Goan Guitar, the story of Amancio D’Silva

 

The summer of 1964,  Joyce had been in India a mere three weeks, when a fellow teacher at Loreto Convent Shimla dragged her out to Davico’s Restaurant. “We walked into the restaurant and there was a quartet playing with this handsome guitarist in the front, I took one look at him and I thought to myself that’s the one !” Joyce recalls the night fondly “Of course as soon as you have one of those kinds of thoughts – instantaneous, spontaneous thoughts – the rational side of your brain kicks in….. he might be a bastard…… he might not be the one – only time would tell,” she jokes. The handsome man with the guitar was Amancio D’Silva. The melody of this story was set, Joyce was as they say ‘hipped’ to Amancio after that. 

Amancio in India

 

GoaFamilia caught up with Joyce D’Silva over zoom to find out more about her husband, this pioneering musician and the legacy of his music. Amancio D’Silva’s life was like Jazz; travelled far, hit many notes, many melodies, sometimes bluesy, sometimes difficult, casual but tight, and others just plain fun – for this genius of Jazz guitar they were all springboards for improvisation

Joyce and Amancioc 1977

Amancio D’Silva, born in 1936 to a Goan family in Bombay. The youngest son to five sisters, he grew up in Parel where his father worked in the Accounts department of one of the big cotton mills. Joyce tells of Amancio’s love of Goa, “To him Goa was like heaven, mucking about with friends in the village all day, in the fields and lagoons and what not. But alas they moved back to the city and schooling felt like prison to him after Goa.” His father fell sick and couldn’t work and the family fell on hard times. Joyce tells of a priest from Amancio’s school who came over to the house and offered to send Amancio to a seminary in Kerala, it would all be paid for, “Thank god, his mother refused for I would have never found my Amancio and the world would not have found his music.”

 

Music was second nature; as children Amancio and his sisters often sang Konkani folk songs, “You know how it is in Goan families, music is just intrinsic to life! I would hear sometimes, he and his sisters would burst into beautiful folk songs and naturally harmonize with each other.” Amancio desperately wanted to play guitar and he was thrilled when a wealthy friend got him one. It turned out to be an electric bass – not a guitar! Undefeated, Amancio and his friend Cyril found two plastic keys and converted it into a guitar. He played this guitar professionally for several years.

 

He was a complete autodidact and never had a guitar lesson in his life, “As long as I knew him, he would religiously listen to a program on the Voice of America radio called the VOA Jazz hour at 11 o’clock at night and once we got together we would listen to it together and I got to know all the famous Jazz musicians. He listened avidly to guitar players like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. Those were really his lessons, that is the music that inspired him most.”  

 

A year after Joyce and Amancio’s serendipitous meeting in Shimla, they were married. Amancio became an unusual choice of court musician for the Maharani, Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, leading a jazz/dance band at the Rambagh Palace.. “His core group when I met him was Connie on drums and his son Reggie on piano. Connie gave me away at the wedding. I had saved a really nice bottle of Sherry, that I had smuggled into India from Ireland and we opened it at our wedding”, guests included the Maharani Gayatri Devi. Amancio played in Jaipur in the winter season and Joyce got a job teaching at St. Xaviers school in Jaipur, “I got pregnant and after that season finished we went back to Bombay to stay with Amancio’s family, and our first daughter was born in November, Maria.”

Amancio with Connie D’Souza, drummer and friend, playing the lunchtime session at the Rambagh Palace hotel in Jaipur, owned by the Maharani. 1965. Amancio worked the “winter” high season at this hotel in 1964. In 1965 Amancio got married in Jaipur where Connie gave away the bride to be, Joyce.

Further seasons in Jaipur and Shimla led them to New Delhi, where Amancio joined the famous Goan saxophonist Braz Gonsalves playing at the Laguna’s restaurant. “He played with Nelly and many of the famous bands on the social circuit playing at clubs and restaurants but Amancio really looked up Braz’s playing and considered him as good as any of the greats. Braz (Gonsalves) is godfather to my younger daughter ” Joyce told me.

While they were in Delhi the young Goan-Irish couple’s second child Stephano was born. Stephano was sickly from birth and the doctors advised that they take him west for treatment. The family decided to move to Dublin to live with Joyce’s parents. Stephano was so sick, they had to pick him up from the hospital the day of the flight. Joyce recalls the day, “So we went to the airport but we hadn’t got a smallpox certificate for Stephano – because the doctor advised against it. At the airport we needed to show that certificate — Stephano was so ill that he couldn’t really cry, I just put him on a little bench while Amancio, Maria, and I went up to the counter – we didn’t mention Stephano.” As they were flying over Afghanistan, Stephano became very ill.  The Air India crew were very helpful and they even got some Oxygen even though it was not adapted for babies. The flight made one stop in Moscow, these were the days of the USSR and there was a snow storm as well. The crew advised the family not to get off, and wait till Heathrow where they would call an ambulance in advance. “ When we reached Heathrow, we heard a voice from first class of this Nurse. Nobody moves, she said. There is a sick child on this plane! – she came to us – Is this baby? – She grabbed the baby and me. I left Maria with Armancio, and off I went with Stephano in an ambulance to the sick bay! Only later did I realize that I had all the passports in my handbag, and there was Armancio with a baby Maria with no passports or nothing in foriegn country.” The doctors said Stephano was too unwell to fly on to Dublin, “My lovely sister Claire who lived in London had come to see us at the airport. Her flatmate had just moved out the previous weekend and asked us to move in with her. It’s funny how things work out in the end.”

Like so many Goans who arrived in London in that period, life was a struggle against adverse conditions. Amancio took up work as a cleaner at the famous Prospect of Whitby pub, near Tower Bridge. He cleaned the loos in the mornings and played guitar there in the evenings. But Amancio D’Silva had a few crucial breaks, the biggest of which was an encounter with legendary independent British music producer, Denis Preston, who amongst other things is credited with the now overused term ‘fusion’.  Denis was very taken by Amancio’s playing and set up a collaboration with Don Rendell and Ian Carr.

Amancio in the Prospect of Whitby (Samuel Pepys’s pub) with Sam Li and others around 1967, when they had come back to England.

The album that came out of this collaboration was simply titled Integration. They went gigging to promote the record. Joyce reminiscing about the time said, “It was quite funny because Don was a Jehovah’s witness, and every time Amancio came back from a concert, there would be a Jehovah’s witness magazine at the bottom of the guitar case.” Joyce told me friends would come over to listen to the record, “Amancio himself wasn’t a bit interested in those recordings, you know visitors would come to the house and say, can we listen to the record, and he would say – if you really want to? For him, the exciting moment was playing them, it wasn’t listening to them after.” Amancio went on to record his second album Hum Dono this time with free-form-Jazz pioneering saxophonist Joe Harriott. On asking Joyce about the autobiographical titles to Amancio’s compositions, “Many of them were named later, except for perhaps the track ‘Stephano’s dance’, – When stephano was a toddler he would like dance around making these free form gestures, so the track was more writing a song to represent that.”

Amancio D’Silva and Sacha Distell

Amancio began a lasting teaching career, working at Jenako Arts Multicultural Centre in London, teaching guitar to a wide variety of guitar students. In 1985, the family moved to Liss in Hampshire. Joyce, wanted to work for an animal welfare organisation and got a job with Compassion in World Farming. Shortly after Amancio began to teach guitar at the nearby Krishnamurti school, a stroke in 1992 partially paralysed him and ended his playing career. For several months he could not even bear the sound of music. However gradually his love for music returned – as well as his “perfect pitch”. Amancio was vegan and committed to a holistic view of life. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in a cardboard coffin in a woodland burial site near Brighton.

Even though Amancio never achieved the kind of recognition he deserved in his lifetime, as with many Goan geniuses finding acclaim posthumously. Of all attempts to bring together Jazz and Indian music, no one came close to Amancio D’Silva.

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