Hidden Jewel: Rupa Biswas

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There is probably no more ridiculous development in the history of and writing about music than the notion of ‘labels’. Taking a piece of music and categorising it into a single ‘genre’ or ‘style’ is an exercise in futility.  Oft quoted but eternally ignored, Duke Ellington’s saw that there is only ‘good music and the other kind’ remains all there needs to be said about the problem.

 

Yet, for those of us who think possessing massive music libraries is an important thing, the issue is a practical one. Whether you have walls and walls of LPs, racks of CDs or hard discs full of digital files, having everything labelled simply ‘good’ or ‘other’ is not particularly helpful.  And unless you know every album or track in your collection intimately and can find it easily, most of the time you’re going to find labels and tags and categories a necessary, if silly, evil.

 

In recent years these labels and genres have proliferated like so many psychedelic rabbits. I’m forever amused by the new labels people come up with for their music: shoegazer, bedwetter, garage punk, bubbletrance, aggrotech, crustpunk, deep psychobilly, fidget house etc. etc.   What the delicate idiosyncrasies of each category are, are beyond me and probably to those who listen to them as well, but it is fun that’s for sure.  My own practice is to keep it simple. Pop, World, Jazz, Reggae, Country, Blues, R&B, Classical and a few other old fashioned labels I picked up from the record stores I used to haunt suit me just fine.

 

But the challenges keep popping up.

 

Take today’s share for example.  The album is called Disco Jazz, which sounds like the producers couldn’t be bothered to think of anything interesting. Slap a couple labels on it and see if it sells. The Indian Canadian production from the early 80s certainly (in some parts) qualifies as disco-esque. But definitely not jazz. Unless by jazz you mean slang for ‘stuff’.  On the internet the album is labelled, ‘funk, soul, disco’ and even ‘Bollywood funk’.  Not so much misleading as plain irrelevant. There is nothing funky here that James Brown or the boys from Cymande would recognise and, as for soul, well, that’s just another planet.  So, how does one label this music?

 

For my money this is non-film Indian pop music sung in Bengali.  The singer is a mysterious sukhi roti– looking college girl named Rupa Biswas. Not a spectacular voice by Indian standards but given its focus on getting people on the dance floor, adequate to the task.  What is really interesting about this record is the music.

 

India was introduced to the concept of disco music in the early 80s through (what else) the movies. Though it wasn’t the first, Firoz Khan’s 1980 blockbuster Qurbani (Sacrifice) used the sound of upbeat, semi-electronic synth and bass, disco lights and scantily clad women instrumentalists (prefiguring Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love by half a decade)  to mesmerise a nation.

Aap Jaisa Koi  was India’s first massive disco hit and led to the creation of a new sound that infiltrated the movies for the next ten years. The most famous names in Indian disco were larger-than-life musical director Bappi Lahiri and composer/arranger/performer Babla. Though both men produced some interesting work that has found new audiences in recent years, they never ventured too far from the Qurbani sound.

Disco Jazz on the other hand is in an entirely different realm. Biswas is backed by a crack group of Indian and Canadian musicians led by none other than Ustad Aashish Khan, one of India’s outstanding living musicians on sarodKhan has long collaborated with Western pop and jazz musicians, led so called ‘fusion’ groups [Shringar, Wonderwall, Shanti] promoted Indian classical music through his educational efforts and scored or participated in the soundtracks for films such The Man Who Would Be King, Gandhi and a number of Satyajit Ray’s films.

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Ustad Aashish Khan

He’s supported by the amazing guitarist Don Pope, who with Khansahib creates the energy and drive and excitement of this record.

Popeand Khan trade solos and jugalbandi back and forth throughout this set daring the rest of the band that includes renown jazz drummer Robin Tufts, bassist John Johnston, tablasaaz and accompanist of Ali Akbar Khan and others, Pranesh Khan, keyboardist Geoff Ball, synthesizer Rhonda Padmos, and percussionist Frank Lockwood to keep pace. Pope’s guitar playing is fluid, gliding effortlessly between jazzy textures and hot dancefloor strumming.  As for the sarod, Aashish Khan makes it sound as if he’s playing a mandolin or bazouki in a back street rembetika outfit.

This disco is about as far away from Bappi Lahiriand Qurbani as you can get.  It is tough, serious, masterful but still immense fun.

Whatever became of Rupa Biswas?  Of all the principals, she is the hardest to track down.  One of the tracks from Disco Jazz, Moja Bhari Moja,was included in the 2012 ‘art’ film Miss Lovely but the only other reference I’ve been able to track down to a Rupa Biswas is of a Bengali woman purported to be Rupa, lip syncing and dancing.  Not sure if this is THE Rupa or if it is a completely different Ms. Biswas altogether.  But it sounds a bit disco-y so my bet is Rupa is still out there somewhere.

 

Disco Jazz is a rare jewel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

 

Track Listing:

  1. Moja Bhari Moja
  2. East West Shuffle
  3. Aaj Shanibar
  4. Aaye Morshume Be-Reham Duniya

DISCO

No Time to Rest: Bollywood Brass Band with Jyotsna Srikanth

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Joytsna Srikanth is a London-based violinist with an amazing CV.  Classical singing training begins at age 5. But by age 9 she has discovered the violin and gives her first solo concert. More classical music (Carnatic and Western) training.  Gets her professional start playing for Illayraja in Tamil movies. Moves to London where she plays her violin for TV series on the National Geographic and  Discovery channels. In between performing with the likes of M. Balamuralikrishna (singer), Kadri Gopalnath (sax), Eduardo Niebla (flamenco guitarist) and Rao Kyao (sax) she organizes the annual London International Arts Festival.

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Oh yes, I almost forgot. She is a practicing pathologist too!

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Somehow in 2016 she found time to make an album with the English group, Bollywood Brass Band, a music collective the specializes in performing Indian folk, qawwali and Hindi film songs. The album is called Carnatic Connection and is comprised of what sound to me like South Indian film songs. Certainly there are a couple of A.R. Rahman compositions and I’m sure more than one by Illayraja.  All of the 14 tracks are-as you’d expect-lively and upbeat. Some are rather jazzy with Ms Srikanth sounding like  Jean Luc Ponty in fusion glory. Others are pure disco.  All in all good grooves, beats and lots of fantastic playing.

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Track Listing

01 Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu

02 Kehta Hai Mehra Dil (Kannodu Kaanbadellam)

03 Deva Deva Kalayami

04 Drum Dance – Chandralekha

05 Sword Fight  – Chandralekha

06 Jai Ho

07 Kehna Hi Kya (Kannalane)

08 Jiya Jale

09 Why This Kolaveri Di

10 Aa Ante Amalapuram

11 Rakkamma (Clap Clap Mix by Charlie Girl)

12 Deva Deva (Molly’s Bar Mix by Rob Kelly)

13 Drum Dance (Diamond Cut Mix)

14 Deva Deva Kalayami (Molly’s Bar Extended Alaap Mix – Rob Kelly)

BBB

Lion in Winter: Talat Mahmood

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Talat Mahmood, the gentle, silken voiced ghazal master passed away nearly 20 years ago but remains a much loved voice among South Asian film and music fans.  I wrote a piece on him several years ago which provides some basic biodata of this often overlooked playback singer.

Around the same time that I wrote that article I got my hands on this album but have hesitated to share it.  Though the back cover gives a date of 1966 these tracks were clearly recorded much later. Probably in the mid-late 1980s would be my guess.

Mahmood‘s soft voice with its incredible capacity to emote melody and melancholy is instantly recognisable.  Its a voice from a bygone era. But also gone is the strength and control.  Talat sahib‘s voice wavers frequently and he struggles to hit notes that once came so effortlessly.  From time to time he slips out of key.  And for this reason I kept this record buried deep in my collection.  I didn’t want to do a disservice to the once beautiful voice by sharing a record that was clearly far below the standard he himself set.

But perhaps because I have recently passed a certain chronological milestone myself I now think differently.  We are familiar with the ‘official’ portraits of Queens, Prime Ministers and dictators which show them in that airbrushed eternal moment when they were 40. No matter that they are now twice as old and decrepit, it is this image we are supposed to remember.

I have always found this ridiculous.

Several years before the end of his fabled life Johnny Cash released a couple albums made when he was under real physical and emotional stress. That thunderous trumpet of a voice was now a hesitant near whisper.  And yet if was full of power and conviction. And in its way a necessary part of his life’s work. When I listen to those last tracks I get a complete, honest picture of Cash. If I never moved beyond Folsom Prison Blues not only would I be missing out but I would be cheating Johnny himself.  He was not ashamed of his state and never thought he should censor his voice. Why should I?

And so with Talat. He never made an excuse for not liking the direction—disco, rock n roll, electronic beats–Hindi film took in the 1980s. He settled into semi retirement and seemed content not to partake in the film world again.  But as this record shows, he never gave up on the ghazal. 

This is touching and humane record. A labor of love by Talat and his dear friend and collaborator, the arranger Enoch Daniels. It is a final hurrah of a master who is well aware of his limitations and the dimming of the day.  But it also a triumph of passion. The much weakened but still vital roar of a lion in winter.  And I am pleased at long last to finally share this collection of fine ghazals that should be part of every genuine Talat-lover’s collection.

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Talat saaz back 904

Track Listing:

01 Kahin Sher-o-Nagma Ban ke

02 Har Ek Mod se Milta Hai Rasta Koi

03 Ghazal ke Saaz Uthao

04 Dil Hi To Hai Na Aaye Kyon

05 Main Nazar Se Piraha Hun

06 Jo Tu Nahin To

07 Gulshan Mein Leke Chal

08 Mere Saqiya Mere Dilruba

Lion

Ragamala Vol. 6: Bhimpalasi

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Way back in 2013 I began this Ragamala series.  I wanted to collect a variety of tracks from diverse genres that were based upon or direct interpretations of particular ragas.  I have to confess that despite many years of listening to South Asian classical music my ear is still as wooden as when I began to seriously pay attention to khyaldhrupad and other forms of classical music.  I think I can identify Malkauns but that’s about it.

I feel terrible about this. Surely, I should be more competent and clever. But each time I try to read anything about the structure of ragas the better to tune my ear, my eyes glaze over and my mind closes up shop.  There is simply too much new vocabulary to learn and I’m not sure how much such knowledge would increase my listening pleasure.

Of more interest to me is the mood each raga attempts to induce in the listener. I like to see if it works on me, and I’m happy to report that Bhimpalasi does.

Bhimpalasi is an afternoon to early evening raga. A time of day that for most modern families is stressful. Kids back home from school. Commotion all over the place and pots and plates banging in the kitchen.

They say this raga speaks to the melancholy, sad aspects of the human soul. And in so doing, is effective for the release of stress and anxiety. Some recommend Bhimpalasi as part of the treatment for depression.

I began this weekend listening to Ali Akbar Khan‘s interpretation from his Bangla Desh album (1972).  I’ve since listened to it a couple more times and this afternoon let Saskia Rao’s doleful cello sink slowly beneath the skin.   And I am proud (and surprised) to report I feel absolutely peaceful, light and relaxed.

There are some very nice interpretations here.  Lata sings two film songs (one composed by SD Burman, the other by Madan Mohan) including one of my all-time favorites, Khilte Hain Gul Yahan. An enigmatic early fusion/jazz group from the UK give us Bhimpalazi (1969) and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan contribute two straight-ahead versions on sitar and sarod, respectively. The Dutch cellist Saskia Rao shows how beautifully that instrument fits into the Indian soundscape and finally, Mehdi Hassan gives us a filmi ghazal from Azmat (1973).

PEACE. SUKOON. SHANTI.

Bhimpalasi

Track Listing:

01 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ali Akbar Khan]

02 Nainon Mein Badra Chaaya [Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar]

03 Bhimpalazi (Looking Eastward to the Blues) [Indo-Jazz Ensemble]

04 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ravi Shankar]

05 Khilte Hain Gul Yahan [SD Burman and Lata Mangeshkar]

06 Bhimpalasi Alap Jod Jhala [Saskia Rao]

07 Zindagi Main To Sabhi Pyar Kiya Karte Hai [Mehdi Hassan]

++^^%

Lucknow’s Great Son: Naushad Ali

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Naushad Ali

Naushad Ali of Lucknow was arguably the first giant of Hindi film music. Not as a singer, but as an inventive composer and arranger.

His sound is instantly recognizable for its deep connection to the folk music of north India and especially the Gangetic plain. Flutes, matkas (clay pots) and other folk instruments embellish his compositions like  glimmering light off a paddy field.

Responsible for the music of so many classics he is one of those of whom it can be honestly said, ‘his music was the soundtrack to an entire generation’. Indians who came of age in the first 2 decades after Independence will probably save the sweetest corner of their hearts for his music.

Naushad was a sharif Musalman. A man of great taste and dignity and culture he also brought a deep love and understanding of raga based melodies into his film scores.

Here is a collection of some of his greatest hits sung by voices as diverse as Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Suraiya and Shamshad Begum. Thank you to Mr Balkar Bains (once again!) for the gift of this wonderful LP.naushad-front

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Track Listing

01 Jawan Hai Mohabbat [Anmod Ghadi]

02 Bachpan ke Din [Deedar]

03 Murliwale Murli Baja [Dillagi]

04 Gaya Ja Geet Milan Ke [Mela]

05 Dil Toote Na [Andaz]

06 Panchhi Ban Mein [Babul]

07 Chhod Babul ka Ghar [Babul]

08 Aja Meri Barbad-e-Mohabbat [Anmol Ghadi]

09 Maan Mera Ehsan [Aan]

10 Sawan ke Badala [Rattan]

11 Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki [Dulari]

12 Jhoom Jhoom ke Nacho [Andaz]

Naushad