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Protest and the Strange Fruit of Mistaken Identity

January 9, 2010

Those of us who latch onto TV for the lack of anything better to do must have seen the juicy footage that some channels circulated yesterday: a Tamil Nadu policeman having his thigh blown apart by a country bomb and then hacked to death with sickles by a mob of contract killers. All went well for the killers except that it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

The cop was part of a motorcade escorting two Tamil Nadu ministers. His attackers were in fact targeting his colleague. The latter happened to be away on leave without their knowledge and the killers got the wrong man.

The politicians’ retinue contained a number of mediapersons and the incident — flush with blood and gore, a writhing policeman and ministers standing about scratching their nuts — provided live action and TRP-boosters to the TV crew. Too much to pass up. The cameras scarcely blinked. But everyone present did.

I do not watch TV but I do surf news online. And when I read anything particularly depressing that is badly written to boot (which is nearly always), I keep some music playing in the background. Just to soothe my fraying 35-plus nerves. And when I found myself hanging about the TIMES NOW website, I was careful to have aural salve ready in the form of NPR’s media player lined up with a long playlist containing, among other things, the weekly jazz show Take Five.

‘Strange Fruit – Evolution of a Song’ features five artists’ interpretations of Strange Fruit, schoolteacher Abel Meeropol’s anguished reaction to the lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Meeropol saw the famous photograph of the bodies hanging from a tree (taken by Lawrence Beitler) and published the poem Bitter Fruit in 1936 (under the name Lewis Allan). Along with his wife and a black vocalist, Meeropol performed the song at a protest rally. It was introduced eventually to Billie Holiday who first performed it in 1939 and elevated it to lasting fame. In 2002, filmmaker Joel Katz made an award-winning documentary of the same title inspired by the song. Interestingly, the comments on the NPR page include one each from Katz and Meeropol’s elder son Michael.

Back to NPR’s Take Five. I happened to be streaming Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of the song when the news video, which had been buffering, came alive. Both audio tracks played side by side and I was struck by the eerie similarity of their themes — it had a sort of roughhewn, impromptu resemblance to Simon & Garfunkel’s Silent Night-7 O’clock News.

Here’s a rough scratch recording of that moment:

The age of original heartfelt protest songs in jazz, pop or rock has passed unlamented ever since we started counting Madonna, MJ, Eminem, the Black-Eyed Peas and Amy Winehouse among protest singers. Insidiously, Protest has become a marketing label, a genre if you like — which adds up to a nice new varnished shelf in a large music store somewhere before Punk and after Gospel. Most artists have realized that they have little to protest about but their own inconspicuousness. And their acts of protest are in truth about having a go at the fifteen lucre-encrusted minutes of fame that their voices, if sufficiently loud, would bring them.

Will anybody write a protest song about what happened in Tamil Nadu? We can’t be sure. Most likely that someone is right now watching the news to dream up a new potboiler screenplay.

Here is Strange Fruit, for us to unforget what protest means.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

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Cabinet Minister 2.0 has a tweet tooth?

December 29, 2009

A little bird tells me that Shashi Tharoor is a little out of chirp with the whole Twitter fiasco after he got a right royal yelling from his boss for singing his heart out.

Trick or tweet?

In which we ask: Is Shashi Tharoor a twit?

On that cheery note, Happy 2010! I’m off on vacation and back next year, hopefully sunburned to a crisp.

Kseniya Simonova – genius or pop star?

December 28, 2009

I know my opinion doesn’t count but I think Picasso couldn’t sketch to save his life or the lives of those bulls that he watched go down in the ring. Dali and Pink Floyd could have established a very cool working relationship. And MC Escher was never really given his due.

That said, I have always been intrigued by what makes good art great. And when artists judge artists the subject gets murkier. Choosing between art for art’s sake and art that moves is like calling for a tossup between the heavily melodramatic Bollywood denouement of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black and the cold, quiet finis of Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly. I have had people, who can otherwise be counted upon for their sane and balanced opinion, argue in favour of the former.

So watch Kseniya Simonova at work and judge for yourself. All of 24, this Ukrainian sand animator is an Internet phenomenon.

Is she a genius or a pop star?

When Indie gets the blues

December 7, 2009

I was delighted to receive an intelligent and well-worded comment in reaction to my post Why MTV can never befriend Indian indie rock. Here’s how it went:

What is your definition of ‘Indie’, Bijoy? Does a band necessarily need to attempt to earn a living off music, to qualify? Where would you place the Sarjapur Blues Band, for instance? Have you heard of them? They’re an underground band that’s been around in Bangalore for more than 20 years and have never played a note that isn’t their own. 18 years ago they already had a repertoire that extended well over 3 hours; and 3-4 hour concerts were the norm till they turned 50.

Secondly, are you suggesting that Steely Dan and Pat Metheny are musically superior influences? Is there an intellectual hierarchy in music?

Surely, your one-liners about the music scene in Bombay (bollywood-besotted), Delhi (Hindi-mein-gao) and Calcutta are as unfair to the faithful in these cities as their dismissal of Bangalore as a source of meaningful music?

These are just some examples: One gets the distinct impression that, having got your opening disclaimer off your chest, you feel completely free to carry your biases towards TAAQ into the article. Are your readers entitled to a bit more phrenic rigour?

Those are very sharp observations and I had to stop and think them over.

This is what I had to say:

Indie band… I’m not a fan of the phrase myself because I think it is a label for styles of music that you can’t/ don’t want to stick a label on. I mulled over that blog title before I posted it but I kept the word in for a reason — to catch the eye of those who debate over what indie is.

Now, to answer your question, I don’t think an indie band need make money at all. But it must make original music even if it appeals to an audience of one. And it does not even have to publish or promote this music.

But then again, indie also refers to the endeavour to create music independently and make it available and accessible to an audience whether through performance or distribution. Derivatively, indie also refers to the infrastructure that must exist for indie musicians who want to make a living doing what they love and believe in.

Most important, I feel that indie needn’t be seen as some low-on-frills, preachy fringe movement but a sort of cooperative society for independent musicians that helps them feel confident about the worth and validity of their music. Of course, this feeling of self-worth and achievement should also put money in their pockets because they too need to feed their dogs, send their kids to college, and splurge on a vacation at Bora Bora.

Arguably, the word has substantial currency and can be used to draw a rough boundary around the murky puddle of true musical activity and suspiciously insincere entrepreneurship that aims to promote “independent music” in India. In fact, indie has become another genre upon which the mainstream music industry hopes to capitalise. But right now, as a cash cow it is short by at least three teats. So the industry, with help from Bollywood and all the rocking that has ensued in the wake of Rock On and London Dreams, will milk it hard and dry.

Fact: truly indie artists are never going to benefit from this so-called revolution because it plays by the same rules as the mainstream.

In response to the question about Metheny et al, please allow me to clarify. I meant that few bands attempt to look for influences in relatively unconventional artists. I’d be more interested in listening to a band that is inspired by a relatively unconventional sound that one that is inspired by, say, Metallica or Bon Jovi. I’m not sure I would call it intellectual hierarchy but I certainly find music that is composed and arranged with intelligence and creativity — both lyrically and musically — more appealing than music characterised by little more than unwavering volume, energy and histrionic performance.

My comments on Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta are a direct response to the article on MTV Iggy that celebrated bands from those cities without a word about contemporary independent bands that came from Bangalore. Perhaps, that is also the reason why my blog post appears to be biased towards TAAQ.

The article in question covered the music scene starting from the early nineties to the present. Also, it focused on bands that had attempted to distribute their music. In response, I limited my response to bands that were born during that time.

I used to love the Sarjapur Blues Band though I haven’t watched a performance in a really long while. I’ve watched them at Freedom Jams and as far back as the Night of the Long Guitar someplace in Bannerghatta (I was too stoned to remember where). I used to love Lady Nicotine.

It’s time I watched them again — I have been very negligent.

While we are on the subject of early Bangalore bands, here is some deserved reading that survived the newspaper morgues. And “phrenic rigour” — wow, that sounded like it came from the late Sunbeam Motha!

26/11 – What about our homegrown terrorists?

November 26, 2009

It’s easy to see what everyone will do to remember 26/11 – the idiots in the box will run “specials” ad nauseam and people will take out rallies and candlelit processions. But what about the terror that ensued after 26/11 – the pub attacks on women by the Sri Rama Sene? The quick blood of the Marathi manoos against fellow-citizens in Maharashtra? And what shall we do with all those luminaries named in the Liberhan Report?

Seriously, don’t we have to redefine what constitutes terrorism before we figure out who is a terrorist? 26/11, our very own desi version of 9/11, offers us just that opportunity – to make no distinctions in the war against terror. To unseat the terrorists in power, and to deal terrorism in every form a body blow.

26/11 is not an anniversary to remember terror. It’s an opportunity to never allow ourselves to be shamed by it, in any form.

Game?

Why MTV can never befriend Indian indie rock

November 21, 2009

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Disclaimer: I write for Thermal And A Quarter. But despite my own leanings, I cannot take seriously any article on the Indian rock music scene that dwells in the era of imitative cover performances, or performances of so-called originals that are so totally “inspired” by popular covers that they are no different from them at all. That stuff is so ten years ago. Maybe twenty. Without any vintage value whatsoever.

The “fascinating article” (by Arjun S Ravi on MTV Iggy) that Cicatrix speaks of in Sepia Mutiny reads like ‘The Best of RSJ (1992-1999), with Notable Exceptions’. It’s all been documented before with elan and sincerity by Amit Saigal. Today, it’s dated. Because it casually ignores a significant slice of Indian rock history — the independent music scene in Bangalore, which was where the really surprising stuff started to emerge from the mothballed closet in the late 1990s. In businesspeak, this era was when Indian rock music sought to “differentiate” itself. Not through marketing strategy (a la Parikrama et al which still have nothing to offer the discerning music fan) but through inventiveness, performance and startling creative energy. Ergo, I am not sure if Ravi’s omission stems from ignorance (which is unforgivable) or from personal bias (which is charlatan).

Thermal And A Quarter, as those who know their Indian indie scene know, began this revolution by playing entire three-hour sets comprising only originals — as early as 1999. No Indian band, repeat, no Indian band (save some in that fantastic cultural pocket — the Northeast) was doing that then. One other band that did it explosively — and I was witness to their memorable show at Madras Christian College’s Deep Woods in 1996 — was (then not-yet-Mumbai’s) Chakraview (with Dhruv Ghanekar on some serious gizmo-led guitar).

Perhaps Ravi also might want to remember that Laila Rouass-starring black-and-white music video, Colourblind, by the Mumbai band of the same name (the duo of Ram Sampath and Siddharth Achrekar). It was a brilliant new statement (very indie) and added a dimension to Indian rock that did not hitherto exist (or last). Sampath (now a composer for films and famous for his copyright victory over the Roshans for copying the music of Krazzy 4) told me off the record when I interviewed him (about Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk for Rediff.com in December 2002) that Colourblind “had not been viable”.

Viability has always been the gradient against which Indian indie rock has laboured. Indus Creed, after showing us the light, disappointed us by disbanding and resurfacing again as Alms for Shanti, with an eponymous album that was released both in English and Hindi (Kashmakash, Free Spirit, 2001). Alms for Shanti, with a name that sounded like it had been coined by an armchair Indologist at the University of Hawaii, plays the club circuit in New York where they have established themselves as export-reject exotics. Although singer Uday Benegal cribbed about the sleaze in the music industry as an aside during an interview with Rediff.com in 2002, he also told me this: “We went West because we were disillusioned with the East. Because the music we were doing at that time had absolutely no place here. Not that we were seeking salvation in the West. We wanted to go ahead with the music we make and look for the audience in the West.”

That’s one way to go, but if you know the audience to be here you have to be loyal to it. It must be remembered that around the same time that Alms for Shanti announced their album to a crowd of wine-sipping and tikka-nibbling celebs at a swank Tardeo lounge bar, a lot of bands that had been either influenced by TAAQ or shared the same struggle emerged from Bangalore — Kryptos, Myndsnare, Galeej Gurus, Zebediah Plush… And I am not even talking in any detail about the metal scene (which, being loud enough as it is, deserves an altogether different celebratory writeup amid a full-flowing headbangathon at Styx).

That TAAQ (still an unsigned band) was not from Bollywood-besotted Mumbai or Hindi-mein-gao-yaar Delhi or still-smoking-the-Sixties Kolkata was really what went against them when they started. Or the fact that their music was a leap year ahead of the public imagination — I mean, how many Benadryl-swillers orgasming in the moshpit had actually heard of (let alone heard) Steely Dan and Pat Metheny, or even imagined that they could influence an Indian band’s sound? The few critics of this counterculture — jealous jilted lovers of it mostly — judged the music by a myopic yardstick: the done-to-death genres of metal and dinosaur rock.

With Jupiter Cafe (2002), TAAQ’s second album, Bangalore shot into the limelight. It continued with Plan B (2004), the first album from India to be distributed with a custom Creative Commons-like license. These, inarguably, were milestones in Indian rock. Indie media (Indiecision, Split, RadioVerve… hell, even the un-indie Rolling Stone) acknowledged and celebrated them. MTV, which has always fed off the now happily moribund record industry (recently resuscitated by MJ’s passing) and now mooches off Bollywood to survive in the subcontinent, has no authority to comment on the indie scene. In the two fitful decades of Indian rock, MTV has neither recognised nor supported the indie movement. And to pay lip service to it now, with a limp biscuit such as this, is both embarrassing and shameful.

As the man who named his daughter Moon Unit said: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”

Part of this rant was originally posted as a comment on the muchly admired Sepia Mutiny

Photo: TAAQ from the back by SlickThief

Quotably

November 7, 2009

“I have been driven to writing by sheer ineptitude. I wanted to write, of course, always. I did a certain amount of stuff but I couldn’t get anything published— it was too bad. I think writers today learn so much more quickly. I mean, I could no more write as well at their age than fly.”
Lawrence Durrell to the Paris Review, April 23, 1959