Tag Archives: Music

Thank you for the music… Not

‘Donna donna’ — Joan Baez at her soulful best. It’s a melancholy but melodious Yiddish theatre song about a calf being led to slaughter, its lyrics filled with solemn symbolism.

Not exactly what you’d call a children’s song.

But some folks in Chinese toyland thought differently:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. That is what they did to ‘Donna donna’ (please don’t miss the electronic barnyard chirps in between). What I really want to know is, why? What was the thought process here? Why this particular song instead of, say a ‘Baa baa blacksheep’ or even a ‘My bonnie lies over the ocean’?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there was some sort of American folk music bias in the song selection. So what were the companion pieces, you ask? Some Dylan, some Simon & Garfunkel, maybe some Joni Mitchell? Nope. Pressing each successive button (green and fish shaped, please note) was an adventure in musical randomness. What followed in tinny, cacophonous succession was: ‘Polly put the kettle on’, ‘Jingle bells’, ’12 days of Christmas’, ‘Oh Susanna’ and oh yes, not to forget Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (I’d upload that too, but it’s just too heartbreaking).

Of these, ‘Donna donna’ was the hardest to figure out (it was the most mangled by far) and if it wasn’t for one of those Android apps that name a tune for you when you hum it, we wouldn’t have figured it out at all. It was the husband’s brilliant idea, and so, to the daughter’s increasing annoyance, mummy and daddy sat hunched over her (usually unpopular) toy, playing the tune over and over, and then humming it into daddy’s phone. Not our finest hour as parents, but the sense of elation we felt once we’d placed the song made it all worthwhile. As we played ‘Donna donna’ on youtube, it was as though, finally, one of life’s mysteries had been solved. A puzzle piece fallen into place. Things made sense again. As we high-fived and the daughter whined, it seemed we would prevail over the diabolical designers in Chinese toyland.

But, alas, it was not to be. Fired up by our success, we tried, tried, and tried again to place the last two unidentified, elusive green-fish button songs. But they were just so tuneless, so utterly random, that even the musical app finally threw up its hands in despair and crashed. It really gave its all first though… it suggested everything from classical pieces to Spanish dance songs. But we had to admit defeat at last. Whatever technological strides man makes, some mysteries must remain. It is the way of the world (and really crappy toys).

(Just out of curiosity — can you, dear readers, do better than the app? Can you figure out what these dratted tunes are? The husband and I would be very grateful):

Edited to add: Woohoo! My 100th post on this blog! 🙂

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Make some noise

A recent comment on my ‘Please shut the door’ post got me thinking about Indians and noise, and how we just love annoying sounds.

It’s not just that we don’t value silence – the idea of a quiet zone near a hospital, for instance, is laughable here, as is the idea of being fined for honking too loud (the first thing you’re taught in an Indian driving school is how to out-honk the other guy). I’m not even talking about the fact that we like our music, movies and celebrations loud and colourful, or that we enjoy shouting over our family members’ voices at the dinner table — those aren’t necessarily bad things.

No, what I realised is that we really, really like to surround ourselves with the most annoying and repetitive noises in the world. Like, for instance, Nandini madam and her bi-lingual nagging in lifts all over the city (and country). I don’t think this lady would have a job in any other country in the world, because their lifts don’t remind you over and over again to do what you know you have to do anyway. Then you have those incredibly irritating reverse-tunes in cars. You know, those tinny tunes that destroy any vestige of melody or soul in everything from Jana Gana Mana to the Wedding March to Jingle Bells, and repeat over and over again for as long as the car is in reverse? Apparently, that’s the only way people around you can know your car is moving backwards. Strange how people figure this out all by themselves in the rest of the world, no?

Don’t even get me started on toys. Indian toys have got to be amongst the noisiest and most intrusive in the world. (Ok, Chinese toys do give them a run for their money. My daughter was obsessed with a giant orange snail that sang Chinese songs determinedly off tune, and flashed blue and red disco lights, accompanied by a background score that would make Bappi-da jealous, for months. My sanity hung by a thread). Items in my toddler’s toy box that assault my senses daily:

1) A white and florescent green chicken that plays ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’, ‘sung’ — and I use this word in the loosest sense possible — at the top of its voice by a child with the brashest, brattiest style of singing, devoid of any subtlety or modulation. Think of your neighbourhood vegetable hawker. Now reduce his age to around 8 years. Now have him sing ‘Twinkle…’ Yeah.

2) A keyboard that sings ‘Polly Put the Kettle On’ — and other equally incongruous nursery rhymes — in the tones of totally demented cows, sheep, frogs et al.

Even religion isn’t spared. One of the serial noise offenders in our residential areas are those mobile-religious-song-stations. Or whatever they’re called. You know, the ones that blare pre-recorded Sai or Krishna or <insert godly entity> bhajans as they go round and round your locality. Now, I mean no offense to anyone, don’t want to hurt any religious sentiments, etc. But why are the singers always off-key? And why is the singer’s off-keyness always directly proportional to the volume at which the song is played? Why do they always choose to sing at the highest possible register? And why, why do they have to play the same song over and over again? If the point is for god to sit up and take notice, you’d think they’d take a little more care about how the song was put together (I would think that this is the sort of thing that gets you struck by lightening).

I used to think that the problem is that we’re too noise tolerant — you know, we’re just surrounded by so much sound all the time from the time we’re born, whether it’s hawkers or TVs or cellphones or garrulous families or car horns, that we’re desensitised to loudness. Noise just doesn’t bother us anymore. it’s part of the very fabric of our society. Like corruption.

But now I’m starting to wonder if it’s something deeper. There  has to be a reason why silly, unnecessary noise-technology thrives here and doesn’t exist anywhere else. I think we actually like this stuff. We like making unnecessary noise when we reverse (I refuse to call it music. It’s even an insult to call it musaic). We like our lifts to talk at the top of their voices. We like our toys to blare discordantly. Why? You got me there. Maybe we need every waking moment to filled with noise, otherwise we feel lost. Disoriented. Maybe we just like to annoy the heck out of each other (I’m leaning towards this one). Or maybe we just like to have yet another reason to complain (see above).

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June 2, 2013 · 1:30 pm

Interview with… Madhav Chari

Pianist Madhav Chari talks about the spirit of jazz, linking his music to Indian philosophy and his experiential workshops. DIVYA KUMAR listens in

PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

If you go to meet jazz pianist Madhav Chari expecting to discuss just jazz or even just music, think again. With mind-whirling rapidity the conversation flows between cognitive science and colonialism, mathematics and anthropology, Indian philosophy and American academia, not to mention martial arts, dance and the Bhakti movement…

At one point, I have to ask him to stop briefly, so I can look back to the original list of questions I’d studiously prepared before the interview. But they seem rather limited — and limiting — now, so I decide to let the conversation take its course, just interjecting the odd query now and again.

“What we’re doing right now is jazz music,” says Madhav, halfway through, during an impassioned (there isn’t any other kind with Madhav) discussion on how jazz is freedom, but with form. “This conversation is not scripted. It’s loosely improvised but you’re still providing direction — that’s jazz music.”

And with that neat journalistic analogy for jazz, the free-flowing chat suddenly makes sense. After all, the essence of any conversation with Madhav Chari is jazz, the music form that grabbed him when he was a six-year-old in Kolkata and hasn’t let go since.

“What about it grabbed me I don’t know,” he muses. Maybe it was his father’s knowledge of jazz from the 1940s, when he saw the big bands of the era play while at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Or, perhaps the family friend whom he used to watch improvising on the piano. “There was just an emotional connect. It’s like asking why the chocolate cake appealed to you… it’s hard to answer.”

He dismisses his training in Western classical piano as mere calisthenics. “Loosely speaking, yes, I’m trained in Western classical, in the sense that I did the gamut of exams, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s because we learn the music in a context where it wasn’t born, where that form of music isn’t a vibrant, living force, unlike in London, Moscow or Paris.”

This idea of absorbing music as a ‘living force’, of experiencing its spirit, is of intense importance to Madhav. That’s why he cherishes the time he spent in the U.S. at places such as New York or Chicago, where jazz still lives. There was the time, for instance, that he got to play with a local sax legend in Chicago while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC).

“The great pianist Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded with John Coltrane, was sitting in the audience… I saw him and my heart just skipped a beat,” he laughs. “But the music took me over and I forgot my stage fright, and in the end, he congratulated me and gave me his number in New York. These experiences were very important in my search as a jazz musician.”

After his studies, Madhav spent some time as part of the jazz scene in New York and a brief eight months in Toronto before returning to India in 2003 and settling in Chennai, where his parents live. These past seven years have been a period of a spiritual awakening for the pianist, and Indian philosophy has now become an integral part of his musical journey.

“I want to be a jazz musician who thoroughly understands the tradition of the music, but who’s also alive to the possibilities of his own consciousness and has linked himself with the mystical traditions of India,” he says, adding with a smile, “But I don’t play Hindustani music… I’ll be playing the blues.”

He’s also developed some very strong opinions (to put it mildly) on the Indian music scene — whether it’s local jazz or fusion. “I will go on record saying that in the last 40 years, not one musician in Mumbai — the leading jazz centre in India — has tapped the spirit of jazz,” he says emphatically. “They’ve tapped the form, but not the spirit. And that’s why I have a problem with fusion as well, because so much of it is technical and theoretical, with very little experiential insight.”

His own corporate workshops, which he now conducts with martial arts expert George Kurian, focus entirely on just that — the experiential. “We make people do music and martial arts exercises, and allow the gateways of the mind to open up,” Madhav says. “There’s hardly any talking, because I believe that in the modern Indian urban consciousness, language is a tremendous block to understanding. English has blocked our access to our own experiences — it’s a facet of colonialism.”

These beliefs are part of the reason why Madhav has connected with Chennai the way he has since 2003. “It’s not about it being conservative or liberal; it’s about it being open to experiences while being rooted in tradition,” he says of the city. “I’m not impressed by people telling me Bangalore is more hip or modern; modernity is actually old, based on where I want to go in a cosmic sense.”

KEYNOTES

He enjoys the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara, chair of the Comparative Science of Cultures Centre at Ghent University in Belgium, on Hindu philosophy and religion.

He loves the music of American jazz pianist ‘Bud’ Powell. Madhav’s most recent album ‘Parisian Thoroughfares’ is titled after a Powell composition.

He likes Mathematics, in which he has a Masters degree from Dartmouth University

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