The strains of classic rock anthems from the Chennai-based rock band Myth filled the air as the sun set over Benderloch (commonly referred to as ‘Bendy’) Field on the evening of 19 February 1989. The vibrant local community and a colourful audience of young and old enthusiasts from around South India who had travelled up to Kodai had just been treated to a wonderful two-day festival of eclectic music: jazz, folk, blues, rock, reggae, world music and even a local band of traditional temple drummers.
Twelve bands, including Colossus and the Sarjapur Blues Band from Bangalore, V6 from Chennai, the Glass Bangles from Madurai and others from Auroville, Cochin and elsewhere, performed pro bono to raise money for Corsock’s Mercy Home, a home for the destitute elderly in Kodaikanal. Sponsored by Kodai Cheese, the first ever Kodai Music Festival was a resounding success. At the time I was working with Dr Ed Tegenfeldt at Van Allen Hospital, and it was thanks to him and then principal of Kodaikanal International School (KIS), Dr Paul Wiebe, that my friend Georgey Phillip and I were able to successfully stage this festival, with the help of others like the late Rajashekhar of Bangalore and the singer Dheena Chandra Dhas.
My love affair with the guitar began when I was about 12 years old. On a visit to my grandparents’ house, I found an old archtop acoustic guitar wrapped in a blanket and stored atop a cupboard. It was love at first sight. I was allowed to take it down and strum the few strings that still remained. The guitar belonged to my uncle, and I spent the next several months persuading my father to ask him if I could borrow it, to which he finally agreed. The guitar and I were soon inseparable companions.
Back then we lived in a small village several miles from Cochin, but my father, realising how keen I was, took the trouble to find me a teacher, with whom I had my first few lessons. Throughout my school years the guitar was much more than a musical instrument to me. It was my best friend. I was small for my age, never very good at sports and quite average at studies. The annual school music competition was the only time I got to hold my head high. I spent more and more time just teaching myself to play and discovering the world of music.
When it was time for college and career choices, I desperately wanted to study music and make it my profession. I was much inspired by the late guitarist John Anthony of Thiruvananthapuram, from whom I was fortunate to receive some lessons and my first introduction to fingerstyle guitar. My dream was to study music at Berklee College of Music in the US. My parents, however, were both highly accomplished doctors, and a music career for their eldest son didn’t find much favour with them. I soon found myself in Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore, and for some years thereafter the guitar receded into the background to emerge occasionally at beach parties, birthday celebrations or the odd weekend jam in a hostel room.
It was during my internship in Christian Medical College, Vellore, that I met Kolly (Dr Arun Kolhatkar), and we struck up a great friendship centred around our mutual love for the guitar. He taught me a lot about fingerstyle guitar and I learned many songs from him during that year. We built up a sizeable repertoire of classic rock covers and even a couple of originals. I have fond memories of many evenings spent on the terrace at the MIQ (Men’s Interns Quarters) singing in harmony to the heavens.
In 1986 I visited Kodaikanal for the first time on my 24th birthday, and thus began a new chapter in my life. I have had the opportunity to travel quite widely since then, but no other place in the world has inspired my music like Kodaikanal has. I wrote song after song sitting by its brooks and streams, waterfalls and forest pools, where I spent many hours with my classical guitar, a gift from a German traveller, Andrej, whom I had met in Mangalore. Many other travellers and visitors to Kodai influenced my music during those years, perhaps none more than my dear friend Mario ‘Cleto’ DaCosta, who passed on some years ago. Cleto introduced me to reggae and the music of Bob Marley, which resonated deeply with the rebellious free spirit I was back then.
From Kodai I travelled to the Himalayas a few times, and those majestic mountains too inspired many of my songs. Some of these were recorded at Salil Chowdhury’s Sound on Sound studio in Kolkata with Kinsuk Dasgupta on an album called Magic Mountain. It was an eclectic collection of songs and instrumentals that was released independently on cassette tapes. I taught guitar briefly at KIS back then, and I got to know David Estes and Oliver Rajamani, who were in high school. That was a lot of fun, and I often played bass with their band at school events.
Music once again took a back seat in the ’90s as my medical career and family life became priorities. It was only after I moved to Bermuda in 2001 and while I was working at King Edward Memorial Hospital there that I felt the urge to play and write again. I began to take guitar lessons from Steve Crawford at the Bermuda School of Music and for the first time was introduced to formal classical guitar. Steve had me perform at some of his annual Bermuda Guitar Festivals, where I was fortunate to meet and befriend some incredible international artists like Grammy-winner Andrew York, in whose honour I wrote ‘Tribute to Andrew York’. This solo classical guitar piece was featured in the prestigious Fingerstyle Guitar magazine and remains to this day one of my most popular tracks. It came to life quite serendipitously while I was learning one of Andrew’s original tunes, ‘Sunburst’, and is in the same alternate tuning. If you listen carefully you can hear the sound of Bermuda tree frogs at the very end that somehow crept into the microphones in my home studio. Andrew liked them so they stayed!
In 2004 I re-united with my old friends from KIS, David Estes and Oliver Rajamani, in the US. Together we recorded the album Firefly in New York and Austin, Texas. ‘Kaliyug’, the last track on this album, entered the finals of the International Songwriting Competition and received many accolades. I was also fortunate to collaborate with some brilliant Bermudian musicians, like the amazing singer Joy T Barnum, and together we had the great honour of opening the prestigious Bermuda Music Festival in 2005, headlined by Patti LaBelle, with the original song ‘Need to Rest’. Kamilo Kratc, who engineered Firefly at Soundworks Recording Studio in NY, introduced me to the basics of digital recording, and that got me started with building my own home studio and recording the self-produced album Eclectia in 2006.
In 2008 I moved back to Kodaikanal, and for the next eight or so years music once again receded into the background of a busy work and family life. In 2009 I was working at the social experience department at KIS, and with the support of the local business community we were able to once again organize the Kodai Music Festival (20 years after the first one) to raise funds once again for Mercy Home.
This time the performers included international artists like classical guitarist Louise Southwood, violinist David Francis, world music virtuoso Oliver Rajamani, Scott Paige, the late James Kenny, Tem Noon, David Estes and more, besides Indian bands like Allegro Fudge from Bangalore as well as then KIS students like Sid Vashi. An exhibition of ‘trash art’ made from recycled garbage by KIS students and a series of masterclasses and workshops featuring some of these musicians were the other highlights. Of course a festival in Kodai would not be complete without afterparties, and there was one each day with a final fireside jam session at the Golf Club. The funds raised contributed to a solar hot water system and other much needed upgrades to Mercy Home.
In 2014 we moved to Australia, and it was only a couple of years later that I resumed performing and producing music, after a chance visit to a local open mic session in a Toowoomba café. I was also fortunate to come across the well-known American fingerstyle guitarist Lance Allen online, and he introduced me to a large community of guitarists and instrumental musicians with whom I began to network, collaborate and build a following on major streaming platforms, Spotify in particular. Thanks to the support of this wonderful community and the excellent label Florecilla Records, owned by guitarist Agustin Amigó, this has grown to around 1,00,000 monthly listeners and close to 7 million streams of my music. After all these years my teenage dreams of a career in music are finally coming true, and royalties from a growing discography of more than 100 original tracks and instrumental covers distributed by the Brisbane-based company Gyrostream are now a major portion of my income.
I record and produce one new track a week on average in my home studio here in Toowoomba, near Brisbane. In general I find myself creating music that reflects my vision for world peace and harmony, blending grooves, rhythms and patterns from many different cultures and traditions that highlight humanity’s oneness in diversity. While my most successful genre has been instrumental fingerstyle guitar under my main artist name, Mathew Joseph, I have recently launched new artist monikers: Lektromonk for ambient electric nylon guitar tracks, Nirav Anugraha for Indian devotional music, Matamatix (one of my old nicknames in Kodaikanal) for instrumental guitar covers and Matatronix for cinematic electronica. The music often has strong elements of Indian folk, for example the EP ‘Mood Masala’. Others have odd time signatures, such as on the EP ‘Odds and Evens’. Many are world fusion songs and instrumentals, such as on the EP ‘Tales from a Lighthouse’.
And, of course, ‘The Kodi Song’ (2018) is dedicated to Kodaikanal and all who are connected with that beloved mountain, wherever they may be in the world. It was written when I first moved to the town, and the lyrics bring to life the magic of these mountains with its stunning beauty and the bohemian lifestyle that many of us lived and breathed back then. The fireside jam sessions, the apple pies, the cheese, the tea stalls, the ever-present bonhomie and the effervescent spirit of Kodai are the inspiration behind this song.
And so the refrain:
‘Pass me some more of that cheddar cheese, Cut me some more of that apple pie, please, And some more of that Manna brown bread, And then I’ll let that black coffee get to my head.’