Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Travelers from Rajasthan - 'Musafir'

The meaning of 'Musafir' is traveller or voyager and if you allow them - this band from the Indian state of Rajasthan will take you on one amazing music trip. The musicians of Rajasthan are considered the fabled original gypsies (since proven true by linguistic & DNA evidence) and consist of 11 singers, dancers and instrumentalists who have the rare ability to function as one. Rajasthan's musician castes are predominantly Muslim, dating back over 500 years to when the Moguls first invaded India. The kings (or maharajas) tended to hire the best local musicians and many of them converted to Islam in order to work in the court. They adopted the name Khan and passed their new faith onto their descendents.

The typical Rajasthani band reflects only a single ethnicity yet Musafir is a secular mix of Hindu, Muslim, Gypsy and Sufism. Their songs build slowly with the harmonium or sarangi giving the tune as the singer incants the scale. The percussion then begins and more singers begin the melody with other instruments blending in. The song itself may pass through as many as thirty changes in mood and tempo before climaxing with all musicians joining in at the end. Whatever the song, tempo or improvisation - the eleven group members manage to communicate internally producing the effect of a singularly mesmerizing entity. See an article on the band here

Moria Badnawa is an instrumental that interprets a famous folk song about a peacock from the village of Badnawa. The song follows the peacock through it's day - first singing as the sun rises, opening his tail as the sun continues it's trek across the sky until it finally attracts a female peacock as dusk arrives. Listen as the song begins with just 1 instrument and reaches it's crescendo as each subsequent one is added in perfect harmony with the other. The song Halleriya means lullaby and is sung at the celebrtion for a new birth. It represents not just the mother and father's happiness but the whole village celebrating the arrival as well.

For more pictures of Rajasthan - click on the link 'Nilong's Rajasthan Collage' from our trip there in 2005.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Born Into Brothels (2004) - India's Oscar Triumph

Officially speaking, India has had three movies that have been selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars) but none has ever taken home the golden statue. That drought ended last year - not with a big Bollywood production or even an art film but with a small documentary - 'Born Into Brothels'. In 1995 New York photojournalist Zana Briski went to India to document the harsh conditions for women in a developing country. She was interested in female infanticide, child marriage, dowry deaths and widowhood. A friend took her to Sonagachi, a red light district in Calcutta and "from the moment I stepped foot inside that maze of alleyways, I knew that this was the reason I had come to India." Briski developed close relationships with the women and then with their children.

Briski noticed the children were fascinated with her and her photography and got the idea to teach them to document their lives with their own photos. She chose children who were eager to learn and gave each a point and shoot camera to use. Even though Briski had never used a video camera before, she decided to film the process. What happens when the line between merely documenting tragedy and doing something about it become blurred?

The answer lies in this poignant story of how these children are taught to visually record their lives in the squalid margins of society. We witness the frustrations, victories and disappointments that ensue in a world where criminals' children are stigmatized and not accepted into private schools. These students come from several generations of sex workers and drug dealers where the girls constantly face the imminent specter of 'joining the line' to earn money for the family. The children have witnessed and experienced things that most of us never even have to think about. They are treated as little adults who have to cook and clean from early morning until late at night while neighbors hurl profanities in their direction throughout the day. Just when the movie starts getting too heavy the children get an unexpected advocate to help change their lives - themselves. Don't miss the special featurette on the DVD that shows their lives 3 years later which is as moving as the film itself.

The 2 songs for today are from the soundtrack of the film. The 1st one is a simple yet elegant classical composition consisting of only two instruments - the Tabla & Flute. The 2nd song is Gopala by Krishna Das, a musician originally hailing from New York. Das is an accomplished singer in the Kirtan style of chanting (invoking the name of god multiple times). Used by many religions throughout India, Kirtan is one of the oldest forms of meditiation whose origins trace back over 500 years. While it is somewhat strange to hear ancient Hindu chants sung by a self-described 'ordinary white guy lucky enough to have found India',the resulting music will surprise you. To learn more about Krishna Das go here, to learn more about Kirtan go here.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Umrao Jaan (1981)

The sequel to the timeless saga 'Umrao Jaan' opens tomorrow and a whole new generation will see the often duplicated story of the courtesan with a heart of gold. Rekha's portrayal of this doomed heroine earned her the National Award for best actress back in 1981 and is considered her finest performance. Whether Aishwarya captures that same magic with Abhishek Bachchan remains to be seen. This is the 2nd of 3 big remakes of 2006 (aka the year my Bollywood memories were pillaged) that began with 'Don' and with 'Sholay' left to go. Call me old-fashioned but some things are timeless and need to remain untouched - tomorrow will tell if perfection can indeed be improved upon.

In Ankhon Ka Masti & Dil Cheez Kya Hai are the 2 evergreen classics from the movie and are both sung by Asha Bhonsle (Lata's younger sister). The lyrics, music & style of both songs made them #1 hits then and both remain classics to this day. See Rekha recreate life in 19th century India here and here.