US Presidential Elections – end-September look

September 21, 2020

This is the second of my articles on the US Presidential Elections. You can read the first one here.

As before, I am going to spend less time crunching the numbers and more on broader narratives and trends.

A disturbing trend I observe more and more is how much the election resembles 2016.

Look at the leads the polls are reporting in this news item from Oct 27, 2016. Yes, that close to election day.

And look at the message here, that Clinton did not run on a big idea to offer to the voters. They also discuss how millennial women lacked enthusiasm for Clinton.

Now have a look at this report:

See the similarities yet?

Well, in any case, let me list down a few:

  1. Biden is running against Trump rather than for a big idea, like Clinton.
  2. Polls aren’t a blowout yet. Biden enjoys healthy leads but not so far ahead that Trump can’t catch up. And it’s stayed that way for a long time. If anything, it was closer before covid-19.
  3. People of colour aren’t enthused by Biden in spite of Trump at least appearing to be so obviously repugnant to them.
  4. Young voters invested bigly in a Sanders candidacy and simply cannot summon up close to the same enthusiasm for Biden.

No, I am not saying nothing has changed since 2016. I will come to the ways in which the race is different this time. But it would still seem that the more things change, the more they remain the same. And here is a soundbyte from Stephanie Ruhle. She seems to be terribly offended that Biden, whilst talking to working class voters, framed this election as Scranton v/s Park Avenue. Oh, the horror! How dare he! Rich Lives Matter.

The bubble that dislikes Trump more because he offends a certain aesthetic sensibility expected out of the leader of the free world than because of the things he does, still cannot understand why words don’t seem to be so important to many other significant electoral constituencies.

They don’t understand why black people and Latinos (who likely heard Biden loud and clear when back in the day he boasted he would be tougher on crime than Republicans) don’t see a Biden Presidency moving the needle meaningfully on bigotry, at least in so far as it affects them (as opposed to micro-aggressions a Humanities Professor told you to be worried about).

They don’t understand why the Democrats’ climate change agenda, well intentioned though it may be, likewise affects blue collar black people and Latinos who are reluctantly breaking with the party a little and hedging their bets. Somewhat on the lines of the New Deal luring black voters away from the party that had fought for their emancipation. Words cease to matter and the question of importance becomes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Similarly, students getting crushed under college debt and a sluggish job environment cannot bring themselves to share the existential fear that older and wealthier voters express vividly about a Trump reelection.

BUT, as I said, in some ways this election is different too.

In spite of his physical infirmities, Biden is doing a better job of both resisting being pulled too far to the woke left which will earn him glowing op eds but far fewer votes, as also of avoiding alienating working class voters and in fact at least offering words by way of an appeal to them. Hence, Scranton v/s Park Avenue.

Biden is ‘woke’ enough to understand the woke left’s arguments and be sympathetic to them and try to go with the flow. But he is also old enough and comes from a background that allows him to remember the many people who do not relate to the woke left and who nevertheless make up important electoral blocks.

Not just Scranton v/s Park Avenue, he has done his best to assure working class voters that fracking won’t just be going away. Contrast this to Clinton’s jarring “Now we’re gonna put a lot of coal mines out of business”. Oh dear, talk about self goals. Biden’s worst self goals are amusing gaffes. Clinton on the other hand revealed strong headedness and a contempt for those who did not agree with her worldview; that is a lot more polarizing.

Those are all the reasons why Biden MIGHT have thwarted a Trump Presidency in 2016. If he had been allowed to run as Obama 3.0, MAYBE he would have done better than Trump. It’s MAYBE but doesn’t it strike you as odd that usually, VPs do run for the third term of a two term President but Biden wasn’t given that choice? The same Barack Obama who, like Bill Clinton, concocted a populist insurgency and governed from the center for two terms happened to trust Hillary Clinton more. Oh, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more amenable to a 2016 retirement to mark the election of America’s first female President.

But that ship has sailed and Biden is four years older and slower. And Trump is the incumbent. The likes of Ruhle would believe the choice couldn’t be more obvious. Hasn’t Trump shown himself to be an abysmal failure as President?

Well, Rich Thau talked to swing voters and they seemed to think that even if he was, Biden wasn’t so obviously a better choice.

And we come back to the lack of Big Ideas in Biden’s campaign. If it is so obvious that Biden would be a better President than Trump, why doesn’t he get out there and make the case convincingly and confidently? Who’s stopping him? Um, rich suburban voters like Ruhle who would find overtures to working class voters deeply offensive?

Last year, Boris Johnson called a fresh election to get a clear mandate to pursue a Brexit deal with the EU. The results showed Labour getting reduced to a party of the posh suburbanites as they got routed in working class constituencies. In 2016, the Brexit vote preceded the US Presidential Election and the media failed to anticipate either. Jussaying…

I am not just sitting here saying all this now to sit haughty and mighty. I actually wrote to New York Times last year during the Democratic Primary when Marianne Williamson was getting roundly mocked for saying that only love could trump hate. I said to NYT that criticising Williamson for lacking plans is all fine and dandy but voters don’t just want plans, they expect their President to have a vision for the country. How the white collar posh set does not get this in spite of reading umpteen management books about mission and vision is beyond me.

But Williamson intuitively got what the media still doesn’t and what Trump did. Trump evoked a vision for the America he would lead and he had a slogan for it. Biden has a slogan too; let’s see if you can spell it in five seconds without consulting Google.

And that’s where I end this write up. Yes, Biden still has a handy lead and a better path to victory than Trump. But, these were all true in 2016 and they didn’t stop Trump from winning. There’s no saying he can’t do it again. Watch out for the debates. If Biden holds his ground as he did against Sanders in the last Primary debate, they may not move the needle much as I expect conservatives to continue to accuse him of getting secret assistance. But if Trump knocks him out in the very first round, oh boy!

Raja the riffmaster

September 20, 2020

I wrote this really long post on Raja’s music here. In it, I mentioned that his music wasn’t just meant to be melodic or soothing (while there is surely nothing wrong with that) but also exciting. Or, to use a very rock term, kickass.

Years back, I was in Chennai over at my cousin’s place and a Raja song was playing on the TV and my chitappa (uncle) said Raja is all about guitar. A younger and more impetuous version of me then bristled at the suggestion that Raja was about one instrument. I mean, he was a sakalakalavallavan of every conceivable instrument, so why guitar.

BUT, reflecting upon it today, I see the truth in my chitappa’s observation in a roundabout way. Again, I am NOT saying he does not handle the violin, the flute, the saxophone or the nadhaswaram, you name it, well. But to go back to the earlier observation, the reason Raja’s music has fizz and doesn’t only appeal to old fashioned elegance is indeed because of how well he handles guitar. Not just using it in unexpected ways, which I covered here, but just doing the bread and butter stuff of writing amazing riffs amazingly well. To the point where there is a circular relationship between my liking for rock and my liking for Raja’s music. I can’t tell if it was my fondness for Raja’s guitar parts that hooked me onto rock later or whether my exposure to rock has since made me see a different dimension of Raja’s music (it’s probably both the things).

As such, Raja didn’t just think of guitar as a ‘strumming’ instrument which was its chief function previously in our film music but he used it as the consummate rockstar that it really is. This isn’t to suggest nobody ever tried writing riffs before. I don’t know if it was S D Burman or R D Burman who wrote that riff (hehe!) but Meri Sapno Ki Rani antara is a good example of a catchy riff. Nice call-response with the vocals too. The building blocks are there. They were there for Raja to use them and take them to hitherto unimagined heights.

So, with that, here is a little list of Raja songs with rocking riffs. Neither is the list ordered nor is it comprehensive, just the first ten off the top of my head. And there is an addendum in the end in case the list leaves you wondering where’s the rock in all this:

  1. Ithu Oru Nila – Tik Tik Tik:

The riff at 0:25 is catchy as hell, working in tandem with keyboards and bass, though the one coming in at 0:43 is what may sound more stereotypically rock:

And while not a riff but a combination of guitar and keyboard leads with a brilliant bass groove, the part coming in at 3:34 is also amazing.

2. Poomalai Oru Paavai – Thanga Mahan:

I hear you, Poomalai, nice song, but is it really one of Raja’s masterpieces? No, it’s not, but just the way Roger Federer often hits incredible shots even in his worst losses, Raja does amazing things even in less stone-cold selections. Poomalai Oru Paavai is a pretty standard disco-Raja song but the riff at 0:10, man!

Notice here too (as also in Ithu Oru Nila) that the guitar playing isn’t loud. Raja understands perfectly well that it’s the vigour of the rhythmic pattern that makes a guitar part, not the volume. Which is also the reason why I find the riff itself more fascinating than the lead parts playing alongside on electric guitar.

3. Vaazhavaikkum Kadhalukku – Aboorva Sagotharargal:

Now this one is a more predictable/agreeable selection, I guess. The intro itself rocks your socks off.

But he isn’t done yet, hardly. At 1:10, the guitar part that’s been playing second fiddle to the trumpet now moves into an insistent rock pattern and the part that follows at 1:15 is also brilliant. By the way, note, three different guitar parts coming along in the space of 15 seconds. And yet, not a note too many, everything in its right place, commanded by Raja the master orchestrator.

4. Neethane Enthan Ponvasantham – Ninaivellam Nithya:

Another legendary selection that needs no introduction.

I am not going to break it down and choose specific guitar parts. I will only draw your attention to the thunderous bass riff building up at 3:05. Seriously, that has to be one of the heaviest riffs in Indian film music. And he was doing this in 1982? No way, are you kidding me!

5. Rojapoo Adivanthathu – Agni Natchathiram:

The main riff (that accompanies the Rojapoo adivanthathu refrain) is super-stylish to begin with. But my favourite is the part at 1:34:

This marks the early stages of a phase where he would start writing layered parts with both guitar and keyboard in tandem to produce a different tone. Stuff that was going on in the mainstream rock/pop music of the decade. You can hear how much more 80s this song sounds compared to Neethane which is like a lost 70s child with its pure tones, slap guitar and syncopated grooves. And yet, Raja found a way to appropriate the 80s in a way that doesn’t sound as dated as, um, idk, Def Leppard or Spandau Ballet? This is more like Prefab Sprout but even better. Devoid of the slight self-consciousness of that band or its dated keyboard tones.

6. Paatu Thalaivan Paadinal – Ithaya Kovil

The part at 1:04, both brilliant and unexpected. Up to that point, you have had a tabla beat with slap guitar call-response. So this awesome riff catches you by surprise, a not too unsurprising happenstance when you listen to Raja:

7. Salaioram Solai Ondru – Payanangal Mudivathilai:

At 1:09, no, not the sweet electric guitar lead which is wonderful too (but more typical). It’s the underlying riff, again.

8. Rojavai Thalatum Thendral – Ninaivellam Nithya

I would have liked to keep it to one song per film. But this was about catchiest riffs and there is a voice screaming in my head to include this beauty, so here I go:

Like the other selection from this film, this song is just chockfull of stunning guitar writing. But the part that most captivates me is the one at 2:42.

9. Athadi Allikodi – Thendral Sudum:

This is another of those less than stellar Raja cuts which has some very interesting stuff going on nevertheless. Listen to the guitar parts that start off the song:

10. Kallathanamagaka Kannam – Ulle Velliye

Once again, I rather dislike the beat and unfortunately Raja used this beat a lot in the early-mid 90s. But the part that accompanies the pallavi. As before, I am talking not about the very overtly rock-like part but the other, flowing and busy guitar part. The one that sounds more like 3:25 basically:

So…to address some possible questions here:

  1. I didn’t touch slap guitar/bass beauties like Paatu Inge as that would be a whole other list.
  2. I didn’t touch songs with great lead parts because…same as above. So that leaves out a classic like En Iniya Pon Nilave.
  3. Now, two categories of songs that may have been expected to be in my list but I didn’t include. The first is songs like Muthaduthe or Megam Kottattum. Which may be seen as the epitome of rock if you don’t much listen to rock. But for someone like me who has had more than a lifetime’s fill of rock already, the guitar writing on such songs actually sounds very cliche to me. Like Raja telegraphing to the listeners that this is ROCK SONG. By Indian film music standards, even those songs could be said to be innovative for their time. But it’s the busy parts that blow me away because THEY would be amazing even if used in a Western rock song without any changes.
  4. On similar lines, if I can at least tolerate parts like Megam Kottattum, Raja going METAL on Pottu Vaitha Kadhal, Pattu Poove Mettu Paadu or the Kalaignan songs is rather irritating for me. Raja trying so hard to sound brash and loud is like the antithesis of everything I love about his guitar writing. SO…the songs that you would perhaps have thought would be shoo ins in my list are exactly the ones that would never make it for me. Said another way, you would think a rock lover like me loved the soundtrack of Rock On but no! It presented a very cliched idea of rock, an idea that may be palatable for a mainstream audience not much interested in rock but which hardly fascinates those who listen to a lot of rock already.

Geet Gaata Hoon Main (cover)

September 13, 2020

Song: Geet Gaata Hoon Main

Singer: Kishore Kumar

Composer: Shankar Jaikishan

Shankar Jaikishan had only sporadic collaborations with Kishore Kumar. They gave him one of his early hits, the classic Nakhrewali. Songs like Choti Si Yeh Duniya and Hum Matwale Naujawan followed. But in those days, outside the Navketan camp, Kishore only sang in the movies he was acting in. And increasingly, Shankar Jaikishan weren’t scoring those movies, busy as they were with the RK camp as well as Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Kumar movies (AND some Dev Anand movies too on occasion).

With Mr X In Bombay (Mere Mehboob Qayamat Hogi) and Hum Sab Ustad Hain (Ajnabee Tum Jaane), Kishore’s profile as a singer began to be raised. The Mahal hit Yeh Duniawale as well as Kehna Hai and Mere Samne Wali Khidki Mein on Padosan boosted the momentum.

By the time Kishore happened to work for SJ again on Lal Patthar (and Zindagi Ek Safar on Andaz and a couple of songs on Kal Aaj Kal, all in the same 1970-71 period), his juggernaut was well and truly on a roll with Aradhana.

Soon after, Jaikishan would die and Shankar would fade away into oblivion. As a result, we did not get more collaborations between the composer duo and the legendary singer during the phase when he peaked.

Even so, Geet Gaata Hoon Main is one of his classic songs and it’s easy enough to see why. Interestingly, the song was originally composed for Rafi and Shankar said he made some adjustments to it in order to suit Kishore’s voice. Would have been interesting to hear what the Rafi version of this song would have been like!

Salamat Raho/Roshan Tumhi Se Duniya (cover)

September 13, 2020

Song: Salamat Raho/Roshan Tumhi Se Duniya

Singer: Mohd Rafi

Composer: Laxmikant-Pyarelal

Parasmani was the stellar debut of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Those who know LP from Trimurti, Khalnayak or Ram Lakhan would in fact be shocked to hear the Roshan-like sonorous and regal melodies of Parasmani (the film also has the duet Woh Jab Yaad Aaye).

I first heard Salamat Raho on a tape compilation of Rafi songs. Along side staples like Pukarta, Din Dhal Jaye or Tere Mere Sapne, it had offbeat beauties like Maine Rakha Hai Mohabbat, Dono Ne Kiya Tha Pyar, Rang Aur Noor and Is Bhari Duniya Mein. And this one. And Jo Unki Tamanna (also LP).

What makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja

September 11, 2020

I know, I know, super ambitious premise. So I am going to accept defeat right at the outset. I can’t possibly define what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja in a single article. Maybe not even if I wrote an entire book. Instead, I am simply going to discuss certain aspects of his work that are, let’s say, less talked about. I am using as the base, a comment I left on another blog and building on that.

What makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja? Is it because he was so influenced by Western classical music and knew it so well? Is it the speed with which he wrote/writes music? No, and I will explain why.

IT’S NOT ABOUT CLASSICAL

Getting influenced by Western classical wasn’t what made Raja so unique. Everybody was getting influenced by it from at least the 1950s. On the lines of Chittukuruvi-Mozart, Salil da also borrowed from Mozart for the melody of Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyar Bada. Naushad also listened to a lot of western classical. RD was into stuff like bossa nova iirc.

What made Raja’s work so distinct while still operating very much within the conventional film song format (where Rahman tried to change the format itself often times to get to where he wanted) is how AUTHENTIC were the Western parts that he was writing. And not just the writing but that he got the musicians to play in a Western manner for the first time.

It’s not easy to perceive that difference until you have yourself heard a lot of Western music and not just classical but the multitude of genres like rock, funk, soul, jazz etc.

UNDERSTANDING THE SOUL OF WESTERN MUSIC AND OPENNESS TO ‘WEIRD’ IDEAS

As I mentioned above, Raja understood for instance that drums in Western music can and often are played very fast without ever sounding LOUD. This is anathema to the way we use percussion. Because our percussion instruments (except molam which is inherently quite loud) are played by the fingers, the moment you ratchet up the tempo, the volume also goes up at least a little. There is less dynamic range, if you will. This gets transposed to the way our local musicians often play western percussion too. And further to an erroneous notion that using lots of instruments in Western means lots of cacophonous noise, that is that everyone should play together and raise the volume to deafening levels.

These are the things Raja changed. He gave the music so much space to breathe. People talk about how many different instruments he uses but nobody mentions the spaces where there is either silence or very few instruments/soft sections. He is masterfully orchestrating the building up and releasing of tension which is the very essence of Western music, at least from a modern classical/blues/rock perspective. And his listening, his preferences in Western clearly weren’t cliche and straight up but extended into the obscure and the arcane (which he somehow always found a way to make over into something accessible for a Tamil/Telugu audience).

Take the section from 5:54 running for a minute or so, it fascinates me more that he knew about such music in the first place because Hindi as well as Tamil seemed then to be stuck in disco or bad copies of rock, blissfully unaware of these beautiful syncopated beats and grooves:

Notice here too how gentle the drumming actually is even though it’s a busy pattern. That was a hallmark of a lot of 70s rock/funk/fusion etc. Raja did not judge it as hippie/drugged/countercultural/degenerate, he just heard something he liked and used it.

SUBVERSION

I may have written about subversion before. Or maybe that was one of my many Quora answers on Raja.

Raja is one of the very few music directors in film music who seems to feel that going from point A to B the straightforward way is boring almost to the point of being abhorrent.

He has expressed his boredom with this before. When asked at IFFI Goa about using a very rich Western classical section in the background score of Alaigal Oyvathile (a film set in a rural background), he said simply that maybe he must have felt bored of approaching the same kind of situation the same way and just wanted to do something different for the sake of it. Of course, he had to be careful at all times to balance this trying something different just because business with good taste so that it didn’t get distracting.

But a classic example of this subversion is the guitar part from 1:30 in this song. Notice how he indulges in a little bit of modal interchange before resolving it back to where he wants to pick it up with the charanam.

Consider also that Azhagaga Sirithathu Andha Nilavu is hardly one of his masterpiece songs and may not make my top 100 of Raja and maybe top 200 at best. That is, even when we move beyond his most cherished creations, the ‘classics’ if you will, there is still a lot of innovation going on in these songs.

As said earlier, the subversion is handled smoothly enough that it does not distract listeners, does not detract from their enjoyment of the music. But perceptive listeners can still understand that his music affects them differently from the regular film music.

Here is director Vasanth who professes to being a music lover and who very nicely touches upon this subversion as he describes the intro of Andhi Mazhai @ 53:50 without calling it that:

So…staying with the ‘thriller’ intro of Andhi Mazhai, ever noticed how nasty the intro riff of Ninnu Korri is?

It’s not until the violins come in that you know it’s going to be happy territory. He likes to keep you on edge, slightly unsettled, trying to guess how the song is going to go rather than relax and sit back and chill. He doesn’t do this ALL the time but he does it a lot and maybe in the majority of his songs.

It is this subversion that, contrary to a popular myth, sets him apart from his predecessors. The myth being that Raja was a continuation of the conventional melodic film music tradition (and Rahman broke away from it). No, that’s a very superficial reading of Raja’s music because, again, as Vasanth describes aptly and succinctly (unlike me), there are so many dimensions to his songs and it’s not about the melody. To the extent that often the melody is barely the point, even when it is very beautifully composed all the same. Raja’s music is not tranquil or comforting (though it CAN be those things from time to time), it is exciting and a large part of why it is exciting is he unsettles you, especially when you don’t expect to be unsettled. That is, you expect a Dum Maro Dum or a Lekar Hum to be unsettling because they almost arrive with a big “Hey, here I am and I am going to unsettle you” banner. Raja instead trips you up even in an otherwise sleepy Jayachandran-Janaki duet like Azhagaga Sirithathu.

GROOVE

Stevie Wonder memorably wrote (and sang) on the song Sir Duke, “Just because a record’s got a groove, don’t make it in the groove/But you can tell right away at letter A when the people start to move”.

Raja internalised the importance of groove like no other composer before him and maybe very few after.

Groove as such barely existed before R D Burman in Hindi and Tamil film music. You could, of course, point to exceptions like some fast songs of MSV or Shankar Jaikishan but those aren’t red hot, undeniable grooves that you absolutely have to move to (the way Wonder describes them). That would be, again, stuff like Dum Maro Dum or Aaja Aaja.

But even that, and I say this as a huge RD Burman fan, can hardly hold a candle to the grooves Raja was writing. The grooves he wrote, you would think he was jamming with Sly and the Family Stone or something.

Let’s take another bumper hit song from Agni Natchatram. Listen to the guitar at 2:13, that’s a heck of a groove.

Another one. This time, again, an unheralded song, hardly one of the masterworks. Listen to the intro of Athadi Allikodi:

When I heard songs like these AFTER listening to a lot of funk, I was like, “Man, THAT’S the kind of music he made me, us all, listen to.” This goes back to the earlier discussion on the amazing and rebellious 70s rock and soul music Raja appropriated into his style. Raja wasn’t just giving us just ‘a’ groove, he was writing THE grooves, the mother of all grooves that we wouldn’t have heard any other way in 80s India.

If you think the above is excessive hyperbole from a fanboy, surely, Vaanengum Thanga from Moonram Pirai will crush any resistance!

OR, if even that doesn’t do it, Paatu Inge will!

SUMMING UP

The greatness of Raja’s work does not lie so much in the mechanics. He could write straight fair copy at impossible speeds and do forty films a year and still have been making crap. He could know how to write counterpoint and still make very garish music, say something like the noisier, over-orchestrated numbers of Shankar Jaikishan (A Gale Lag Ja prelude is exhibit A).

The brilliance lies in how well he understood how these pieces fit. These pieces being pieces that had never been brought before together in many cases. He made juxtapositions sound like marriages because his sense of taste was so finely refined…without going all the way into high art snobbery and always being grounded in an endearing earthiness.

And the thing I said about his openness to arcane stuff, this is what I still don’t get from Yuvan or even Rahman and maybe very occasionally from Santosh Narayanan. The arrangements are fine and very professionally done, far be it for me as an amateur to sneer at them. Why, on Taare Ginn, Rahman showed that working within well defined conventional boundaries, he can orchestrate a song to the same standards as Raja.

It’s the choices that sound, for want of a better word, boring, at least to me. The most exciting thing they are able to appropriate is hip-hop and I like it when they go there. But all this daring, ‘dangerous’ rebellious music, it’s as if it never existed when I listen to their music.

Of course, it’s all subjective. But that, if you will, is what makes Ilayaraja Ilayaraja. No, he was not a classical stuffed shirt. He was not a hit machine vomiting garbage that just happened to work in the short term. He was and is a magician who took us on magic journeys of adventure into daring new frontiers while still retaining a grounding in good taste and discretion that kept the ship from sinking. He is the Pete Sampras or Lewis Hamilton of composers, living life in the fast lane, nay, THE fastest lane, but never missing a beat. Never.

Cover of Savatage – All That I Bleed (take 2)

September 6, 2020

Song: All That I Bleed

Artist: Savatage

Last time, I posted a take 2 of the classic R D Burman song Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi.

Now, it’s a take 2 of a classic metal ballad called All That I Bleed by Savatage.

Take 2

Posting below Take 1 as well as the original track itself:

Take 1
Original Savatage track

Edge of Thorns was the last Savatage album featuring legendary guitarist Criss Olivia who died way too young. As such, the band has melodic sensibilities that can surprise you, coming from a metal band. But it’s still a metal band, end of the day.

On comparing my first stab at recording it more than a year back to the one I recently recorded, I find there is little, if any, improvement in the melodic singing in the first two verses (before the big metal riffs kick in and the song goes off in a different orbit). Maybe I even like the vibrato from back then more and need to emulate that more. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to see that the variation I did this time on the second “until the heart betrays” was the same as back then even though I hadn’t heard it before this recording.

Where the coaching and self-tutoring over the past one year has helped is in the point where the song takes off. In the first take, you can tell my voice is choking up, protesting that it shouldn’t be forced to climb up that high on the second (and higher) “Lord bring on the night”. Even the “Oh” scat between two “And I’ll fly away”s is weak. This time, not only did I not have a problem getting the voice up there but I could produce a lot of power (or so I think!) and the tone sounds a lot darker up there now than back then (which indicates better support).

I still need to get the distortion up to where it is in the original but that’s going to be a longer process.

Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi – cover (take 2)

August 30, 2020

Song:  Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi

Composer:  R D Burman

Singer:  Kishore Kumar/Lata Mangeshkar

 

It was in April last year that I started uploading recordings of myself singing on Youtube/Facebook.  Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi was the fourth such recording and the first of a Hindi song (I had done Imagine/Karma Police/All That I Bleed previously).

We are now in August-end a year on and I decided to try it again (result above) since  a lot has changed since April 2019 (understatement of the century!).

Back when I started recording, I had a karaoke mic with a built in speaker.  It looks like this:

 

It’s alright to get started with but has limited functionality and the echo effect (reverb, basically) can drown out the words.  If you want to know how, compare the above with  the below take of Tere Bina:

 

The high antara is fine but much of the mukda gets drowned out.  The reasons aren’t ENTIRELY to do with the mic and I will come to that but it did force me into sub-optimal adjustments to my singing.

I recently acquired a dynamic mic of the brand BOYA.  My father, who also sings, was gifted a karaoke mixer.  We bought a pair of old-school Logitech speakers with a wired power source (unlike the new ones which come with USB). All you have do is plug the speaker’s sound cable into the line-out of the mixer and connect the mic into the TRS socket.  The mixer came with a dynamic mic as part of the package and it’s also decent enough.  The mixer lets me set a good balance between vocal output and that of the backing track.  Using a good mic lets me concentrate on singing the best I can without worrying about how it’s going to sound coming out of the mic.

HOWEVER, for that, you need to first get to the point where you don’t HIDE your inadequacies behind a mic. I used to use echo effect a lot while singing Hindi songs to mask the lack of power lower down in my range.  You can tell that not only are the words not so clear, but I am not defining the words and phrases as to what they mean.

Enter the part about technical improvements.  Linda Eder, a Broadway legend (yeah, if the name rings a bell, THAT Linda indeed!),  happened to be marooned at home owing to the covid lockdowns, just like the rest of us.  Thankfully, she wasn’t twiddling her thumbs which she would have been fully entitled to and instead started to give one to one lessons on Skype (and has also been uploading the most magnificent covers of popular songs).  The price was steep but for some reason, I felt sure that whatever I could glean from a singer of her one-in-a-million caliber would be more than worth the price.  This is Linda Eder, by the way, and while this performance is from the late 90s, she can still sing this song to the same level today:

 

I do not think I am qualified to translate the technical aspects of what she said.

But I will reproduce a very important psychological aspect she touched on.  She said that when you sing, you want to be like, “Here I am, excited to sing for you” (I am paraphrasing, not her exact words) and say that in a way that commands the attention of the audience and not be apologetic and slump your shoulders.  Likewise, that you have to be equally engaged whether you sing a sad or happy song.  The emotion comes from the phrasing and other adjustments but the way you attack your vocals doesn’t change a whole lot, fundamentally.

Did I succeed, even partly, in bringing forth those principles in my latest attempt at Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi?  You be the judge!

Just some jazz about…jazz!

August 23, 2020

About, um, eleven-twelve years ago ? (gosh, that makes me feel so old!), in some discussion on a music group on Orkut (see what I meant about old), I said something about liking XYZ jazz album/artist.   And a guy who I wasn’t on the best of terms with then and who I get along with like a house on fire now (the nice part about getting old, maybe?) immediately said now that I had got the taste for jazz, I wouldn’t be able to stop listening to it.

It took a long time for me to see the truth behind that prophecy but it sure did come true and how.  That conversation came to mind as I was telling somebody else just now that I couldn’t possibly attend Western classical concerts day in day out whereas I would love to be able to do that with jazz (I don’t, though, and I will get to that later).  I also recall saying, while discussing Rahman’s Taare Ginn, that jazz is the one style of music that never goes out of style.

So…what is it about jazz?  Just why doesn’t it go out of style?  Yes, we are a long way off the pomp and prime of jazz but it’s still malleable in a way that other ‘serious’ music isn’t quite.  And that’s really what I am talking about.  I am not comparing it with popular music genres which go in cycles.  Rock had a long run and then it was hip hop and so on.  But jazz, while not as accessible as popular music (at least not a lot of the time), still has some of the hip-ness of popular music while also being technically challenging in a way that commands the respect you usually accord to classical music.

I could humour you with an answer to that question but I am not a musicologist and have not studied music otherwise in an university.  Alex Johnston on Quora is probably your best bet for a meticulous and objective attempt to answer that.  Instead, I will talk about my journey to where I got to today with jazz.

I never had that eureka moment with jazz that you can have when you discover certain rock or pop artists who ushered in a new sound.  I had that, for instance, the first time I heard Metallica’s Ride The Lightning.  I had never heard music that heavy, that crushing, that angry and even if I didn’t completely know what to make of it, I liked the very fact that this was so different from what I had previously understood to be the boundaries of music.  I had a similar experience in my (eventually successful) endeavours to get into Gentle Giant.  I didn’t know something so complex as their track Experience could be composed, indeed that it had been done way back in the 70s.

I never had that with jazz because one grows up being exposed to some sort of jazz or at least something that passes itself off as jazz.  Now that something could be Eena Meena DeekaKaisi Paheli Zindagani or Rum Pum Pum.  As a result, I didn’t necessarily find Kurangu Kaiyil Maalai revelatory even though it was a more serious stab at jazz.

After the conversation I mentioned at the start, I began to listen to some of the classics of jazz – the usual suspects like Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, you know the drill.  Note here that I was coming from a progressive rock background and was already aware of jazz rock/fusion classics like Birds of Fire, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Holdsworth’s Metal Fatigue and the early Pat Metheny albums. Because of this, even while I enjoyed my time listening to the above and other jazz classics, it was the melody and structure of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out that appealed more to me.

I also came to realize that if some rock bands fared better live, live was almost always THE best setting to see/hear jazz.  The period I speak of is the period when copious archives of amazing jazz footage got built up on Youtube.  So I could catch up with the many concerts of great jazz artists that I didn’t get to attend.

These are some of my favourite live clips:

The incredible Barbara Dennerlein, who plays keyboard with her two hands AND bass pedal with her feet simultaneously.

 

Dennerlein again but the highlight here is really Mitch Watkins who burns on guitar:

Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny coming up with a modernised, ‘fusion’ interpretation of an old Hancock composition:

 

And this is ‘brand new’, I mean I discovered this clip today.  The late, great Emily Remler:

 

I THINK I may now venture to offer a theory about what makes jazz, jazz.  It’s that it’s the most light-footed and nimble of the ‘serious’ genres.  In fact, it often doesn’t sound very serious to listen to and instead is a lot of fun.  Yes, you can basically go to a jazz show to have a good time, just the same as you would with blues or pub rock.

This is also reflected in jazz vocals (or even musical theater or cabaret which sort of blend into a jazz repertoire).  The idea is to have a good time.  Swing is more important than intensity.  If you’re paying attention, you can enjoy the specifics of unbelievable improvisations.  But even if you aren’t, you can nod along to the beat.

This concert given by Linda Eder and Michael Feinstein is a good exhibit.  The collaborative singing in duets is brilliant but it’s not brilliant in a way that calls attention to itself.  This side of the musical hemisphere wears its greatness lightly.

 

So…how many jazz shows have I attended in person?

Just one.  Yeah.

I attended this show that had a double bill featuring guitarist Russell Malone’s band followed by saxophonist Igor Butman’s band.  It was brilliant, especially Butman’s set.

But I wasn’t excited by the lineup next year and thereafter lost track.  Then I got married and while my wife likes a good tune in any language, she is not quite so obsessive a Western music aficionado as I am and would get bored in an instrumental gig.

And earlier this year, the pandemic struck.

I don’t know when, if ever, gigs will come back.  Gigs by foreign jazz artists in Mumbai looks a really, really long way off now (and we are nearing September, mind, six months since covid).

But when they do, I am going to attend.  No more being selective, being lazy.  One thing this house arrest has clarified is what are the things I love and cherish most and I realize jazz is one of them.   If I get a chance to, I swear to God I will make amends.

Long Story “Democracy” available on Amazon Kindle

August 19, 2020

I have written a long story (coming to over 30 pages) entitled “Democracy” for the Kindle UK contest.  The e-book is available for purchase here:

 

Also available in paperback form on .com/.co.uk:

 

You can read a small excerpt here:

After some small talk, he got to the crux. “Ever wondered what Sitara proposes to do with those lions?”

“I thought it was just to protect herself from male tigers in Kanha when she gets old.”

Akbar shook his head. “Nope. Her purpose is two fold.  One, with those two idiots on her side, she comfortably overpowers me.  So I have to stay away.  The other purpose is to sway the multicultural idiots by showing she is open to lions.”

“Why do you say multicultural idiots?” Naveen asked.

“Well, do you think it’s a good idea to just let lions run roughshod all over our territory?”

“But it’s just two lions.”

“Could be ten tomorrow, then twenty and before you know it, it isn’t Tiger Country.”

“Isn’t that alarmist?”

“That’s what tigers told my great-grandfather too.  He too opposed the entry of lions.”

“And?”

“Well, they didn’t listen to him and lion numbers quickly began to mount.”

He drew closer to Naveen and lowered his voice. “Do you know that even the forests east of Kanha were once tiger territory?”

“What!”

“Yes! And if you ever wondered why these dense forests were considered lion kingdom and outside Tiger Country, you have your answer.”

“You mean…”

Akbar nodded. “Fierce battle broke out.  It could have destroyed both sides.  Finally, a truce had to be worked out wherein the lines were given this forest adjoining the boundaries of today’s Tiger Country.”

He continued, “But that land was ours.  And God willing, one day it will be again.”

“Why has nobody told me this story?”

“Because they don’t want to.  They don’t want you to hear stories that would make you feel angry and ashamed.”

“But…but that’s so dishonest.”

“It is.”

Naveen wheeled around and confronted Akbar.  “What about you?  Why did you never tell me?”

Akbar was apologetic. “I did err in not putting these facts on the table, I admit.  But it was not out of any malignant intent.  I did not want to disturb the harmony of Tiger Country.  This beautiful, peaceful forest where animals of all sorts thrive.  Why should I rake up a terrible past and spoil the mood, is what I used to think.  But today…with lions in the jungle again, it couldn’t be more different.”

“What can we do to stop this?”  Naveen’s voice was growing urgent.

Akbar looked him in the eye and said gravely.  “We must unify.  We the tigers.  We who have always protected our land must rise to the occasion again.”   ”

 

Happy reading!  Do drop in with comments.  Bouquets and brickbats and everything else in between are welcome.  And if you liked it, pl do share with others.  Will be most grateful.  Thanks!

90s Nostalgia – what life used to be like

August 17, 2020

For the longest time, I have shunned nostalgia. Which is not the same as avoiding old pop culture (or non pop) products.  One of the first books I remember reading and enjoying was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and one of the first Hindi songs I remember loving was Pukarta Chala Hoon Main (Tamil was different as I was lapping up then contemporary works of Raja and Rahman). I have absolutely no problem with ‘old’ art because art isn’t old or new, it’s just an act of expression at a point of time.

But, getting back to nostalgia, the last few years have made me reminisce what life used to be like.  I don’t want to say life was better then (albeit it was, in a way, which I will get to), but the thought occurred to me that it’s time for those of us who grew up in the 90s to start writing about it.  To stop being in denial and accept we are adults 😉 and old enough to ‘reminisce’. 😦

This isn’t just going to be about all the things we did in the 90s that we don’t have to do/don’t get to do anymore.

I am going to talk instead about my journey as an observer, an onlooker of rapid change.  The transformation apace in India made it a very exciting time to live through.  It’s possible that in some sense, the transformation in smaller cities in recent years has been equally exciting but the time I speak of was before our metros got clogged and overburdened beyond control (not that they weren’t already overburdened at that time).

I am just about old enough to remember when we didn’t have a computer.  My late grandfather got a 286 ( 286 Mhz! Yes!) around 1992-93.  There was not much I could do with this so-not-user-friendly computer but I did get to play Pacman.

Music was exclusively consumed on cassette or radio. There was a Videocon TV with only 12 channels and a Videocon washing machine that didn’t have a timer. We had both till 1999, go figure.  The fridge was Godrej.  When foreign brands didn’t offer cheap options, you bought Indian by default. Did Indian brands somewhere get the branding wrong, or did they fail to stay abreast of improvements in technology in consumer durables?  Oh, my air conditioner is still a Voltas.

Oh, what did we watch on TV?  I don’t remember the exact timelines but until 93 or so, we had just DD National, DD Metro (now dead) and a pirate channel run by the local cable operator which would broadcast movies in terrible print, with ads that covered up all but the core of the TV screen.  Then, Zee came in with Hindi programming. And Star TV.

The programming of Star TV was very different from today.  The sitcoms of the day were Bold And The Beautiful, Santa Barbara, Picket Fences, LA Law.  AND British classics like Yes Minister, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes.

Today, it would make no sense whatsoever to excitedly watch reruns of old American and British series.  But when you don’t have wiki to tell you just how old they are and you have never had the chance to watch such programming all these years on your TV, you don’t complain over such trifles.

Speaking of, anybody remember deferred live?  I do. One particularly memorable instance of it was when Star TV was showing Agassi v/s Chang at the Australian Open LIVE with really good picture quality.   But Agassi was off colour and it turned into a boring display of attritional baseline tennis (who knew then that that would describe 90% of ATP tennis today!).  We switched to DD where a deferred live telecast of Becker v/s Woodforde was underway.  We barely saw anything of the ball as the two got to net more often (or so it seemed) in GAMES than Agassi and Chang in entire SETS, but we loved it.

As we moved into the late 90s, the first truly radical changes to our way of life happened. We got our first Windows PC with a Pentium 1000 processor.  Soon, we also got a VSNL internet connection.  It was so slow that internet over a 2G datapack would fare better than it, seriously.  But again, when you have NEVER had internet at all, you appreciate whatever internet you get. We got our first audio CD, a Kishore Kumar-RD Burman compilation.  I am not sure we fully appreciated it because you could only play it on PC speakers then (there were no CD stereo systems yet, at least none that we could afford) which didn’t offer the most amazing sound quality.

This was also the period when at least moderately swanky cars and cars in all sorts of varieties began to appear on the roads in middle class areas and in distant suburbs.  En route to Thane from Kalyan (where I lived then) via the Bhiwandi Bypass, you could see cars like Daewoo’s Cielo.  What Daewoo?  What Cielo? Google it man! 😉  Of course…YOU didn’t have a car and YOU were in a hired Ambassador.  During that period, the changes underway were sometimes, if not often, out of your reach.  But even to see Cielos, Ford Escorts, Opel Astras and Honda Citys on the road was exciting when you could count the models on the fingers of two hands before – 800, Zen, Esteem, Ambassador, Padmini, 118 NE and Contessa (very occasionally).  The most successful personal vehicle segment today – the SUV – didn’t even exist then – you had straight up Jeeps like the Mahindra Jeep, the Commander or Maruti Gypsy. The Sumo would join their ranks soon as well.

The life that we led then in the suburbs would be regarded as impossibly dreary today (though we didn’t know it then, because us kids played and played, mothers were busy with running the household as they still are and fathers came home from work to unwind to TV programmes and/or music. )  Anything exotic meant a trip to the city (meaning downtown Mumbai coming up to Dadar/Matunga).  And that could mean something like looking for an audio cassette of K L Saigal hits.  Listen to this: my uncle living in Chicago is a huge fan of Saigal and asked if we could get a cassette of his hits.  We looked for it in a couple of music stores in Dadar with no luck.  We finally found it only in Rhythm House.  We asked if we could get to play the tape (because so often you would get a cassette home and play only to hear that dreaded off key sound that told you the tape was spoiled) but they said their policy wouldn’t permit it and asked us to rely on them as it was, after all, Rhythm House.  I am happy to report they didn’t let us down.  Not that it matters because Rhythm House is dead! Oh well.

My first taste of liquor-tinged chocolate was also in South Mumbai.  At the Central Plaza theater in Girgaum. We went over there to watch Lost World and paid what was then a princely sum of Rs.80 for lower stall tickets.  When I say lower stall, it was the first or second row!  But the theater had the aforesaid chocolates among its food offerings to taste during the intermission.  And it brought on yet another attack of bronchitis for poor me, but I didn’t regret it.

More changes had been afoot during this time.  Star TV made way for focused channels to cater to Hindi and English audience.  Star Plus which had sitcoms whose sole concern wasn’t saas-bahu intrigue.  Saboot was the favourite at our home of all these offerings.  It was a whodunit with a twist in the conceit – you saw the murderer commit the crime and THEN this diminutive female police officer who was as persistent as a bloodhound would investigate the crime and keep asking questions, first to others, then to the one you already knew was the murderer.  And the questions kept getting more and more uncomfortable as she drew closer to the truth.  The show worked brilliantly even though you knew who had committed the crime and you knew she would get to the murderer in the end.  Would that our mainstream TV programming had even this level of creativity to offer today!

But the more exciting development – both for me and my grandfather in particular – was Star Movies.  Now you could watch movies any time of the day on a channel that showed nothing but movies. Imagine that!  😀  Oh, when such seemingly small pleasures meant the world to us. But let me tell you that the catalog of Star Movies alone then was far better than all the English movie channels put together today.  You know why?  Because they were less risk averse.  So you could watch oddball films that hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.  And even if you didn’t enjoy all of them, you got exposed to different genres, different styles of filmmaking. It’s where I watched movies like Dead Zone, Phenomenon or The Edge.  If you haven’t watched them, google them and check out their subjects.  And keep them in mind next time somebody mouths a truism that isn’t really true like “oh, all plots, all conceits have been exhausted”.

In 2001, we moved to Vashi which immediately upgraded our lifestyle significantly just by being there.  In Kalyan, we didn’t dare eat out and if you saw what those places looked like, you would agree too. We could now go out frequently. The company too offered a car to my father as the driving distance from Vashi to his Lower Parel office would be within their fuel allowance limits.  I discovered the existence of expensive coffee chains like Cafe Coffee Day and Barista (also dead). I did not enjoy the taste of cappuccino then and do not now but the notion that you could be with a friend and take your own sweet time to sip coffee in comfortable, air conditioned environs was itself so new then. Likewise, bookstores like Oxford (again…I don’t need to mention its fate) in Churchgate allowed you to just get a book off the shelf and read for a while before you decide to purchase it.  And you could return without purchasing anything at all.  That was a level of trust retailers had never shown before and that felt…revolutionary.

By 2003, Navi Mumbai had its first mall, Centre One.  Its original avatar has since downed shutters and reopened to tenuous existence…whether this existence will re-exist post covid-19 is anybody’s guess. I got to borrow my mother’s mobile phone when I went to a coaching class in Ghatkopar every evening. By 2003, we had also enjoyed our first ride on the Mumbai-Pune expressway.

We didn’t notice, I think, when the end of our (my generation’s) innocence happened.  When you’re on a treadmill of rising aspirations, you don’t stop to take a look and notice something odd.  But in retrospect, that moment was the Gateway blasts in 2003.

There were two repercussions of the blast.  Gateway became a high security zone and could no longer be a venue for live events.  As a Mumbaiite, it is hard not to remember the blasts every time I watch this video (and, as a music lover, I watch it often):

But the more significant consequence of the incident was it exposed what news reporting in India had become.  Every news channel reported wildly different death tolls and none, I repeat none, got it right. This was the moment that exposed clearly that information had become a mere commodity for those who professed to bring you the news, that getting there first mattered more, far more, to them than getting to the truth.  When you could not completely rely on what news channels reported, it was hard not to become cynical. It is why I am somewhat unsympathetic when I hear liberals of a certain stripe moan about fake news in the age of Trump (and Modi).  Darling, that train left the station long ago and you didn’t notice.  Maybe because you had a good life then and a world order that was agreeable to your worldview?

This combination of rising cynicism AND rising aspirations (along with improving abilities of the market to provide the consumer what he seeks) has marked developments since then.  I took my first flight in 2006 and it was a memorable experience for me, particularly because T1 as we know it had come into being. But it was also in 2006 that I returned home from work to face angry parents who were upset I hadn’t received any of their multiple calls (the phone was in my pocket and I couldn’t hear it ring in the noisy bus).  The reason?  There had been a blast in a local train in rush hour, right around the time I had been returning home.

In 2007, I attended a rock show for the first time and had made it two by the end of the year (Iron Maiden, first, then Scorpions). But the 26/11 blasts in 2008 drove big bands away for quite some time from Mumbai.  And by the time Mumbai became less unsafe again, big band rock was either not in great health anymore or was overbooked in America and Europe with no need for an India outreach. And you know what Barkha Dutt did whilst reporting on 26/11.

At some point, the dam has burst and the cynicism has been replaced by anger, by fury.  I do not think the fury is all bad.  Even if you think – as I do – that the conspiracy theories floating around Sushant Singh Rajput’s death are wild, unless you are on the take, you probably agree that the debate around nepotism and the industry’s unprofessional practices is a much needed one.  It is good that we care.  But is it so good when a Union Minister incites a mob to fire bullets at protesters in crass, expletive-laden Hindi?  Again, if you stepped back a little from whataboutisms, you would agree with me that what a minister cannot do, at least in principle, is to tell people to take law into their own hands.  Just the same as you cannot say the mob wouldn’t have rioted and destroyed property in the city they live in had somebody who purportedly made an offensive Facebook post been arrested ‘in time’.

And that is partly the purpose of recounting what I have.  As I said, mine isn’t the nostalgia of ‘going back to those days’. No, my purpose with this recollection is to show that there was a time not so long ago when we were, if not happy, at least a lot less angry as a people with  a lot less.  Materially, our lot has not got worse since then; it has improved.  I remember when there was no JJ Flyover, no Eastern Freeway, no T2, no metro, no air conditioned Volvo buses being operated by city transport undertakings.  No 4G Data, no streaming, no ecommerce.  No malls at all, forget about malls as big, as awesome as Seawood Central. The Windows PC I mentioned?  It cost the same, in 90s rupees at that, as a decent notebook (I mean the little brother of the laptop, to be clear).  Think about that.  Think about everything that we take for granted that didn’t even exist not so long ago.

And…that’s all.  Not going to issue any judgments, any ‘pearls of wisdom’ (!).  You’re probably an adult, just like me. You need no advice.  But if I have at least made you pause and introspect, I will consider my job done.

 

 


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