'Karnatriix' John Anthony, the musician who never aged, passes away

Active both in the film and independent music circles, John was a most respected figure, known for fusing Indian classical music in his blues/jazz guitar playing, for his band Roots with AR Rahman and Sivamani, for the more recent band Karnatriix and more
 'Karnatriix' John Anthony, the musician who never aged, passes away
'Karnatriix' John Anthony, the musician who never aged, passes away
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John Anthony, one of the most respected guitarists and musicians in the alternate music scene of Kerala, passed away late Friday night. He was 62.

He was known both in the film and independent music circles, because John is one of the first to have gone to Chennai -- then Madras -- where film recordings were mostly made then. By then he had already made a name for himself in the rock music scene, being part of several rock bands in Kochi. It is much later that John forms his band Karnatriix, playing world music, incorporating Indian classical music in his blues/jazz.

John was trained in the classical music too, western and Carnatic. It is to learn western classical music that he came to Thiruvananthapuram as an 18-year-old and went to KJ Yesudas’s music school Tharanganisari. He wanted to train with pianist Roger D Jahnke, who was the principal there. Roger heard John play and suggested he be a teacher of guitar at the school. John had picked a guitar only four years before that, listening to international radio channels.

For Carnatic music, he went to music composer MG Radhakrishnan. John was at first told off for not being able to pronounce Malayalam properly, remembers his friend John Thomas, co-founder of Motherjane, a 22-year-old Kochi based rock band. “He went back again, and got trained. Years after MG Radhakrishnan passed away, John would say that he would feel the presence of his master behind his shoulders, rebuking him if he went wrong,” John Thomas says. John Anthony was several years his senior says John Thomas, but he has never felt that age difference. The man was always active, always pleasant, his big smile famous.

After his lessons with MG Radhakrishnan, he took off to Madras to work on film music. He was a session guitarist, working with composers like Shyam, Johnson, Raveendran and others. “He worked for quite a few Priyadarshan films, beginning with Poochakkoru Mookuthi. Then there was ChitramVandanam etc.,” says John Thomas. He also played the famous guitar solo for the song ‘Ponveene’ in the film Thalavattom.

It was in his Madras days that he formed a band with future icons like AR Rahman and Sivamani. It was called Roots. He would later play for Rahman when the latter began composing for films. Even recently when Rahman visited Thiruvananthapuram, he visited John’s house. John and his wife Supreetha live in a lovely mansion named Manderlay in Thiruvananthapuram. They had an early marriage and John would kid that they grew up with their son Siddharth.

An old picture of John with AR Rahman, Zakir Hussain, late Jojoo and Sivamani

Along with his rock bands, he also began collaborating with classical musicians for fusion concerts – musicians like M Balamuralikrishna, TV Gopalakrishnan, Basvaraj brothers and others.

As years passed, John began collaborating with younger musicians. It has never been tough for John, who did not seem to age through the years. “He would easily vibe, connect, he would understand new music and ideologies,” says Rex Vijayan, guitarist and music composer. It was Rex, John and another guitarist called John P Varkey that first formed Karnatriix (‘it was meant to sound as Karna’s tricks and it also had Carnatic in it’). It was before Rex became the lead guitarist for Avial, another popular rock band.

“I had heard lots about him. He was a close friend of my dad, and they have jammed together. It is at a recording by music composer Deepak Dev that we jammed together for the first time, and connected without actually speaking much. I suggested we do something together with this other creative man called John P Varkey. We all got together in Thrissur, making music, and living like a family.” It was new for Kerala then, the electro Carnatic jazz fusion sound, and a band that had three guitarists in it.

But musicians sometimes split ways, and Rex went on to join Avial, while John and John too went their separate ways. But John kept collaborating with other musicians and Karnatriix brought out its first album, Namaste. He would say in his interviews how he had to learn Tyagaraja’s Carnatic krithi Endaro Mahanubhavulu in one month during a trip to South Africa with the Basvaraj brothers, and how, he had another music playing in his head. That came out as Namaste, with John on the guitar, Sultan Fayaz Ahmed Khan on the sarangi and Darbuka Siva on percussion.

He then toured lots, around the world, playing in different circuits, for more than three decades. A few years ago, he returned to Thiruvananthapuram, where the journey had begun for him. John Thomas remembers that some time in 2006, when he first met him, John Anthony was telling them about it all being pretty much done in this life, and he would have to wait for his next life for his second innings. They told him why wait for another life, begin your second innings in this life. And John did, he never stopped.

Even in recent years, he was collaborating with young musicians for new projects. Rahul and Jyothikrishna joined John three years ago after he saw them perform at a café in Thiruvananthapuram, and together they put together the Kadamma Music Festival. That was music for an environmental cause, where they clubbed with a Zimbabwean band Blessing Chimanga. John has been involved in a lot of environmental activities, concerned about climatic problems. A couple of months after Kadamma, John and his team, went on to have a musical tour through eight railway stations in Kerala, to spread awareness. This is not new for John. Years ago, he composed and produced a song called No More Bhopals to raise awareness about the victims of the 1984 Bhopal tragedy.

Kadamma Music Festival in 2016

John had more plans. He had another association with an indo Canadian band (Collaboration of Lazie J & Marys town band). He was planning a tour with them. He was in fact practicing at his place in Thiruvananthapuram when unexpectedly he collapsed, and died on the way to the hospital. 

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