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September 28, 2005

Kronos/Asha at the YBCA

There have been many words of praise for Asha Bhosle over the years, some conventional ("most recorded artist"), some musical ("largest vocabulary of vocal techniques") and some offbeat ("grandmotherly Elvis"). To this I would simply add: she must take her share of blame for India's population explosion. The reason is simple enough. In her own words:

As Asha Bhosle struggled to make her mark, her biggest competition and mark for comparison was her own sister. "Didi [the elder sister] was singing the love songs, the sad songs, and I knew that if I did something different, something new, only then would people give me songs," says Bhosle.

The "something different" was cabaret songs. At that time, in Bollywood films the heroine had a holier-than-thou virginal image that was made even more ethereal by Lata Mangeshkar's singing. But filmmakers also wanted a little masala to spice up their films. That was where the vamps came in. Some actresses, like the exotic-looking Helen, made an entire career playing the vamp in hundreds of films. And the voice behind the vamp was invariably Bhosle's. In the film "Taxi Driver" she sings "Jeene Do Jiyo" [Live and Let Live], probably the first cabaret song in Hindi cinema.

It clicked. "Many have tried to imitate Lata, and some have come close. But no one has tried to imitate Asha, because no one can," says music aficionado Arvind Kumar, the founding editor of India Currents magazine.

To date, the songs she sung under the aegis of R. D. Burman have probably been some of the most remixed/covered songs out of Bollywood. Additionally,

Instead of cringing at the remixes that were pouring into the market, she did the next best thing - she joined the bandwagon and brought out the remixed variety of own old numbers. She also came out with a video cassette entitled "Janam Samjha Karo". Then there is the new album "Rahul and I". Asha never ceases to amaze. She is constantly repackaging herself. And so the Asha magic continues to enthral.

However, the Kronos Quartet represented a new level of collaboration for Asha-ji and I was curious as all heck to see how it would turn out on September 22, 2005, at the Yerba Buena Center Theater in San Francisco, the first of a limited set of dates. I needn't have worried - Asha-ji sounds as great as ever. But first things first - the first half of the concert was devoted to Kronos premiering San Francisco based minimalist composer Terry Riley's The Cusp of Magic, a work in six parts. In tone, the parts varied from apocalyptic (The Cusp of Magic) to staccato (Buddha's Bedroom) to whimsical (The Nursery). The latter, in particular, was augmented by a backdrop of noises from stuffed animals, the last sound of the movement being that of a lone toy frog being wrung. Throughout, I was impressed by the sheer aural variety on offer, not to mention the virtuoso ensemble playing. In addition to Wu Man on pipa, the Quartet featured David Harrington on violin (and various percussive instruments), John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and keyboards and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello. In addition, we had the wild and wacky samples being triggered from time to time. A good harbinger for the second half and the main event!

"Atithi Deva Bhava - the guest is god. You are my guests and I'll try my best to please you," were Asha-ji's opening words when she strode to the stage at the start of the second half of the show. Apart from a little feedback in the first song and perhaps the hint of a cracked voice in another, this was an audio sensory experience. That included Asha-ji's banter between shows. She apologized for her poor command of English and asked band leader David Harrington to translate the song titles. Her in-song banter quickly endeared her to the audience, an eclectic mix of desis and the San Francisco art crowd. The choice of songs was inspired - a mixture of Bollywood staples such as Dum Maro Dum ("Take Another Toke") and Chura Liya Hai Tum Ne ("You've Stolen My Heart") with more leftfield titles. "They picked the most difficult songs," she complained to the audience at one point, rather jokingly of course and that endeared her to us all the more. Of the more adventurous songs, we were particularly impressed by the choice of two Bengali songs of R. D. Burman. Asha-ji sang Ekta Deshlai Kathi Jalao ("Light a Match") with all the coquettishness of a sixteen year girl. For Nadir Pare Uttche Dhoa ("Smoke Rises Across The River"), she took a break, and Quartet played with all the might and passion of many times their number. Upon returning, she commented that, accustomed as she was to working with hundreds of musicians at any given time, she found Kronos' versatility to be simply amazing. Their arrangements sparkled as well - subtly extending Asha-ji's vocals in one song, setting up a counterpoint in another, they were always less than obvious. By the time she started Piya Tu Ab To Aaja ("Lover Come To Me Now"), the incongruous sight of a grandmotherly figure providing breathy, panting vocals had been replaced by that of a diva still in regal command of her faculties (if you closed your eyes).

I found the audience attendance for the first show to be disappointing but, in retrospect, it was to be expected given the eclectic nature of the musical marriage. I understand the attendance was much higher the next day and, overall, CD sales outside the hall were unusually brisk. A good harbinger of things to come perhaps?

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- September 28, 2005 6:27 PM // Bay Area , Bollywood , Music , Review , Select

September 26, 2005

Triptyque Sans Titre

When it comes to evaluating dance as performance, particularly modern ones, I am the first to admit my critical faculties are woefully short. In particular, the absence of narrative often forces me to gauge such pieces purely on visceral impact. And on that criteria, I have to say Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula's latest work, Triptyque Sans Titre. performed at the Yerba Buena Center on Sept 17th, is particularly effective. I can't say whether it's any good or not but I do know it left an impact. Loosely billed as the flashback memories of an amnesiac who has a story to tell (but has now forgotten it), the piece is an exploration of the horrors of colonialism and internecine warfare suffered by the people of Congo. As befits the title, there are three main parts each accompanied by a live soundscape from the musician Joachim Montessuis. Armed with a laptop, a mic and one or two electronic gadgets, he crouches on the floor amidst a landscape of naked electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling and plastic bags littered all over. The pattern is the same each time: a drone in the beginning which grows and ebbs and finally builds to a shattering crescendo (so much so that the Yerba Buena management provided earplugs to patrons prior to the start of the show), finally falling away to silence when we can finally hear the dancers chant. The dancers run to and fro, perhaps suggesting escape from external enemies, fight with each other, cover themselves with bags and then, at the end of it all, come together in unison, suggesting a rapproachment of some sort. A projector throws up pictures of babies and families, the real victims of the Congo war. Strong stuff.

PS - The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a review here.

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- September 26, 2005 6:01 PM // Bay Area , Dance , Review

September 21, 2005

Brimful of Asha II

Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News are carrying articles on the Asha Bhosle and Kronos Quartet concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts tomorrow. Both pieces are intended to be introductions to the music of Bollywood (and legendary music director R. D. Burman in particular) that will be performed tomorrow. What I find interesting, though, is the differences in the tone of the two articles, perhaps due to the gap in desi population between San Francisco (not very many) and South Bay (lots). The San Francisco Chronicle piece is more explanatory, although not necessarily accurate:

While Bollywood cinema is more visible in American pop culture today than ever before, the music of Bollywood, which millions of Indians just have hardwired into their brains, has a harder time crossing over. The West might have MTV, but "Indian films, each with 6-10 songs, are the original MTV," says Bhosle's son and manager, Anand. American audiences have difficulty relating to the songs, missing the cultural references and the poetry of the lyrics, fixating instead on the crescendo of 101 shrieking violins.

Of course the truth of the matter is shrieking violins have been out of vogue in Bollywood for at least the past ten years. In addition, of late, big budget films such as Black and Sarkar have eschewed embedding music sequences all together. They've been hits, thus showing films don't have to contain music for audience acceptance. And there is such a beast as MTV-India.

The San Jose Mercury News article is more concise, perhaps trusting many of its readers to already know about the basics of Bollywood and Asha Bhosle. But this way, you can miss some nuggets. Consider this graf on Asha in the Mercury News:

She also became the wife of R.D. Burman, who by Harrington's formulation stands alongside other giants of 20th-century music. The ingenious songwriter and film composer has some 330 film scores to his credit. In many cases, it was Bhosle who ended up introducing his songs, such as ``Dum Maro Dum'' (Take Another Toke), a giddy international hit from Dev Anand's 1971 study of the hippies drawn to Nepal and India, ``Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.''

This is expanded greatly in the Chronicle to:

Tongues wagged when she married R. D. Burman in 1980. In fact, the two had met years before: He was first a fan while she was singing for his father, himself a leading composer. "I remember he was thin and short, and I of course looked older and was also quite fat," she laughs. "He just took my autograph and left." Years later, when he quit his studies to become a composer, she scolded him for not graduating. "He didn't like it -- he got up and left," she recalls.

Later, she became one of his best-known collaborators. When rumors bubbled about their professional relationship turning romantic, conservative Indian society frowned on this middle-aged mother of three embarking on a love affair. "People don't like it if you live honestly," says Bhosle with a shrug. "They like hypocrisy and lies." She married Burman to end the swirling gossip around their relationship.

But their collaboration set the music industry ablaze. Her son Anand remembers going to a concert in 1972 or 1973 where all the biggest stars of Indian music, including his aunt, Lata Mangeshkar, were performing. "Right at the end it was Mom's turn, and when she and R. D. Burman entered together the audience went berserk," says Anand.

At that time their biggest hit, "Dum Maro Dum" (literally, "Take Another Toke") from a film about hippies, was banned on All India Radio. People listened to it on neighboring Sri Lanka's Radio Ceylon. When R. D. and Bhosle came on, says Anand, "it was as if Tom Jones had been performing and suddenly a superstar like Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley came on stage."

Should be a great concert tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

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- September 21, 2005 8:27 PM // Bay Area , Bollywood , Music

September 12, 2005

Sometimes a picture ..

expresses it better than words ever could. Try this for size:

The crawl pretty much says it all really. (Tip to Daily Kos).

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- September 12, 2005 9:43 PM // Politics

September 9, 2005

Brick Lane

Shari has been reading Monica Ali's Brick Lane and, though it was slow going at first, she's enjoying it considerably. She read out one particularly poignant passage and I thought I'd share. It's from a conversation between Chanu and Shahana. Charu says:

I don't know Shahana. Sometimes I look back and I am shocked. Every day of my life I have prepared for success, worked for it, waited for it, and you don't notice how the days pass until nearly a lifetime has finished. Then it hits you - the thing you have been waiting for has already gone by. And it was going in the other direction. It's like I've been waiting on the wrong side of the road for a bus that was already full.

This is from the point of view of immigrants in the UK but it could equally well apply to us folks running after the American Dream. John Lennon is even more blunt:

Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and its hugely bungled aftermath somehow helps to put a lot of things in perspective. If you haven't given already, Red Cross is a good place to start.

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- September 9, 2005 9:38 PM // Books , Diaspora