Konkani singer Lorna Cordeiro is back in the news with a controversy triggered by a film on her life. Reena Martins meets the reclusive crooner
It's late evening in old Mumbai's Dhobitalao area, a place that once bustled with Irani cafes and Goan musicians. The only rambling Irani cafe with dainty cream cakes on the shelf is winding down for the day, while the Goan musicians blow their horns in greener pastures.
A stone's throw away, in a tiny sparsely furnished apartment, lives a music legend - the Konkani singer, Lorna Cordeiro, now in her sixties. The woman with the golden voice who wowed listeners in Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai is back in the news with a controversy triggered by a Konkani film on her life.
Cordeiro - a recluse who seldom meets the press - settles down in an old chair in a pair of shorts, not a lock out of place in the puffed-up hairdo. She hopes that there will be a private screening for her of Nachomiya Kumpasar ( Let's Dance to the Rhythm), a musical strung together with 20 of her songs composed by her music mentor, Chris Perry, in the Sixties and Seventies.
"Else I will be gheraoed in the theatre," she says.
Lorna (Donna in the film) is played by the newcomer, Palomi Ghosh. A graduate in applied mathematics who moved to Mumbai five years ago from North Carolina, Ghosh says she had only 20 days to "cram" the Konkani dialogues. "But Konkani is a bit like Bengali, so that helped."
The film's director, Mumbai-based ad filmmaker Bardroy Barretto, says he had asked Lorna for permission to do a biopic on her, but the project fizzled out as she was "uncomfortable". So he ended up "fictionalising" her story. Nachomiya Kumpasar was the title of one of Lorna's first Konkani songs.
Lorna recalls that Chris first heard about her after she became the "talk of the town" for her rendition of Under the Mango Tree from the James Bond thriller Dr No, which she'd sung with Raymond Albuquerque and his band at the Bandra fair.
He was looking for a crooner, and she auditioned for him. "He said, 'Today a star is born in Saligao (her village in Goa). I no longer have to look for another singer,'" she says.
Lorna's story is an incredible roller coaster ride of a tale: she touched the stars and was flung back to the ground, only to rise again.
As a young girl, she sang along with the radio, "so loud, I could blow the roof off". An old Parsi neighbour would clap and gift her four annas. "My girl, one day you'll be a big singer," he'd often say.
Soon she was singing for weddings with a local band called Bajaj and his Dance Band. Life was simple and the money good.
And then Chris - Larry in Barretto's film - discovered her.
"I only had a voice; it was Chris who moulded me," she says. "He'd hit me on the back if I slouched, and told me how to move around the stage."
Chris played the trumpet, while she - in a slim silken gown and bouffant wig - sang jazz in the nightclub circuit: Venice and Blue Nile in Mumbai; Lido and Gaylord in Delhi; and Firpo's in Calcutta.
The chemistry between Lorna and Chris, who was married and had four sons, was high voltage stuff, and woe betide any musician who came too close to her. "Chris wouldn't let any of us chat or laugh with her," recalls Ronnie Monserrate, music director of Nachomiya Kumpasar, whose band does a "tightrope walk" syncing with Chris's music tracks recorded from live shows for the film.
"But even if we were in a relationship, so what? Wasn't it happening then? Doesn't it happen now," Lorna asks.
Chris was also a hard taskmaster. A falsetto would invite a shower of abuse or even worse. "Musicians who've played with Chris tell me that he'd slap or even stub cigarettes on the palm if you hit a wrong note," says Vijay Maurya, a Mumbai-based adman who plays Larry in the film.
But Chris, who died in 2002, was also a musical genius who would scribble lyrics sitting anywhere -even at the back of a cab, Lorna says.
The songs spoke of love, longing and betrayal. "It's as though he knew what he would put me through," she muses.
When he dumped her - moving to Dubai to start a music school in the Seventies - Lorna was left with a wiped out bank balance and a broken spirit and body. Monserrate says she had to take up a job as a compounder at a dentist's clinic. And she stopped singing.
"I did not even hum a tune in all those years," she says. "Chris beat up any musician who tried to get me to sing or any man who wanted to marry me. He ruined me. I lost my youth. I can't imagine where I would have reached had I continued singing."
But she did make a comeback in the early Nineties, persuaded by Monserrate. A very young Monserrate, who had been a member of Chris's band in the Seventies, visited Lorna one evening but didn't ring the bell fearing she'd slam the door in his face.
"I stood outside her door and whistled a little tune that is a code among musicians," he says.
Lorna finally opened the door and Monserrate was shocked to see her. Hard times and alcohol had battered her body. "I thought there was no way she could come back from such a terrible shape," he says.
But when he asked her to sing a Konkani song for old times' sake, he found that the embers were still alive. For six months, he would drive from Bandra to Dhobitalao with his keyboards after work for nightly practice sessions for a show that was to be called Hello Lorna.
The comeback wasn't easy either. On the night of the show at the Miramar beach in Goa on December 1, 1995, Chris suddenly came to Lorna's hotel lobby. He brandished before the waiting press a 20-year-long bond that barred her from singing with any musician besides him, says Lorna.
The band chickened out and a new set of musicians had to be hired for the concert. "I was escorted to the venue and back in a police van," she remembers.
Backstage, she sweated beads, till the opening lines of her Konkani song, Aikat mozo tavo ( Listen to my voice), drove the sea of heads berserk, Monserrate adds.
As she headed to the hotel after two songs, traffic was still snaking towards the venue. "People were curious because of rumours that I was dead," Lorna says.
Hello Lorna set the stage for her comeback, and she has since then been singing in England, Canada and the Gulf. "I have a lot of masti (zest) in me and enjoy the audience. Many of them cry as I sing. But before they cry, I have to feel the pain."
As for the man who taught her to move about on stage, "I will never find another person like Chris, a genius who is imitated to this day," Lorna says. "I have forgiven him."