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