Remembering John Anthony & His Music
The 19th of January every year marks the passing of one of our world’s music icons guitarist John Anthony. And, for his music community around the world, a day of music memories and gentle remembrance. In our friendship and music association spanning over two decades, John Anthony was for me, music’s own Renaissance man. He was a prolific guitarist, musician, composer and activist for causes without number on our planet.
Trivandrum too reserved a special place for him, like it has done for masters of music over the centuries. In the decade of the 2010s — possibly his most creative decade — Johnny made his home at the verdant Manderlay estate. Over 7 years, we met at his palatial home Manderlay set in a green estate, over flavourful organic coffee and home-made snacks for deep conversations on life, music and future projects. You can listen to Johny in his own words here:
Here when you met the artists, dancers, ecologists, monks and musicians, you would realize John Anthony was a global connector for people and communities around the world. Everyone was welcome at Manderlay — the world’s most vulnerable people and communities found their acceptance in his person and their healing in his music:
I had known John Anthony since 1990 and worked with him since February 2001 when he organized the No More Bhopals concert tour with Greenpeace across the schools and colleges of Chennai. Over 8 days, the concert tour raised societal awareness and collected 26000 signatures to support Bhopal tragedy victims who had not received compensations for a decade and a half.
The first thing that struck you when you got to meet John Anthony the musician were his endearing human qualities: humility, commitment and unceasing need to make the world a better place than he found it. And, John Anthony, the activist, composer and musician, showed us that you can use your best talent to transform the world around you:
While acknowledging his roots in rock and Western classical music, John Anthony was innately proud of his journey into Indian classical music and his moments with the greats. In his own words, his music career as self taught guitarist began at age 14 — flagged off by noted musician Emile Isaacs. He then trained in western classical guitar, under the mentorship of Mr. Roger D. Jhanke, a US-based pianist and then principal of Taranga Nisari School of Music at Trivandrum.
He would go on to master the basics of Carnatic music under the mentorship of late Shri M.G. Radhakrishnan, a respected musician and accomplished composer for Malayalam cinema at Trivandrum. His career would be marked by notable collaborations K. J. Yesudas, Dr. Balamurali Krishna, and of course, M. G. Radhakrishnan. There were numerous musical encounters with musical maestros like L. Shankar, Zakir Hussain, Dr. Balamurali Krishna, T.V. Gopalakrishnan. The big break for John Anthony when he shot to fame in the 1980s with his definitive guitar solos for the song ‘Ponveene’ in the Malayalam classic film Thalavattom:
He admired the deep discipline in the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, emulating its Ashramic and Guru-Sishya traditions in his own work. His guitar playing stood out because he ceaselessly asked himself the question: “Where are you in your music?”
Indeed for musicians of generations in Kerala, he was ‘Johny Chetta’, a master of music who was accorded the respect of a Maha Guru in his own right for his pioneering work. His foreign bandmates were often surprised when young musicians touched his feet as a mark of obeisance. A great deal has been said about Johny’s unparalleled role as mentor to musicians who came after him. Through them, he passed on the hallmark of his excellence to the generations of musician and performers after him:
In the book The Music Storm, A. R. Rahman quotes John Anthony as the one person who always inspired him to look beyond and seek out the horizons of world music. Their collaboration — from the 1980s — from the band Roots comprising of John Anthony (guitars), Rahman on the keyboards, Sivamani (drums & percussion), with Jojo (bass guitar) form an important chapter in in the history of 21st India’s music. I was there when some of those memories happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
John Anthony’s mastery over his craft spanned decades and he delighted in creating his own music. There was his own work such as the recent Lazie Bison’s Train Song, his all time favourite Endharo Mahanubhavulu interpretation by his band Karnatriix, and the No More Bhopals song. In 2009, he brought his magic touch to the A. R. Rahman musical Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa title track:
In 2012, we connected by chance in Trivandrum. For close to a decade, I counted it a privilege to have be John Anthony’s friend and a collaborator on his media projects. John Anthony stepped into the worlds of the East and the West seamlessly bridging its gap with his guitar. He influenced the music we enjoy today.
Because of his upbringing, he had the knack of connecting people and cultures through his music experiences. Across the years, I discovered John Anthony’s conversations were like his ascending guitar solos — they all had a moment of silence that made you live deeply and feel completely alive. “Every composition, he told me once, “has a single note that resonates through it. It is our job as composers to find that note!”
The music industry is a competitive space that jostles for the spotlight. John Anthony was its antithesis. He shunned the celebrity status he rightly deserved. He told me once that he valued the freedom of walking down to the local teashop, enjoying its tea and conversation than the obscuring spotlight of being a reality show judge. He chose his spotlight:
Instead, he gave away his music for free. He chose instead to go where his heart was: the Kaadamma Music Festival, The Karnatriix Historic Rail Tour through 8 Railway Stations and the Time was rock concert. There is a wealth of John Anthony music experiences out there that you will find: the Karnatriix compositions, Lazie Bison songs, concert videos. The purpose of my penning this tribute is to share my memories and appreciation of John Anthony’s music legacy to our world:
A few days before he left us, John Anthony called me on an evening to convey his appreciation of the article I had written in The Hindu of his Lazie Bison bandmate Canadian Rocker Evan Murray. I was with my family driving through Trivandrum on a breezy evening. So “It’s so well written, Joe”, he told me, “Every sentence has got layers of meaning-I really enjoyed reading it.” To which I replied: “That’s easy, Johny, what you achieve through your music, I try to achieve through my writing.” I am glad we had that conversation and let him know how much his music meant to me.
While the Music Community celebrates the memory of John Anthony, a special word goes out to his family who hold up the beacon of his legacy, wife Supreetha John and son Siddarth John, who is a master in his own right in Los Angeles’ animation industry. In the years ahead, the world will discover a new appreciation of John Anthony’s legacy. As for me, I will miss the silence between the notes that John Anthony played on his guitar, like he did on his swan song Train Song:
Thank you, Johny, for your friendship and for the music became the soundtrack of our lives.
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