Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Little on Gauhar Jaan

I was doing some research this morning on an unrelated topic, when I randomly came across the name Gauhar Jaan, one of the great recording artists in India from the first years of the 20th century. Gauhar Jaan is thought to have sung on the very first recording of a song ever made in India, in 1902. Here is what she sang:

Get this widget | Track details | eSnips Social DNA

It's a kind of Hindustani classical song called a "khayal," sung, I gather, in Raag Jogiya. At the end of it she says, famously, "My name is Gauhar Jan!"

Who was Gauhar Jaan? Her background, from what I've been able to find on the internet, seems remarkable:

Gauhar Jaan was born as Angelina Yeoward in 1873 in Patna, to William Robert Yeoward, an Armenian Jew working as an engineer in dry ice factory at Azamgarh, near Banaras, who married a Jewish Armenian lady, Allen Victoria Hemming around 1870. Victoria was born and brought up in India, and trained in music and dance.

Within a few years in 1879, the marriage ended, causing hardships to both mother and daughter, who later migrated to Banaras in 1881, with a Muslim nobleman, 'Khursheed', who appreciated Victoria's music more than her husband.

Later, Victoria, converted to Islam and changed Angelina's name to 'Gauhar Jaan' and hers to 'Malka Jaan'. (link)

Through her mother, who depended on the patronage of wealthy Muslim noblemen (I'm presuming she may have been a Tawaif), Gauhar Jaan got training from the best classical music masters in Calcutta at the time. By 1896, she was a star performer in Calcutta, which is how she was able to charge Rs. 3000 in 1902 to have her voice on the first audio recording of an Indian song ever made. Later, Gauhar Jaan became a star all over India. She performed in Madras in 1910, and even performed for King George V when he visited India. She died of natural causes as the palace musician of the Maharajah of Mysore in 1930. (There is a fuller bio of Gauhar Jaan here, at the Tribune. Also, see this profile of Gauhar Jaan.)

Another song Gauhar Jaan was famous for was "Ras ke bhare tore nain," which I think many readers will find familiar for reasons that will become apparent below.

Here is a somewhat more recent version of "Ras ke bhare tore nain," sung by Hira Devi Mishra (from the 1982 film "Gaman"):

I'm finding the Hindi (Braj Basha?) a little hard to follow, so if anyone wants to help with translation, it would be appreciated. Here is the Midival Punditz' "Fabric," a drum n bass remix used by Mira Nair in Monsoon Wedding:

The neighborhood where she films those crazy wires is in Old Delhi -- the area around Jama Masjid. Nair also did her first, student film in that neighborhood (the film was her thesis at Harvard; it was a short, eighteen-minute documentary called "Jama Masjid Street Journal").

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Review: "Global Bollywood: Travels of Hindi Song and Dance"

Global Bollywood is an academic anthology, but it contains several essays that might be of interest to lay readers who are fans of Hindi films and filmi music. There are, admittedly, a couple of somewhat jargony essays in the collection, but they can be avoided for readers allergic to that sort of thing. Accessible essays that take on specific subjects, and present new and helpful information about them, dominate the anthology. As a result, I can recommend it alongside another book I reviewed some time ago, Tejaswini Ganti’s Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema.

Defining "Bollywood"

Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti's thorough introduction to this volume is a pretty definitive survey of much important scholarship on Hindi cinema. Given my own background and interests, the sections from which I learned the most were probably the somewhat more 'marginal' sections, where Gopal and Moorti provided overviews of some slightly more obscure topics, such as the influence of 19th century Parsi street theater on the emergence of the Bollywood acting and musical style (they cite Kathryn Hansen’s work on this subject; also see Hansen's translation of Somnath Gupt's book).

Still, here is the definition of "Bollywood" with which Gopal and Moorti begin:

Frequently remarked upon by insiders and always remarkable to outsiders, song-dance occupies the constitutive limit of Bollywood cinema. It determines – perhaps unfairly but invariably – the form itself even as it frequently escapes the filmic context to inhabit other milieus. (1)

One could object that it's not just the song-dance that is distinctive about commercial Hindi cinema, but the particular stylization of the acting, which seems over-the-top and melodramatic to many viewers acculturated to the values of European art cinema. Certainly, it wasn't just song-dance that Satyajit Ray rebelled against starting in the 1950s – or, more recently, Aparna Sen, or Mira Nair. These art film directors were also interested in more naturalistic characterization, and in finding beauty in the everyday.

Gopal and Moorti are by no means the only ones to attempt to work out a theoretical definition of "Bollywood." I have been reading some of this rapidly proliferating scholarship for a project I have been doing on a non-Bollywood director, and this act of defining Bollywood "in theory" is quite widespread.

But I wonder whether Bollywood studies scholars might be over-thinking it. Does a particular national cinema need to be positively "defined" anymore? That is to say, can’t we simply say that commercial Hindi cinema is defined by its context and cultural norms, just as commercial American cinema might be defined?

Variations of "Censorship"

Another aspect that falls under context is the choice of topics and themes, and the censorship regime. Censorship in Indian cinema is a two-way street. On the one hand, there is the familiar figure of the censor board (CBFC), which has a very particular culture and history. It might be worth pointing out that all film industries have some form of this, for good reason, and it is therefore wrong to say that Indian movies are "censored," while American movies are not. American movies that get commercially released are also censored -- but differently censored, through the ratings system as well as through the big distributors, who rarely carry "NC-17" rated films.

But there is also a kind of self-censorship intrinsic to Indian cinema itself, as enacted by the makers of films, and even by the actors, which relates to the choice of topics. This self-censorship is often a rough mirror for the tastes of the marketplace; filmmakers and actors try not to do anything that will turn off a large number of potential ticket-buyers. However, there are times when there is a gap between what the censor board thinks is unacceptable and what the masses think. (An example of such a gap, referenced by Nilanjana Bhattacharjya and Monika Mehta in their essay in the volume, is the great “Kaanta Laga” Visible Thong controversy of 2003 [see the video on YouTube, if you dare].)

One place where self-censorship is a particular problem, in my view, is in acknowledging and representing poverty. I really don’t care that Bollywood doesn’t do female nudity, or that lip-to-lip kisses remain rare or are relegated to more adult-oriented films. What does bother me is when someone like Amitabh Bachchan objected, at least initially, to the non-Bollywood film Slumdog Millionaire purely on the basis of the fact that it represents the slums. Twenty years earlier, he objected to another film about slum children, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (which is vastly superior to Slumdog, incidentally) using almost exactly the same language he used in 2008. It was irritating then, and it remains irritating today.

Is “Bollywood” an Insult?

Many people inside the Bombay film industry have complained, and continue to complain, about the term "Bollywood," just as some directors of Italian Westerns object to the term "spaghetti Westerns." Gopal and Moorti cite Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgan as two examples of Hindi film stars who don’t like the term.

But of course if you don’t use the term, you also lose something; it’s possible that the objectors are being over-sensitive to an insult that is not in fact really there. (When Indians use the term, for example, they are suggesting the culture, the magazines, the fashion, and the glamor -- not necessarily a particular style of filmmaking.) Gopal and Moorti, always sensitive to nuances, work out a reasonable compromise:

We use the term Bollywood instead of Hindi commercial cinema to capture the global orientation of this formation. When we refer to Hindi commercial cinema in a primarily domestic or a historical context that does not include this global orientation, we use Hindi popular cinema or some variant thereof. Similarl, we use the term filmigit, film song, or film music to emphasize the aural dimension of the performance sequence. (4)

For some, non-Bollywoodized viewers, the song-dance in Hindi cinema is a turn-off. (I have many friends who, much to my irritation, like to fast-forward those sequences when watching Hindi films on DVD.) But for fans of the films, as well as closely observing critics, the song-dance sequences might well be the main reason to watch.

Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes Hindi film song as 'the only truly original moments in a Hindi film... I mean you couldn’t use the songs say from Border and put it in another film. Everyone goes on about the 00 or so films produced in India but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows fantastic new energy and originality.' It is here that innovations in technology, allusions to sociopolitical realities, and aesthetic experimentation are most in evidence. Simultaneously, these picturizations code the inexpressible and the transgressive. (5)

At the end of the passage above, Gopal and Moorti are referring, I believe, to the way song-dance is often inserted as a cue for romance, allowing the hero and heroine to enact desire they could never directly announce in speech. Songs, in short, bring in encoded (and sometimes not-so-encoded) sexuality. (Someone once described to me a parlor game you can play when watching romantic songs from old films: if the song ends with a mountain, it signifies an erection, and if it ends with a stream, that's an orgasm.) Our guest blogger, Nilanjana, also talked about this, in an essay not included in the present volume:

In the absence of dialogue, music and song sequences and the mechanism of coitus interruptus have often been used to portray sexual situations, such as in the song "Chup Chup Ke" from the recent hit Bunty Aur Babli (2005). The song sequence depicts the lead characters’ first night together (suhag raat) after their marriage, where the first shot of the couple embracing each other in bed quickly cuts to shots of the characters dancing and singing in an otherwise uninhabited desolate mountain landscape. The lyrics describe the sky’s unfastening itself from the earth, which conveys the intensity of the couple’s physical passion while avoiding its literal depiction. (link)

71 Songs, in a single film. Really.

I suggested above that it may not be appropriate to define Hindi cinema by song-dance, but I’m not saying song-dance isn’t relevant. The history of song-and-dance in Hindi films is important, including the central role of music in the silent film days (when films would often be shown with a live band performing songs), as well as in the earliest "talkies," many of which were actually in operatic form – that is to say, they featured virtual non-stop singing, with dialogues sung rather than spoken. (One film that is often cited along these lines is Indrasabha, which is sometimes described with awe because it contained 71 songs; in fact, the entire film was probably more like one, continuous, operatic song.)

The Absence of Government Support

One of the great mysteries of post-Independence India is why the government took so long to recognize the cinema as a formal industry (it only happened in 1998), and further, that it imposed "luxury" taxes on commercial films. The fact that it wasn’t recognized as such for so long probably hurt the industry economically, as it led producers to raise money on the black market. But I think it also hurt the industry in some ways intellectually and aesthetically. Other newly independent nations would have died to have such a prolific source of national culture available. (Smaller countries, both in the past and today, generally screen imported films.)

But the cultural arbiters in the Indian government, including both Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad, saw it as a debased art form, which would be of no use in promoting the national goals of progress and development. Nilanjana and Monika Mehta talk about this in their essay in the collection, as follows:

Having already denied industry status to the commercial film industry, the state proceeded to define the film industry’s products as luxuries and imposed heavy taxes on them. In addition, the state emphasized commercial films' dangerous potential to corrupt so-called Indian culture. In the Constituent Assembly Debates, one member stated, 'I think that the greatest injury is being done to the nation by the cinematograph.' Another member lamented, 'these cinemas are doing a great injury to our old treasure of music, poetry, and art.' (107)

There was a similar disdain for the music, as Biswarup Sen points out in his essay, where he talks about All India Radio’s snobbish rejection of popular music in favor of Indian classical after 1947. Here is India’s first minister of information and broadcasting, Dr. Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar:

The object is to encourage the revival of our traditional music, classical and folk. The Radio is fulfilling that task for the nation and I can say with satisfaction, that it has become the greatest patron of Indian music and musicians, greater than all the princely and munificent patronage of former days. (B.V. Keskar, Cited in Gopal and Moorti, 90)

And here is Sen’s account of what happened to Indian radio under Keskar’s direction:

Under his tutelage, the All India Radio (AIR) developed a list of seven thousand ‘approved’ classical artists, and he saw to it that classical music comprised fully half of all the music broadcast on national radio. Keskar, however, was not destined to win the culture wars. Unable to digest the AIR’s stern diet, the listening public defected to Radio Ceylon, a commercial radio station who broadcasting policy was far more in tune with consumer demand. In the end, the government bowed down to popular taste and set up a new channel designed to disseminate ‘popular music and light entertainment.’ Stated in 1957, Vivid Bharati would soon become the nation’s most popular radio channel, bringing to an end Radio Ceylon’s brief but significant period of broadcasting glory. (90)

(Bhattacharjya and Mehta also have an account of this episode in their essay.)

In Biswarup Sen's account, the rejection of classical was also instrumental in the rise of Kishore Kumar to superstardom in 1969, with "Roop tera mastana" and "Mere sapno ki rani." Before that, Kishore Kumar had already long established himself as a playback singer for Hindi films, but had remained in the shadows of classically trained singers:

It is somewhat of a mystery as to why Kishore would become a superstar so late I his career. The answer may lie, paradoxically, in what most would see as a serious lacuna in his musical education—of the male playback singers of his generation, Kishore was the only one who had received no instruction in classical music. Among his 'competitors,' Rafi had trained under Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Manna Dey was trained by his uncle, the renowned K.C. Dey, and both Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor were well versed in light classical music. Kishore, on the other hand ,was entirely untutored, cuasing him to be often neglected by musical directors—songwriter Kalyanji's comment that his skills lay more in 'mimicry than in technique' was typical of the musical establishment's reaction to his singing style. Yet it was precisely this lack of skill that proved to be Kishore's strongest selling point. Singers too well grounded in traditional music could, by the middle of the 1960s, no longer market their style of vocal delivery. To take the most obvious example, the great Mohammed Rafi, whose more classically inflected songs from the period are masterpieces of execution, proved insipid and inadequate when singing playback fro Shammi Kapoor, who more than any other actor in the 1960s symbolized what it meant to be 'modern.' (96)

Though he did have some training in Indian classical music, R.D. Burman never wholly gave himself over to the classical music mentality, and that freedom from the binds of traditional Indian music liberated him, making him the most effective maker of contemporary sounding Hindi film music starting in the 1960s.

Globalizing It

In their introduction, Gopal and Moorti cite at length a Greek scholar named Helen Abadzi who has studied the appearance of Bollywood film (referred to in Greece as “indoprepis”), as well as the advent of Greek music imitating Bollywood film songs, starting in the late 1950s. Luckily, the article they cite is on the web; readers might want to take a look at it: “Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece: The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue”.

Another site visited by the Global Bollywood anthology is Indonesia, where there is a hybrid pop music genre associated with Hindi film influence called Dangdut. Dangdut music is considered low-class entertainment by Indonesian elites, but since the 1980s and 90s in particular, Bollywood music has been immensely popular. (See Boneka Dari India by Jakarta born Ellya Khadam. It's a cover of the Hindi film song ‘Samay Hai Bahar Ka’)

A third site is Egypt, which might seem unlikely, since Egyptians tend to look down on Indians, as Amitav Ghosh documented in In an Antique Land. Walter Armbrust, in his essay for this volume, also talks about this as follows:

Egyptian filmmakers and most elites disparage Indian cinema, and this is consistent with the more generalized attitude about things Indian. 'Hindi' in everyday language labels things that are strange, silly, or just plain dumb. When someone acts as if you do not know what you are doing, you can say fakirni Hindi? (You think I am from India or something?). Film(i) Hindi means 'an Indian film,' but it is also synonymous with 'a silly thing.' Conceivably, the current linguistic usage of Hindi in the sense of 'strange' or 'stupid' came about at least to some extent through the introduction of Indian films and the eventually antagonist stance against it taken by the elites. (201)

Armbrust's essay does not really get into the particular careers of the Hindi films that have screened in Egypt over the years. Rather, looking at Egyptian film and arts magazines, he focuses more on how Indian themes and atmosphere have been invoked periodically (starting in the 1930s), often by Egyptian filmmakers with all-Egyptian acting crews.

It might have been nice to have essays on the use and adaptation of Hindi film in Africa or Latin America, though other scholars have certainly published articles on that subject here and there. (That India-themed Brazilian soap opera comes to mind...) Another topic that seems particularly salient is the way radical Islamists have gone after Bollywood films and music in places like Afghanistan (but not only there), as corrupting influences. Conversely, I'm interested in how places like Afghanistan have been represented within Hindi films like Kabul Express.

But there is quite a good amount here as it is, and I would happily recommend Global Bollywood to both serious film scholars and fans who want to gain a broader knowledge of the industry, both as it developed within India, and as it has traveled.

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 16, 2009

Saxophone Desi Style: Rudresh Mahanthappa, Kadri Gopalnath

The saxophone in the opening credits to this Tamil Film ("Duet") is by Kadri Gopalnath; it's unlike any other commercial film opening credits music you've ever heard. Gopalnath has been in the news quite a bit over the past few weeks, following his collaboration with Indian American jazz-maestro Rudresh Mahanthappa, who has a new album out called Apti. I haven't "Itunesed" Mahanthappa's album yet (any reviews? the excerpts played on Rudresh's NPR interview sound great), though I will be, but it prompted me to check out the Indian musician he's talking about. (Incidentally, Kadri Gopalnath has several albums for sale on Itunes as well, at the bargain price of $3.99 each.)

Here is a quote from the New Yorker piece on Mahanthappa that describes what Gopalnath is doing on Sax:

While Mahanthappa was at Berklee, his older brother teasingly gave him an album called “Saxophone Indian Style,” by Kadri Gopalnath. As far as Mahanthappa knew, “Indian saxophonist” was an oxymoron, but the album amazed him. Gopalnath, who was born in 1950, in Karnataka, plays a Western instrument in a non-Western context—the Carnatic music of Southern India (distinct from the Hindustani musical tradition of Northern India). Gopalnath, who generally plays in a yogalike seated position, has perfected something that jazz saxophonists have been attempting for decades: moving beyond the Western chromatic scale into the realm of microtones, a feat harder for wind instruments, whose keys are in fixed positions, than for strings or voice. Jazz players, such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, had gone about it by varying intonation, blowing multiphonics (two or more notes at the same time), or squawking in the upper register, where pitches are imprecisely defined. Gopalnath does none of that. Using alternate fingerings and innovative embouchure techniques, he maintains faultless intonation while sliding in and out of the chromatic scale. (link)

I don't play any wind instruments, and I have no idea technically what "innovative embouchure techniques" might be describing, but it sure sounds hard.

Also check out: Mahanthappa interviewed on NPR.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Swinging Sounds of Goa

One of the most famous Konkani pop songs from the 1960s is Lorna's "Bebdo". Here it is, with lyrics and translation:

Pretty swinging, huh? The sassy tone and subject matter reminds me a little of Trinidadian Calypso from around the same period. It's true that there is a dark side to these types of songs (alcoholism, and the hint of domestic violence), but there is also a buoyancy and power in her voice that I really enjoy. (Are there other 60s Goan/Konkani tracks available on sites like YouTube that readers would recommend?)

When this was first recorded in 1966, the effect on the local music scene was electrifying:

From a kiosk on the beach, a pretty lady named Bertinha played records on the speaker system provided by the Panjim Municipality. She had a weakness for Cliff Richard tunes, Remo says. But that evening, she spun out a song called Bebdo (Drunkard). Miramar Beach was hypnotised. "The Panjim citizenry stopped in its tracks, the sunken sun popped up for another peep, the waves
froze in mid-air," Remo has written. "What manner of music was this, as hep as hep can be, hitting you with the kick of a mule on steroids? What manner of voice was this, pouncing at you with the feline power of a jungle lioness? And hold it no, it couldn't be yes, it was no was it really? Was this amazing song in Konkani?"

Bebdo had been recorded a few months earlier by Chris Perry and Lorna in a Bombay studio and released by HMV. The jacket bore the flirty image that would later hang outside the Venice nightclub. The 45 rpm record had four tracks, opening with the rock-and-rolling Bebdo and ending on the flip side with the dreamy ballad, Sopon. "Sophisticated, westernised urban Goa underwent a slow-motion surge of inexplicable emotions: the disbelief, the wonder, the appreciation, and then finally a rising, soaring and bubbling feeling of pride," Remo says. "The pride of being Goan. The pride of having a son of the soil produce such music. Of having a daughter of the soil sing it thus. And, most of all, of hearing the language of the soil take its rightful place in popular music after a period of drought. Chris and Lorna had come to stay." (link)

The article from which that story is taken is by Naresh Fernandes, and he goes on to give a really interesting (if digressive) account of the links between Goa and the mainstream Hindi film music world.

First, even from what little I've heard, it's pretty evident that Goan pop music (which is deeply influenced by big band, bebop, and 1960s R&B) overlaps strongly with the "modern," R.D. Burman sound that emerged in Bollywood in the late 1960s and 70s (think "Ina Mina Dika"). The reason for that is simple: the majority of the musicians employed by the film studios were Goans:

But the Sound of India actually was created by Goan musicians, men whose names flickered by in small type under the designation "arranger". It's clear. The Hindi film classics that resound across the subcontinent and in Indian homes around the world wouldn't have been made without Goans. Their dominance of the Hindi film world is partly a function of the structural differences between Indian and Western music. Indian classical music is melodic. The ragas that form the basis of Indian music are unilinear, each instrument or vocalist exploring an independent line. To move an audience, film scores must be performed by orchestras, with massed instruments playing in harmony. Only Goans, with their training in Western music, knew how to produce what was required.

Frank Fernand was among the first Goans in Bollywood and assisted such worthies as Anil Biswas, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar. As he describes it, the men who composed the scores for Hindi films couldn't write music and had no idea of the potential of the orchestras they employed. They would come to the studio and sing a melody to their Goan amanuensis, or pick out the line on a harmonium. The Goan assistant would write it out on sheet paper, then add parts for the banks of strings, the horn sections, the piano and the percussion. But the assistant wasn't merely taking dictation: It was his job to craft the introductions and bridges between verse and chorus.

Drawing from their bicultural heritage and their experience in the
jazz bands, the Goans gave Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Then they would rehearse the orchestras, which were staffed almost entirely by Goans. After all, hardly anyone else knew how to play these Western instruments. To Frank Fernand, the music directors were mere subcontractors, men whose main job was liaising with the financiers. "We arrangers did all the real work. They'd show off to the directors and producers and try to show that they were indispensable. But to be a music director, salesmanship was more important than musicianship." (link)

I don't have independent confirmation of Fernandes' account of the influence of Goan orchestral arrangers and musicians on the emergence of the "modern" (as opposed to Raga-based) Bollywood sound. But his account certainly seems quite plausible. (One way to check would be to look for the small print names in the credits on old Hindi films from the period to see if there are Goan/Portuguese names.)

I would also recommend another article in this series by Naresh Fernandes, here. Among other things, he talks about the influence of expatriate African-American jazz musicians in Goa (adding a further wrinkle to this rich story of musical hybridity).

Labels: ,

Monday, October 06, 2008

Music Fix: Mekaal Hasan Band

There was a great story about a Pakistani fusion group, the Mekaal Hasan Band, on NPR this morning, the text of which is here. For starters, you might want to check out one of their songs on YouTube, "Huns Dhun":

On their website, Mekaal Hasan Band says the following about the song and video above:

The video is a real life account of the mass evacuation of the Afghan Refugees who, according to the Afghan Repatriation Deadline, were supposed to leave the border areas of Pakistan for Afghanistan by 2005. Seen through the eyes of three young Afghani friends, the video traces their journey from the area of Bajaur, NWFP, Pakistan to the bordering hills of Afghanistan.

I knew about the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but I didn't know about their forced repatriation, and I haven't heard much about how they've been doing in Afghanistan since this happened in 2005. (Does anyone have more information about this?)

In the NPR story, the part that I found most interesting is the story of how Mekaal Hasan first went from Lahore to Boston, to study at the Berklee College of Music, and then returned to Lahore, where he started the long, slow process of finding a way to be a rock musician in a non-rock oriented culture:

There wasn't much opportunity to advance his craft in Lahore. So Hasan, like many of his peers, decided to leave Pakistan. He applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and got in.

"That jump was just insane," Hasan says. "It's like going to another planet and watching people play unbelievable stuff. I had never seen anyone play that way before. I would just listen to music all the time. That's all I did. I never felt more at home than when I was in Boston, 'cause I was surrounded by so much great music and so many great musicians. I think all creative people need an environment to flourish in."

But Hasan was on a student visa, and his parents bribed him to come home early by offering to build him a studio. In 1995, he returned to Lahore.

"For a while, a good two to three years, I was massively depressed and really angry, as well," Hasan says. "I was like, 'Why am I here? What am I doing here?' Then you had to reconcile yourself to the fact that, 'Well, hey, man, you've always lived here.' I resolved to make the best of it, and in some ways, this turned out to be a good exercise in just practicing the concepts that I'd learned in music school." (link)

Ok, so not everyone has parents that can build them their own music studio! But however it happened, what's important is that he managed to make the transition back -- and now Mekaal Hasan and his band are making some really impressive music, using classical and jazz fusion.

Incidentally, another video I liked is Rabba. Mekaal Hasan Band's album, "Sampooran," is available on ITunes; they're about to go on a tour of India (no word on a tour of the U.S. yet...).

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Satyagraha," by Phillip Glass

The New York Times has a behind-the-scenes look at a new version of Phillip Glass's modernist opera, "Satyagraha," which is playing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York until May 1. There is also a companion video piece, which I could watch but not listen to from the computer I'm working on this morning.

The libretto uses the Bhagavad-Gita as a source, and the opera as a whole aims to index some of the key events in Gandhi's early political awakening in South Africa with the plot and text of the Gita. That alone might be a little confusing, since the central question facing Arjuna in the Gita, as most readers will know, is whether or not to fight -- and Gandhi's signature political contribution ("Satyagraha") is the philosophy of non-violent resistance. The choice could of course be defended depending on your interpretation of the Gita, and indeed, I gather that Gandhi did his own translation -- with commentary -- of the Bhagavad-Gita in 1924. I haven't read Gandhi's version, though I should note that it has recently been re-published as a volume called Bhagavad-Gita According to Gandhi.

The current interpretation of Glass's work adds some new elements, including a strong focus on newsprint and newspaper culture as a theme in Gandhi's story (that at least seems dead-on). There are also towering puppets, made of "newspaper, fiberglass kite poles, light cotton cloth and lots of latex glue," which symbolize historical figures from Gandhi's past (Tolstoy), present, and future (MLK).

It seems like an interesting work, though I have to admit I'm not sure I personally would enjoy it. (And most tickets under $100 have already been sold out, so it's not something where a person would go casually...) Has anyone seen this? Is anyone planning to?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Writing Deadlines

Hi folks, I have been on a bit of a hiatus to meet some writing deadlines. Hopefully I will be back blogging somewhat regularly next week.

I find that whenever I'm finishing difficult projects -- going all the way back to my dissertation days, in 1999-2000 -- I end up listening to one particular song by Everything But The Girl. It's not a conscious thing; I just seem to always find it in my MP3 collection at the right moment:

Somehow the song always does the trick. (I don't know how I feel about the video, which I only watched for the first time just now).

Labels: ,

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Falu on FOX

I reviewed Falu's recent CD back in August. Now, she and her band have been featured in a Fox show called Fearless Music, which generally airs late at night on Saturdays (this may vary, depending on where you live). This is the song "Rabba," from the show:

(I like the Hindi + rock sound... Though I wonder how it will play, as it were, in Peoria?)

Incidentally, Falu will be teaming up with DJ Rekha for a new, hybrid live music + DJ dance party at Canal Room, on January 31. The event is called "Bangles and Backbeats."


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Basement Bhangra CD: a review

People in New York tonight (sadly, not me) might want to stop by the release party for the Basement Bhangra CD, which is officially coming out today. It's been 10 years of Basement Bhangra nights at S.O.B.'s -- and for all that time DJ Rekha has held it down on the ones and twos. (It's also, coincidentally, been 10 years since the first 'Mutiny' party, and the old gang are coming out of hiatus in a couple of weeks for their own celebration -- with guests Talvin Singh, and Shaair and Func.)

Rekha's approach here is to take some familiar Bhangra anthems (like Lehmber Hussainpuri's "Tin Cheejha") and mix them up with solid Bhangra tracks most people probably won't know (Sunil Sehgal's "Fakir"). The "Basement Bhangra anthem" that opens the CD is definitely a highlight -- Wyclef Jean ("Mr. International") contributes an original rap, and Queens-based Bikram Singh is as usual great (he was also responsible for the absurdly catchy "American Jugni" song a couple of years ago). Incidentally, you can listen to the "Basement Bhangra Anthem" here.

Many well-known remix masters are represented here, including Panjabi MC, DJ Sanj, Dr. Zeus, and Tigerstyle. There are also a couple of tracks from Hard Kaur, a British Punjabi pop star who has become omnipresent for the past couple of years (see "Glassy"). But alongside some staples there are also some surprises, including a track by the drum 'n bass influenced Dhol Foundation, as well tracks from producers I hadn't heard of (Ominous DJs).

I should note that this CD isn't by itself a "definitive" statement of where Bhangra music is today -- but that probably wouldn't be possible to do in a single hour of music anyway. In the liner notes, Rekha describes it instead as a "cross-section of a living musical culture that connects New York City to the Punjab," and that sounds about right to me. Some people, including commenters on Cicatrix's earlier post on this at Sepia Mutiny, have criticized the selection of songs here, but I actually think the choices are quite good. Some hard core bhangra downloaders listeners may be tired of "Tin Cheejha," but I suspect many people haven't even heard of Lehmber Hussainpuri (though they may have heard his hit song). For them, the Basement Bhangra CD is going to be like a one-hour living room Bhangra party to go.

And doesn't everybody need one of those every once in a while?

More reviews: here and here.
The Basement Bhangra CD is available from Amazon.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Video Mashup

Primus, "Welcome to this World" vs. the dance scene (or as Bollywood fans say, "picturization") of Mohammed Rafi's "Jan Pehechan Ho" in the 1966 film Gumnaam (original version here)

Often, it seems like YouTube users get excited about Indian music and Bollywood for the wrong reasons. There's a kitsch factor: look at these stoooopid Indian people trying to rip off Michael Jackson! But I think this is something a little different: the juxtaposition takes the frenetic dance steps and the fact that everyone is wearing masks, and makes it into something slightly ominous.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Ghosts of Nusrat: Dub Qawwali

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has a new CD out. While that may seem unlikely, given that he passed away ten years ago, it's true. Italian/British producer Gaudi took old master tapes from the early 1970s in the possession of Nusrat's original Pakistani record label (Rehmat Gramohpone), and reinterpreted them with Dub/Reggae beats. The sound is fresh, if not technically new -- a successful way to bring back the ghost of Nusrat in a recording studio. Dub Qawwali has recently been released on Six Degrees Records; Gaudi was also interviewed by NPR here.

Dub Qawwali is a collection of Nusrat songs that, for the most part, I hadn't heard before, though admittedly my Nusrat collection is hardly definitive. The production quality, for those who pay attention to such things, is flawless, and the sound is "warm" -- mainly because Gaudi used live musicians and vintage analog equipment to create a rich soundscape. It's most definitely not the cheesy Bally Sagoo remix approach, where you get the feeling that the whole thing was put together on a computer by a stoned teenager. Here is how the record label describes the approach:

The use of vintage analogue studio equipment and dub production techniques such as tape echoes, valve amps, Fender Rhodes, spring reverbs, Hammond organ and Moog, characterizes Gaudi's production style, however it is not without its share of 21st century intervention and wizardry… Individual tracks from the original 70's multi-track recordings often contained multiple parts together on them. These had to then be carefully cleaned up in order to make them usable in a way that would enable the composition of these new works. (This included much of the vocal parts which were mixed in the same track as the Harmonium and other instruments!) (link)

So, yeah, the CD sounds pretty good.

The one possible flaw, and it's debatable, might be that the songs on Dub Qawwali are almost too mellow. Nusrat, as videos like this might attest, was at times a frenetic, ecstatic performer, not a chilled out crooner. On the other hand, he did do some 'slow' records -- and there must be a time and place for mellow for everyone.

So it's not rapture, but a different kind of transport, the gentle vocal nurturing of a shared spiritual journey. And healing, and peace: here, Nusrat's voice acts as a kind of salve, easing the pain of existence... Nusrat's ghost.

Apropos of that, one song that Gaudi reworks on this CD, which I had heard before, is the classic ghazal "Jab Tere Dard":

Jab Tere Dard Mein Dil Dukhta Tha
Hum Tere Haq Mein Dua Karte Thay
Hum Bhee Chup Chaap Phira Karte The
Jab Teri Dhun Mein Jiya Karte The

(You can listen to the original, non remixed version here)

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Review: New CD from Falu

People interested in Asian Underground music have probably already heard of Falu, a singer who first appeared on Karsh Kale's Realize back in 2001. Since then she's been featured on a number of other people's CDs, but today she releases her own, self-titled CD. Rather than going for more in the way electronic beats, here Falu works with a live rock/desi fusion band, doing a mix of English and Hindi/Urdu songs.

It's a strong first effort. Falu has trained in Hindustani classical music with Ustad Sultan Khan, and there are several nice Hindi/Urdu tracks on the CD. The strongest is certainly her version of "O Lal Meri" (aka, "Dama Dam Mast Qalandar"); here the music is traditional, and Falu gets to really show off her Qawwali chops. I found Falu's version of Asha Bhosle's "Dum Maro Dum" less exciting, perhaps because I'm too attached to the original -- and to Asha Bhosle's voice (still, Falu's rock/fusion band seems to be having a good time rocking out a bit here). Also good are "Rabba" and "Poojan." Ustad Sultan Khan himself shows up playing Sarangi on two tracks, and he joins in the vocals to "Copper Can."

Thus far, I've been somewhat less excited by the English language songs on the CD, though there are some notable exceptions. The lyrics to "Without You" are a mix of English and Urdu, and it's intriguing to hear Falu do Qawwali-esque vocal trills on the English as well as the Urdu parts of the song. "Hey Baby" is entirely in English (albeit with a desi musical touch), though from listening to the lyrics it occurred to me that Falu is replicating in a secular, English, rock idiom the themes that are also prevalent Qawwali music: longing, desire, and the inaccessibility of the beloved. The difference, of course, is that in Urdu the longing is for God, while in English the longing is for a lover. (Note: you can listen to "Hey Baby" on Falu's Myspace page)

You can get this CD at Falu's website; it's also available on Itunes and at Amazon. Readers in the New York area might want to hit the CD release party at Canal Room tomorrow (more details here). I won't be able to go; perhaps Falu and her band will come to Philly sometime...

[Disclosure: the folks at Press Here music sent me a review copy of this CD.]

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 06, 2007

M.I.A. Talks Smack, and a Brief Review of 'Kala'

I recently read an interview with MIA at Pitchfork Media. The part that seemed most interesting had to do with the role producer Diplo has played in her music. According to M.I.A., the influence of Diplo has been seriously overplayed by the media, for reasons that might have to do with gender and race:

M.I.A.: Yesterday I read like five magazines in the airplane-- it was a nine hour flight-- and three out of five magazines said "Diplo: the mastermind behind M.I.A.'s politics!" And I was wondering, does that stem from [Pitchfork]? Because I find it really bonkers.

Pitchfork: Well, it's hard to say where it originated. We certainly have made reference to Diplo playing a part on your records, but it seems like everyone plays that up.

M.I.A.: If you read the credits, he sent me a loop for "Bucky Done Gun", and I made a song in London, and it became "Bucky Done Gun". But that was the only song he was actually involved in on Arular. So the whole time I've had immigration problems and not been able to get in the country, what I am or what I do has got a life of its own, and is becoming less and less to do with me. And I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can't have any ideas on my own because I'm a female or that people from undeveloped countries can't have ideas of their own unless it's backed up by someone who's blond-haired and blue-eyed. After the first time it's cool, the second time it's cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it's an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that's something important, you know.(link)

Go, Maya. As she goes forward, she puts more emphasis on the gender question, and less on the whether "people from underdeveloped countries" can have "ideas of their own":

M.I.A.: [...] And if I can't get credit because I'm a female and everything's going to boil down to 'everything has to be shot out of a man,' then I much rather it go to Switch, who did actually give me the time and actually listened to what I was saying and actually came to India and Trinidad and all these places, and actually spent time on me and actually cared about what I was doing, and actually cared about the situation I was in with not being able to get into the country and not having access to things or, you know, being able to direct this album in a totally innovative direction. (link)

Unfortunately, perhaps, most of the interviewer's questions are about the various men she collaborated with on her new album 'Kala', whether it's Diplo, Switch, or Timbaland. (Well, at least there's nothing in here about cleavage...)

I think she's making a valid point about how women musicians are often represented in the alternative/indie rock world. I can remember people saying similar things about Bjork's relationships with some of her male producers, several years ago -- not really giving Bjork credit for her own brilliant and idiosyncratic musical vision. Bjork, like M.I.A., is clearly a force of nature...

On the other hand, M.I.A. did date Diplo at some point (I don't know exactly when), so does her desire to deemphasize his influence have to do with that? I'm just asking...

* * *

Through a DJ friend, I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of M.I.A.'s new album, Kala. It's already been released in the U.K.; the U.S. release date is August 27. This is a brief review (we reserve the right to do a more detailed take later).

Some of the best tracks are already in circulation: "Bird Flu" and "Boys." I don't care for "Jimmy," which heavily samples an old Bollywood film song (from Disco Dancer), though I gather that other folks like it. To me it just sounds a bit clumsy. (Check out a sample from "Jimmy" at Ultrabrown)

My favorite of the other tracks on the record has to be the collaboration with Timbaland, "Come Around." Other cool tracks are "20 Dollar" and "World Town." All three have hypnotic beats, and a slightly more laid back lyrical delivery from M.I.A.

Overall, people who liked the manic energy and off-kilter beats of Arular will probably be into Kala. The sound is slightly different -- it's certainly no retread of her earlier work. The beats here are generally less electronic and more noisy and organic; the maximalist palette seems well-suited to M.I.A.'s over the top personality.

Admittedly, some of the louder tracks on Kala do grate a bit on the ears, but then I suppose that's what an IPod playlist is for, hm?

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 29, 2007

"Reheated Naan & Curry" -- A Brief Review

In general, you shouldn't call your latest project something like Reheated Naan & Curry, because you're setting yourself up for some clever critic (or blogger) to take the reference and turn it into something ugly, along the lines of: "'Reheated Naan'? Sorry, Just Stale Bread." (This game could be extended -- if you wrote a highbrow novel called Ennui, a reviewer would surely title his or her review something like, "Ennui, Another Name For 'Boring'").

In this case, Deejay OM's new releasee, which is being released this week on the Galapagos4 label, should be safe from "clever" put-downs by the likes of yours truly, because it's pretty good. People who listen to a lot of retro Bollywood might in fact find the concept somewhat familiar (reheated, if not rehashed), as Deejay OM seems to be mining samples from forgotten scores from old Hindi films, and recontextualizing them with hip hop beats and looping. As such, Reheated Naan & Curry reminds me a bit of the 1998 CD by producer Dan Nakamura, Bombay the Hard Way -- but for most people the approach taken by Deejay OM may nevertheless sound pretty fresh.

The standout track on the record has to be "The Arrival," which you can hear at Deejay OM's Myspace (if that doesn't work, the song can also be listened to at NPR). You can also hear samples of other tracks at Amazon.

Of course, this music is just beats, and I'm often left thinking what these tracks could sound like with great rappers or singers on them.

One final thought: in case you were wondering, Deejay OM has no "substantial" connection to the Indian subcontinent -- as far as I can tell, he's an Italian American DJ and producer from San Francisco who is sampling the old Bollywood sound to create a particular effect. (That appropriation mostly isn't an issue for me, as long as the beats are interesting. Though I suppose one could object to the revealing use of the word "curry" in the title of the CD -- the incorrect western term for all Desi khana. And are there readers who also object to the use of the word "OM" in Deejay OM's name?)

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Back in 2005, I mentioned, with some excitement, the advent of MTV Desi, a channel geared to NRIs and Second Generation South Asian American youth. Now there are news reports that MTV Desi is getting axed, along with its sister diasporic channels MTV Chi and MTV K, as Viacom is undergoing a restructuring. Hollywood Reporter has an MTV executive making the following statement:

"Unfortunately, the premium distribution model for MTV World proved more challenging than we anticipated in this competitive environment," the company said. "As a result, MTV has decided to shut down its linear MTV World operation. However, we remain steadfast in superserving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens." (link)

Well, duh, if it's only available on premium channels on from one Satellite TV company (DirecTV), you can bet people aren't about to go out of their way to get it. I'm actually the only person I know who subscribes to the channel -- and it's only because my in-laws came to stay with us for a few months, and the channel came packaged with the channels they really wanted -- Star One, Star Plus, Star News, and NDTV. Still, I've actually spent some hours watching the channel, so it might be worth doing a mini-elegy.

First, the positive. The best thing I ever saw on MTV Desi was the following inspired rant by Parag Khanna.

There are some statements he makes that miss the mark (India isn't the poorest country in the world by the indices I've seen), but I appreciate the energy. Instead of being the embarrassed, cautious ABCD -- do we really know enough about India to comment on corruption? shouldn't we stay "positive"? -- he's taking a strong stance. (Parag Khanna might make a good blogger.) If MTV Desi is really dead, it's too bad we'll get less stuff like this.

But it should also be admitted that the channel currently plays far too much repetitious programming. The repetition factor can be especially bad when the old programs are tied in with a particular holiday -- as of last week, you would still see the occasional VJ wishing you a "Happy Diwali!" That's pretty lame, considering it's February.

Second, while I love having a TV channel that plays both cool Bollywood and Bhangra tracks and bands like Jahcoozi and M.I.A., far too many videos on the regular playlist are crass booty-shaking exploitation. I have a kid at home now, and while he's too young to understand why there are all these scantily clad blond women shaking their hips while a brown guy lip syncs about his adoration of "Paisa," it's still faintly embarrassing. In an ideal world, I would take the Kailash Khers and the sweet A.R. Rahman songs, and leave the Bollytrash out.

Third, MTV Desi has some pretty lame skits. The "F*#@ing with Eames" skit never made much sense to me -- why is it Desi? Who cares? The parody "Deep Throat" commercial was funnier, and it's too bad Viacom has had it pulled from Youtube.

Most of the music videos one finds on MTV Desi can readily be found on Youtube. And they aren't likely to be pulled for copyright reasons, since most of them derive either from Indie bands like the brilliant King Khan and BBQ Show, who actually want the potential for free publicity online, or Indian music companies, who simply haven't been putting very much effort into that sort of thing.

So really, at the current moment there isn't truly a need for a channel like MTV Desi, especially if you have to pay for something a dedicated blogger/video podcaster could do in her basement for free. Most of the music content could be aggregated, and original content (like the Parag Khanna rant above) could be generated by enterprising college students with video cameras, again for free.

Labels: , , ,