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

Hymn for Bangladesh: Ali Akbar Khan

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A short and very sweet recording issued originally in 1972 in the wake of the Bangladesh freedom movement.

Assigning countries and labels to musicians is a waste of time in South Asia.  The land that stretches from Peshawar in the western part of Pakistan to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh was for many centuries part of an imagined cultural space which was once called Hindustan.  Yes, Pathans were different from Punjabis who were different from Biharis and Bengalis but uniting these many language groups was an ethos and a sophisticated cultural mode of expression.

It could be detected in certain rules of living and ruling. As well as in a language that if not spoken fluently or even frequently was familiar to people all across this region. And though there existed (and still do) countless styles of folk music in northern India the classical tradition was at home as much in muggy Dhaka as it was in arid Peshawar.

So to call Ali Akbar Khan an Indian musician is really just silly.  He was born into one of the most illustrious classical music households in Hindustan but in what is now called Bangladesh.  He lived and taught in the US for decades and has been awarded high honors by the Indian government.  His followers and fans are legion in Pakistan and he has made some of the most enduring ‘jazz/fusion’ recordings.

Ali Akbar Khan is a great maestro of the sarod, a son of Hindustan and a citizen of the world.

But in 1971 things were hot on the subcontinent. Bazaar garam tha, as they say. And it is not surprising that in times of intense conflict and suffering people remember their roots and pray for loved ones.  This album is Khan sahib’s prayer.

The first raga, Bhimpalasi, is an afternoon raga and is full of the artist’s longing for home. Bhimpalasi expresses the ‘Suppressed longing of a lover, but [is] serene, with dignity, and yet throbbing with deep emotion. Sung or played from late afternoon to sunset, Bhimpalasi is poignant and passionate, filled with yearning.’

The second selection is raga Sivaranjani a piece that glimmers with sadness.  In the words of one commentator “Sivaranjini is a hauntingly melancholic raga usually sung from late evening to midnight (9 PM to 12 AM). The meaning of the raga name is interpreted as Shiva-the Lord + Ranjini-to please. [Thus, this is] the raga sung to please the fearsome Lord Shiva.

Longing and melancholy in a hymn to a shattered homeland.

[CS 2042] front Track Listing:

  1. Bhimpalasi
  2. Sivaranjani

Ali Akbar Khan