Tea Notes to Music

April 12 2014

Here we have a great appreciation of the Tea Musicians of old and new--
Thank you Sarita



                                                                                      Sarita Dasgupta

   Bordubi T.E.


“There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson…well, he could just as easily have been speaking about music!

The Tea Planter has had to, perforce, be ‘a man for all seasons’. The pioneer planters had to get people to clear jungles full of wild animals and plant tea on the land. They had to mete out justice, keep the peace, give medical advice in an emergency and, generally, build up an image of invincibility. Over the years, the profile of the Tea Planter changed but he still had to be versatile and wear many hats, not always of his choice! One hat that many planters chose to happily wear, however, was that of the Musician.


The Inspiration: Shillong bands

There were many talented musicians among the tea planters in Assam, who formed bands and performed at various clubs in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were inspired by the bands from Shillong who were invited to play at the bigger club ‘Do’s. In the late 50s, a band comprising Mark Fernandez (Piano), Toto Wallang (lead singer and guitar, who later became famous in Calcutta as ‘The Golden Voice of Shillong’) Frank (Clarinet) and Isaac (percussion and saxophone) was much in demand in the Upper Assam clubs. They were followed in the 1960s by other bands from Shillong, the most popular among them being The Fentones, who won the Simla Beat Contest in 1971 and The Vanguards, who were very popular not only in Assam but also in the nightclubs of Kolkata. The band members stayed with planters when they came to perform at the upcountry clubs, so they became friendly, helping and encouraging the planters’ bands.



The Vanguards at ‘Trincas’, Kolkata

 Tea Bands:

The BorgangRiver Boys

In the late 1950s, The Borgang River Boys was a very popular planters’ band on the North Bank. The band comprised Hamish Pirie, Mike Dawkins, Tom Saltau, Peter Swer and Jeff Tomlin. They played mostly at the (now defunct) Behali Club after games on a club day, but were also invited to play at East Boroi Club and Bishnauth Gymkhana

Club.In 1959, fresh out of college,Jimmy Pariat was visiting his cousin, Peter Swer, and was asked to join them at a ‘gig’. Jimmy joined Williamson Magor the very next year and along with three other planters, formed PB4.


The Borgang RiverBoys  

(L-R) Hamish Pirie (ex Mgr Koomsong T E and Supd Bordubi TE
Jimmy Pariat (Guest Guitarist) Mike Dawkins, Tom Saltau,(behind)
Peter Swer, and Jeff Tomlin


L-R Terry morris, HIP Singh, Peter Baxter, Eric Singh, Jimmy Pariat


The quartet, comprising Peter Baxter (saxophone), Terry Morris (percussion and clarinet), Jimmy Pariat (guitar) and Eric Singh (tea chest bass), played at clubs including Margherita, Digboi, Doom Dooma, Tingri and Panitola for golf and tennis ‘do’s.


PB4 performing at Tingri Club


Mr & Mrs Reg Coomber (Mrs Coomber facing the camera) and others dancing to PB4’s tune

Peter Baxter had bought a saxophone and taught himself to play it; Jimmy Pariat was one of the finest guitarists from Shillong; Terry Morris was an accomplished percussionist and Eric Singh, with great enthusiasm, soon mastered the Tea Chest Double Bass. Combining well to produce good music, they were very popular and in demand for Club dances in the early 1960s.


Appropriately enough, both The Borgang River Boys and PB4 used the Tea Chest Bass – an instrument using an empty tea chest with a broomstick and cord attached. Eric Singh of PB4 became quite a virtuoso on the tea chest bass. So did Alan Leonard of the Broken Pekoes, a Mangaldai-based band comprising him, Sanbah Pariat (guitar and vocals), David Ojha (guitar and vocals), George Barry (saxophone), and David March (percussion, using very effective cymbals made of two Avery scale brass faces!) They were sometimes assisted by Terry Kemble (noises off as required!) The band played at Mangaldai Club mostly but was also invited to play at the Thakurbari Club Meet and at Bishnauth Gymkhana Club on a few occasions.


The tea chest bass, a ‘home made’ instrument, was used by many ‘Skiffle’ bands of the 1960s. Alan Leonard was into ‘Skiffle’ in those “far off days”, as he says. “After a couple of prototypes, the third tea chest I had made was very strong and made a really good bass sound. The ‘stick’ was bendable which could produce quite a variety of notes, and the ‘string’ was a couple of old tennis racquet strings stretched and braided together! A microphone on a small cushion inside the chest, played through the amp, gave it plenty of oooomph!! This ‘buddhi’ saved a lot of wear and tear on my fingers!!

‘Skiffle’ originated in New Orleans in the 1920s and was a combination of American folk music, jazz and blues. In the 1950s and 60s, it became popular in Britain. The young generation was intrigued with this style of music in which one could create a hit song played on home-made instruments like a tea chest bass! ‘Skiffle’ became the foundation of what was later to be known as the British Invasion (1964-1966). Among the well-known British ‘Skiffle’ groups were the Barber-Colyer Skiffle Band of which Mick Jagger was a member, and The Quarry Men, whose members included John Lennon, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney…later to become famous as The Beatles.

Interestingly, a member of another tea planters’ band actually played with The Beatles! As a teenager, Ron Aston, a member of the Margherita based band, The Mudguards, sat in for The Beatles (then known as ‘The Silver Beetles’) at the Neston Institute at Wirral when he was part of a group called ‘Keith Rowlands and the Deesiders’. The Silver Beetles played about four or five times at this Institute in 1960. Ron Aston’s group was often a back-up for ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’ and other up-and-coming UK bands of the 1960s.

The Mudguards, formed in 1963, were so named in honour of the Shillong band, The Vanguards, who were their mentors. Bob Powell Jones and Larry Brown, founder-members of The Mudguards, travelled to Shillong as often as they could to learn from the Vanguards with whom they had become good friends.

They met many other talented musicians and singers in Shillong, one of them being the close harmony group, The Bigalsan Trio, named after the trio – Bivan, Gallant and Sanbah. (Sanbah joined Williamson Magor and formed the Broken Pekoes with Alan Leonard and others while at Mangaldai.)


Larry fabricated his guitar at the Namdang T.E. factory, where he was posted! He says, “A copy of my guitar shape was made by the head carpenter at Namdang and he carefully shaped the body and neck from solid pieces of Nahor timber. Radha, the head fitter, who kept Namdang factory always operational, made the stainless steel plate for the neck/body attachment and the string anchor too. Bob and I arranged to get a double pick up from Hong Kong and a fretboard, machine heads and strings from Calcutta. The Namdang carpenter fitted and glued the fretboard after painting. The guitar was completed and thanks to this crafstman, we had a perfect bass guitar!


Soon, people started asking Bob and Larry to carry their guitars along to parties. The first hosts who did so were Austin and Muriel Rufus at Margherita T.E., asking them to play at their daughter Lesley’s birthday party.


Larry (lead guitar) and Bob (rhythm guitar) were joined by Ron Aston (drums).

The band soon built up quite a decent repertoire of songs but didn’t know how to overcome ‘feedback’ noise when a guitar was close to a microphone so they gave up trying to sing and played only instrumental numbers by the Shadows and Ventures.


As Larry Brown reminisces, “Our first ‘gig’ was in Panitola Club. Ron had been approached by his Superintendent, requesting that we play at a function his daughter and all her friends who were out for the Cold Weather from the UK had planned. I dithered a bit saying that we were perhaps not good enough yet to play in public but Ron came back with “he says if we don’t play he’ll sack me”!! So we played and it was a fantastic night. The Club was beautifully decorated having a Roman theme and I remember the festoons of green balloons hanging from the ceiling formed to make giant bunches of grapes.

Complimentary drinks kept coming to the stage and were lined up on top of the speaker boxes and as these marched along because of the vibration, we had to catch and drink them before they fell! Everyone had a great time and from there we played at Margherita, Digboi, Dibrugarh, Tingri, Panitola and as far afield as Mariani. We were up and running!”


Bob Powell Jones says, “I had pink shirts with black buttons stitched for the band members and proudly presented these during one of our practice sessions, suggesting that the pink shirts would go well with our dinner suit trousers.

Indeed they did, and looked quite smart!” avers Larry Brown. Douglas Russell from Margherita TE was later co-opted into the band and given a crash course in playing a bass guitar.

 The Mudguards were extremely popular though they played only instrumental numbers. They even played at a wedding reception held at Margherita Club.


 Margherita Club circa 1965--The Mudguards --Bob Powell Jones, Larry Brown, and Ron Aston

    Ken and Shirley Namey lead the dancing at their wedding reception at Margherita Club.  The Mudguards (L-R): Douglas Russell, Bob Powell Jones, Larry Brown & Ron Aston


Fast forward to the 1990s – a different generation of planters and a different kind of music. Mukesh Tandon, Balraj Barman and Munnawar Wahab (fondly called Pappu) all from Warren Tea Ltd, formed a band and decided to christen themselves Warranty. With theencouragement and support of their GM, Mr Ron Sircar, and senior executives, they started playing at Company get-togethers.


Mukesh Tandon says, “The enthusiasm of our audiences made us want to be able to perform larger sets with more variety, so we looked for more musicians outside Warrens. Gold was struck with Manoj Gogoi (Powai T.E.) and friend Sanjay Choudhury (Dehing T.E) followed soon after by Dr Raj Sharma (Nokhroy T.E.). In the meanwhile, Pappu and Balraj bowed out owing to personal engagements and we immediately needed a drummer. We found Prosenjit Chakraborty (Bubu) who was not only a great drummer but also an all round musician, and Parag Borah, a great keyboardist, later fondly called AR (Rahman) for his uncanny resemblance to the great musician himself.

I must recount how each of the members brought with him not only his individual style but also an uncanny flavour or resemblance to some great musicians of our times. Manoj, with his playing style, was our Clapton; Sanjay had Morrisson-esque vocal stylings, Doc Raj was our Freddie Mercury and yours truly was the Mark Knopfler with his Dire Straits vocal style. Planters’ Band had taken shape.”


From 1997 to 2001, Planters’ Band played in almost all the tea clubs from Margherita, Doomdooma, Panitola, Tingri, Dibrugarh, Moran and Naharkatia right up to the North Bank. The Coal and Oil circles also invited them to play at their clubs in Ledo, Digboi, Moran, Zaloni and Kaliyani. “The experience was fulfilling, making so many new friends, even admirers!” says Mukesh.


Be it PB4 or The Mudguards in the 60s, or Planters’ Band in the 90s, what all of them had in common was dedication. After a full day’s ‘kamjari’, the members would drive for miles every evening to practise together, sometimes foregoing dinner just to put in that extra bit of practice, then driving back late at night only to be up at the crack of dawn for ‘kamjari’ again! Music, to them, was not a hobby but a passion.


In MukeshTandon’s words, “It wasn’t just the glamour that kept us going. Every show would mean weeks of intense jamming, sleepless nights trying to get one song right and waking up to a full day’s ‘kamjari’. We had relentless practice sessions, and that’s what passion is all about. But thankfully since it is your passion, even too much effort is still not enough. Being part of a band was all about those long back-breaking pothole-riddled journeys to, sometimes, unfamiliar clubs; getting on-stage in front of hundreds of strange faces, forgetting you were a planter who had to write a monthly report next morning and just being a musician for the time being. Because it’s easy to be what you love. Because you’re living a dream at that moment; maybe even lending one to a couple of kids on the dance floor, watching you do that Knopfler number, in a voice made husky and drawling to get that Mark touch.


Planters’ Band performing at the Doom Dooma Club Meet (L-R) Dr Raj Sharma, Mukesh Tandon, Sanjay Choudhury and Manoj Gogoi


Panitola Club New Year's Eve, 1997 (L-R) Dr Raj Sharma, Bubu (on drums),Mukesh on lead vocals & guitar, Manoj Gogoi on lead guitar


It is a fact of life in Tea that people are transferred to different estates every few years, so it is difficult for planters’ bands to remain a unit for very long. However, in the time that all the bands I have mentioned were active, they wove magic and left a musical legacy which will live on in the annals of Tea history. Perhaps, in the coming years, talented musicians among the new generation of planters will take this legacy forward and create a magic brew of their own!

Life is one grand sweet song, boys, so start the music…and play on!



Note: I would like to convey my heartfelt thanks Mr Jimmy Pariat, Mr Terence Morris, Mr Robert Powell Jones, Mr Larry Brown, Mr Alan Leonard and Mr Mukesh Tandon for their generosity in sharing their experiences and precious photographs with me. This article could not have been written without their invaluable inputs. I dedicate this article, with immense admiration, to all planter-musicians…Thank you for the music.


Sarita Dasgupta, 7 September 2013.