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L Shankar shouts the blues

(This is the second part of the BBC documentary Bombay and Jazz. I wrote about the first part last fortnight here.)

Quite improbably, the maestro mispronounces his own name. “Hi,” he calls in an accent that emerges from the interstice between Mylapore and Miami. “I’m Shank-er.”

Jazz, that expression of iconoclastic individualism, is a lifelong quest for your own voice. Jazzmen are obsessed with finding a distinctive way to parse a phrase, with creating a characteristic way to sail just over the beat or under it, with blowing out notes in a tone that’s so unique the music proclaims: Behold, it is I.

Improvisational musician L. Shankar found the song of his soul early. The son of violinist V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, Shankar was a child prodigy. He started vocal lessons at two, began violin at five and gave his first concert at seven. In 1975, aged 25, he co-founded Shakti with British guitar player John McLaughlin and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Even if its three albums didn’t quite set the global charts afire, Shakti was a raging critical success. Shankar’s compositions were hailed for their maturity, for their assurance, for how effortlessly they projected his very own voice.

Unfortunately, he’s been stuttering in the Babel tower ever since.

After Shakti was disbanded, Shankar attempted to learn a new vocabulary. He wanted to be a pop star. It’s a blustery morning in 2002. Outside his Bandra hotel window, the Arabian Sea roars with grey monsoon fury. Shankar has finally emerged from his slumbers, well deserved after an energetic performance the previous evening. Even this early, he’s wearing a black turtleneck exactly like the one he wears in his publicity photos. His hair is fashionably tousled. And in a confused creole that echoes his melodic muddleheadedness, Shank-er—who has lived in the US since 1969—hold forth on his most profound musical influence: Mahatma Gandhi.

“He like is one of the guy who sacrificed so much, he had so much struggle, but he is one of the strongest person I have ever met. He has had so much difficulty with the British army and everybody else but they couldn’t shut him up really and he really sacrificed himself. He didn’t want a post and he did it for the struggle and whatever he believed in the cause. He could have been the prime minister. He doesn’t like any of the stuff. He really believes in India. But many of the time people misinterpret it and politics is politics and that’s different stuff but he really believed in it to free people. He buy one man did what no one could do previously. He fred India. Just like that, I want total freedom in my music,’’ Shankar proclaims.

sangIn this latest avatar, Shankar (he’s long dropped the L) is attempting to capitalise on the current vogue for alluring female violinists who also tug at the heart strings. It’s a craze that was sparked by the sultry Vanessa Mae and given impetus by the Dixie Chicks. Shankar has attempted to clamber onto the bandwagon by enlisting the services of Gingger, with a double G – the Los Angeles-born daughter of his brother, L Subramaniam. The duo recently did a five-city tour through India, accompanied by percussionists Shafaat Ahmed and Sivamani.  To hear Shankar tell it, he and Gingger are all the toast of the West. They’re No 1 on the Billboard charts, he says. What he fails to emphasise is that he’s talking about the digital video disc chart, scarcely an accurately indication of musical popularity.

Shankar is given to frequent name-dropping. The ghosts of Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bono Van Morrison hover in the hotel room. Again, there’s some economy with the truth. Shankar has merely featured these rock legends as guest artists on his albums or has been a minor sideman on their’s; the extent of these collaborations, for the most, has been minor.

Still, it would be boorish to dismiss Shankar out of hand.  For one, he’s worked hard to try to establish his double-violin as more than just a curiosity. He devised the space-age instrument, a wondrously gleaming thing with two necks, in 1978, soon after producing an album for Zappa Records. He needed to overdub a whole range of string-instruments, from double-bass to violin. Because he couldn’t find sessions musicians who could render the Indian ornaments and styles he wanted, Shankar ended up having to play all the instruments himself. This implied having to haul them around, too. There was also the problem of sound engineering at outdoor concerts. In an attempt to mask the whistle of the wind, audio technicians would cut out higher frequencies – and alter some of the most achingly beautiful notes Shankar coaxed out of his violin.

shankar2Shankar took four years to solve the puzzle Then he pasted together a cardboard model of the contraption, which he coaxed instrument maker Ken Parker to turn into metal-and-steel reality. Shankar cancelled all his engagements for two months. He and Parker worked ten hours a day in his New York studio, experimenting with different materials and shapes before he was satisfied. In addition to giving Shankar a range of 5 ½ octaves, the double violin has an array of harmonic devices that allow him to sound like a full orchestra. His task didn’t end there. Shankar had to develop new techniques for playing his new instrument. It’s heavier than a conventional violin, so playing it is physically tiring. Because of the greater angle, the bowing is different. “It’s like playing two violins at the same time,’’ says Shankar.  But he adds: “It’s musically more satisfying.”

But he’s more than the designer of a new instrument. Shankar is a living critique of the notion of purity that rightwing political parties are attempting to burden us with. Shankar refuses to subscribe to the idea that Indian music is the most advanced in the world, or that it should be guardedly pristine. His music has doesn’t yearn for some imagined Golden Age. Instead, his musical cosmopolitanism struggles to demonstrate that one can’t rewind to the future. “Obsessing about purity springs from fear of freedom,’’ Shanker pronounces. “It results in being arrestment of your ideas.” He’s got the tone right. So what if the syntax isn’t?

Here are links to the rest of Bombay and Jazz: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.

Don Cherry and his Bombay gumbo

On New Year’s Day in 1992, a few hundred Bombay fans gathered in the very new Priyadarshani Park on Nepean Sea Road to listen to an eclectic bunch of musicians play a concert that was being recorded for of a BBC documentary. It would later be titled Bombay and Jazz.

The film was directed by the bearded HO Nazareth, a boy from Dadar who had gone on to make his mark in England. In his youth, he’d published a book titled Lobo, with poems like ‘Bombay Gymkhana Grounds’ (“the women wear chandeliers for earrings”) and ‘Warden Road’ (“At Bhulabhai Institute/acquaintances discussed/canvasses, busts/ and brothels in which/they exercised their lust.”)

011I was just starting my career at The Times of India and, the day before the event, was assigned to interview the director, whose friends variously referred to him as either “Naz” or “HoHo” because of his initials. I arrived in the lobby of the SeaRock Hotel in Bandra, where the crew was staying, and waited for him in the reception area. No one there was dressed the way I imagined a film director would be. I called up to his room, but there was no reply.  I would later learn Hubert Nazareth was actually the scruffy chap in the kurta and chappals I’d seen leaning against the wall.  But that discovery would only come the next day. Filled with panic that I wouldn’t have a story to take back, I asked the operator to call the room of any musician who was still in. The first one I found was the beret-wearing maverick, Don Cherry.

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Sax adventures in South India

Despite the perception that it is a staid, uncompromising form, Carnatic classical music has been remarkably adventurous about incorporating new instruments into its fold. The violin seems to have made its appearance in Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century and, by 1824, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, south of Madurai, had appointed Baluswamy Dikshitar (younger brother of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar) as his court violinist.

sax-sisSince then, writes the musicologist Amanda Weidman, the violin not only become “a vehicle for conveying Carnatic music to modernity”, it’s also come to be seen as essential to preserving Carnatic music’s authenticity”.

Over the years, other Western instruments have made their way into Carnatic music, notably the mandolin, the guitar and the clarinet.

Though the sari-clad Saxophone Sisters — MS Lavanya and MS Subbalaxmi — have been attraction attention recently, the saxophone isn’t really capable of expressing the nuances of Carnatic classical music. The problem, as singer TM Krishna explains in his recent book, A Southern Music, is that the reed instrument isn’t able to render gamakas, or ornamentations, that characterise the form. “This has led to saxophone-using musicians rendering only ragas with relatively less gamaka, thus limiting their own exploration of the music,” he writes.

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Teddy Weatherford’s Cabin in the Sky


This recording by Teddy Weatherford and his band features three trumpet players. One of them is George Banks, father of the pianist Louis Banks. The other two hornmen, both Anglo-Indians, studied at St Mary’s School in Byculla: Bill McDermott (pictured above) and Pat Blake (who would later sit in with the Duke Ellington band when it toured India in 1962).

Thanks to Maxine Steller for this photo. This track is from the Marco Pacci collection. Kitty Walker is the vocalist.

Cabin in the Sky was the title song of a movie of the same name directed by Vincent Minelli. The plot was a variation on the story of Faust. It was a landmark film because it featured a cast that was entirely African-American. Perhaps the most popular tune from the film is the gently swinging Taking a Chance on Love.

Cabin in the Sky by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

The Sari-Clad Jazz Diva


lambert-hendricks-ross-492-lIn 1962, Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross were the most famous jazz vocal group in the world. They’d made their reputation launching bop classics at the audience with the speed of a rocket. Their trademark style was called vocalese: they sang the intricate solos that instrumentalists usually played on these songs, in quicksilver three-part harmony. For four years from 1959, they were voted the best jazz vocal group by Downbeat’s readers.  When Annie Ross left the group in 1962 because of health and personal problems, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert had to quickly find a replacement so that they could honour their concert commitments. Somewhat improbably, Ross’s substitute was a sari-clad woman: Yolande Bavan, a Sri Lankan Burgher as the descendents of the island’s former Dutch colonisers are known.

album2A few months later, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin St. East hit the stores. In the liner notes, producer George Avakian recounted how Bavan had come to the attention of her new band mates. “[Dave and Jon] met Yolande while she was in London and found that she was a fan of the group’s and had learned several of their intricate arrangements just for fun,” he wrote. “When a serious illness incapacitated Annie Ross a week or two later toward the end of their European tour, Dave and Jon returned to the States without her. After starting their U.S. engagement, they decided they had to take a chance on Yolande. She arrived just in time for a concert at Union College in Schenectady, New York.”

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‘She Sold a Million Records’

Mexican magic by KEN MAC by tajmahalfoxtrot1

temp2A few weeks ago, Christine Holmes left a note on my site that added more details to this article:

“Beryl Templeman was my mother-in-law. She died at age 62. Usually at private parties she sang for Aly Khan, Maharajah of of Cooch Behar and Nizam Hyderbad while in the East. The actor Jack Hawkins urged her to join ENSA. By then, she had already made over 100 records for HMV and had her own radio show with All India Radio.

“She was awarded the Burma Star by the Duke of Edinburgh. She also worked for the American Forces Radio Network in Germany.

“Returning from India she performed at the London Palladium with Ted Heath, toured with Roy Fox and appeared regularly with Jack Jackson at the famous Churchill’s Club in London and at that time was sharing a flat with her friend, Pearl Carr.
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Hindi Films, Angrezi Lyrics

The night before he was shabbily removed as editor of the Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan sent me a link to to this tune by Zohra Bai from the 1944 film, Jeevan. It’s called My Dear, I Love You. As Siddharth noted, it’s “slightly weird but quite charming”. It got me thinking about Hindi film songs that had lyrics in English. Here’s an arbitrary selection.

Perhaps the first Hindi film song in English was this rendition of the Longfellow poem A Psalm of Life by Shanta Apte. It’s from the 1937 film Duniya Na Mane.

In 1975, Preeti Sagar sang My Heart Is Beating in Julie. The music was composed by Rajesh Roshan and the lyrics were by Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

This song by Mohammad Rafi never actually made it into a film — it was only released on record. It’s a version of Hum Kale Hai Tu Kya Huwa Dilwa Hai, from the 1965 thriller Gumnaam. The music is by Shankar-Jaikishan and the lyrics are by Harindranath Chattopadhyay.

Songs of Fate

This piece appears in Mint-Lounge today.

 

Last October, as Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva addressed his recession-battered compatriots on their country’s republic day, he was interrupted by a beautiful song. It floated across the 18th-century courtyard in which the event was being held, sending the President’s bodyguards into a state of confusion. They decided to shuffle Cavaco Silva off to safety. It was the start of Ana Maria Pinto’s career as Portugal’s most melodious public protestor.

With the TV cameras and press photographers swarming around her, the 32-year-old opera singer, wearing a black top and a red backpack, defiantly belted out an aria. In a nation lacerated by cuts to social-security schemes, Pinto’s ballad struck a chord. It seemed to articulate the belief of millions of Portuguese citizens that the austerity programme designed to revive their economy was actually making life more difficult, especially for the aged and the poor.

Belém AcordaiSince the much-hated troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—forced Portugal’s government to tighten its belt in May 2011, prices and taxes have soared. So has the unemployment rate, which stands at almost 17%. Wages, though, have fallen, so low in some sectors that call-centre jobs from India are being relocated to Portugal. “We feel betrayed,” Pinto said. “The government made false promises. There are no conditions in Portugal now to support a life. If you lose a job, you have to migrate. Everything is being privatized and these enterprises don’t follow moral principles—their point is only to make money for themselves.”

It isn’t common for classical musicians to insert themselves into the heart of political movements, but Pinto came to her new role after a great deal of reading and reflection. When the Portuguese economic crisis erupted in 2010, two years after the implosion of leading US financial institutions, Pinto was making a comfortable living in Berlin, a city with a vibrant opera scene. After months of tracking the troubles from afar, the soprano decided to return home. “I felt I needed to do something,” she explained. “I also wanted to be connected to my people: that’s what feeds your soul.”

At a rally in September last year, Pinto was deeply moved to realize that the thousands of strangers around her shared her anxieties about the mess in which Portugal was embroiled. She was also stirred by a placard held aloft by a friend. “Acordai,” it said—Wake Up. It was a call to action with a resonant history: Acordai is the title of a ballad composed by Fernando Lopes-Graça, a spirited opponent of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal for 42 years, until 1974. “I immediately thought I’d like to sing it at a demonstration,” Pinto said. Shortly after, she created a Facebook event, explaining what art and revolution meant to her, and asking her countrymen to join her in a square in Lisbon to sing the anthem. Five hundred people showed up. The Acordai movement was underway.

Read the complete  piece here.

 

 

JJ Rodriguez, RIP

38 Tango Demo 1

For more than 50 years, Joao Joaquim Rodriguez and his school, Cours de Danse, have been teaching Bombay to step out in style. Long before the Latin dance revival, Rodriguez, was showing eager aspirants how to do the cha cha, the mambo, the jive and every other style you can think of, working from a wooden-floored studio in Colaba’s Sethna House.
The excellent dance writer Suhani Singh just messaged to say Rodriguez waltzed off to the Great Ballroom in the Sky this morning. Here’s a piece she wrote about him in Time Out a few years ago. Click here.
To accompany him on his final journey, here’s the Rangoon Gymkhana Club Orchestra performing Melancholy Baby.
Melancholy Baby by naresh fernandes

Category: Bombay

Singing for the Pope, 1964

cong1

Eucharistic Congress recordings by tajmahalfoxtrot1

At 5.15 pm on December 2, 1964, Bombay poured into the streets to greet a famous visitor: Pope Paul VI. “Pilgrim of peace gets tumultuous welcome: 15-deep cheering crowds pack streets,” said the Times of India’s headline. Both Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Vice President Zakir Hussain were on the tarmac at Santa Cruz airport as the Pope stepped out of the plane, joining his hands to say “Namaste”.  As his open Ford convertible made its way south, passing through streets decorated with archways and bunting, more than a million people of lined his route.
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