Seditious Sounds: On Conlon Nancarrow

by Gautam Pemmaraju


In a desultory speculative history, an affliction caused by the febrile May heat here in Bombay, I imagined a current day encounter between two old scheming radicals who spent their entire lifetimes up to no good—from global-trotting revolutionary activity to cloistered tomfoolery. I saw MN Roy, a founder of the Communist Party of India and the Mexican Communist Party slowly sipping tequila out of a slender glass with Conlon Nancarrow, a music composer of extraordinary conceptual depth and at one time, an American communist. Apart from a shared ideological space, these two remarkable men also shared a love for Mexico City—while Roy spent two intellectually formative, even revelatory, years in the sprawling city from 1917 to 1919, Nancarrow left America in protest twenty years later in 1940. He subsequently became a Mexican citizen and spent the rest of his life there. In my heat-induced visions, I saw the two eating fresh papaya (Nancarrow reportedly was very fond of them) and shooting the breeze. Perhaps they spoke of British spies, Bolsheviks, Hegelian dialectics, and radical humanism; my delirium did not reveal the nature of the conversation. I am more inclined to attribute things of a mundane nature to the encounter—the pleasing weather, Louis Armstrong, and seasonal fruits. It could well be that they were planning a night out at MN Roy's former house No 186, now a well-known ‘clandestine', ‘hip' night club in Mexico City (thanks to 3QD editor Robin Varghese for this gem), the irony of which is fecund with wild discursive possibilities.

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