Dhevdhas Nair: musician

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 19 seconds

Everyone has a story. Islington in the 1970s was famous for its squats and creativity. Musician – and jazz pianist – Dhevdhas Nair remembers it well. Interview by Nicola Baird. Photos by Kimi Gill 

Dhevdhas Nair on the santoor: “I knew I was going to be a musician from about the age of 14 and I wanted to just get on with it.” (c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

Dhevdhas Nair, known to his friends as Dhev, grew up in Islington with his mother. They lived in Highbury Barn and his Dad was nearby at Angel.

“My mother worked as a teacher at Canonbury for a while, but reading was her thing. She loved literature, theatre, poetry and politics – although it wasn’t until the last four years of her life that she affiliated with a party in the UK because she liked Jeremy Corbyn. She was very strong in her youth, in Singapore, in the Movement for Colonial Freedom and, with her brother and his wife, one of the founder members of the People’s Action Party (PAP),” says Dhev, explaining that his uncle. Devan Nair, later became President of Singapore (1981-1985).

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Dhev wasn’t a keen student. “I went to Canonbury Primary, Central Foundation, William Ellis sixth form, and then resits at Southwark College in The Cut. I knew I was going to be a musician from about the age of 14 and I wanted to just get on with it,” he says explaining that he plays the piano, keyboard and an Indian instrument, the santoor ( hammered dulcimer).

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Dhevdhas Nair (c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

Places Dhevdhas Nair likes in Islington

  • I love the Union Chapel. I did a benefit gig there for Palestine once with two African musicians, Mamadi Kamara and Kofi Adu. I just walked to the gig. The piano was on the stage. I played and went home. If all gigs were like this how good would it be?
  • I like the shops at Highbury Barn – I’ve known a few since I was a child, I’ve grown up with those two brothers from Da Mario deli
  • Raymonds newsagent, which has recently changed hands, run by the Patel family and Gayatri have been a big support to me. Gayatri was like the Queen of Highbury – she knew everyone and knew what was going on in their lives and used to take food around to people. She was very close to my mum. When my mother was older I knew I could call on Gayatri and she’d go round and see her.
  • I like going to Angel Delicatessen at 48 Cross Street, N1. It’s nice to sit outside for breakfast.

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Dhevdhas Nair(c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

Musical life
Given that he’s spent his life as a musician, mostly touring in Europe, Africa and India, it is an irony that it was Dhev’s school music teacher who spotted him truanting, which led to his expulsion from Central Foundation. “I was at Susan’s Music Shop on Chapel Market. She let local bands rehearse – there was a rehearsal room in the basement and on the first floor. I used to bunk off school to rehearse there. Our music master was a composer but the boys very quickly sensed he didn’t like teaching us so they made his life hell. The goal was to make him lose his temper, occasionally he’d throw a chair across the classroom. I had a lot of sympathy but a classroom with flying furniture wasn’t a place I liked to be.”

At 18, Dhev went to Sudan to work with a band in Khartoum, with his friend Sami El-Salahi, who he still works with. “There was a civil war and rebels fighting the government around us. I remember bodies in the street and musicians with longer hair – African hippies – being shot. At 18 you just take it in and don’t make judgments. It was hot and I felt safe enough to sleep in the yard or roof, but if you heard shooting at night we’d sometimes go into the house.”

Looking towards Martineau Road from the Drayton Arms pub on Drayton Park – back in the 1970s Dhev squatted in a house in this road (c) islington faces

Back in the UK Dhev found it hard to find housing and like many 20somethings then found an Islington house to squat. “It was part of London culture for the young creative. We were quite aware of the wider political implications of councils and private housing not being able to provide us with adequate housing. Squatting was an act of rebellion. I lived in an amazing place in Stoke Newington on Clissold Road. There were huge houses and lots were knocked together so there would be several ways on, say the third or fourth floor of going through three or four houses. I once saw John Cooper Clarke going out of one of those houses, and there were lots of bands there. The street’s now a housing co-op,” he says.

“Around 1974-75 I lived in a squat on Martineau Road. It was an empty house and a bunch of musicians moved in as it had one big room for rehearsing. Thinking back it was pretty derelict. The walls were coming away, and there were holes in the roof, but we got it to work. It’s been pulled down now, but on Highbury Hill there were a lot of squats in those lovely houses.”

After those early years of Islington life, Dhev spent 10 year touring overseas. “Much of that time I lived in a hotel,” he admits. Touring over, Dhev then moved to Devon for 25 years. He’s been in Highbury for the past five years helping his mother, who died earlier this year (2017), but he still has a regular teaching job at Wells Cathedral School.

“I want to move back to Devon, but the rents have doubled in five years and I can’t afford to. I never thought that would happen. I find I cannot breathe the air in Islington after Devon, but since I’m here and lucky enough to be in Highbury, in central London, then I’m going to make use of it,” he says. And that’s exactly what Dhev is doing: his website is being refreshed, he’s working on a bigger new media presence and is busy recording some of the songs he’s been working on over the past few years. You can listen to samples of Dhev’s music on his website – try the joyful Bush Rover inspired by nature and the African landscape, and look out for his next gig…

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you for this interviewee suggestion from Lucy Palmer in Australia who is the author of Bird on My Shoulder (oct 2016) a hugely well-reviewed book about grief.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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