BOLLYWOOD BRASS BAND
MOVIE MASALA (BOLL CD 2004)
The long-awaited third CD from Bollywood Brass Band is here. The idea is the same -- popular Bollywood songs that are typically requested at Indian weddings and played there by brass bands -- plus a lot of dance remixes. The main difference is it's better presented this time as the dance remixes have their own album so you can have a straight shot of Bollywood Brass or the bhangrified adrenalin charge, or, if you're a deejay, run the versions back to back. Bollywood Brass are a talented group of Londoners with varied musical backgrounds and consummate chops. As I discovered their music grows on you and can really get under your skin. It's a great introduction to Hindi pop as the shrill female voices can take a bit of getting used to, but once you hear the soaring melodies you'll want to find the originals. As if they needed accreditation, BBB show their Indian dhol drummer on the cover (remember Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers of Invention?!), but he doesn't kick in till the third track, by when they've already soared through "Chura Liya": surely one of the loveliest ballads ever recorded?
Unlike RAHMANIA! their last brilliant album which focused on the compositions of the prolific A.R. Rahman, this album samples tunes from the 50-year history of Indian popular film. The first disc is tightly edited with no slack, in fact at 43 minutes long it could have used a couple more numbers, but then I am greedy when it comes to BBB. The most famous song here is probably "Chura Liya" from a 1973 film about the hippies in Katmandu, "Yaadon ki baaraat". It was a huge hit when Bally Sagoo reworked it as the opener (and only good cut) on BOLLYWOOD FLASHBACK, his tribute to the composer R.D. Burman. Asha Bhosle sings the original in a duet with Mohammed Rafi, she is also the vocalist on "Dum Maro dum" from the 1971 hit film HARE RAMA HARE KRISHNA (another funky hippie vehicle) which is real catchy, besides everyone knows the chorus! and who but Asha could sing "Aaj ki raat," a third offering from her husband Burman with some piercing high notes in the vocal. Bollywood Brass cool it down and make it more lyrical and bring out the passion with a bit more restraint, so it doesn't crash in on you. You can hear the originals of these on the BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BOLLYWOOD (a Nascente box set). Better yet, get the films so you can see Helen in a miniskirt lip-synching to "Aaj ki raat." As the liner notes point out, many of the songs here are by Burman and half of the originals were sung by his wife Asha, so they could indeed do a BURMANIA! album, and they still might.
Three of the more recent songs I know from Madhuri Dixit video clips. Madhuri, a phenomenal dancer and a total babe, has taken time off to be a wife and mother (in the USA) and she is sorely missed from the big screen. You have got to see her dance number for "Choli ke peeche": it's in the film KHAL NAYAK, but you'll also find it on the budget-priced EVERGREEN HITS compilation DVD. Another song closely identified with the actor rather than the singer is "My name is Lakhan" which was lip-synched by Anil Kapoor in the film RAM LAKHAN which also stars Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff (one of my favourite male leads).
There's one song on here which became more famous outside of Bollywood and that's "Tu cheez badi hai mast mast," better known as "Musst musst" of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Massive Attack. BBB have been doing this one live for a few years and really have fun with it, so it's a great start to the remix album. Curiously there are three remixes of "Dum maro dum," propelled by great trombone, but the original doesn't appear on here. I guess they liked the mixes better. But things falter with the remix of "Chura Liya" which comes across as filler and drones on with a mechanical beat and not much action. But Wham! a bhangra mix of "Choli ke peeche" with lurid trombone asks the musical question "What lies beneath your blouse?"
BEGINNERS GUIDE TO BOLLYWOOD
(Nascente 3CD Box)
Pretty much all you need to get into Bollywood filmi music is this Nascente box. It's divided in three parts (like Gaul), starting naturally enough with "Vintage Bollywood," and predictably with Asha Bhosle, from 1970. It's very eclectic stuff but doesn't take long to get into the groove, and soon you can figure out the connections and borrowings from Western pop, reggae and ragga. There's even operatic bits, but lots of James Barry (Bond films) and Ennio Morricone. Volume one is worth the price for the original of Geeta Dutt singing "Mera naam Chin Chin Chu," from the 1958 film HOWRAH BRIDGE, which has rockabilly bass, slack-key guitar, Benny Goodman horns & skiffle percussion. This is followed by "Ina Mina Dika," another gem that is also the opening cut on the Asha Bhosle Rough Guide. Lata (Asha's big sister) Mangeshkar appears in her regal way with a truly gorgeous song, "Mohabbat ki jhooti kahani," from the 1960 flick MUGHAL-E-AZAN. Hers is a voice that could shatter glass in the high registers. But once you get that, you are hooked. Next up is Mohammad Rafi with another perennial gem from the film LOAFER. This one is so familiar because it recurs in MONSOON WEDDING. Tip: You can pick up video anthologies of songs from under $10, with titles like "Old is Gold." They run for hours (you probably have seen them in Indian restaurants) with 50 or more songs on each one. This is a great way to figure out which films are likely to be worth renting. Asha's "Chura Liya," from 1973's "Yaadon ki Baaraat," has been sampled by Bally Sagoo and is the kicker on his BOLLYWOOD FLASHBACK album, which makes a nice segue from the lighter feel of the "Vintage Bollywood" disc.
The second volume "Funky Bollywood" has double selections from several films. This one is a good companion to the BOMBAY THE HARD WAY and ELECTRIC VINDALOO pair of CDs, which you undoubtedly have. The first of two songs from "HARE RAMA HARE KRISHNA," a hit hippie extravaganza from 1971, is decidedly catchy. Then we get mariachi trumpet meets death-rock guitar for the funky theme to DHARMATMA, penned by the beloved Kalyanji and Anandji of BOMBAY THE HARD WAY, who are responsible for most of the tracks on this second disc. Think "Shaft in a turban," think "Tijuana Brass on camels," think "Henry Mancini on Vicks Vaporub," think you are going insane! (Better skip track four in that case, Helen's night club dance number from DHARMATMA, which is a bit out there with fiendish laughter on top of all the preceding styles.)
The third volume "Modern Bollywood," is the least successful because it is so didactic. Yes, it's interesting to know that A.R. Rahman reworked some of his old Tamil hits for the West End musical BOBMAY DREAMS with Andrew Lloyd Weber, but that doesnt make you want to hear them. Particularly when there are stellar Rahman albums like TAAL or RANGEELA packed with gems. Another track is a shrill reworking of a Mory Kante song from the dark depths of disco and should be skipped. There are plenty of compilations out there that give you the current hits, like the ROUGH GUIDE TO BOLLYWOOD or BEST OF BOLLYWOOD. In fact you can assemble your own sentimental list from movies you see. There is one decent track on this volume, Lucky Ali's "Ek pai ka Jeena," which is appropriately cinematic and stands out from the rest of this so-so set.
BOLLYWOOD BRASS BAND
RAHMANIA! (BOLL CD2002)
RAHMANIA! is the title of the second album by London's Bollywood Brass Band and it is a work of genius. I can't stop playing it. I wake up with the riffs in my head and have to play it. I play it in the car, I put it on my hard drive so I can play it while I work. I guess I am having a major attack of Indian musical culture. But my interest in Bollywood seemingly has also become a national passion in the USA. This is due to the failure of the American film industry to come up with anything deeper than SPIDERMAN (I barely noticed Danny Elfman's soundtrack) and people's reaction is, Well, we liked SINGING IN THE RAIN and TOP HAT, so let's check out these Indian films where the drama is interrupted for a song and dance every now and then.
One of India's great (& prolific) film composers is Alla Rakha Rahman and choice cuts from ten of his movies have been given the big brass treatment by this odd group of Brits who have had greatness thrust upon them. If they seemed a little Three-Mustapha-ish on their first outing it was because they hadn't quite got into character yet. While not exactly slumming in Indian brass music they were still finding their way. Their debut eponymous album from 1999 had two noteworthy features: first, the entirely incongruous appearance of a Brasilian drum troupe doing some Axé riffs; secondly, disco remixes of two of the songs. The stand-out track "Gur Nalon Ishk Mitha" had a tuba bassline reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't that Peculiar?"
The Bollywood Brass musicians have honed their chops in a weird mixture of influences, but on this new album they come out swinging. There's great melodies aplenty, serious dhol beating, and a variety of solos on the whole range of reeds and brass plus that persistent bassline played on a sousaphone!
RAHMANIA rocks. The musicians are having a blast and enjoying their solos, the whole thing held together by the dhol. The arrangements are tight, the melodies are beautiful and only occasional drift off into wetness. "Ishq Bina" is the first ballad and avoids the H2O factor by the use of robust counter-melodies and a couple of surprises in instrumentation.
A few of the melodies even have familiar rings to them: "Main Albeli" sounds like a gypsy piece then breaks down to a wild trombone solo by Dave Jago that would impress even Don Drummond up on his cloud.
Track 5, "Urvashi Urvashi," has rapidly become my summer theme. It even reminds me of "Filhos do Tempo" by Didá Banda Feminina from Brasil that was my top song two summers ago. It starts with what sounds like crows, then melodica, then a bassline on sousaphone. The horn chorus is quickly joined and then the Brasilian drummers crash in and the whole thing rises with the roof. The trombone toys with the melodica until Will Embliss dances in on muted trumpet. They escalate the tempo till it goes up in smoke.
"Ramta Jogi (Dance of Love)" starts ominously with the tolling of tubular bells and a menacing set of musical phrases. It's an incredibly atmospheric piece that weaves together different textures and colors on solo flugelhorn and alto sax while the sousaphone does a "doo-wah-diddy" type vamp.
The album goes from strength to strength and only falters with the flageolet-driven ballad "Ek tu hi bharosa (You are the only one I depend on)" which made me think of pre-Graceland Paul Simon. Fortunately it fades out before inflicting any real pain. The last of the "regular" tracks, "Kismat se tum hum ko mile (Fate has brought us together)" starts out with a Pink Floyd-like drone, then bagpipes come in with the cacophonous suggestion that hell is about to break loose. There's a weird Moog-like bass thwock underpinning it and more unearthly skirling pipes with muted trumpet on echo and various other celestial things creeping about (shades of ATOM HEART MOTHER!) for five and a half minutes.
The album is not over, as there are now disco remixes of four of the tracks. These are not as successful as they could be, mainly because the sampled parts don't include much of the horns. But it certainly gives you value for money in case you just want to turn it up and shake your booty for a further twenty minutes, though the last brash mix rather sours the subtle taste of the first dozen cuts.
Clearly Bollywood Brass Band were needing the right project to come along, and this is it. It's a shining example of cross-cultural ideas at work. The members bring in their own jazz, pop and classical influences to the work of a composer who knows how to adapt an orchestra to establish moods and paint colors with sounds. There's so much creativity and ingenuity here, it's a real treat to unravel and explore all the musical directions it takes.
BOLLYWOOD BRASS BAND
THE BOLLYWOOD BRASS BAND (BollCD2001)
Since I have played RAHMANIA! to the point where I start whistling the tunes before they start, I dug out the first album from the great London brass combo and have been enjoying it more and more. As with the sequel, Sahra Moore's arrangements and solo sax work are the high point. In the interim I have seen the movies that three of the tracks come from and so have a deeper appreciation of their versions of the tunes. Volume one kicks off with a track from the Safri brothers covered in the inimitable Bollywood style. In fact I prefer their version to some of the originals and have started working on a "Roots of the Bollywood Brass Band" CD to compare the versions back to back. "Gur Nalon ishk mina" is a traditional Punjabi tune, reworked by Bally Sagoo and turns up on a CD by one of the Singhs, Sukwinder or Malkit. It has a rocking bassline. The next two cuts are from the hit film BOMBAY with music by A.R. Rahman: well-worth watching for the picture it presents of the strife between Hindus and Muslims that roils below the surface still. The music is also stellar, though not all of Rahman is, as I discover the more of his albums I buy. After a hit from "Raja Hindusthani" we are treated to a reworking of "Mehndi Laga ke Rakhna" another blockbuster from the film "Dilwale Dulhania le Jayenge." (A sweet comedy with Shah Rukh Khan mugging to the max and ultimately getting the girl despite the odds. There's a funny scene early on when he cons his way into a 7-11 that is closed [yes, they do close] on the pretext of needing aspirin, but really to buy beer. Later he follows a girl to India only to find her father is the store owner, come home for the wedding, who's sure he knows the rascal from somewhere. It's a forgettable film but there is a great "boliyan" in it.) The two remixes that this album closes with serve the band better than the remixes on the sequel. There's more of the brass sound and less tinkering with effects.
BOMBAY THE HARD WAY
VOLUME 1: GUNS, CARS & SITARS
VOLUME 2: ELECTRIC VINDALOO (Motel records)
Every so often, I have to work out my subwoofer. Favourite albums for doing so are remixed soundtrack music issued as "Bombay the Hard Way." Volume 1: GUNS, CARS & SITARS features the filmi music of two guys, the Shah brothers, a sub-Morricone pair, who were huge in the 70s: Kaljandji and Anandji. They captured the mood of the Brownsploitation flix that were all the rage then. Additional drum tracks have been added to the songs to make them dance-floor friendly. Volume 2 is called ELECTRIC VINDALOO and is every bit as funky as volume one. It takes the same artists' songs and gives them to different deejays to play with. The re-producers sampled Bollywood movie soundtracks and made an irresistible mix using loops and beats. Every now and then a voice says, "Hello, big man!" or "Bloody bastard! Hahahaha..." or something equally intriguing in an Indian accent and you find yourself listening more intently to follow an emerging narrative. Mr Jay, the 007 character from volume 1, resurfaces in a vocal snippet in Vol 2 that is also engaging (Where's the suitcase with the $50,000? -- I may have to find the video!). Track 4, "Third World Lover," has a really catchy groove, with laughter samples and a loop of schmaltzy violins over a pounding rhythm that goes from finger-cymbals to trap drums and on to a drum machine as various other assorted musical parts float through on magic carpets. The collaging by Kid Koala and Dynamite D is brilliantly executed on top of a simple major fifth bass walk up and down. ...Well, to call it brilliant may be over the top. It's standard hip-hop stuff but the interesting part is that here we have Indian film composers giving us their interpretation of Hollywood scores with themes suggestive of "Spies" or "Cool cats," and then it's the kitsch aspect that is sampled, the basest Casio-riff consciousness, tricked out as exotica by the western deejays who reimport it and conspicuously point up its simplicity, its derivativeness. Quite a quandary: what is too lame to consider and what is vital here? One Indian critic wrote: "Bombay 2 is what happens when trashy Indian imitations of the West are reinterpreted as millenary Western gropings Eastward." He goes on to call it "more beautiful in death than life." These two albums, with their witty take on Bollywood music, are classics as far as I'm concerned. Another critic said, "mellow trip-hop and extraterrestrial funk. The different 70s style leitmotifs running through the tracks on this record are on that very slim and slippery threshold between funkily marketable and kitschily abject." Though I am not familiar with the 9 deejays who remixed some of the tracks on the second album, another 7 cuts are taken straight from the original tapes recorded in the '80s and work seamlessly in the mix.
DEVDAS Soundtrack (Universal)
This is more of a film review than a music review, but see the film DEVDAS and you'll want the soundtrack, if not the DVD to dance along to the musical numbers. Culturally the Duchess and I meet in India (she's Asian; I'm British) and we have been exploring aspects of this rich world together. A couple of weeks ago we decided to go to the Indian cinema in Fremont and saw DEVDAS, the most expensive and most hyped movie ever to come out of Bollywood. Every rupee spent on the production is up on the screen, it's breath-taking! (And was the beginning of our mutual fascination with Bollywood.)
The film is a remake of a classic that was filmed twice before (in black and white), both earlier productions having the involvement of the great Bimal Roy (first as cameraman, then as director). The hero (in the latest version) returns from England to find the girl next door has been holding a candle for him (literally) for a decade. Devdas is played by the overworked heart-throb Shah Rukh Khan who specializes in roles where he cries and looks forlorn! He's perfectly cast. Paro is still in love with him and once he sees her (the stunning Aishwarya Rai: an actual Miss World no less!) he's hooked, but his uptight father forbids the union. Humiliated, the girl's mother marries her off to a prince and Dev goes on a bender. He's rescued for a spell by a lovely courtesan but drinks himself to death, managing to get to his beloved's doorstep before croaking. The courtesan is played by talented actress Madhuri Dixit who can actually sing as well as dance. Though she doesn't come on screen till the second hour she is truly mesmerizing. As is the set where her palace was constructed -- built around a real lake, it caught fire five times, was flooded by rain, and dried up during the course of the film! Yes it's a lame plot, but the sets, costumes and choreography are superb. (It must be: I've watched it 5 times!)
A dozen composers were brought in on the soundtrack album to ensure its success. There's a whole range of songs, many of them about Radha and Krishna, so there is an intended non-temporal quality to them. Though there's no sex in the film, there is a great deal of sensuality and it occurred to me that if J. Christ had gotten laid, Christianity wouldn't be such a messed-up religion! I chew up the bubblegum of "Maar Daala" and "Bairi Piya" with tabla and dhol underpinning. The orchestrations are lush and clean. My favourite is the drunk number "Chalak Chalak" which has a tongue-twister as the lyric. The dance, filmed in a rainstorm with splashing bottles of rum, is brilliant. A couple of the tunes are purely cinematic; others only work with the dance spectacle. There are also many musical styles (& instruments) at work. The third track, on a pentatonic scale, has a gamelan break quoted from a Balinese pop song, then pits hammered dulcimer against pizzicato strings before swelling into cinematic lushness.
DEVDAS may not get the distribution of MONSOON WEDDING or BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM but is a spectacle not to be missed. You can hear samples of the tunes here and check out the rest of the site for some stunning visuals.
SHANKAR, EHSAAN, LOY (Composers)
KAL HO NA HO soundtrack (Sony 513631 9)
The Duchess and I saw one American film at the cinema last year (clue: a drunk pirate in runny mascara), but about half a dozen Hindi films (plus dozens more on TV). There's a fabulous art deco cinema in Jaipur that we were told to check out, and as it was playing the latest Bollywood blockbuster we had to go. Our favourite actor, Shahrukh Khan, stars and does his usual fine turn of weeping for the last hour or so. Oddly the entire film is set in New York City (though the Brooklyn neighbourhood where they lived was Toronto -- I guess they are closer than you'd think). The film has a couple of great song and dance numbers in a very uneven soundtrack. It's worth getting for the wedding dance song, "Maahi Ve." The other songs are the title cut, which is highly derivative of Sting's BRAND NEW DAY album, and a disco song which is so hysterically bad it's almost listenable. It has Abba written all over it. They did have to get clearance for "Pretty Woman" which uses the Roy Orbison classic as a starting point and is another interesting remake. Apart from being half the price of most CDs, this one has a bonus disc inside labeled "Hits Forver." There is no track info but it is a compilation of recent filmi hits and a nice addition to the package.
MONSOON WEDDING soundtrack
Mira Nair has made fine heartwarming and humorous films about Punjabi life, often distinguished by great soundtracks, e.g., SALAAM BOMBAY had the goofy "Chin Chin Choo," a forties-style ersatz Chinese rockabilly ditty, and she treated Bollywood musicals as kitsch long before GHOST WORLD. I bought the soundtrack to MISSISSIPPI MASALA for one song, Papy Tex's "Kanda ya nini" (which is all-time Congolese top ten material) and found myself singing along to Mukesh's "Mera Joota Hai Japani," another Bollywood novelty number. Her latest film, MONSOON WEDDING has a great soundtrack I didn't fully appreciate till I had listened to the CD a few times. Mychael Danna wrote the incidental music but there is a great deal of hybridized pop recycled from Indian culture. In the way that Nusrat brought qawwali music to a non-muslim audience, Mira Nair has brought Bollywood to western film audiences. And funnily enough the sitar still sounds exotic when it appears in some mood-setting music. The MONSOON WEDDING soundtrack goes from the profundity of Nusrat singing "Allah Hoo" through some ambient fake-Satie piano doodling to the fizzy disposable pop of "Chunari Chunari" (pure Bollywood) to the disco-tech jerk of Bally Sagoo. It's infectious and highly enjoyable.
ROUGH GUIDE TO ASHA BHOSLE
(Rough Guide RGNET 1131 CD 2003)
There are five Asha Bhosle Greatest Hits compilations I've seen so far, this one is the first selected by the singer herelf. With a career that started in the late forties (!), and an output of over 20,000 songs, Asha is prolific but rarely misses a beat. Asha got her first break as a second singer and then waited for the star to falter. It came when Geeta Dutt was asked to laugh on cue and couldn't do it, so Asha seized the moment and her eerie peals of laughter can be heard in many of her songs. We get the whole range of her voices, from classical to pop, in this great CD. From an opening track of goofy jump jazz meets rockabilly to some ethereal stuff and back to the disco, she covers all the pop styles. That 1956 Bill Haley thing, "Ina Mina Dika," is a riot. Her career was probably aided by her marriage to composer R.D. Burman (who died in 1983), and she has chosen many of his fine tunes for this anthology, like the lovely "Mera kuchh Saaman," which has a dreamlike quality. Burman thought the lyrics were trite but Asha pushed him into composing a tune for it. He tossed something off in ten minutes, but it won the National Award.
After making a wide swath through her career the album comes up to recent times with the rocking "Rang De," from the 1999 film TAKSHAK. This is one I play repeatedly on video. Then, to end, she drops back to 1958 for a ballad duet with Mohamed Rafi that translates as "I slept in your eyes." Sweet.
BEST OF SUKHWINDER SINGH (TIPS DE-37475 2003)
NAACH MERI JAAN NACH (Venus VCDP 914 2000)
Though Lata and Asha get most of the credit for being the top playback singers, one of the best male voices is Sukhwinder Singh's. THE BEST OF compilation starts off with a bang with "Ramta Jogi" from TAAL, and features two more selections from that movie, with Alka Yagnik singing the female part. The opener is too short at 6 minutes! Singh takes on a Nusrat composition next and shows he's up to the vocal gymnastics. Track 3 has a snatch of dialogue that gets really irritating when the girl starts yelling "I love you" in English. It turns into a fast disco number redeemed by a duet, again with Alka Yagnik. Track five, "Taal Se Taal Mila" (from TAAL) is one of those teasing "spot this riff" puzzles. There's a bass synthesizer that dimly recalls something by Zapp or the Dazz band, I can't recall. But it has great female chorus & a live feel that is exciting. The rhythm is to the fore and takes over, which is kinda odd for a singer's greatest hits album, but it shows a degree of modesty, or business savvy, as Singh knows it's a strong song, even when he's not singing. Sukhvindara, as he's sometimes known, returns, pursued by a weird synth riff that sounds like a seagull in a storm. It's a keeper. The next cut, "Jalwa," also has a strong male chorus and a shrill delivery verging on yelling. It's not that he's dependent on all the backup singers but more that he is framing his voice in this choral context and it works well. In the second selection from the film DEEWANE, his co-singer Anuradha Paudwal gets a bigger share and Sukhwinder seems to be out of the studio for most of it. Despite this seeming modesty, the album works well and has a lot of variety.
It was a cut on CAFE BOMBAY that alerted me to how great Sukhwinder Singh can be, so I grabbed what I could find at my local Indian Import store. While it's not billed as a Greatest hits package, in fact it's not billed as anything, just having a photo and the title on the front, NAACH MERI JAAN NACH has several Sukwinder gems on it. The opening is an insistent groove, that segues neatly into "Chhaiya Chhaiya" which was in the film DIL SE. This is a film to avoid at all costs! A heartfelt romantic drama about terrorism starring Shah Rukh Khan and with a Rahman soundtrack, I thought it would be worth getting, but other than the song on top of the train it's dire. But that is a great moment when the cast are singing and dancing on the roof of a chugging steam train and you wonder if any extras fell off during the filming. Track 6, "Thaiya Thaiya" is a reprise of the same theme... but with orchestra and more dramatics.