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

Illahabadi Babu Shows His Chops: Bustan Abraham

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Bustan Abraham

Bustan Abraham was an Israeli music collective that made several albums of what can only be called ‘light fusion jazz cum world sounds’.  As ugly as most labels go, this one is one of the most ugly. But the music, for which I am a big time sucker, is brilliant. And of course beyond classification or silly labels.

Fanar is a 1997 release featuring the Indian giants Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri/bamboo flute). Fanar means ‘lantern’ in Arabic and it is appropriate because this is as I said brilliant.  The music sparkles even on the slower more moody numbers. The playing is virtuoistic and crisp. These gentlemen are really enjoying playing with each other.

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Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

The highlight for me and the inspiration for the title of this post is the playing of Chaurasia. The young wrestler turned revolutionary classical musician is no doubt one of the finest Indian artists ever. Many non-Indian acts have drawn on him over the years to jam with or to add a certain exotic Indian spice to their work.  But this album is the first time I have ever heard Chaurasia sound as if he is a true jazz flautist.  In the opening track especially, but throughout the album, he blows his instrument with the same intensity as Coltrane. And in so doing, invokes the sounds of Hubert Laws or even Ian Anderson. If you had no idea who was playing I think very few would identify the Allahabadi Chaurasia.  

Just as when the first time I really heard Coltrane and had to stop doing whatever I was doing to just listen, so to with Fanar.

Five stars recommendation!

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Track Listing:

  1. Solaris
  2. Fanar
  3. Sama’i Kurd
  4. Till the End of Time
  5. Seven Eleven
  6. Naa’ama
  7. Black Seagull
  8. Sireen

Illahabadi

 

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

Ragamala Vol. 7: Yaman/Kalyani

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This volume of variations on raga Yaman opens with a modern jazz-influenced rendition by the Neel Murgai Ensemble.  A New York based ‘chamber’ quartet led by sitarist Murgai, NME creates intricate, finely spiced musical atmospheres that draw on Indian classical, jazz, and gypsy music.

Also included is bansuri master Pannalal Ghosh‘s beloved Yaman, a couple of film songs from Umrao Jan Ada (1981) and Junglee (1961), Farida Khanum’s spectacular romantic ghazal Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah as well as interpretations in a Western classical and contemporary jazz setting.

Yaman, also known as Kalyani, is by Indian classical music standards a relatively un-ancient raga. It first emerged in the 16th century with some claiming it was a composition of Mian Tansen and that he based it upon a Persian structure known as ‘Ei Man’. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the raga is often referred to as Eeman (in many varied spellings) and I have concluded this collection with a wonderful Afghan take on the raga  by Ustad Mohammad Omar, the famous rubab player.

Yaman emerged from the parent musical style of Kalyan, itself a style of classical Carnatic musical tradition called thaat. Considered to be one of the most fundamental ragas in the Hindustani Classical tradition, it is thus often one of the first ragas taught to students. In the context of traditional standards of performance, Yaman ragas are considered suitable to play at any time of the day, but they are traditionally performed in the evening. (Wikipedia).

Given its close relationship to Carnatic music the centerpiece of this collection is a stunning live recital by South Indian/Sri Lankan violinist L. Subramaniam and shenai nawaz Ustad Bismillah Khan. Listen carefully to this piece and to the playfulness, mastery and virtuosity of both musicians as they play off each other. It delights and enshivers!

Rudresh Mahantappa‘s group Dakshina Ensemble which features South Indian saxophone innovator Kadri Gopalnath and Pakistani American guitar whiz Rez Abbasi also explores the Carnatic original in their massive track Kalyani.

I hope you enjoy this collection as much I do!

Yaman

Track Listing:

01 Evening In A_ Raga Yaman [Neel Murgai Ensemble]

02 Raga Yaman [Pannalal Ghosh]

03 Zindagi Jab Bhi [Talat Aziz]

04 Raga Yaman [L Subramaniam and Bismillah Khan]

05 Yaman Kalyan (Largo moderato)[ Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar]

06 Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujhpar [Mohmmad Rafi]

07 Raga Emen Kalyan [Pt. Pratap Narayan and Kankana Banerjee]

08 Kalyani [Rudresh Mahantappa and Dakshina Ensemble]

09 Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah [Farida Khanum]

10 Shakal and naghma in the melodic mode of Emen (Yaman) [Ustad Mohammad Omar]

YAMAN

Everybody Must Get Stoned: Sunday Sounds

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The exact moment that India finally embraced Flower Power is captured forever in the hypnotic and groping guitar riff that opens the hippie anthem “Dum Maro Dum” in the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971).

That this cultural milestone was designed by director and film lead Dev Anand to warn Indians about the loose, drug-addled lifestyle of hippies, rather than embrace it, is the very definition of irony.

“Dum Maro Dum” became an instant hit. Along with Asha Bhosle’s sultry vocals, the acrid smell of charas (hashish) seemed to seep out of radios all across North India. The composer, RD Burman, used the song as a platform to fly at the loftiest levels of popular music for the next 15 years. A young Zeenat Aman, on whom the song had been picturised, shot to “national sexpot” status overnight. Even Anand confessed he had fallen in love with his co-star.

The song remains one of Bollywood’s all-time favourites, as evergreen as eternal young man Dev Anand himself.

Over the years, as reputations of Bhosle and Pancham da (Burman) grew internationally, “Dum Maro Dum” became a source of inspiration for a slew of artists all over the world. [full article]