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Archive for December, 2015

CD review/ Home — Anoushka Shankar


anoushka

Album: Home

Artiste: Anoushka Shankar

Genre: Hindustani classical

Label: Deutsche Grammophon/ Universal Music

Price: Rs 395

Rating: ***

(Some technical terms have been italicised and explained at the end)

IN her early recording career between 1998 and 2001, sitar exponent Anoushka Shankar concentrated on Hindustani classical* albums, focusing on shorter versions of compositions popularised by her legendary father Pandit Ravi Shankar. Barring a piece in raag** Madhuvanti and the lighter Mishra Piloo in her ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’, she stayed away from full-length renditions. Later, she moved totally into the fusion and world music space in the albums ‘Rise’, ‘Breathing Under Water’, ‘Traveller’ and ‘Traces of You’.

With that backdrop in mind, her decision to record a purely classical album after almost 14 years comes as a welcome development. In ‘Home’, released exactly three years after Ravi-ji’s demise, Anouskha pays tribute in the liner notes by writing, “I hope this offering of classical ragas, played in the style you taught me and from as deeply in my heart as I was able, reaches you somewhere.”

‘Home’ features old-time accompanist Tanmoy Bose on tabla and Kenji Ota on tanpura ***. On first hearing, three things come across. The first is that this is obviously a very sincere effort to offer ‘pranaam and gratitude’ to her father and guru. Secondly, Anoushka hasn’t chosen some very obvious compositions, but played two late night raags that have been closely associated with Ravi-ji and the Maihar gharana.**** Third, her renditions are straight, avoiding histrionics and gimmicks.

The first piece, played in the traditional style of building up raags, is in the pentatonic Jogeshwari, created by Ravi-ji blending Jog and Raageshwari. However, Anoushka adds her own elements. After a serene, 11-minute alaap, she builds pace with the jod. The jhala is gradually introduced, and here, Anoushka doesn’t get into the high-speed playing that’s often related with this portion.

The gat, set to the seven-beat rupak taal, is Anoushka’s own composition. The interplay between the sitar and tabla is charming, though one feels that the volume of the percussion instrument in the mix could have been slightly higher. The rendition retains its meditative qualities, but one feels a second, faster gat would have taken it a notch ahead.*****

The second piece is in the lighter Maanj Khamaj, popularised by Ravi-ji’s guru Baba Alauddin Khan and later played by Ravi-ji, sitar maestro Ustad Vilayat Khan, sarod great Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and others. Here, Anoushka begins with an aochar –short alaap – before varying beat cycles and ending with a brief coda.

Though Anouskha hasn’t recorded much of pure classical music, her experience of playing in concert with her father, often on his own creations, comes across clearly. If her first two albums seemed a bit mechanical and very basic, a certain maturity is obvious in this latest release. An added advantage of the CD, specially for listeners of her generation, is the publication of a wonderful introduction to Indian classical music written by Ravi-ji in 1965.

On the technical front, there are times when one feels Anoushka’s meends****** could have been more incisive and soulful, and the tihaais****** more vigorous and dynamic. The tabla lehra******** improvisations are underplayed too. As such, there are hardly any gooseflesh or ‘waah’ moments that suddenly stand out.

One guesses that will come slowly after a few more years of intense riyaaz *********. What’s admirable is that she has chosen to do a traditional album using compositions that go back to her roots. Most important, she’s kept things simple. A judicious mix of pure classical and experimental albums is what’s essential to her growth as an artiste.

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

Explanation of terms

* Hindustani classical – North Indian classical music – the term ‘Carnatic’ is used for south Indian classical music

** Raag – A combination of notes that gives a composition its unique character. The basis of Indian classical music. Raags are played as per time of day or may be seasonal

*** Tanpura – The stringed instrument which provides the drone backdrop in any Indian classical music performance

**** Gharana – A school of music or a musical family tree. There are different gharanas for vocal and instrumental music. Ravi Shankar represented the Maihar gharana

***** Alaap, jod, jhala, gat, taal – An instrumental raag begins with the alaap-jod-jhala section, where the alaap is the slow introduction, the jod is the tempo build-up and the jhala is the faster climax. This portion is played without rhythm accompaniment. The gat is an improvisation in the same raag, but with rhythm (in this case tabla) accompaniment. Aochar, explained in main revie, is a shorter alaap. The taal is the number of beats in the cycle – rupaktaal having seven and teentaal having 16

****** Meend – A glide from one note to another

*******Tihaai – Polyrhythms used at the end of a piece, played in sets of three

******** Lehra – Where the tabla player plays improvisational patterns against a fixed and repeated melody line provided by the main instrumentalist

********* Riyaaz – Thorough practice

CD review/ 25 — Adele


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Album: 25

Singer: Adele

Genre: Pop

Label: XL Recordings/ Universal Music

Price: Rs 395

Rating: ****

ADELE Adkins is like a textbook on vocal culture. Right from the pure texture of her voice to her enormous range, from the sheer power of her phrasing to her mastery over expression, she stands miles ahead. Check ‘When We Were Young’, the fourth song of her latest album ‘25’. Filled with remorse and nostalgia, it’s a lesson on how to dance back and forth between the lower and higher registers, without showing the slightest signs of strain.

The album is filled with vocal beauties, gentle orchestrations and fantastic production values. Yet, there’s something that stops it from getting the five-star review that its predecessor ‘21’ richly deserved. Much has to do with the fact that she repeats the low-high alternation formula a few times, and uses similar themes on many songs. On top of it, there’s nothing quite as memorable as her earlier hits ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or ‘Set Fire to the Rain’.

It actually takes a few hearings for the album to sink in. It would also be ideal to keep a lyrics sheet with you, though sadly, the inlay card doesn’t contain the words. On initial listening, only two songs sound different, because they are more uptempo and unlike the trademark Adele style. On the Swedish-pop influenced ‘Send my love (to your new lover)’, she tells her former lover, “I’m giving you up, I’ve forgiven it all, you set me free, ohh.” And on ‘I Miss You’, she sounds sensuous on the lines, “I want every single piece of you, I want your heaven and your oceans too.”

The songs are essentially about relationships – strong or sour. The opening track ‘Hello’ is a clear indication of things to come. For a few seconds, it almost sounds like she has been inspired by Lionel Richie’s same-named superhit, but Adele takes it somewhere else. Here, she tries to come to terms with an old love, and yet there’s a bitterness when she sings, “They say that time’s supposed to heal, yeah, but I ain’t done much healing.”

On a completely opposite tangent, ‘Remedy’ is dedicated to her son. A classy piano-driven ballad, it brims with lines like, “But when the pain cuts you deep, when the night keeps you from sleeping, just look and you will see, that I’ll be your remedy.”

The album has many other highlights. Set to a simple acoustic guitar, ‘Million Years Ago’ sounds like a Madonna-esque song with traces of jazz and French music. On ‘All I Ask’, co-written by Bruno Mars, she is accompanied by two pianos. Again, she’s filled with lament and retaliation, as she sings, “I don’t need your honesty, it’s already in your eyes, and I’m sure my eyes, they speak for me.”

On ‘Lea River’, produced by Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse, her singing is outstanding when she repeats the words ‘The River Lea’ many times. ‘Water Under the Bridge’, dedicated to her boyfriend Simon Konecki, has a mid-tempo discoish feel and sweeping choruses.

On ‘Love in the Dark’, she sings, “There is so much space between us, maybe we’re already defeated” to the backdrop of a haunting string section and orchestra. Finally, on ‘Sweetest Devotion’, Adele says, “You’re my life, you’re my darkness, and you’re the right kind of madness, and you’re my hope, you’re my despair, you’re my scope, everything, everywhere.”

In many ways, each song of ‘25’ seems to be flawless. Yet, there is something missing in the overall effort. There’s a repetition that creeps in, both in the compositional style and the subjects. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that Adele is one of the most outstanding singers of this generation. It’s all in those pipes and how she modulates her voice. She’s someone that every aspiring female singer should look up to, irrespective of her genre or language.

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

Why and how giant music retail stores collapsed in India


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THE year was 1999. Till then, the iconic Kala Ghoda music store Rhythm House literally held ‘Fort’. The only competition, by a large distance, was Hiro Music. But the sudden entry of megastores like Planet M near CST, Groove at Churchgate and Hi-Hat in Khar threatened to change the Mumbai scenario.

After six decades in the business, Rhythm House is planning to close operations early next year. It has survived all odds much longer than the later entrants, and the news has shocked all who patronised it. Soon, there will be no super-large outlets left to buy physical music formats like compact discs and DVDs. Digital formats and online retail have taken over.

Who’s to blame? What has destroyed brick-and-mortar music retail in India? Broadly, we can look at two areas – how the stores operated and the way consumer mentality has changed.

Let’s go back 16 years. Most new stores modeled themselves on international biggies like HMV, Tower Records and Virgin Megastore. When they came in, their property was larger and they tried unique marketing methods. Earlier, music buffs had to go all the way to Kala Ghoda, but now they had more options in terms of locality.

The new stores had a huge and wide range of titles, satisfying hardcore collectors. They would encourage browsing, which would also lead to more impulse purchases. And they had some fantastic offers to lure customers. Groove and Planet M had special rooms for ‘serious’ audiences who listened to western classical, jazz, blues and Indian classical music. Groove had a stage where musicians performed and video concerts were screened. Most stores became venues for album launches and talent competitions.

The megastore concept wasn’t restricted to Mumbai. Planet M went multi-city. The Music World chain, started a few months before Planet M in 1999, reported great success from its Kolkata, Chennai, Kochi and Bangalore stores. In the 2000s, Landmark and Reliance TimeOut started multi-vertical stores – books, music and other categories like toys, gifts and stationery. Book stores like Crossword and Sapna Book House had large music sections. Medium-sized stores like Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar specialised in Indian classical music.

The problem with the large music stores, however, was that one had to fill them completely, with the right music. This often led to over-stacking – a classic case being Landmark at High Street Phoenix. It had probably every western classical composition one could dream of, but hardly anybody bought.

Staff training was also a key element. Service plays a paramount role, and besides being deeply knowledgeable about genres, salespersons have to understand customer tastes. They need the ability to recommend additional purchases on the basis of what customers are already planning to buy. This was largely missing, except in Rhythm House, Groove and some TimeOut stores like Bangalore and Gurgaon.

The combination of high rentals, unsold stocks, falling margins and rising audio piracy affected operations. Hi-Hat and Groove shut down years ago, and two years ago, Music World and TimeOut announced their exit. Other stores changed strategies. Planet M sold mobile phones and Landmark forgot the word ‘music’. Only Rhythm House retained its image and customer loyalty, and Maharashtra Watch continues to sell classical music.

The market had changed. What happened in India wasn’t too different from what occurred internationally. Over the past decade, changing audience preferences created a negative impact. From hi-fi audio systems, listening platforms moved to computers, iPods and mobile phones.

Downloading became a fad. Rather than waste shelf space on CDs and read printed inlay cards, people preferred storing music on their laptops or iPods, and Googling for information. Those who visited stores made fewer impulse purchases, and often jotted lists of albums they could get online.

Many opted for free music and movies, though some bought them legally. Through YouTube, one could get the rarest songs without paying a penny. If music television and FM radio were earlier used to promote singles from albums, people today just listen to whatever is played. Who wants albums?

With online retail increasing, one can get CDs and even vinyl records delivered home, instead of travelling to the store. The limited number of vinyl record buyers get their stuff from smaller outlets. The concept of file sharing has gained prominence. Use a pen drive or post Adele’s song ‘Hello’ on Facebook or WhatsApp, and everyone joins the party. Or simply have a nice music app on your Smartphone. Even Saregama India aka HMV recently launched its Classical App as physical sales were slow.

Sensing the changing consumer preferences, music labels also altered strategy. Many international albums were released only in digital format or imported in small numbers, as against the earlier practice of locally manufacturing in bulk. Bollywood and other Indian music labels cut down on physical volumes, and switched to digital platforms.

In such a scenario, how can the music megastore survive? Convenience has replaced ambience. Giga-bytes have tera-bitten the physical music industry. Brick-and-mortar stores have been clicked-and-murdered.

Hats off to Rhythm House for being there so long. The least one can do in tribute is stop downloading free music. Have some conscience, folks.

Daddy Cool, Rasputin are still a rage: Liz Mitchell of Boney M


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Liz Mitchell at Phoenix Market City, Kurla, Mumbai

ON November 21 and 22, popular 1970s disco group Boney M, featuring original vocalist Liz Mitchell, rocked at Phoenix Market City, Kurla, and Willingdon Gymkhana, Santa Cruz. Besides popular hits like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Rasputin’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ and ‘Rivers of Babylon’, it stormed the crowd with ‘Maa Baker’, ‘It’s a Holi-holi-day’, ‘No Woman No Cry’, ‘Malaica’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘Bahama Mama’ and a wonderful version of the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’.

Boney M was the brainchild of German record producer Frank Farian, who named the group after an Australian detective show ‘Boney’. Besides Liz, the early line-up included Maizie Williams, Marcia Barrett and Bobby Farrell, who passed away in 2010.

In the Mumbai shows, Liz had a wonderful stage persona. She displayed a unique voice that blended her Jamaican roots with her London upbringing, and a fantastic range. Whether it was a disco stomper or a slow ‘a cappella’ piece, her notes were perfect.

Before her shows, this writer spoke to Liz over the telephone for an article published in the dummy run of ‘The Hindu’, which was launched in Mumbai on November 28. Excerpts:

It’s been 40 years since Boney M first became a rage. Can you talk about your early association with the group?

Frank Farian, the producer, had a fantastic vision to do dance music influenced by sounds of the Caribbean. I joined in January 1976, and soon we had a string of hits like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ etc. The rest, to use a cliché, is history. We had a huge tide of success in our first four albums, and ‘Daddy Cool’ and ‘Rasputin’ were played all over. We released a few albums after that but politics in the music business interfered with our success.

What went wrong?

The business had changed. The politics in our record company became bigger. We too had problems struggling with our own success. Expectations of fans ran too high and it was difficult to consistently match them. Punk music had become the latest craze. Bobby Farrell’s departure from the band had its own effect.

You yourself have been in out of the Boney M scene since the late 1980s. Was that a conscious decision?

Travelling the world is very difficult. I love being with my family. In fact, the singers accompanying me are my family members, one being my sister. Most of my family members work with me. They all love Boney M and can reproduce the music well.

An older generation grew up on your music. But how many of the younger audiences identify with Boney M?

They get to know of us somehow. Songs like ‘Daddy Cool’, ‘Rasputin’ and ‘Brown Girl in the Ring’ are still played in clubs and restaurants. So many others. Many have been sampled by modern musicians. At our shows, the youngsters really enjoy even if they are hearing us for the first time.

Being in a disco or dance music group, did it restrict you from exploring other forms?

I personally listen to all kinds of music, be it jazz, blues, gospel, reggae, classical, rock, country, you name it. Each genre has something to offer. Music is a universal language. Boney M was great at its own style, and we stuck to that. Good we did.

A review of Mohammed Rafi’s latest biography


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The following book reviewed by me was used in the online edition of Mid Day, Mumbai, early last month. Because of the heavy Diwali ads, it could not be used in the print edition. For Rafi fans who may have missed it earlier, Kaansen Kalling is reproducing it

Title: Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen

Author: Sujata Dev

Publisher: Om Books International

Price Rs 595; pp 238

AFTER arriving in Bombay from Lahore with his mentor Hameed, the young Mohammed Rafi realised music director Naushad had become a name to reckon with. Hameed thought of an idea, and travelled all the way to Lucknow to get a recommendation letter from Naushad’s father. The ploy worked, and in 1944, the playback singer sang ‘Hindustan ke hum hain, Hindustan hamaara’ for Naushad in ‘Pehle Aap’.

In ‘Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen’, author Sujata Dev treats readers with numerous such facts about the ace singer. A foreword by Dilip Kumar, the extensive research, interviews with numerous musicians, and the accompanying 40-minute documentary DVD add value. As the book has been authorised by son Shahid Rafi, one gets to know many new things.

Yet, there’s a problem. This mainly has to do with the way the biography has been constructed. It starts brilliantly by talking of his early years in Kotla Singh Sultan near Amritsar, followed by the days when he worked as a barber in his brother’s shop in Lahore. His struggle in Bombay, when he stayed in Bhendi Bazaar and frequented Zam Zam restaurant, is described vividly.

However, till that time, it seems like a chronological account of his life. Suddenly, it changes style and begins to analyse his music and his associations in great detail. While the author has done a lot of hard work there, this approach sometimes leads to repetition and an absence of flow.

There are two chapters, for instance, that talk of Rafi’s work with different music directors and lyricists. Some composers like Naushad, SD Burman, Khayyam, OP Nayyar and Madan Mohan are common in both, while others appear only in the second. Similarly, there are two chapters on songs with different actors, when they could have been clubbed into one. The fact that he did 4,425 Hindi film songs, 310 non-Hindi film songs and 328 non-film songs is mentioned twice in four paragraphs.

On the positive side, Dev covers certain areas like Rafi’s stage shows, his much-discussed differences with Lata Mangeshkar over royalties, his sheer generosity and humility, his personal life and his death on July 31, 1980, in great detail. Through conversations with current musicians like Sonu Nigam, Himesh Reshammiya, Kailash Kher and Javed Ali, she describes how much Rafi is admired by the younger generation.

Hardcore fans will be specially delighted by the nuggets of trivia and statistical details. Though the editing could have been much crisper, the book has many factors that would interest those who’ve grown up on and idolised the legendary singer. The fact that it brims with nostalgia makes it all the more enjoyable.

For the Mid Day link, see http://www.mid-day.com/articles/mohammed-rafi-golden-voice-of-the-silver-screen/16658165

CD review/ The Book of Souls — Iron Maiden


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Album: The Book of Souls

Singer: Iron Maiden

Genre: Heavy metal

Label: Sony Music/ Parlophone

Price: Rs 599 (double album)

Rating: ****

A PIONEER of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, Iron Maiden has been one of the world’s most worshipped rock bands since its initial success in the early 1980s. Even though they followed a similar formula all through, albums like ‘The Number of the Beast’, ‘Piece of Mind’, ‘Powerslave’, ‘Somewhere in Time’, ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Sojourn’, ‘Fear of the Dark’ and ‘Brave New World’ have had millions of followers.

The group’s 16th studio album ‘The Book of Souls’ comes after vocalist Bruce Dickinson was recovering from a tumour surgery. It’s their first studio double album, and is filled with lengthy songs, often over 10 minutes in duration. References to mortality, spirits and the soul give it the classic Maiden flavour.

The sound isn’t too different from most of what one has heard before. There are similar high pitched vocals, hard-rocking riffs, cracking guitar solos and pounding drum patterns. While Dickinson is in full vocal form, the guitar trio of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers provide plenty of flourish. Steve Hassis on bass and keyboards, and Nicko McBrain on drums complete the line-up.

What works in the album’s favour is the fact that some of the songs are simply outstanding. The highlight is the epic 18-minute Dickinson composition ‘The Empire of the Clouds’, based on a 1930 airship crash. The longest Maiden song ever, it is reminiscent of the 1984 classic ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, with its changing structures and grand sound. Slightly dramatic, slightly cinematic and totally Brit heavy metal, it stands out.

Another gem comes in ‘The Red and the Black’, a Harris composition boasting of an infectious tune, powerhouse drumming, some wild solos, a trademark ‘whoa-oh’ bridge and lines like “The morals of life and the perils of death, take the wrong way out running out of breath; Meet my match in the afterlife, suppress the demons that plague the night.” It’s similar to the old hit ‘Flight of the Icarus’, but so what?

‘Tears of a Clown’, dedicated to actor Robin Williams, is a sort-of melancholic track that doesn’t quite follow the formula. Dickinson is in amazing nick here, as he begins with the very appropriate dedicatory lines, “All alone in a crowded room, he tries to force a smile, the smile it beamed or so it seemed; But never reached the eyes, disguise masquerading, as the funny man do they despise.”

The other goodies include the theatrical, synth-driven title song, the straight-rocking debut single ‘Speed of Light’, the bass-driven sing-along piece ‘Death or Glory’ and the marvelous power ballad ‘The Man of Sorrows’. While numbers like ‘Shadows of the Valley’, ‘The Great Unknown’ and ‘When the River Runs Deep’ have the typical vocal structures and guitar licks, the album’s only weak point is the opener ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, which is too predictable.

Despite being over 90 minutes in length, ‘The Book of Souls’ impresses with not only its energy but also with numbers that edge on the theatrical. One may not compare it with the 1980s classics, but as against later albums like ‘Dance of Death’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, it has more versatility and polish. All in all, another treat for the ‘Irons’.

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

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