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.

Picture from here

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 with 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’.

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.

Albums, Music

Deaf Center – Time Spent

What is it about the notes of a solitary piano that appeal to me so much, I wonder? This 2 minute 10 second piece passed my cardinal test for new music – which is that it made me pause in my work and give it my undivided attention. I expected the piano pattern to lead into some sort of aural explosion at the end, because this is how music of this sort conditions you; and it’s great at building tension, this track. The bass notes buzzes into existence around the 1:19 mark, but that is about all the variance you get.

The album, though, is more adventurous. A blend of cello-scrapes and breathy flute notes make up the bulk of the initial track ‘Divided’; it feels like a conductor raising his hands and waking an orchestra from a dream of centuries, a single note that is sustained over 4 minutes and 23 seconds. ‘Close Forever Watching’ is a sister track to ‘Divided’, going through a similar cycle of build-up of drone sounds that scream and whisper and sigh one after the other. Similarly, ‘Fiction Dawn’ is a sister track to ‘Time Spent’, a lone piano wandering through tense passages of full of promise. ‘The Day I would Never Have’ is a 10 minute track that marks the mid-point of the album, and combines the tinkle of the piano and the hum of the pads. Beautiful.

The problem with this kind of moody, creep-down-your-ears-into-your-spine music is how limited a window of opportunity I have to enjoy it. The bulk of my music-listening happens in the car, and what really goes well with driving is up-tempo beats and melodies. I have tried listening to Nils Frahm in the car, and I find myself slowing down on the freeway, or holding my breath in anticipation; the low-register subtleties of the music do not lend themselves to listening while on the move. At home, music gets put on in the background when I am cooking, or reading; the former brings in the same objections, and the latter makes it hard for me to focus on the reading.

This is also not the kind of music you want to listen to with others, not unless everyone’s willing to cut down on conversation and give a song like this their full-fledged attention. That is something that rarely happens in a group, and also, it is hard to get a bunch of people together that like the same things about a piece of music, or even that same piece, for that matter.

Similar to this genre are the weird, out-there sensibilities of Toru Takematsu or John Zorn, for example. Zorn’s music, in particular, would drive apartment-mates, my girlfriend and other assorted animals in the vicinity out of their minds. It’s hard to take this kind of music in for more than 2 or 3 tracks at a time, for sure.

Deaf Center would make for great meditation music, or walking-in-nature music. I don’t do much of the former, but I should definitely get around to indulging more in the latter. If only to listen to more space-hippie music.

Albums, AR Rahman, Music

Muhuh Thuhuh **

The first thing everybody says about AR Rahman’s music is that it takes repeated listenings to dig it. That you don’t really “get” Rahman’s music unless you have listened to it over and over again.

Which is completely bollocks, let me tell you. Try listening to a godawful Anu Malik track over and over again 12 times, you will find out that it gets into your head, whether you like it or not. Which is why new releases have repeat airplay on TV and radio, the principle is that if you are bombarded with a bad song and you don’t have anywhere to escape, you will ultimately cave in and start humming it to yourself, and pretty soon you will be telling your friends what a good song Anu Malik composed for that latest Dharmesh Darshan film.

Why then, you might ask, do some songs grab your attention immediately? What makes a Harris Jayaraj song sound so hummable the first time you hear it? Why is Himesh Reshammiya so popular? I get you, I get you. Let me try and explain this in detail.

I huhuh thuhuh. Goddamn you, tandavdancer. I have a theory. Call it the earworm theory, if you will. What I say is, the most hummable songs, the ones that stick in your head the first time you hear them, the ones that sound so freaking catchy – they are piggybackers. They are the bastard children of familiar tunes. The effect they produce the first time is – “where have I heard this before?” Now, you would know, without having to tell you myself, how difficult it is to hum another song when one song is playing right in front of you. It’s even harder to think of a wisp of a melody as it floats by in a composition. What actually happens when you think of the song this new song reminds you of is – the new song sticks in your mind. Voila, instant earworm.

Easy example: Listen to Harris Jayaraj’s Vettaiyaadu Villaiyadu, if you haven’t already. The last song on that album – Neruppae – is so catchy it can give SuperglueTM a complex. Until you think about it and realise the tune is just a reworking of the middle portion of Aashiq Banaaya Aapne. That’swhat I mean by piggybacking.

Now, back to Rahman.

The deal with Rahman music is that most of it, the stuff that has stood the test of time, is music that does not really have a template from previous film music. You sure as hell hadn’t heard an acoustic guitar and claps and a growling bass – and those instruments only – backing Chitra’s voice, until you heard ‘Kannalanae’ (That’s ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ for you non-purists) in Bombay. You heard Shweta Shetty singing herself hoarse on TV channels, but did you really think she could pull off the kind of high-pitched vocal violence that Rahman subjected her to in ‘Mangta Hai Kya’? Fine, so Iruvar was based on 70’s MGR movies, but were you really prepared for the scat portion in ‘Hello Mr Ethirkatchi’?

Let me tell you a secret. These three songs I mentioned above? I hated all of them the first time I heard them.

Why can’t we love AR Rahman’s music the first time we hear it? Because we are minor mortals. Because we have limited attention spans and equally limited aural capabilities, rendered sterile by the kind of puerile sonic experiences we are subjected to in the name of music. Please note that the previous sentence was bereft of irony of any kind. It’s true, you know it.

This is how a Rahman track affects you. Don’t take my word for it, try it out yourself the next time an album comes out. Listen to the album once. Just once, oh well, alright, listen to it one more time if it makes you feel better. Forget that it’s Rahman music, treat it as a generic album that has come out and you are listening to it because your friend recommended it or because you have nothing else to do. The important thing is – don’t tell yourself you have to like it. That’s the first mistake a Rahman fan makes. This is music that has been laboured on for days and weeks, probably even months. You do it a disservice by treating it as a disposable bit of loopyheadedness. Hmm, a better analogy – would you gulp down a glass of vintage champagne? Of course not. You would take it in slowly, let it into your system in delicate little sips.

So there. You have listened to the album. Your work is done. Keep the CD aside. If you are listening to it on, shut down the player and go to or something. (You might also consider stabbing yourself with a blunt object. You listened to a Rahman album foir the first time on a dinky mono compressed version, you sick freak. You should be made to listen to Another Brick in the Wall in a Hyderabad pub. Especially when there are skimpily clad women around dancing Farah Khan steps to it. Sorry, I digress.) Get on with your life, because you have got better things to do.

Of course, you are free to go and read reviews about the music. Check out the buzz. Smile at the obsessive fanboyness of music-lovers across the world as they dissect the album. Half of them will say it’s the next best release after Dil Se, the rest will hate it with a vengeance. You don’t care.

Now comes the interesting part. By Day 2, there will be these bits and pieces echoing around in your head. Maybe a “miaow” will creep in just when you’re about to go to bed. Or a snatch of a piano riff that you frantically try to complete in your mind. You will try to hum some of them to yourself – maybe you will hear bits of it playing in a music shop, or your friend humming a bit of it. Some guy will write about how cool this middle part of track 2 is, and you will try and remember how that part sounded like.

Give yourself a week, if you are a strong man and can digest all of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles in one sitting. (To be frank, I can’t.) A week, and then go listen to the album again. Wipe away your tears as you realize how completely cool the album is, and how intricate the songs are, and how Rahman can cram each of his song with details that would make a lesser composer quail. Listen and learn.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t cringe at the back-cover.

To the anonymous commenter who left the link to the ‘New York Nagaram’ mp3 a couple of days ago, thank you. I bought the Jillanu Oru Kaadhal album as soon as I could, and indulged in a little social experiment with myself ( the part you read about above. You did read it, didn’t you?), the same thing I do with most Rahman albums, at least the ones which do not have infectious thumbi loops as part of their promos. I didn’t listen to ‘New York Nagaram’ for quite a long time, letting the lightheadedness of ‘Kummi Adi’ sink into my system. It has Thenni Kunjaramma in it, man. How long has it been since we heard the lady with the cutest cracked voice EVER? Taj Mahal was the last album in which she figured, right? And who is this Tanvi lady and how can she sound like three women on three renditions of the same line? How could Shreya Ghoshal produce such orgasmic moans without the musicians running out of the studio? Was Rahman watching Trigun when he thought of putting in the random miaows in the title song? Why does the female chorus on ‘Munbe Vaa’ give me goosepimples on every listen?

Excuse me while I ponder over such existentialist questions. Feel free to go buy Jillanu Oru Kaadhal, available in Rahman-friendly stores across the world.

** Music Theory. Go read Preacher already.