Deben Bhattachrya intervied by Kevin - Part 4: First recordings

A chap in the sales department of John Lewis one day told me that they’d got a new gadget that had just come he was sure would interest me – a machine called a tape recorder! It was a Baird machine, so I bought one on the never-never – it took me eighteen months to pay for, exactly as long as I was a porter there. By then, I knew a lot of Indians in London, and I started to record Indian musicians on the Baird. At much the same time, I met a chap called Richard Lannoy, who was about to go to India on a photographic assignment. We met several times, I tried to help as much as I could, and eventually he went off, and I took over his flat in Lanark Road. Through Monica Pidgeon, who I already knew, I managed to get an introduction to Argo Records, where I met its founder, Harley Usill. I went to their offices in George Street, and was totally confused. It was the first time I had been in a recording company. There they all were, working, making and producing records. I saw the piles of printed records in their sleeves. In a way I was impressed, although it wasn’t what I had expected. Harley was extremely kind to me; he knew my financial situation, and was willing to help. He had heard that I was planning to join Richard Lannoy in India, and planning to take my tape recorder with me. Harley said, “Don’t take the Baird, it’s not good enough. Maybe we could help you a little, although we don’t have much money.” He showed me the Gaumont-British Kalee machine they were using, and said I ought to have one of them. It was a strange looking machine with a curved top – in fact it almost looked like a model of an old cinema! And it weighed a ton! Harley said, “You will need a transformer if you are going to run it from car batteries.” I thought, “Oh dear, more expense!”

I needed £80 for the tape recorder, about £20 for the transformer, and another £25 or so for 20 blank tapes to take with me, plus about £60 for a one way boat ticket to Bombay. Where was I going to get all this money? The Third Programme wouldn’t give me an advance, although I had a guarantee that they would take programmes when I came back. Then I met a lady called Sunday Wilson – extraordinary name – who was a producer for the overseas service. She commissioned me for six five-minute programmes. I got five pounds – no! – five guineas each, so that was £30.6.0 towards it! Some weeks after that, the poet Stephen Spender had started his new magazine ‘Encounter’, and had approached me to write an article on Indian poetry. We met, and when I told him I was going to India, he was very kind, and gave me an advance on two further articles. So that’s how I collected the money for my first recording trip: from Encounter, from Sunday Wilson, and from Harley Usill. Argo didn’t have much money, but they gave me £25, they paid for the Gaumont-British machine, and the tapes against future royalties.

After that trip to India, I arrived back in London, and had enough material to make several very good LPs. I’d recorded twenty tapes – the ones I got from Harley Usill. I had about enough material to make at least four or five excellent records, and one of them was published, called Songs from Bombay. I wrote the articles for Stephen Spender, did the BBC programmes, and then after that – absolutely nothing! I just didn’t feel like going back to John Lewis; a year and a half of carrying cupboards and packing things was quite enough, really. So I went to see some friends in Germany, in Bremen. They arranged some radio work, I earned a bit of money, and I managed to get to Paris, where I did some lectures on Indian music. I earned a little doing this, maybe £20 a lecture – just about enough to keep going. It was while I was first in Paris in 1955, that I had the idea of a second trip to India, but this time overland, through the Middle East, recording folk music in every country I went through. John McCloud of EMI International was very enthusiastic, and EMI Paris financed it. We went through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan to India. I got a wealth of material which was issued on several records and that enabled me to get a good start in Paris, where I stayed for several years before returning to London for a couple of years in 1958, when I lived at Swiss Cottage.

Between ’61 and ’62 I went to live in Stockholm. Sweden was very fruitful for me; Stockholm Radio began to take fairly regular programmes from me. Soon after that, a new organisation called Rikskonsert started in Stockholm. It was run by a man called Nils Wallend, and its job was to impart musical education in Swedish schools, from playgroup to adult – all paid for by the state. They invited me to produce the extra-European music and also I got involved with music of the socialist countries because I had done a lot of work in those countries, and I had a fairly large collection of music from most of the socialist countries except Russia. I brought musical groups from various countries to Sweden, to appear at concerts and in schools to show them what music of other countries was like.

Read Part 5: Films »

Text taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly
© 2010 Michael Daly