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Still got the blues

On a two-city tour in India, Dana Gillespie tells the author about her love affair with the blues

Indulekha Aravind 

Blues is similar to Indian music because it has a structure - you know that structure and then you play from the heart," says veteran blues singer and songwriter Dana Gillespie, who will be performing in Mumbai and Bangalore this weekend. "I happen to specialise in the rather risque lyrics of the 1920s and '30s but a lot of it can be interpreted however the listener would like to. Ghazals could be about physical love or metaphysical love and it's the same with the blues," says the British-born Gillespie, who has performed with the who's who of the '50s and '60s, from Bob Dylan and Jimmy Page to David Bowie. In fact, it was Bowie who taught her her first chords on the guitar, when she was a teenager and he was still called David Jones. As her boyfriend, "he used to walk me home from school and carry my ballet shoes. He encouraged me to keep song-writing," she says.

Gillespie had quite a roller-coaster life, starting from her early teens when she used to sneak off to blues clubs every night, unknown to her parents. "I used to just sit and absorb these extraordinary black artists. The first female artiste I listened to was Bessie Smith, who sang about love and sex and situations to do with emotions. I was too young to understand some of her lyrics but she was probably my main influence in the early days," Gillespie recalls. She had decided at the ripe old age of 11 that she wanted to be a songwriter, having scribbled her first song then, and declared as much to her mother. "She probably just wanted me to marry someone rich and have a normal life," the 65-year-old laughs. "But by 15, I was already on the road and there was no turning back."

She began by singing folk because she felt her voice was not strong enough for the blues, a genre which she says requires life's experiences. Gillespie went on to star in a few musicals on Westend, the most memorable being her role as Mary Magdalene in the hit Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. "I did about five years of musicals and then I did a series of pretty dubious films," she says. "So I've always gone back to the blues." She is equally candid about holding her own in an industry which, in those days, did not have many women. "Because I was a female in a business where there were few others and I looked pretty good - there are all sorts of pictures from when I was 15 or 16 with plunging necklines because that was what one wore those days - I was able to get by with a lot of nerve. I would strum my guitar and hope people would listen to the songs I wrote."

Gillespie is not just a singer and songwriter of the blues but also a passionate ambassador of the genre, which traces its roots to the slaves who toiled in the cotton fields of America and who found solace in the music at the end of a long hard day. "Blues is the mother of all Western music. You wouldn't have jazz or funk or pop if you didn't have blues first," she says.

The artiste, who first came to India over 30 years ago, says she has noticed in the past few years that more people in India are "becoming a bit wise to the blues." Her India connection, she says, was forged even before her first trip, from when she used to go with Jimmy Page to listen to every Indian concert that came to town, like the early tours of Ravi Shankar. She has made several trips subsequently, particularly after becoming a devotee of the late Sai Baba, including a 11-city, 22-day tour of India with her band, the London Blues Band. "Wherever we went, people got up and danced!" she says.

While Gillespie says she does not have any regrets about her life she does wish more people would join the legion of blues fans. "I'd just like more people to be more aware of the blues - I feel people who don't know about it are missing out on a really good musical genre," she says.

Dana Gillespie will be performing at Counter Culture in Bangalore today and St Andrews Auditorium in Mumbai on December 8

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First Published: Fri, December 06 2013. 21:36 IST