Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I Love Desi 1: Big Themes

Went to India back in March. Oddly, it was a finance guy that summed it up: "Was it everything from depths-of-poverty crazy to mind-blowingly awesome?"


It is the sort of experience that is so all-encompassing that it makes no sense to speak of it in any general terms. Categories like food, politics, art, etc. need to be broken down to specifics. The taste of melting mutton and berries over a healthy bed of rice under a cool ceiling fan. The daily passing of electronic billboards that encourage unity to "vanquish terror." The feel of a slumgirl's dried, calloused hand as she grabbed my arm to get my attention. The luxury of wading in a country club swimming pool. The un-calculating smile of a driver at the end of a long day of sitting in the heat for hours and going through hell on the highway. The calculating smile of a driver at the end of 24 hours of constant swindling. The ecstasy of downing clean, pure water after a day of wandering. Etc., etc.

You'd think I would focus on the music, but I suppose I did in ways I hadn't planned: feeling the rhythm of rush hour traffic (both on the sidewalks and the streets); hearing the frequent din of religion; and of course seeing the flashy signifier of any metropolis: videos/television. I didn't take to the conventional ways of consuming music until the last few days when I realized, "Yikes, I haven't taken to the conventional ways of consuming music." A couple trips to Rhythm House, some peeks at the tellie and liberal use of Continental's direct movie system were about it. Hell, G&G dug at Chor Bazaar for me!

All to say, I owe G&G and y'all some love. Today's blend is a mix of tracks that I picked up and G&G picked up for me. The songs are all Hindi film songs from the '50s to the '80s. Being music from the past, all of it feels completely separate from the trip--like some lost appendix. That said, the music has a universal willingness to break boundaries--a sense of freedom we saw everywhere we went. Maybe that's why I gravitated towards the songs that freely incorporate other cultural elements; remind me again why it took so long for Western artists to mine South Asian music? Yet at the same time there is a quaintness that locks these songs in another time--similar to how the trip has been shelved away in my memory.

This post ran long, so I'll split it into four parts over the coming days: Big Themes; The Other; Go, Go!; and Loosies. The first section contains some of the "big" numbers that came into the collection:

"Mehbooba Mehbooba" (from Sholay)
"Hum Tumhe Chante Hain" (from Qurbani)

Sholay and Qurbani represent major commercial benchmarks in Bollywood history. The former is the highest-grossing film in Indian cinematic history and ran in one Mumbai theater for over 5 years. The film's theme music alone summarizes the film's mass appeal: a short, simple fusion of memorable playback melodies and '60s latin-'pop rhythms. Qurbani is an '80s hit that most everyone saw back in the day. But the soundtracks are pretty distinct.

R.D. Burman applied his typically eclectic touch to Sholay. I picked "Mehbooba Mehbooba" for the appearance of the composer on the vocals. He stepped behind the mic on occasion, but this one seems to capture the idiosyncratic qualities of his voice. The track itself is an interesting take on Cypriot folk music, which you could easily overlook given the camp value of the accompanying dance sequence.

Kalyanji-Anandji lend the Bondish Qurbani a classy touch (particularly the qawwali-inflected title cut). Many remember the unabashed pop flotsam "Aap Jaisa Koi," especially with its "Rock Me Baby" knock-off drum machine. But "Hum Tuhme Chahte Hain" is the standout with its faux celeste breakdown.

"Pretty Woman" (from Kal Ho Na Ho)

S.R. Khan being in the headlines was no surprise. The actor has been an institution for years now. While we were there, most of the press was about My Name Is Khan and his meeting with Akon for the upcoming film Ra One. That said, this joint from 2003 got some burn on the hotel tellie and reminded me of SRK's long-standing America-philia. Why this guy hasn't conquered the States yet is beyond me--this number screams I Love Apple Pie And NASCAR, Too!!

Next up will be part 2, The Other...

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