Concerts, Music

2020 Goals (a small one)

So I was doing a bit of the ol’ interweb-crawling before heading to bed, and I came across a piece of news that got blood rushing to my head. An Instagram account attributed to the band Rage Against The Machine has put up a single image.

(I screenshotted the image so that it does not suddenly disappear off the face of the internet if the band decides they’re too cool for Instagram)

Yes. The Rage Against the Machine, whose last live appearance was in 2011, at a festival called LA Rising. That year I was in Los Angeles, sans car, barely skimming the surface of what the city had to offer. So of course I missed it, and the band never performed together again.

RATM has been on my top 5 Acts to Watch Live, and it looks like next year is when I make it out to Coachella again, after 5 years of staying away from the festival. Or maybe it may make more sense to just head out to New Mexico or Arizona to see the band, considering Coachella logistics.

Also, I cringe at the thought of being an RATM fan 20 years ago, with little context to their music, other than them being this angry-sounding band with catchy guitar riffs that were great to head-bang to. “The Machine” in their name, in my head, correlated to the System, and of course, we all hated the system, which was all teachers and dumb rules and everything that reeked of adulthood. So it felt good to sing along with “Fuck you I won’t do what to tell me”. It did not help that I heard their music for the first time on the Matrix OST, which obfuscated their political messages even more. In a time when I was still trying to define what “cool” was, and whether I was part of that club or not, Rage Against The Machine’s music presented the right kind of credentials.

It was much, much later that a better knowledge of US politics, history, and culture helped me understand the “Rage” in their name. The band’s lyrics are, in case you didn’t know already, at odds with US domestic and foreign policy, and are a direct critique of corporations, cultural imperialism, and systemic oppression of marginalized groups in America. Once upon a time, I wondered at why exactly the band spoke of convicted murderers and revolutionary Mexican organizations, and wondered if they were taking performance art too far by insisting on shooting a video in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or hanging upside down flags from their speakers during a live TV show. I had misgivings about the violent protests their music seemed to incite, and sort of understood why they were the only band in the infamous Clear Channel memorandum to have all songs banned from radio channels in the aftermath of 9/11.

But you live and learn. Twenty years later, I know America a little differently than I did back when I just graduated college. I am a lot more aware, both from a cultural and sociopolitical standpoint, about what makes this country tick, and the undercurrents of wrongness that pervade American society. The truths to power that the band spits out through their music feel like a necessary part of the American discourse. “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” now hold more import than the chorus of ‘Killing in the Name’. And the song that plays at the end of The Matrix, the one that introduced me to the band, has these lines:

Networks at work, keepin' people calm
Ya know they murdered X and tried to blame it on Islam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

As it turns out, I am not alone in loving the band without understanding them. Republican ex-House speaker Paul Ryan was apparently an RATM fan, and Tom Morello wrote a scathing Rolling Stone opinion piece calling him “the embodiment of the machine”.

These, by the way, are the list of books in the album notes of Evil Empire, their second album.

  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Capital, Volume I by Karl Marx
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal
  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
  • Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism by Alexander Berkman
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
  • Walden and Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Another Country by James Baldwin

I am still working my way through this list, and I do not claim to be an expert. But I shut up, and listen, and read, and read a little more, and every day the world comes a little more into focus.

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Music

Music-Mania May 2019 Edition

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has a soundtrack to be proud of. Music hand-picked by Olivia and Dan The Automator, featuring the likes of Alanis Morrissette, Sofi Tukker, LCD Soundsystem, and Perfume Genius. But the one track that blew my mind was a song by Fata Boom, called ‘Double Rum Cola’. You see, it features a sample from a very, very familiar song from this 90s Indian boy’s childhood.

The song plays in an insane slow-mo last-day-of-high-school sequence, which is perfect.

You gotta go watch Booksmart. It’s phenomenal, and not just because of the music.


I heard a song while having dinner in an Indian restaurant in Toronto. It’s surprising I paid attention to it because I was in wonderful company and the conversation was sublime. But the melody felt…familiar. It’s an infuriating feeling to not recognize a song immediately, and I knew that later, it would come back to haunt me. So I switched on Soundhound, and the track that showed up was something I had never heard before. It was called ‘I Wanna Know’, by NOTD, featuring Bea Miller on vocals. Decent 6-out-of-10 summer dance track, but I could not understand why it felt so familiar.

It was only later, after I had hummed the main verse a few times, that I realized I had heard it after all. Well, not the original, but the version that appears on Ark Patrol’s ‘Entropy’.

I came across the music of Ark Patrol by pure happenstance earlier this year, when he released his first full-length album. It’s one of the best downtempo/chill LPs I have heard in 2019, and has been on repeat for the better part of the last quarter. The way he samples Bea Miller’s vocals for ‘Entropy’ is magical; the voice lowers an octave, the refrain becomes a plaintive wail, the beats and drone slither hypnotically. Electronic music at its finest.


The sheer joy of Michel Gondry’s video for the Chemical Brothers song ‘Gotta Keep On’ keeps on making me high. (hyuk!) But Gondry being Gondry, I love the turn the visuals take towards the middle. Just the subtle tweaking of reality that modern-day CGI brings to the director’s toolbox. MG, most known for directing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was the director of choice for some of Bjork’s greatest songs.

Bonus: Michel Gondry’s video for Metronomy’s ‘Love Letters’ (2014)

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Albums, Music

Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan

This is a good time to mention that Susheela Raman has a new album that came out last year, called Ghost Gamelan.

In case you didn’t know, Gamelan is a form of traditional music from Indonesia, primarily the islands of Bali and Java. The music is percussive, and its origins lie in Javanese mythology, from the story of a king who summoned the gods by playing on three gongs. So while gamelan incorporates a variety of musical instruments, the majority of the world identifies it via the distinctive sound of the metallic and bamboo gongs, xylophones, and cymbals that are used in the ensemble.

The first time I heard the sound of gamelan was, even though I did not know it then, the soundtrack of Akira. The layered, propulsive beats that underscored the violent motorcycle chase sequence in the opening moments of the film was all bamboo and metal gongs. The sound captures the frantic energy onscreen with perfection, and still manages to pump me up every time the beats kick in. For a movie that released in 1988, the music does not sound the least bit dated. (Contrast this to another sci-fi anime epic that released in the same time period -– I adore Joe Hisaishi, but the Nausicaa OST screams its time-period from the first synth-note)

Raman’s album, in contrast to Akira, fluctuates between percussion-heavy pieces (‘Tanpa Nama’) and slow, meditative pieces (‘Beautiful Moon’, ‘Spoons’) that accentuate the moodiness the musical form is capable of. Sometimes, her lyrics and the main melody dance around the traditional music elegantly, yin and yang (‘Ghost Child’); in others, voice and gong echo in unison. ‘Annabel’ is probably the only track that is old-school Susheela, and is a wonder unto itself. Oh, and the last song ‘Rose’ features lyrics by William Blake. While I don’t like quoting promotional material from album releases, the official text describes the music far better than I can:


Javanese music evokes  the invisible; ancestral presences, old religions, volcanic rumblings, and court intrigues. A sensuality of appearances, decorum, ritual and procession runs to trance and possession. Meanwhile, Raman’s songs here are meditations on change, transformation and mortality. Lyrics reflect on uncertainties cast by memory, desire and the ephemeral.  In this album, tonality and rhythm are questioned and de-centred, just as much as they are asserted. Some records achieve a fixed quality but this record is very ‘alive’, or volatile, both in the performances but also in the way it shifts as you hear it. The vitality of the interactions, of the musical cultures misbehaving with each other, result in a sound more ‘unearthly’ than ‘world’.

https://bit.ly/2PpKqxa

A major part of the album depends on the skills of Raman’s collaborator, Javanese musician Godrang Gunarto and his ensemble. You can see them live here (apparently, they have been touring together since 2017) , wait for 3:42.

One of my favorite experiences with gamelan was a Hammer museum exhibit called The Gamelatron, from two years ago. This was an open-air installation featuring a five-piece kinetic sculpture that used robotics, metal gongs, and timers to play gamelan-inspired music. Viewers were encouraged to lounge around in seating areas and soak in the harmonies that played throughout the day. It was a blissful hour, and I remember coming out of the exhibit feeling rejuvenated.

I loved revisiting the music of Susheela Raman. It’s been 13-odd years since I heard Love Trap for the first time (and forged a life-long friendship in part because of a mutual love for her album). I hadn’t listened to her in years; a Whatsapp message earlier this year brought her again into my periphery, and this apparently is what I missed since 2011:

  • a 2011 album called Vel, which I never listened to
  • a cover of a Naushad song called ‘Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahaani’ for a 2013 movie called Kajarya (which strays into familiar territory as ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Love Trap)
  • a strange 2014 album called Queen Between, which features Raman collaborating with neither available on Spotify in the US, nor via any online music stores. Amazon has a (used) CD for sale, so it looks like this was never released in the US. So here we are, in 2019, unable to listen to an album with a few keystrokes and minimal latency. What is this world coming to?

At this point, our intrepid music explorer remembers this little-known site called Youtube, and he blushes at his tirade against digital tyranny. “I recant”, he exclaims, as his senses are filled with chocolate and chiffon, marshmallow and clouds. Behold, unbelievers, the joys of ‘Sharabi’, by Susheela Raman and Rizwan Muazzam.

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Music

India + Romania Redux

Apropos of my earlier post on the popularity of ‘Selfie Pulla’ in Romania, here is one more example of cross-cultural pollination. A Romanian song called ‘Condimente’, by Nosfe and featuring Ruby wears its Indian influences on its sleeve. The song lyrics have the singers using funky spice metaphors to talk about their relationship. (‘You’re spicy, like chili or paprika/I just eat more light, be my soy sauce/me basil, you mint/This ain’t perfect but it has a tint’) The video features India-influenced background dancers, and the setting is totes obvs Bollywood. If we lived in the 90s, this song would already have made an appearance in an Anu Malik album — or four — by now.

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Music

This song is a hit in Romania, and you can’t guess why

If you are a connoisseur of the comment section on YouTube, you will be surprised to see the number of Romanians commenting on this particular video. As it turns out, “Pula” is Romanian slang for the male member/dick/cock/prick/insert (giggle) your synonym here. The video was featured on an entertainment show in the country, and suddenly went viral there. My Romanian friends have been sending me the link for expert commentary, and it’s hard to keep a straight face. Not since ‘Kolaveri Di’ (which was popular enough to be included in zumba classes in Cluj) has an Indian song made such an impact on Romanian internet circles.

But then, I have my own arsenal of pop culture artifacts to make the most hardened Romanian patriot blush, or at least back away slowly, eager to deny all association with these gold-encrusted nuggets.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B: (NOT work-safe, hellz no)

Exhibit C:

But to be fair, Romania has its share of good music. The most obsequious, and often reviled, genre is dance-pop, and it even has a special name for the country — ‘popcorn’. O-zone’s ‘Dragostea din tei‘ (if you don’t remember it, maybe you recognize it as the ‘Numa Numa’ song) was a legit hit in the early 2000s, and by the end of the decade, artists like Alexandra Stan, Inna, and Andreea Banica had broken through, making frothy, catchy pop music that is easy on the ears and quite the rage in night-clubs around Europe. Synthesized accordion and brass melodies are occasional hallmarks in these songs, and most feature English lyrics that sound like afterthoughts on top of the production, suffering from a lack of depth. (Hey, who are we to complain, we purveyors of Ishqwala Love/Selfie Pulla/Hai Hukku?) Overall, popcorn is very distinctive, drawing influences from trance, house and dub-step into a sound that is uniquely Romanian. The videos are rife with pretty people; the artistes themselves are usually gorgeous, and are consequently mainstays on /r/sexymusicvideos. Here’s an extended, albeit, outdated popcorn playlist:

Of all the popcorn artistes I know, I tend to favor Inna and DJ Andi the most. I heard the latter for the first time in 2009, when his ‘Freedom’ was playing in every bar and nightclub and radio station during my visit. Inna is dear to my heart because I heard some unplugged songs by her, and I simply could not resist.

I can’t stand Romanian rock. With very few exceptions, most local bands have an 80s hair-metal hangover that turns me off. I suspect it is both my taste and my lack of context for the lyrics that contribute to my lack of interest in them.

My favorite sub-genre in Romanian music happens to be ‘etno’, which mixes traditional instruments, rhythms, voices and melodies with sleek production values. It is folk meets turn-tablism, hip-hop, D&B and dub-step loops. Subcarpati is a band I keep an eye on, and they feature outstanding work on their tracks, the language barrier hardly a factor in bopping along with their songs.

If you want to keep an eye on new Romanian pop, /r/RomanianHouse is the sub-reddit to follow.

And if you really want the dregs of Romanian music, don’t look further than Manele. Local critics have used terms like “pseudo music”, “pure stupidity, inculture and blah-blah”, “the genre for the mentally challenged”, and my personal favorite: “society’s bed-wetter”. I am not morally equipped to point you to manele videos, proceed at your own peril. Please do not come asking for a life refund once you are done, okay?

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