Photo: Nancy Robbins with hers and Michaels instruments.
Patrick O’Heffernan (Ajijic).- Nancy Robbins settled back into a leather couch in her apartment cluttered with vinyl albums, music awards, a big screen computer and indigenous art to talk about her late husband, the American-born, Northern Indian musician beloved in Lakeside, Michael Robbins. The conversation was ebullient, like Nancy, full of smiles, laughter, and funny stories.
“He led such a fascinating, dynamic life and taught and helped so many people ‘I have to celebrate him’”, Nancy said, “he always lived the highest values in morals, in art, in intellect, and in athletics, so of course I celebrate him”.
Michael and Nancy Robbins have been fixtures in Ajijic and the Lakeside music scene for decades, training other musicians, running a popular Indian restaurant on the Ajijic Plaza, organizing performances and just plain helping people. They started coming to lakeside in 1992, and were married in Chapala. But Michael’s story starts 60 years earlier in Los Angeles where he was born in LA, the son of a movie theater manager. “Of course Michael went to the moves for free, but it was gymnastics that captured his heart”, Nancy explains. His father, who was his inspiration, died when he was thirteen and he felt he had to do something to live up to his father’s expectations. That something was gymnastics.
“Michael had a decision to make: he would come from the Boy Scouts, put on his band uniform and play, and then change into spots clothes for gymnastics – he had to choose one so he chose gymnastics”, Nancy said, almost as if she was there. It was a good choice; he was All City Champion and then went on to win a national championship and a full scholarship to UC Berkeley, where he met his first wife, Mary Lawrence, who left him after a year of marriage.
“They parted ways because they were quite different. He was an athlete; he didn’t drank or smoke or hang out and party. So after they parted he came down to Mexico in 1961,” Nancy said, describing the beginning of his love affair with Mexico. “He became a painter and a professor at Lake College in Mexico City. I met him 13 years later when I was babysitting for his ex-wife in San Francisco”.
While she was babysitting, a friend of Michael’s brought some tapes of his music back from India and Nancy listened to them over and over. When Michael returned, she peppered him with questions about the music. “I had all kinds of questions and what is more attractive to a man than a women interested in his subject, whether it is cars, football or Indian music? And I can cook,” she said with a laugh, “I was 24 and he was 37, but how many times in a lifetime do you get a chance to be with someone of that caliber, so I grabbed hold of the guy and would not let go!.” They were together for 45 years.
Michael Robbins went to India to study classical Northern Indian music, an artistic tradition that goes back over 2500 years. Originally music of the royal courts, instruction in tablas, sarod, harmonium, sitar and the music they played was passed down from father to son or nephew by a few elite teachers who allowed no deviation from tradition. (women now play the sarod and the tablas). Michael learned from some of the most famous, and most strict of the teachers, becoming a disciple of Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra in the Sarod, and Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh in Tabla. Nancy explained he started in Calcutta with a teacher who was too busy for him, but noticed he could play real music and gave him a break.
Michael would play the classical recorder while others played the tabla or sitar and his teacher said “You can actually play something – these other guys are just playing scales – come on, I will take you to a teacher”, and took him to Radhika Mohan Moitra, who took him. He went on to become not only a student, but a force that help reinvigorate the music.
After returning from India, Michael founded the Sarodya Society in the 90’s to promote the awareness of sarod and tabla and train other musicians. He continued that tradition in Lakeside training many Mexican and gringo musicians in Hindustani classical music. His students include some of Lakeside’s most popular and talented musicians like Juan Castañón Acasia, Angel Madrigal, Alvaro Rubio, Alvaro Rubio and others.
But the move to Lakeside was slow and careful –process that began in 1992 and ended in 2000 when they finally moved everything to lakeside and became residents. Once in Lakeside, the quickly developed a strong music community, not only through teaching but through the Indian restaurant they opened on the Ajijic Plaza, that served as a venue and gathering place.
“I had learned Indian cooking we wanted a venue here, so when I saw the For Rent sign on the Plaza and said to Michael I wonder how much they want for that, he said go for it,” and I did. They ran the restaurant for almost seven years. “It was fun and I met so many nice people. The restaurant was a way for people to come to use, instead of us going to them. I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says.
During their time in lakeside, Nancy cooked and played music, ran the restaurant and “all the other things wives do”, while Michael played and taught, creating a community and training so many of the musicians that entertain Lakeside residents today.
Michael died last week of congestive heart failure brought on by a 50-year old liver problem. But even in talking about his death, Nancy was upbeat. “We didn’t go to the Plaza for about 4 months and then eventually he was in bed for the last two days. I held his hand and he asked me to roll him over and I did and propped him up and that was the way I found him. I thought he was sleeping until the dog jumped on the bed and licked his foot and he didn’t complain, so I knew he was dead.”