How a Black Musician Became Korla Pandit

The ‘Godfather of Exotica’ had a secret. He kept the secret for long — very long. He hid it, in the mysterious and marvellous lair of music, until his death. He returns in John Turner’s Korla. The film explores his life, talent, art, eccentricities, work, gigs and shows on TV and radio, his name, his other name, and identity. Korla knew the organ was the right person. He knew his audience. He knew the organ could think, think well his musical sprint. He knew that his playing technique, a whimsical stir of melody in percussive elements, was making audience crazy. Words flew out of his fingers. The ‘Godfather of Exotica’, a title, he told John Turner, came from hipsters, his new audience.

Who was Korla? He was a man with enchanting music, a Hammonsd B3 Organ, a wistful gaze that would pierce the camera fixed on his dreamy face during performance. He was a musician with a turban neatly pleated and pompously worn, a jewel glinting on the turban, identity worn and identity hidden. “He was a slight man with a beatific smile who was spouting pearls of wisdom about how we could get along better and the universal language of music,” Turner told the writer here. “Why question a person like that?”

He was the person with a secret spilling out of his eyes — spilling till the edge of eyes darkened with colour, colour hidden and colour worn. The secret spilling and never splashing. He was Korla Pandit, the man who gave New Delhi a musical spark, a new meaning to performance in the 1950s with his endearing stage presence, and music so intoxicating it still whirls in the head like a half-asleep storm of smoke cesspools. He was Korla Pandit, the artiste who disguised his real identity, to pass off as a white man to make music in India. Pass off as a white man living in India.

It was something like this. “It wasn’t the first time Redd had passed as something other than black—Korla Pandit was just one of his incarnations. After arriving in Los Angeles, he began playing jazz and R&B but quickly realized he could make more money playing Latin tunes as “Juan Rolando”. Passing as Mexican, he was able to join the whites-only Musicians Union. Soon he was playing supper clubs and lounges, on top of a gig providing eerie background music for the “Chandu the Magician,” occult radio show.”

Divided, in unequal proportions, between the organ and the piano, the organ more than the piano, Korla blends them, meets them, in a gushing confluence. “In Korla Pandit, though, Redd had found a winning formula. He took the organ, an unpopular instrument associated with soap operas and roller skating rinks, and made it sexy and magical.”

The secrets unearthed after his death with spades of curiosity, you wish, were his music, the playing technique, and creative depths. Nothing more. The world discovered the secret when the ‘Godfather of Exotica’ died. They found he really wasn’t who he was. He wore Indian clothes. And an Indian name. What did the name do to his music? “I really think he really became that person,” Christiansen said of his transformation. “He was more Korla Pandit than John Roland Redd. His makeover into Korla informed his music, not the other way around.”

Korla Pandit’s music said his story and he chose to be quiet. He really didn’t have much to speak. Speaking would reveal a secret. The secret. It would spill, spill over, and splash. His race. Hidden under a name, beautifully, like fragrance of notes behind and beneath keys. The mystery in his music is revving up nostalgia — once again. “As legend has it, Korla was a child prodigy born in New Delhi to a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. When he was 11, Korla was sent away to England and then to America for classical training at the University of Chicago. Pandit’s invented life closely mirrored his real one. John Roland Redd was one of seven children born into a musical family. His spirituality can be traced to his father, a Baptist minister.”

There’s more. “Pandit never admitted to anyone that he was not actually Indian—not from India or elsewhere.  He was not from the Far East or the Near East.  He was born John Roland Redd, in St. Louis in 1921.”

In thrilling performances that sprang over to American TV studios, Korla extended his musical imagination across continents as much as across keyboards, building a universal language. He blew heady compositions into two musical instruments, dashing into a playfield of atoms disguised as notes. He became Korla Pandit to make music, his way, and on his terms, between the black and white of the organ keys.

Photo credit: New Republic