It’s not easy finding a good clip of Cheb i Sabbah… But this is one, of him and a belly dancer named Frederique in a Berkeley record store. Making it even more interesting, one of the songs that he plays – starting right when Frederique’s name comes up in the credits – is a song by Natacha Atlas (that’s “Dymalhum,” from her 2003 album Something Dangerous).
All posts for the month October, 2007
I picked up a copy of the Basement Bhangra CD by DJ Rekha and wanted to say a few words about it. But for some interesting and no-doubt more informed reviews, I suggest checking out The Orlando Weekly and Sepia Mutiny. The gist that I get from these reviews – especially the one from Orlando – is that the CD is basically good but could have been more diverse and surprising. They say this based on their experience with the actual Basement Bhangra event, which I never made it to (lame as that might sound – though I’ve almost been there a few times). I have heard some other sets by Rekha and I know that she can stretch farther in crossing borders or genres. (And by the way, I found a pretty good example of that over at PS1 Radio.) But all that having been said, no one is going to say that this is a bad compilation, as there is a bunch of worthwhile stuff here.
I particularly like a couple of songs that occur back-to-back about two-thirds through the CD, “Dhol, Dark and Handsome” by The Dhol Foundation (whom I’ve heard for quite some time and which I know is partly descended from Transglobal Underground), and “Devi Rhythm” by Eddie STATS and Dinesh Boaz (don’t know as much about these guys, but this is pretty good). As the titles suggest, these tracks hit you with A LOT of fine percussion.
I also like a song earlier in the comp (which has a very long title that’s hard to type) by Gunjan and Tigerstyle. I really like Gunjan’s vocals, which are equally nice as she drifts between a western r&b/pop style and more traditional Indian singing. I think she sounds very sweet and I look forward to hearing more from her.
As an aside, though, lest people think that I’m always going to fall for the next Desi female vocalist (whether singer or rapper), I should add that I’m not so crazy about the ubiquitous (as Mutiny put it) Hard Kaur or the two songs that she has close to the end of this compilation. But, then again, maybe I don’t mind her so much… Her voice is pretty monotonous and the lyrics are quite trivial (something that I admittedly wouldn’t have been able to notice had she done like most of the people on this comp and rapped in a South Asian language), but she keeps a good enough beat and can be kind of funny.
And this CD closes out in a very decent manner… I like the next-to-last piece by DJ Rekha and Dave Sharma, and I wish there had been more Sharma here. The final track, by Malkit Singh, is quite interesting – probably at least in part because it’s been remixed by Bally Sagoo, who can be counted on to do interesting stuff (as I’ve known for a while – he is someone I have heard for ages).
I imagine that I will play the Basement Bhangra CD a bunch of times in the near future, especially on the subway. If I/we somehow expected (even) more, maybe it’s because there’s been such tremendous hype around this and we’ve been waiting so long for a well-known bhangra comp to come out of the U.S., especially from one particular DJ in New York City. And because some people who actually have made it to Rekha’s Basement Bhangra nights say she really is wilder there. I guess I should drag myself out to one of those soon – considering it’s over ten years since they started…
Some people are visiting this site in a search for mujras because they’re looking for softcore porn. That’s understandable, because the mujra sort of has a double meaning. Wikipedia used to have* a pretty good description of its origins… It was a dignified dance once, but due to political and social upheaval, it did for a while become the province of prostitutes. However, it seems to have undergone a more arty and slightly more wholesome revival and has become a fairly normal feature of mainstream Indian and Pakistani cinema. With its complicated history and mixed reputation, it’s probably similar in some ways to belly dancing or to the recent, more arty revival of burlesque dancing here in the U.S.
My interest in mujras is certainly not without some sexual aspect, but to me, watching a real mujra is far more interesting and aesthetically satisfying than looking at softcore porn or some artless striptease dance. Although, I admit, if you do a search for mujras, you’re going to find a lot of stuff out there that is nothing more than striptease. But a real mujra, with its particular traditional features, is something different from that.
As Wikipedia puts it:
Mujra is a part of classical kathak. Although many believe that (sort of true too) this is the variation of kathak that bears suggestive connotations, most kathak artistes perform the mujra quite gracefully and in a dignified manner.
Mujra inherits from kathak a lot of intricate arm movements, and that’s one reason I really like it. People in the west don’t use their arms and hands in dancing the way they do in the countries of South Asia. To me, arms can be as important in dancing as the feet, and the use of the arms in Indian dancing is probably better than in dancing anywhere else.
And I have found in my recent search for mujras on the Internet that no one is as pleasing to watch as Megha. Part of this does have to do with my sexual aesthetics. I like the fact that she is not as skinny as so many dancers; she has some substance to her body yet can still move with great speed and agility. And I do like the speed, maybe because of my own experiences with dancing to hardcore techno and punk. There are also probably many other good aspects to her technique that I could spell out more specifically if I wanted to think over this carefully, maybe even do some more research, and play dance critic. But for the present purposes, let’s just say that I think she’s great.
I’ve changed the Megha mujras on this blog a couple of times, trying to find just the right ones. There probably are mujras out there in which she’s done (even) better dancing, but I also was conscious of the music that I wanted to include. I chose the most recent one, especially, for that modern punjabi sound, with its particular rhythms, electronics, and fun vocals.
I’ll be getting a little more into that punjabi sound in the future. The biggest contemporary music that uses it, of course, is our modern-day bhangra. It took me a while to get to like real punjabi bhangra (as opposed to other contemporary desi music, which might be called bhangra sometimes but maybe really isn’t); however, it’s growing on me. There are a couple of record stores near me in Jackson Heights that sell almost nothing but bhangra, and one of them is located right next door to an Indian restaurant that has the best reasonably priced chicken masala in New York. So, no promises yet, but I might be posting some reviews of real bhangra in the near future – along with more mujras.
* Note, five months after this post: Had to revise because Wikipedia’s definition (at least as it existed) seems to have disappeared. Will be looking for a different one soon – and revise this post more. (I’m writing this P.S. on March 15, because I’m seeing that this post is still getting a bunch of hits, strangely enough.)
Note, a year and three months after this post: Wow, people are still landing here, a lot. A lot has happened in my education of Indian dance and music since I wrote this. For one thing, I’ve gone off the stage dance mujras (though I still like Megha just fine) and have developed full knowledge and appreciation of Indian film mujras. These are more artificial in a way, because they are in a fictional and usually historical setting (courtesans and all that stuff), but the artistry of some of these dances is just fantastic. My favorite Bollywood mujras are those done by some of the best golden age dancers: Vyjayanthimala, Padmini, Minoo Mumtaz… As I’ve said, though, the word “mujra” obviously can have very different meanings, and the Pakistani stage dancers are a very different thing from the mujra that I’m more likely to watch now. I still like them, though…
Regarding the comments about Punjabi music… I seem to have gotten off that a little. I still appreciate contemporary desi sounds, but am not so much into the real bhangra these days. To some degree, my tastes have also gone south, so to speak. I fell in love with another “reformed” dance, bharatanatyam, pulled out of some disrepute in the 1930s and revised into a high art. I get a lot of joy out of watching that kind of dance, and have for some time at this point. I therefore also realized how much I like carnatic music too.
The music store that I was referring to seems to have closed, or at least it’s not in the place where I remember it. There are a couple of stores I still go to that sell the fashionable music, but I go to them mainly for classic films (which they also sell, as do quite a few other stores around here). The place I was thinking of that had the good chicken masala doesn’t impress me so much these days. I’ve kind of gotten away from spending extra money in restaurants and when I get food from this area, it’s mainly from the trucks. (There are good ones along 73rd Street.) I also am buying lot more old Indian movies now, sort of instead of the restaurant food.
Wandering around the Net the other day, I found a good Canadian-based site called Beats Without Borders. It features a good clip of a Cheb i Sabbah show, over in the “multimedia” section. It also has some very good music mixes – one, by DJ Adrian, starts playing as soon as you get to the main page, and two others are featured in the “Multimedia” section.
I should add, though, that I am not sure what the future of the Beats Without Borders collective is going to be. It seems that everything on this page is at least a year old, and I saw news that one of the four DJs in this collective, Lady Ra, is going very far abroad for a while – in part, at least, to explore the roots of some of those beats.
I will have to look into the whole matter further, but I didn’t want to delay getting a few more people in touch with this source of fine global music, especially if there is any chance that it will disappear.
In addition to watching music videos, I’ve been watching some dancing. This is Megha. She is magnificent.
Yes, soon enough, the Natacha Atlas videos that I posted before became “No Longer Available.” It’s a shame, because they are great. Oh, well.
I’m deleting those videos (or, rather, the pictures for those videos that lead to messages that tell you they’re no longer available), but I’m going to post another one, which I thought of posting anyway. (We’ll see how long it stays up here.) This is “Leysh Natarak” (“Why Are We Fighting?”), from her first solo album, Diaspora, which came out ten years ago.
If you find yourself not too interested in this video at the very beginning, just keep watching… I think it is very moving.
The song is in Arabic, but you don’t really need a translation to get the meaning once you’ve see the video – it makes the message quite clear. Still, there are translations available in different places (including in the comments for the YouTube page itself), although they might vary a little here and there.
Out of all the translations that I’ve seen, I would probably give the most credence to the one that Ted Swedenburg provided at Hawgblog:
Why Are We Fighting?
Why are we fighting
When we’re all together?…
Between me and you there is a long history…
Let’s return to peace
Let’s make peace, we are brothers
I had no idea, when I posted a YouTube of Monsoon on October 2, that this band’s wonderful singer, Sheila Chandra, was about to make a rare appearance playing New York City, at Joe’s pub – which must have been a very nice and intimiate place to see her – on October 3. Some of Sheila’s New Age fans (and I believe she has a few these days) might have assumed that I was just having some psychic premonition. But if I really had psychic powers, I would not have missed the show, as I didn’t find out about it until I checked her Web site the night of October 4.
Sheila Chandra changed a lot over the years, but I continued to follow her music for a couple of decades and actually enjoyed her relatively recent stuff more. Her music has become much more experimental and minimalist. She’s mixed Indian and Celtic influences – like quite a few acts during these decades – but she has done this in a way that went beyond the boldest experiments of most pop acts or New Age or world music groups. (And by the way, her music has been labeled all these different things – because she’s crossed a lot of genres, just like some of my other favorite acts out there). She has conducted her most interesting experiments with the drone (Indian or Celtic), Indian rhythms, and her own voice. Some of that work over the years – especially from about the mid ’80s into the ’90s – was quite beautiful and mesmerizing. But I really appreciated Chandra’s work at the turn of the present millennium, when she released a couple of experimental EPs with the Ganges Orchestra – which is also at least as much a project of her longtime collaborator and producer Steve Coe…
I am thinking mainly about the first of those two EPs, called simply “EP1.” Reportedly, they released only 1,000 copies of each of these EPs, but I somehow managed to find one in a large record chain (I think it was HMV – another one now defunct). I never got my hands on EP2, but I still listen to EP1 and enjoy it, and I imagine the second one was just as raw and experimental. Later, both EPs were combined, revised, and softened up somewhat in a more “listenable” (though still somewhat experimental) album called The Sentence Is True (The Previous Sentence Is False) . But I get more of a kick out of listening to “EP1” because it is just so very out there…
Sheila goes on at some length about the experimentation with voice on those two EPs and the subsequent album, but I also greatly appreciate the hard, bare electronics and the playful use of scratched vinyl and other typically non-musical sounds. (And trust me, none of this stuff is like any techno or turntablism that you have ever heard, but it is a lot harder/rougher-edged than most of the stuff I’ve heard that’s been selling in the “World Music” or “New Age” bins.) And some of the most minmal vocals and electronics are based on complicated Indian rhythms and her experimentation with them.
Chandra said in her comments about The Sentence Is True…, way back in 2001, that she was going to go back to “very edgy but classic settings — song format settings.” I have no idea what her new songs sound like (wish I could have found out), but I’ll take her word on the “very edgy” part.
I would have liked to post an example of her 1999-2001 experiments, but I couldn’t find any available. However, I have found another video, which illustrates some of the musical leaps that she made during the ’80s and ’90s. This number, Lament of McCrimmon/Song of the Banshee, is quite different from the dance pop of Monsoon. (Though, come to think of it, it appeals quite a bit to my old Goth side..)