His music has the power to both stir the listener’s soul and make them feel the stillness of the ocean. There is a certain intimacy to his craft, which resonates with music lovers around the world.
Musician/composer Tajdar Junaid grew up in Kolkata, learning guitar from Amyt Datta and playing with city bands, and now his music is associated with some of the best-known niche movies coming out of India, including Writing With Fire — the documentary on Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper run by Dalit women, that won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
Taj, whose music has also featured in The President by the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, fondly recalls growing up in a large family in Kolkata’s Esplanade area.
“Every evening, my father would take me and my two brothers to the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal stadiums, apart from Eden Gardens, to play. I enjoyed marvelling at the well-bred horses there. I would also frequent Dacres Lane for Chitto Babu’s popular chicken stew. To this day, my favourite thing in the city is to land up at Babu Ghat and to watch the river pass by as I sit in a boat,” says Taj, who studied in Calcutta Boys’ School.
When he was 13, Taj’s cousin from the US made him listen to a tape that had No Quarter and Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. It changed his life. “I knew something special was happening at that moment, where I just submitted to the music. Even today when I feel uninspired, I become that 13-year-old boy looking for that same feeling,” Taj says.
Taj credits the time he spent with his teacher, Amyt Datta, as also the late Gyan and Jayashree Singh — very well known names in Kolkata’s music circles, behind many bands including Skinny Alley and PINKNOISE — as significant for his musical growth.
“I also witnessed greats like [drummer] Nondon Bagchi and [bassist] Lew Hilt play together. I was very lucky as a Calcuttan to have access to many Indian classical musicians from the city, and attending their concerts taught me a lot,” he says.
At one point, Taj was playing live with bands in the evening and teaching music at schools in the morning. Among the institutes where he taught were The Calcutta School of Music, Tarang School of Music, St. Augustine’s Day School and Birla High School. His students include Nischay Parekh from the pop-duo Parekh & Singh and Ronodeep Bose from The Ganesh Talkies.
“Teaching allowed me to share knowledge and made me feel lighter. There is a joy to sharing ideas and concepts, which could fill up an endless ocean,” Taj says.
Seeking inner change and wanting to grow as a musician, Taj stopped playing with cover bands early in his career. “While it was cool to play Hendrix, I wanted to discover unheard sounds that my soul had to offer,” he says.
“I started travelling through rural Bengal to meet musicians and formed Ruhaniyat, a band to showcase root music. We co-scored an Australian feature film, called The Waiting City.”
His curiosity took him to musicians from different genres — Paban Das Baul, Jalebee Cartel, Warren Mendonsa, Moushumi Bhowmik, Karsh Kale — and he taught himself multiple instruments including the ukulele, mandolin, charango, ron rocco and piano. He immersed himself in consuming all the classic films, books and music that he hadn’t yet. This phase of his life, he says, was instrumental in the creation of his debut album, What Colour Is Your Raindrop, in 2013.
“I don’t think of genres when I compose music, but of things that affect me,” says Taj, whose refreshing debut album lit the way his path would take. Of languid lyricism — visual music, if you will.
“All those sights and sounds are present in my subconscious, and pour out when I write my music,” Taj says. “The album captures my journey from the gaps between notes of Erik Satie to the wail of Albert King, from the serenity of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan to the innocence of Iranian cinema.”
Director Ram Madhvani asked him to compose the music for an Amazon Kindle ad, which took him to Mumbai, a move which Taj feels has helped him grow as a musician.
His love for world cinema led him to collaborate with more filmmakers, and his work includes compositions for the National Award-winning Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) and Amoli, and Writing with Fire, which won the Audience Award and the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance.
“The approach to composing for films is slightly different from composing music for your own album, as you have to drop your ego and do justice to what you see on screen,” Taj says. “A fancy scale you have learnt might serve no purpose to what the scene demands, and it is a constant learning process.”
Taj says that all he looks for in potential collaborators is a free spirit, a desire to break rules, and enjoyable company for a meal. When it comes to selecting projects, he says, “It should resonate with me and challenge me to grow artistically. I love working on personal stories and honest scripts, in a space where one can exchange ideas.”
Taj is excited for people to hear his new song, Reach Out, which has been available on all platforms from September 8. (Check video on top of the page)
“This song was written during lockdown with the intention of reaching out to family and friends and letting them know the love I hold for them, and the difference they have made in my life,” he says. “My good friend Warren Mendonsa [aka Blackstratblues, New Zealand and Mumbai-based guitar player] played some amazing parts of it, and harmonized a few lines of mine. I reached out to Jason Ting, an ace animator based in New York, and he created a fantastic video using touch designer and coding,” he said.
Taj is also composing for a documentary that is a Bangladeshi-French co-production, and is in talks for scoring the music for an animated film.
He attributes his happiness not to his success but to his persistent curiosity for discovering music in newer ways, like a child in a candy store. Ask him about the inspiration behind his beautiful sounds, and Taj chuckles: “I am simply listening to the voice in my head and heart.”