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Archive for October, 2014

CD review/ Popular Problems — Leonard Cohen


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Popular Problems/ Leonard Cohen

Genre: Singer-songwriter

Label: Sony Music

Rating: *****

QUITE clearly, Leonard Cohen defies the concept of growing old. The Canadian singer-songwriter turned 80 on September 21, and at an age when many of his contemporaries would have lost much of their compositional charm, he has produced one of the most remarkable albums of his career. His 13th release ‘Popular Problems’ is a worthy successor to his 2012 effort ‘Old Ideas’, and it’s another of those collections that keeps sounding better on repeated hearing.

‘Popular Problems’ has nine songs, and at less than 36 minutes, is rather short too. None of the tunes crosses the five-minute mark, and yet, they’re filled with so much depth that they seem much longer. Most important, Cohen’s voice seems to get deeper and even more haunting, with that chronic bronchitis growl that makes him so inimitable.

Like in most of his earlier work, the songs talk of love, sex, religion, politics, war, despair and depression, using some outstanding imagery. While one number ‘A Street’ has been co-written by Anjani Thomas, seven have been penned in partnership with Patrick Leonard. ‘Born In Chains’, which has been doing the live circuit for four years, is Cohen’s only exclusive piece of songwriting.

A highlight of the songs is the minimal use of orchestrations, with soft drum brushes, soothing violins, graceful horns and just-about-adequate organs playing pleasantly in the backdrop. The use of female choruses is a regular feature, as the back-up singers repeat the main lines either in isolation or at cross-harmony with Cohen’s voice. If one has to criticise something about this album, it has to do with the ordinariness of its cover artwork. The rest falls perfectly in place.

The singer is in form from the opening number ‘Slow’, singing “I’m slowing down the tune, I’ve never liked it fast, You wanna get there soon, I wanna get there last” in his trademark style. The second piece ‘Almost Like The Blues’ is a dark, anti-war lament, with the lines “There’s torture and there’s killing, And there’s all my bad reviews, The war, the children missing, Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”

On initial hearing, ‘Samson In New Orleans’ may sound like one of the album’s weaker spots, but that’s because it’s too trademark Cohen in tune and structure. Over a few hearings, this song about the Katrina aftermath impresses with its melancholic violin stretch and infectious back-up vocals. With its charming synthesiser line, ‘A Street’ impresses with the words “I cried for you this morning, And I’ll cry for you again, But I’m not in charge of sorrow, So please don’t ask me when.”

What’s amazing is the way the style of the songs changes as the album progresses. The piano-backed ‘Did I Ever Love You?’ is a hymn-like tune questioning the depth of a relationship, whereas ‘My Oh My” just has the right tinge of the blues, with Cohen altering the way he sings the main words remarkably. The other war-related song ‘Nevermind’ is one of the album’s strongest parts, as he sings, “I had to leave my life behind, I dug some graves you’ll never find, The story’s told with facts and lies, I have a name but never mind.” A funk blues backdrop and Arabic vocals give this piece its own distinctness.

On ‘Born in Chains’, Cohen gets into a gospel flavor, singing “I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt, I was bound to a burden, but the burden it was raised, Oh Lord I can no longer keep this secret, Blessed is the name, the name be praised.” With its charming violins and pleasant acoustic guitar, the concluding track ‘You Got Me Singing’ traverses country territory. Referring to his famous tune ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen sings, “You got me singing, Singing the Hallelujah hymn.”

Though Cohen has written some pathbreaking songs in his career, he hasn’t been too prolific for most part, sometimes giving gaps or seven or nine years between albums. But the heartening thing is that he’s come out with two great albums in the space of two years and a half. Both ‘Old Ideas’, reviewed earlier in this blog on April 30 2012, and ‘Popular Problems’ complement each other. Like wine, Cohen’s charm is increasing with age.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

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CD review/ Hynotic Eye ― Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers


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Hypnotic Eye/ Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Genre: Rock

Sony Music-Warner/ Rs 499

Rating: ****

THOUGH he released his debut album way back in 1976 and eventually became one of the biggest-selling artistes in rock music, Tom Petty debuted at number one on the Billboard charts for the first time only recently, with his 13th recording ‘Hypnotic Eye’. Released in late July, the 11-track set features his band Heartbreakers yet again.

Petty’s music is rooted in classic rock ‘n’ roll, with doses of the blues and American folk thrown in. As such, it is a very pure sound, filled with charming guitar lines, played here by old-time companion Mike Campbell. In fact, with his brilliant and consistent riffs, Campbell is as much the star of this album as Petty.

To be sure, the album begins on a rather commercial and not-too-great note on the first two numbers ‘American dream plan B’ and ‘Fault lines’. While the former is a David Bowie-like piece with ambition-filled lines like “I got a dream I’m gonna fight till I get it right,” the latter is an expression of personal turmoil.

There’s nothing extraordinary about both these tracks, but Petty hits the right note from the third piece onwards. ‘Red river’ has smart guitar solos, an abrupt change in tempo and catchy lines like “So meet me tonight at the Red River, Where the water is clear and cold, Meet me tonight at the Red River, And look down into your soul.”

With its jazz feel and moody riffs, the slower ‘Full grown boy’ is one of the album’s highlights, with Petty singing in a manner reminiscent of Bob Dylan. On ‘Take what you can’, he increases the tempo, uses a sound akin to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse band, and sings “Take what you can, All you can carry, Take what you can, And leave the thoughts behind.”

For more variety, the outstanding ‘Power drunk’ is pure blues with some first-rate slide passages, and ‘Forgotten man’ gets into hard rocking fuzz guitar space, with Petty’s voice filled with anguish on the words “I feel like a forgotten man.” ‘Sins of my youth’ is a simple, nostalgia-filled song with a pop feel and a mellow guitar portion.

The quality drops slightly with ‘You get me high’, which has a very predictable structure and lacks an extraordinary hook. But Petty is in super nick on ‘Burnt out town’, another Dylan take-off with a blues pattern, raw harmonica, tight guitars and Benmont Tench’s smooth piano.

The icing on the cake comes on the last track ‘Shadow people’. Though lengthy at six minutes and 40 seconds, it’s the kind of song which grows on repeated hearing, thanks to its organ, guitar and bass backdrop, and the catchy line “Shadow people in shadow land.”

The end result is an album that’s definitely one of Petty’s better ones, especially over the last two decades. It’s got the compositions, it’s got the guitars, it’s got the variety and most important, it’s got the meat.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

The poetry in Begum Akhtar’s voice


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Today, October 7 2014, is the birth centenary of ghazal empress Begum Akhtar. A tribute

Woh jo hum mein tum mein qaraar tha, tumhe yaad ho ke na yaad ho

Wohi yaani vaada nibaah ka, tumhe yaad ho ke na yaad ho

THE year was 1986, and it was the first time I was hearing, or rather overhearing, the divine voice of Begum Akhtar. I was 22 plus, and till then, I had been exposed to ghazals in a limited manner, mainly through the songs of Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Ghulam Ali, Rajendra-Nina Mehta, Pankaj Udhas and Talat Aziz. I had heard only a few songs of Mehdi Hassan, and my tastes were more inclined towards rock bands like Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues.

Abhay Kant, a journalist colleague who stayed in the neighbouring room in Jaipur, was obsessed with Begum Akhtar, and would play her songs late into the night. I barely paid attention, and at times, even got irritated with him. But once, after ending a round of Pink Floyd, I caught a few strains of ‘Woh jo hum mein tum mein’ playing through his window. The curiosity increased, and after a few days, whenever the ghazal queen played next door, I would ensure that the rock fraternity didn’t disturb her.

A few days later, I sat with Abhay for a Begum Akhtar session, and he patiently, but unsuccessfully, tried to explain the meanings of the difficult Urdu words that regularly came up. The songs that made some sense included ‘Ab chalakte hue saagar dekhe nahin jaate’, ‘Ae mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya’, ‘Deewana banana hai toh to deewana bana de’ and ‘Dil ho to hai na sang-o-kisht’. He tried to explain the style of the poets, but at that time, I was never too interested, showing some expression only when the name ‘Ghalib’ was mentioned. He seemed to be in fashion, after all.

Abhay had seven or eight ghazals in his collection, and as long as he stayed there, I received an occasional dose of Begum Akhtar. He suddenly left for a job in Delhi or Patna, and for another four years, I did not hear that golden voice. When I relocated to Mumbai in late 1990, I picked up two cassettes from Rhythm House, just to give them a shot. That was when the craze actually began. Over the years, the two ghazal singers who’ve had the major impact on me are Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar.

FOR the true appreciation of ghazals, a few things are required. The first aspect involves the basic composition. After all, a ghazal with a melodious and distinct tune is more likely to create an impact. For the listeners, additional knowledge of classical raags and taals will help, though in this genre, one may argue that it may not be as necessary as it is with Hindustani classical or Carnatic music. Since the ghazal is a lighter form, a catchy tune can instantly attract the listener, whether or not he can identify the raag.

Secondly, and more important, one needs to have a basic understanding of the Urdu language, or at least the desire to comprehend the words used. Since many poets, mostly the classical ones, tend to use complex phrases, one may need to keep referring to a dictionary or the Internet. But without understanding the true meaning of the words, one can never get the exact gist of the ghazal. In a related sense, it is important to know the mood of the piece, whether it is romantic or political or emotional or even satirical.

Next comes the technicalities of writing. One must be able to distinguish between a ghazal, which uses rhyming couplets, a nazm, which uses free poetry, and a geet, which is more of a simple song. One should be able to identify a qataa (which has two shers) and a rubaai (which uses a four-line format). One should be able to define the matla (the opening couplet), the makta (the last couplet), the behr (metre) and takhallus (the writer’s pen name, often used in the makta). Equally important, one should understand portions known as kaafiya and radeef, which are used for rhyming, and other forms of writing jargon like misra-e-oola (first line of a couplet) and misra-e-saani (second line).

While these terms may sound too highbrow to the lay listener, the fact is that they are actually very simple to understand and are essential to enhance true appreciation.

Finally, the singer’s own style plays a supreme role. The texture of their voice and the soulfulness with which they express words distinguish them from the others. Though one hears the singer’s voice first, normally before one gets into the verbal depths, the truth is that only a great voice will make you want to come back to the song, irrespective of how deep its meaning is.

The choice of poetry, the uniqueness of the composition and the singer’s manner of expression all combine to increase the beauty of the ghazal. And this is where Begum Akhtar displayed her own style. Her voice brimmed with pathos, the musical compositions and arrangements set the right mood and the words were powerful enough to leave a lasting impact. And it wasn’t only in ghazals that she was the master – her rendition of light classical thumris and dadras (like ‘Ab ke saawan ghar aaja’, ‘Koyaliya mat kar pukaar’ and ‘Hamri atariya’) was exquisite too.

LET’S now specifically look at Begum Akhtar’s choice of poetry. If one examines her repertoire, one notices two things. One is that she has sung the work of most of the top-notch poets extensively. The second is that she used a good mix of classical and 20th century poets.

Leading her list of great poets was the 19th century master Mirza Ghalib. Here, her selection included the gems ‘Dil hi to hai na sang-o-kisht’, ‘Aah ko chahiye ek umr asar hone tak’, ‘Yeh na thi hamari kismat’, ‘Ibn-e-mariyam hua karey koi’, ‘Koi umeed bar nahin aati’ and ‘Daayam pada hua tere dar par nahin hoon mein’.

There was a certain magic in which she presented Ghalib’s shers, one example being from ‘Dil hi to hai’. The matla goes:

Dil hi toh hai na sang-o-kisht, dard se bhar na aaye kyon

Royenge hum hazaar baar, koi hamein sataaye kyon

Then, one of the shers is:

Dair nahin, haram nahin, dar nahin, aastaan nahin

Baithe hain rehguzar pe hum, gair hamein uthaaye kyon

Here, ‘aaye’, ‘sataaye’ and ‘uthaaye’ are the kaafiya and ‘kyon’ is the radeef. And to get a truer understanding of its meanings, ‘sang’ means stone, ‘kisht’ is brick, ‘dair’ is temple, ‘haram’ is mosque, ‘dar’ is gate and ‘aastaan’ is doorstep.

Of the other classical poets, Mir Taqi Mir was represented by ‘Ulti ho gayee sab tadbeerein’ and ‘Dil ki baat kahi nahin jaati’. The former has a famous makta:

‘Meer’ ke deen-o-mazhab ko ab poochte kya ho unne to

Kashka khencha dair mein baitha, kab ka tark Islam kiya

‘Deen-o-mazhab’ means religion or religious beliefs, ‘kashka’ is the Urdu equivalent of ‘tilak’, ‘dair’ is temple and ‘tark’ is renounce. ‘Meer’ is the takhallus.

From the older generation of poets, Begum Akhtar’s rendition of Daagh Dehlvi (‘Uzr aane mein bhi hai’ and ‘Rasm-e-ulfat sikhaa gaya koi’) and Momin Khan Momin (‘Woh jo hum mein tum mein qaraar tha’) are well-known too.

Among the 20th century poets, she excelled at Faiz Ahmed Faiz works like ‘Aaye kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaye’, ‘Donon jahaan teri mohabbat mein haar ke’ and ‘Shaam-e-firaaq ab na pooch’. The first ghazal begins:

Aaye kuch abr kuch sharaab aaye

Uske baad aaye jo azaab aaye

‘Abr’ is cloud and ‘azaab’ means agony or anguish. One of the popular shers is:

Kar raha tha gham-e-jahaan ka hisaab

Aaj tum yaad behisaab aaye

And the makta is:

‘Faiz’ thi raah sar-basar manzil

Hum jahaan pahunche kaamyaab aaye

‘Sar-basar’ means entirely. In this ghazal, ‘sharaab’, ‘azaab’, ‘behisaab’ and ‘kaamyaab’ are the kaafiya, and ‘aaye’ is the radeef. ‘Faiz’ is the takhallus.

Two 20th century poets that Begum Akhtar sung outstandingly were Shakeel Badayuni and Sudarshan Faakir. While the former wrote ‘Mere humnafas mere hum nawa’, ‘Ae mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya’, ‘Khush hoon ke mera husn-e-talab kaam toh aaya’ and ‘Door hai manzil raahe mushkil’, the latter penned ‘Kuchh toh duniya ki inaayaat ne dil tod diya’, ‘Ishq mein ghairat-e-jazbaat ne rone na diya’, ‘Ahal-e-ulfat ke hawaalon pe hasee aati hai’ and ‘Apnon ke sitam humse bataaye nahin jaate’.

Let’s take the first one by Shakeel:

Mere humnafas mere humnawa mujhe dost banke dagaa na de

Main hoon dard-e-ishq se jaan-valab mujhe zindagi ki duaa na de

‘Jaan-valab’ means ‘brink of death’. Later in the ghazal, we have the famous couplet:

Mera azm itna baland hai ke paraaye sholon ka darr nahin

Mujhe khauff aatish-e-gul se hai, yeh kahin chaman ko jalaa na de

‘Azm’ is conviction’ and ‘baland’ is strong. ‘’Dagaa’, ‘duaa’ and ‘jalaa’ are the kaafiya and ‘na de’ is the radeef.

Finally, let’s take the example of Faakir’s ‘Kucch toh duniya ki inaayaat’. It begins:

Kuchh toh duniya ki inaayaat ne dil tod diya

Aur kuchh talkhi-e-haalaat ne dil tod diya

Hum toh samjhe the barsaat mein barsegi sharaab

Aayi barsaat toh barsaat ne dil tod diya

‘Inaayaat’ is blessings, and ‘talkhi’ is bitterness. This ghazal has a complex structure, with ‘inaayat’, ‘haalaat’ and ‘barsaat’ being the kaafiya and ‘dil tod diya’ forming the radeef. Unlike other ghazals where the couplets are independent of each other, the first two couplets tend to merge in this one.

WHILE these were some of the poets Begum Akhtar was known for, she has also sung the works of Ibrahim Zauq (‘Laayee hayaat hamein’), Jigar Moradabadi (‘Duniya ke sitam yaad na apni hi wafaa yaad’), Ali Ahmed Jaleeli (‘Ab chalkte hue saagar’) and Taskeen Qureshi (‘Kis se poochein humne kahaan’).

Listening to her ghazals is quite an addiction, and the more one hears them and the deeper one gets into the intricacies, the more enchanting she sounds. Today, on her birth centenary, one can only hope her music is carried forward to the next generation.

Many of them may start off the way I did, listening to her voice simply because someone else was playing it. Or they may begin by experimenting on YouTube, and somehow getting into the basic rules of ghazal appreciation. Though times and listening tastes have changed, one can at least hope this happens.

I personally haven’t been in touch with Abhay Kant after 1986 and am clueless about his current whereabouts. But there’s obviously one thing I am eternally grateful to him for – Thank You for Begum Akhtar. How can one forget those nights when her voice came from the neighbouring window, singing Momin’s immortal lines:

Kabhi hum mein tum mein bhi chaah thi, kabhi humse tumse bhi raah thi

Kabhi hum bhi tum se the aashna, tumhe yaad ho ke na yaad ho

The SD Burman-Majrooh combine


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SD Burman and Majrooh Sultanpuri

TODAY, October 1, is the birth anniversary of two of Hindi film music’s most creative and consistent artistes. While music director SD Burman, born in 1906, continued to weave reams of melodic magic till his death in 1975, the 1919-born lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri remained active for over five decades, till he passed away in 2000. And the best thing about both these geniuses who shared birthdays was that they combined to create many outstanding songs together.

In Hindi cinema, a few combinations of music director and lyricist have reigned supreme. Naushad and Shakeel Badayuni, and Shankar-Jaikishen and Shailendra were the earlier successes. Before his best work with Majrooh, SD and Sahir Ludhianvi were a fantastic team, till they parted ways after the magnificent ‘Pyaasa’. Later, Sahir was to do some phenomenal work with Ravi. For his part, Madan Mohan’s work with Raja Mehdi Ali Khan was exceptional. In the 1970s, RD Burman paired very well with Anand Bakshi and Gulzar, and also with Majrooh in the Nasir Hussain productions. In more recent times, AR Rahman/ Mehboob Kotwal and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy/ Javed Akhtar are two examples of combinations that have clicked.

In their day, the SD-Majrooh collaboration was special in its own way, one of their last being in the Amitabh Bachchan-Jaya Bhaduri film ‘Abhimaan’. Over the years, of course, a large chunk of their films featured Dev Anand, examples being ‘Paying Guest’, ‘Nau Do Gyarah’, ‘Kala Pani’, Manzil’, ‘Solva Saal’, ‘Bombai Ka Baboo’, ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’, ‘Jewel Thief’ and ‘Teen Deviyan’.

A highlight of most Dev Anand films was the high quality of music, and these were no exception. ‘Paying Guest’ (1957) had gems like Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Chand phir nikla’, Kishore Kumar’s ‘Maana janaab ne pukara nahin’ and the Kishore-Asha Bhosle hit ‘Chhod do anchal’. ‘Nau Do Gyarah’, from the same year, had Kishore’s ‘Hum hain raahi pyaar ke’, th Kishore-Asha duet ‘Aankhon mein kya jee’ and the Mohd Rafi-Asha charmer ‘Aaja panchi akela hai’.

The following year, 1958, saw the two combine in ‘Solva Saal’ and ‘Kala Pani’. While the former had Hemant Kumar’s ‘Hai apna dil toh awara’, and the latter had Rafi’s ‘Hum bekhudi mein’ and Asha’s ‘Nazar laagi raja’. In 1960, the Dev Anand film ‘Manzil’ had the Rafi-Geeta Dutt beauty ‘Chupke se mile pyaase pyaase’, Manna Dey’s ‘Humdum se gaye’ and Hemant Kumar’s ethereal ‘Yaad aa gayee who nasheeli nigahen’. In ‘Bombai ka Baboo’, Mukesh sang the unforgettable ‘Chal ri sajni’.In the 1962 movie ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’, Hemant Kumar sang the marvellous ‘Na tum hamein jaano’, with Suman Kalyanpur doing a version too.

The SD-Majrooh-Dev Anand combine had two more masterpieces. In the 1965 film ‘Teen Deviyan’ we heard Kishore singing ‘Khwab ho tum’, the Kishore-Asha song ‘Arrey yaar meri’ and the Kishore-Lata tune ‘Likha hai teri aankhon mein’. In 1967, Shailendra was to do ‘Jewel Thief’. He fell ill, and contributed only ‘Rula ke gaya sapna mera’. Majrooh took over and chipped in with Kishore’s ‘Yeh dil na hota bechara’, the Kishore-Lata gem ‘Aasman ke neeche’ and Asha’s ‘Raat akeli hai’.

Besides the Dev Anand films, SD and Majrooh combined on such classics as ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’ (which had Kishore’s ‘Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi’, the Kishore-Manna Dey song ‘Babu samjho ishaare’ and the Kishore-Asha superhit ‘Haal kaisa hai janaab ka’) and ‘Sujata’ (which had Talat Mahmood’s unforgettable ‘Jalte hain jiske liye’, Geeta Dutt’s ‘Nanhi kali sone chali’, Asha and Geeta’s ‘Bachpan ke din’ and SD’s own rendition of ‘Sun mere bandhu’). The Lata song ‘Pawan deewani’ from ‘Dr Vidya’ was a major hit too.

The two of them also worked in films like ‘Lajwanti’, ‘Sitaron Se Aage’, ‘Talaash’, ‘Phagun’ and ‘Sagina’ (remember ‘Saala mein to saahab ban gaya’?) But their biggest hit arguably was in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1973 film ‘Abhimaan’, which had ‘Tere mere milan yeh raina’ (Lata-Kishore), ‘Teri bindiya’ (Lata-Rafi), ‘Lutey koi man’ (Lata-Manhar Udhas), Kishore’s ‘Meet na mila’ and three Lata solos ‘Nadiya kinarey’, ‘Ab toh hai tumse’ and ‘Piya bina’.

Forty years after its release, ‘Abhimaan’ is still considered to be among that all-time great soundtracks. Appropriately, it was the result of the creative combination of two geniuses who had the same birthday. As a team, SD Burman and Majrooh Sultanpuri made a contribution that was timeless.

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