistes take part. There was also news from Pink Floyd that starting April 17, the band will stream its full length archival concerts for free, every Friday.

A longstanding pianist and jazz musician in Mumbai, Ernest is known to pen poems and lyrics on a frequent basis. He likes it when lines rhyme. On the internet you come across videos posted by friends, of them singing his songs. Associated in the past with well-known names in the Indian jazz scene, Ernest’s last job was with the financial institution IL&FS. Until it sank into troubled times, with corresponding retrenchment of employees, Ernest had been pianist playing every evening at the lobby of the institution’s headquarters in Mumbai. “ It was a dream job,’’ he said. He lost it in December 2018. A year and three months later, India was in lockdown to combat COVID-19. Ernest was no stranger to the blues. On YouTube, you will find a delightful little blues number he wrote and sang called ` Kickback Blues,’ posted October 2019 on the Jazz Goa account. Naturally, he channeled the lockdown experience. “ I wrote my version of Lockdown Blues and sent it to some of my friends hoping they would sing it. For some reason, nobody took it up,’’ Ernest said when contacted in mid-April. In the meantime, ad industry veteran Prabhakar Mundkur wrote his version of Lockdown Blues and posted a video. It was a brief take (about a minute and a half); it was also rather bare in terms of arrangement. Ernest then sang his version of Prabhakar’s song.

He introduced two differences. Being adept at keyboards he was able to infuse the song with that impression of band playing along.  He also added some lines to the lyrics. Ernest’s version is longer and its lyrics have a circular structure with the whole song running like a conversation with a nurse; a cry for help. Someone who likes to do things well, Ernest said he was not happy with the audio quality. He wished he had access to a studio (Kickback Blues, which has superior audio quality, was recorded in a studio). “ For Lockdown Blues I had to sing with one hand on the keyboards and the other pressing the recording icon on the mobile phone screen,’’ he said, adding, “ there’s only so much you can do from home.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Thanks to Franco Linhares for sparking off this rendezvous with the Lockdown Blues.) 

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