Tag Archives: music

The Tragic And Talented

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Everybody dies. Of the many ways in which this can happen, the “tragic” death of a pop culture icon – inevitably attributed to a mixture of hedonism, extreme success and existential loneliness – is one of the least interesting, yet paradoxically, probably the most celebrated. When Amy Winehouse died last month, the same tired tropes were trotted out in the media and on public opinion aggregators like Twitter: that it came as a complete shock, that she was the victim of the paparazzi (or of a curse that affects 27-year old musicians) and of course, that her talent had gone to waste.

It’s the last of those statements that makes the least sense. Winehouse was known to the world first and foremost not because of her binge drinking but because of her work – her unmistakable contralto, her ironic (mostly self-penned) lyrics and the visual effects, such as the beehive wig and the winged eye makeup, which she cultivated during her healthier years. The rest of it came afterwards. The increasing disarray in which she appeared in candid photographs, for example, or the fact that she began to be booed offstage by her own fan following were because at one point she had been worth following at all.

So how could it be said that she wasted her talent, when her talent was observed and enjoyed at its height? What if there was little or nothing left in Winehouse, artistically speaking, beyond the body of work she had already produced by the time of her demise? The aftermath of such an event usually results in speculation that borders on the downright panegyrical, perhaps because it may come off as malicious to suggest otherwise. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what Winehouse might have cleaned up to become, or if she had been capable of cleaning up. But it must also be said – she owed no one else anything, but she owed it to herself to find out.

To say an artist has died “before their time” is to say that her or his death came unexpectedly, because of calamity or early disease. Consider just a couple of examples among other musicians. When Jeff Buckley drowned at 30 in 1997, he had only released his seminal Grace album, a work so remarkable that his cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is more famous than the original. When Lhasa de Sela died of breast cancer in 2010, aged just 37, her three luminous multilingual albums were only one facet of a life that spanned richly varied experiences as a traveller, circus performer and human being. Her music was a vital part but not the only vital part of what she did.

Amy Winehouse, however, didn’t die suddenly or unexpectedly. Her own parents have told the press that they had been preparing for her death for four years; her father wrote a graveside eulogy for her in 2007, her mother picked out a cemetery plot in 2008. Make of this bizarre parental admission what you will, but Winehouse herself showed no outward signals of being in love with life – and living in celebrity-obsessed England, where her every move was documented, some semblance of a fighting spirit or joie de vivre would surely have come through if she had. She killed herself slowly with the kind of “reckless deliberation” – an oxymoron in any other case – that can only come from a person motivated by self-destruction.

The idea of the self-annihilating genius is a dangerous one. What is true is that mess and chaos are often intrinsic to art – at the risk of romanticizing it, a nod must still be given to the correlation between beauty and heartbreak. What is also true is that many great artists manage to extend their lives and works over a long trajectory while waging a constant struggle against their inner demons and external hardships. To raise a shot of tequila to Frida Kahlo on her birthday is to celebrate the life she fought tooth and nail to embrace despite physical ailments over which she had no control. To leave vodka bottles in memorial shrines outside Winehouse’s London house – as fans have done – is hardly a salute to triumph and passionate engagement. It’s a mockery of what was actually wasted: the choice to live and to give.

None of this is said with ill-will. Winehouse had real talent, she was unusual and she had a devil-may-care attitude which at first was deeply attractive (setting her apart from those who contrive their public images) but later revealed itself to be a complete lack of self-possession. If she managed to clean up her act without losing the essence of her gifts, she would likely have blossomed. The tragedy is not that she couldn’t fulfill her potential because she died. The tragedy is that she died because she lived not in pursuit of creation, but in pursuit of tragedy itself.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

Book Review: Rock and Roll Jihad by Salman Ahmad

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Salman Ahmad was born into a fairly charmed life: the son of a manager at Pakistan International Airlines, he travelled all over the world as a child, and migrated with his family to Tappan, New York, at the age of 12, where he discovered the world of concerts, liberal values, cross-cultural camaraderie and his own passion for music-making. So when he was sent back to Lahore in 1982 to pursue medical studies, the shock of dislocation was compounded by the shock of censorship and conservatism in an increasingly insular society. When the young Ahmad’s precious guitar is broken by a member of the self-proclaimed moral police, his destiny is sealed. He too becomes radicalized, but instead of retreating into bigotry and hatred, he accepts as his personal jihad the spreading of love and understanding, through the power of music.

Today, Salman Ahmad is known as Pakistan’s first real rock star, a musician who brought a message of hope to a politically complex part of the world with the bands Vital Signs and Junoon, and an ambassador for cultural relations whose work has dealt with repairing the divides between Islam and the West, and Pakistan and India. Rock and Roll Jihad, his memoir of his personal journey so far, is an inspiring account by a compassionate messenger of peace.

The book starts out a little awkwardly, peppered with too many parenthetical explanations – take this single line for an example, “Salman mian [young man], you want to become a mirasi [low-class musician]? Your parents have high expectations of you and you want to waste the rest of your life playing this tuntunna [gizmo]?” But as the greater ambition of this memoir – to be a reconciliatory and celebratory bridge between divides – becomes clear, this is forgiven for how helpful it might be for a young, international audience. Told in an easygoing style, brushes with glamour – like taking Mick Jagger to see dancing girls – and brushes with politics – like being banned by the government, and losing band members to ego clashes and religious fanaticism – sit comfortably with an abidingly deep spirituality.

Rock and Roll Jihad is recommended regardless of whether one is a fan of Salman Ahmad’s music – although the accompanying 12-track CD offers a bonus to anyone who is. Best suited for teenage readers, who might see in Ahmad a wonderful example of how rebellion and anger can be galvanized to heal, this simply-worded, tactfully passionate memoir is a stirring read.

Ahmad’s jihad is a beautiful one – inspired by the poets of the past and the peacemakers of the present, he sees himself and his work as a necessary voice in the greater struggle against forces of ignorance, prejudice and restriction. This book, peacefully narrated and with no hint of the ugly anger that colours the work of many activists, succeeds in spreading a message both in support of greater global harmony, and in encouraging the young to take heart as they pursue their dreams. Like all truly enlightened people, Ahmad leads by example.

An edited version appeared last week in EDEX, The New Indian Express.

The Venus Flytrap: In Song And In Silence

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I recently enjoyed the chance to perform alongside the Australian writer and cellist Kevin Gillam, who interweaves his poetry with the magnificent timbres of the instrument. Far from the city which I soften daily with Bach’s suites, I made two discoveries: firstly, the music evoked no Pavlovian responses in me, no memory of that which needs softening. And, these celebrated ouvertures may have been written by the other Bach – his wife.

Gillam spoke of research by the conductor Martin Jarvis that proposed that Anna Magdalena Bach had composed the suites; their pacing and sensibilities differ significantly from Bach’s larger body of work. This stayed with me. The unaccompanied cello suites accompany me everywhere, and now this thought did too. History remembers us as it will. We cannot influence its remembering. Our work is not to contrive the echoes we leave, but to live life’s opus with operatic feeling. It matters not whether we survive in song or in silence, but only that we deliver our clearest cadence.

I had been introduced to the baroque suites by a musicologist I had befriended while travelling in the Thanjavur district. A year later, I returned to that part of the country, and again, what I took back with me resonated for a long time afterward.

Pilgrims to a music festival, we had travelled out to the village of Thirupughazhur for a meal and to see a certain house, an excursion within a longer one, and after an extraordinary banana leaf lunch – the best vegetarian South Indian meal of my life – were on the backyard portico, napping or talking in the somnolence of the first few weeks of real heat since the rains had ended. A temple tank faced us, the view tainted only by the telephone towers in the near distance. Thirupughazhur literally translates to “town of the praise-song”; it is sacred to the legends of the poet-mystics Appar and Sundarar (not all poets are mystics, but I think all mystics are poets, even the ones who do not speak).

Among our party was the Indologist David Shulman, who spoke of the Tantric concept of the vibrating universe. As in string theory, the world is always singing. God, perhaps, is eternally humming. In stages, this supreme vibration becomes audible. From an intensity impossible for us to hear, it devolves into speech, noise, melody. The urmani is the moment of epiphany: the moment when silence turns to sound.

By April, months later, the rains still had not returned. I soften the city with cello suites, I wrote. A few days after I sent it to him, another friend – yet another soul who blesses the orchestra of my life – told me he had set the poem with this line in it to music. I was surprised; much as I have an interest in multidisciplinary art, my writing, like a cello suite, is almost always imagined unaccompanied. I listened to a rough cut of the piece, and in the silence after the song’s ending, I thought of the urmani. I thought of when it might have been when, reading the page, the words became infused with sonority. In my friend’s head, a harmony had formed. In mine, it had happened backwards. The world is always singing. I am always only trying to write down its songs.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Festival of Sacred Music, Thiruvayaru

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It was my pleasure and privilege to travel with the Prakriti Foundation last year to their Festival of Sacred Music, and I am delighted to have been able to do the same again just this past weekend.  This was published in today’s The New Indian Express.

The experience of travelling with the Prakriti Foundation to the Festival of Sacred Music at Thiruvayaru, now in its second year, is a multi-faceted one. The nights are electric with open air concerts in marvellous “found” locations in this muse-kissed small town; the days are filled with sightseeing to nearby monuments, discussions on aesthetic sensibility, genuine camaraderie and long scenic drives that cut through rural heartlands and Tamil sacred geography – the Cauvery river, the fields, the shrines in every grove.

This year’s Festival featured three incandescent concerts, beginning with Vidya Rao’s Hindustani thumri recital at the Husoor Palace. The soft-spoken Srimathi Rao shared an elegant series of thumris that spanned the gamut from Meera bhajans to Sufi poetry, taking pains to explain the lyrics to the audience. As with all the locations, the lighting and stage design was inspired, with diyas settled in the nooks of pigeon nesting towers.

The following night, contemporary-looking palm leaf floral arrangements hung upside down in the tent under which a jugalbandi showcasing the talents of Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary on shehnai and Pinnai Managar Shri. Dhakshinamurthi and K.M Uthirapathi on nadaswaram resounded at the Pushya Mahal Ghat. The competitive-collaborative dynamics of the jugalbandi format reached a crescendo with the solo performances by drummers on both sides, who stole the show with their prowess.

The Festival concluded on an incandescent note, with Aruna Sairam’s powerful voice rising under a glorious full moon at the Panchanatheeswara Temple. Srimathi Sairam selected her repertoire astutely, sharing both complex, rarely performed padams as well as livelier pieces chosen particularly for the many Carnatic music students in the audience. A certain darkness in her delivery greatly enhanced the phenomenal nature of this performance.

As with all Prakriti Foundation projects, the Festival of Sacred Music is founded on visionary principles: it is not kutcheris alone that are the objective, but also heritage preservation and rural tourism. To this end, Prakriti Foundation works in close collaboration with Dr Rama Kausalya’s Maribu Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), taking as a fulcrum the revival of and renewed respect for both the sites and the ethos that made this part of Tamil Nadu so culturally affluent. It is a labour of love that has already been many years in the making and will require much effort yet – but some of its rewards are immediately evident. The concerts themselves, of course, but also the sense of magic that hangs in the air for the duration of the Festival. For the second year running, I looked up at the stars after dinner as friends of the Prakriti Foundation shared poetry and songs at the intimate Husoor Palace, and whispered a thank you to the muses that continue to kiss this ancient land.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

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When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Songs In Another Language

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There is no music nearly as atmospheric as a song in another language, a language one doesn’t know. Familiar torch songs may dispense the sweet, alcoholic comfort of their lyrics, instrumental scores may swell with their melodrama, but nothing comes close to the sheer pathos of words one can only repeat without comprehension – as resonant yet as empty as drums.

Music in languages one doesn’t know is music for everything that hurts too much to feel in words, or which words turn into something that loses shape, slip-sliding away. Music that one knows only with the body, with what is evoked by and within it.

When I lived outside my country, I listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi, Bhojpuri and Baul songs, and difficult Tamil. I listened to the Kantha Shasthi Kavasam; now I don’t even have it in my iTunes. And M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1957 rendition of Suttum Vizhichudar; for some reason it made me think of my grandparents driving down a coast, their children in the backseat, my grandmother complaining about how the speed at which he drove made it hard for her to breathe. Nostalgia is remembering things we didn’t know we were experiencing at the time. It’s also remembering things we didn’t experience, but may as well have.

I stopped listening to that music when I came back. Maybe I didn’t need to. Or maybe the person I had been, the person who had needed it, only existed elsewhere.

I would listen to Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela so much in my teens that I began to understand the dialogue in Spanish films. The enigma ended in some ways – and deepened in others. I chose multilingualism over mystery. That was worth it.

But Farida Khanum broke my heart for years with that ghazal, and I should have left that honour with her and not handed it over to my own experiences. Aaj jaane ki zid na karo. I discovered eventually what it translated to – don’t leave tonight. And at that point a new layer of meaning glazed over it, the ache of being always the Bond girl and never Bond, always the one having to endure the long ride back from the airport. But until then it meant nothing. And so it meant everything it could possibly mean. Now it can only mean one thing. All that was latent within it is gone.

Perhaps there is something to be said for innocent impressionism. When a song is heard as sound and not story, something special happens. Its semantic spaces broaden. Our understanding draws blanks, and our imaginations fill them in. The human voice becomes an instrument in its own right. The whisper of a throat racked with failure can turn seductive; the grieving crescendo of a mourning song may rouse instead.

There are points in the film of my life where I am happy to not have subtitles. I don’t want to know what the opera my friend was singing years ago, days after he told me his secret, really meant. It may have been a bawdy, or boring, thing. But to me it meant his illness and his mortality, the fragility of that performance itself. Its irretrievability. I don’t want to know what some of the baila of my childhood means, because so much of my creative impulse comes from trying to recreate that time. I need those wide open spaces, for they are my canvases. I used to be a dancer; it was important then to correlate the languages of the body and mind. I used to deconstruct. Now I am happy to just dance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

A Song, Schnabel and A Handful of Sex Goddesses

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There’s a little something exciting happening mid-next week, as you may or may not already know. Meanwhile, though, here are a few more things that have me excited lately.

1. Candace Bushnell’s original Sex and The City columns in The New York Observer. I’m actually surprised to have not read about this on other blogs, so either I’m way ahead or way behind. Despite my affection for the TV show, I always kind of wondered if it had to be in some ways a little lowbrow (sue me), because it made  too ridiculous a number of women believe they they could see themselves reflected in it, realistically or otherwise. As a reader and writer, I also wished those columns that Carrie was constantly typing out in her undies would actually make it into the show in some way. And here they are, and heavens, they are gold. Finally I see, really and truly, why this was so groundbreaking, how it was writing like this that actually laid the blueprint for the cultural phenomenon. I take my pretentious writerly beret off to Candace Bushnell — this archive proves that no matter how many imitators, there really can only be one CB.

2. Jerome Kugan’s home-recorded cover of “On The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Some covers really are better than the originals, and other covers of. Harry Connick Jr. ain’t got nothing on you, JK baby! This needs to go on your next album. So the poor folks who aren’t your friends can hear it too. Hahaha. ;)

3. This slightly snarky New York Times article says that Julian Schnabel is going to have a show in India. Where where where? Please say Chennai.

4. This 1996 essay by Sandra Cisneros, which I read in order to remind me again why it’s okay to be a certain kind of writer. This week I have been saying a litany of graces for the great ones who paved the way for someone like me to be myself and be okay with it. Without Frida, I don’t know if I would have been able to live with many aspects of myself. Without Sandra, I don’t know if I would have stopped writing funny, sexy, confessional poetry in favour of smarter, more serious stuff. Without my great-grandmother Valliamma, I don’t know if I could have learnt how to feel the fear and do it anyway. There is no shame in acknowledging inspiration.

5. Two Guardian profiles on gifted bad girls, Manet’s muse, Victorine Meurent, and another Guadalupe, Lupe Yoli.