Archive for » September, 2013 «

Iraq and Roll: Bollywood’s Jewish Sounds

A version of this piece first appeared in Time Out Mumbai.

The dulcet ring of the oud is impossible to miss on the soundtrack of Yahudi, Bimal Roy’s unlikely Bollywood historical made in 1958 about the persecution of Jews in ancient Rome. The background score, composed by Shankar and Jaikishan, has a vaguely Middle Eastern feel to it and as the plot twists and turns, it often falls to the versatile Arabian stringed instrument to signal the swirling emotions. As massacres are ordered, betrayals ensue and Dilip Kumar falls in love with Meena Kumari, the oud sobs, sighs and sings to enhance the mood on screen. It could easily have descended into kitsch. Perhaps the reason it didn’t was the fact that the man plucking the strings, Isaac David, was well acquainted with Middle Eastern music. David was Jewish himself and in the early years of the last century, he had polished his art by playing with an ensemble in Mumbai that recorded four discs of Iraqi Jewish tunes for the Hebrew Record label.

shirhodu-front-bSome of those tunes can be heard on a collection called Shir Hodu: Jewish Song from Bombay of the ’30s, which offers a fascinating reminder of the city’s cosmopolitan heritage. The 15 archival tracks on the album have been painstakingly put together by Sara Manasseh, a Bombay-born Iraqi Jewish ethnomusicologist who now lives in London. During the 1930s, Bombay was “a musical kaleidoscope”, Manasseh says in her liner notes, and the pieces included music and Jewish prayer chants in Hebrew.

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The Empress of Park Street

Detail from front cover of Explorations album.

Gimme Music by Pam Crain by tajmahalfoxtrot1

pam_0001 Pam Crain, who passed away on Aug 14, was one of the finest jazz musicians India has produced.  On stage and off, she displayed the generosity that is such an essential characteristic of jazz. Here’s what the writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi said on his Facbeook page: “Just heard Pam Crain moved on down the line. RIP Pam. Used to be awed watching her sing. Then, somehow got to know her and [her husband] Don [Saigal] when I was a teenager and I’d go to their house near the St.Xavier’s back gate [in Calcutta] and she’d lend me precious albums without any questions. “Just bring it back when you’re finished listening. Don’t add to the scratches.” Some unknown kid walking away with her rare jazz vinyl and that’s all she ever said to me.

The adman and musician Stanley Pinto had these recollections about the diva:

“In 1961 I was playing in a band at the Hotel Nataraj on Marine Drive, Bombay. One night, a European couple sitting at the far end perked up when we played a jazz standard, clapped, and started sending us one request after another for jazz ballads and songs. more…

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