Plantation life offers the discerning music lover the unique ability to stay tuned to an odd assortment of music – most of it at least fifty years old – and make it a part of everyday life.
Some years ago the little town of Coonoor in the tea-growing district of Nilgiris got its own unique version of a supermarket. Walk down Bedford Circle towards Stanes School, (yes, we’re still in India) and you’ll find a charming little old colonial structure complete with red tiled roof, the sign above the door proclaiming to the shopper that here stands a franchise of the Bangalore-based Nilgiris chain of supermarkets. But there the similarity ends. This wonderful store could be a place out of time from 1950s England… The Woolworths of the South Indian hills. To the residents of Coonoor it’s just known as Cedric’s, named after the long-standing resident who started this much-loved outlet, and will greet every single client with a cheery smile, and always by name.
You can get anything here. From frozen goods, to knitting needles, to home-made chocolates, to soap and shampoo to Thai food kits to an exquisite range of home-curated cheeses and jams and chutneys, to dog food, to ayurvedic medicines… The whole town tends to shop there and it has become a common meeting point, allowing you to say hello to those you like and magnificently ignore those you don’t. And it does not matter what time of the year you go there or what time of day, the one thing you will always, always find in this delightful treasure trove is music. And not just any music, but country music and rock and roll from the fifties and sixties streaming forth from a rather fine sound system. As you wander around the store, bumping shoulders with other shoppers, you’ll find most of them humming along with these familiar tunes from another time… Because everyone in this town, where time stands still, knows and loves this kind of music, and few have cared to venture beyond this era and genre. A twelve-year-old will probably know the words to ‘House of the rising sun’ and few would find it hard to resist a subtle smile as Elvis croons out one of town’s favourites. Yes, as you enter this delightful store there are two things strike you immediately… The tall display of beautifully packaged Nilgiris teas on the right, as you enter, and the wonderfully old-yet-familiar music that instantly transports one back to simpler times and simpler ways.
Indeed, few things are more irrevocably tied together than tea and music – at least in this unique part of the world. The tradition going back many decades. In Holy Innocents High School in 1982 a group of twelve-year-olds belted out a beautiful arrangement of Malaika under the skilled tutelage of their much-loved music master, Michael Enos, still known around town today as Sir Michael. That most charming teacher himself comes from a family that has done much to uphold the Western musical traditions of this little hill district. His father, the late Mr Enos, was a piano teacher of some distinction, and his brother, Ivan, still runs a music school today, as well as heading up the local band, that to many biased local ears is still the best one on the planet – I concur. In fact, there was a time when no dance at the Wellington Gymkhana Club, or a wedding celebration, was considered complete without the (former) Minks in attendance, and many a tender romance blossomed at these dances as Michael and Ivan played on. Certainly, back in the day a piano lesson with Ivan Enos was a special occasion indeed. An effortless musician, he made learning music simple and fun, and his gracious father would always be on hand, nodding quietly, as he handed the entranced pupil the cup of tea that came free with the lesson.
And these legacies live on. The town boasts its very own choir, one of some particular talent. From ‘All I have to do is dream’ to ‘Blue Christmas’ to ‘A whiter shade of pale’… a performance by this fine group of singers showcases both the town’s musical heritage and its vital sense of community. Parsis, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and atheists come together in wonderful harmony (pun intended, naturally) to sing everything from hymns to old Hindi songs to the odd Swahili number… yes, ‘Malaika’ is still popular after all these years. And last Christmas, the town’s longest standing musical legend, Mrs Phyllis Wright, stood before this very choir that she helped start many decades ago, and raising her delicate, elegant hands, helped conduct it once more, aged 96, accompanied by none other than Ivan Enos. Of course, those that know Mrs Wright will know that her musical abilities were matched only by the very fine tea-parties she used to give – complete with mouth-watering sandwiches and melt-in-the-mouth cookies she baked herself. In fact, there was no finer way to enjoy a cup of Nilgiris brew than at one of these select soirees.
Maybe it’s the fact that most schools and colleges have always had choir, or that being up in the hills cuts off more modern musical influences, but there’s something incredibly heart-warming about this little slice of life that continues to exist unchanged in its simpler musical pursuits, in a world where technology and hedonism have overtaken melody and emotion. Maybe it’s the swirling clouds that wander in and out through the tea gardens that help preserve a way of life that is unbelievably gentle; or perhaps it’s the very tradition of tea-drinking that helps preserve this music of the mountains… Whatever the cause, Coonoor is special and its musical legacy both quaint and wonderful. And for all these reasons and more, it remains the keeper of a way of life no longer in evidence anywhere else in the world.
One thing is certain. That while this green-blue mountain range may seem to offer quiet and calm in spades, you can be quite certain that these tea-laden hills are quite alive with the sound of music. And yes, almost everyone in Coonoor will know the lyrics of almost every one of those songs from that much-loved musical. I will stake a cup of tea on that…
Photo courtesy Greaves Henriksen