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As ever, I don’t remember the important stuff, the van, the packing, the boxes, the miracle of a garden. I just remember knowing I was somewhere tougher than before. Move to Ernesford Grange, a new estate in Coventry in 78. Make friends finally, now I’m not up in the flats in an old-folks home and living in a house on a street. Catch bus to and from school with sister, latchkey kids. House down the road, ‘the punk house’, occasionally skinheads snarling & spitting my way, fear of fascist attack locked inside forever, chip on shoulder budding already. One close close white friend, play everywhere with him, like all my intense childhood friendships it ends in desertion and/or horror. Late 1980 he asks me out to play post-cherryade Sunday afternoon. Make it down the corner, his other friends waiting with a water bomb and a few well-placed punches and a few new words they’ve learned like paki and nignog and wog and blackie, words I’d heard at school behind my back but that had not yet been spat at me like this. Blub and it makes them hit harder. Teaches me something very important.

2 years later in 82, in retrospect, as a slightly hardened, ready to defend myself 10 year old still thinking about it, as I do for a while, I come to a conclusion I still haven’t been able to shake. Don’t trust them to understand you, ever, there’s a wall there that can never be breached, a wall that’s taken too long to build, that’s too important to a lot of people to ever come down.

As I eventually realise, in moments of national crisis, whether 81 or 2011, when the search for scapegoats becomes paramount, the wall will be sat on once more and you will be watched from it, the issue that you are batted around again with that familiar mix of patrician disappointment or condescending approval of your moves towards isolation or integration. You’re taught scantly at school that racism is about flashpoints, marches, riots, moments in history and figures in history, a boxed-off notion of race that includes Gandhi & MLK & Eichmann & Mandela that enables the ruling structure to safely kick race-hate into a touch-zone beyond itself, a problem for other countries, other times. What you learn fairly sharpish growing up coloured is that racism is a colder, more ever-present and steadily debilitating thing than that, a daily build-up, a constant sweeper of your legs and puller of the rug beneath yr identity, an endless, tiring, eternal part of your circumscribed mortal life. It happens so often you can’t date it, or explain it any more than you can explain the air, the weather, the earth you’re shoved down upon and that leaves its scars upon you. It fills the air, it can choke you, but of course, just like any other victim of a slow poisoning, you get used to it.
You also learn to never talk about the way you feel, to keep things in, turn those experiences into an internal black wellspring that slowly seeps and hardens until it’s an extra cancerous calcified layer of your skeleton, rattles and rubs inside your every move. In retrospect at least that early brush with racism was flagrant and outré and joyfully cruel and easy to respond to once I got my breath back – learned early that if you start getting wordy back, outfox those English (who seek to deny your Englishness) with your precocious command of their lingo, particularly the crueller swearier end of it, people tend to shut the fuck up, steer clear. That day, once the tears subsided, I realised that language has real power, committed myself to using it in my revenge. And to this day, the English language is the thing I love most about England, the thing I see as emblematic of what truly makes us great, our ability to absorb and take on influence from everyone we come into contact with. As a strategy, pursuing Englishness to the point where I’m an extreme new form of Englander is something that eventually precipitates me becoming a critic, informs what criticism I offer.  My lifelong obsession with this country’s history and people and language is not an attempt at bleaching myself with good citizenship, rather it becomes a search for an Englishness that’s somehow more desirable, dignified and fair than the kind of Englishness I feel around me. At less distance from the horrors of empire pre-war English authors become a touchstone for me early on in my pre-teens, I find a rich seam of dissidence to England’s nationalist mindset in literature, in books by Waugh and Orwell & Greene, deeper than I perceive anywhere else except the Specials who at the time boss my head, heart and Harrington.

Specials outside The Parsons Nose, best chippy in Cov at the time, now sadly no more. 

These authors mentor my precocious dissidence to the lie of Englishness the same way Burroughs, Genet & Crisp later oversee my lonely dissatisfaction with masculinity. Writers come to govern my life. By the time I’m a teenager and my Ernesford Grange memories are already fading I’m starting to realise that the hatred I got there was preferable in a way to the middle-class ‘tolerance’ I endure in the suburbs, that inclusion/exclusion so woolly and gaseous it’s impossible to windmill against. UK racism I’m starting to discover, is less a tribal thing than it is an institutional thing, easy to spot in the skins and punks and the NF but more pervasive as a gentlemanly assumption of racial superiority that informs everyone from the kids who battered me in Ernesford Grange to the grown-ups who tell me I’m over-reacting the rest of my life. In Ernesford also, all kinds of music is giving me worlds to hide amidst in my cubby-hole.

Outside, I’m developing tricks of non-engagement, the right way to look at the ground whilst walking (to one side, not straight down), the right way to make that kind of walking tolerable (imagine you’re being filmed) - I’ve always had cameras on me, either close up or hidden, there’s one filming me right now, another bad old mental trick I pop into to take the pain from the situation a second. Outside, I’ve learned not to look people in the eye ever, even if you’re talking to them, keep your gaze off to an angle so you can’t read their revulsion in you, so they don’t mistake eye-contact for an attempt to be liked or understood. Inside the house, inside myself, music is transforming me, pop, hip-hop, what happens after the charts, finger on condenser-mic pause button, whether it’s Annie Nightingale or Peelie or the Velvets/Stones/T.Rex/Northern Soul my sister’s friends are pinching from HMV & bringing home. And I’m starting to seek out Indian music on my own reconnaissance, seek out the Indian music that still thrills me, conjures worlds that to my parents are entirely familiar and part of their upbringing, worlds that to me are startlingly alien, that make me an alien by dint of being tied to them by birth, from birth. After you’ve been lashed by a racist ‘incident’, then slowly hipped to how that was only a flamboyant showcase of deeper, quieter, more unanswerable British assumptions, Indian music takes on a glow of resistance that even as an 8 year old you need and hold close. My sudden disappearance from the street, my retreat indoors is not a situation that makes me unhappy, not a grievance but a wedge between me and the world that I’m glad to cultivate and nurture. Precocious little fuck also lost now in classical music both western and eastern and, always always, my parents songs cos these are melodies and rhythms as blue and black as me, sounds I can’t get anywhere else.

82 is the family’s final move. The house I now live in. Hold it. What was that sound? That knocking? My friend? No. He, unlike the spirits that do walk these rooms, will give warning, will ring ahead. Ghosts, like love, only happen when you’re not ready. All houses are haunted, some by the living. In 2010 I walk the landing all summer, unable to write. Circumstances have landed me, lucky fucker & undeserving, back in the house I did all of my real proper growing up in, the house we moved to from Ernesford. It’s the house I sluggabedded to school from, fags hid in a hole in a neighbour’s fence, 2 B&H sucked down in the alleyway ensuring a wobbly-legged nicotine-numbed start to every day-of-learning. It’s the house I started teaching myself in once it became clear that school weren’t going to do that job properly for me. It’s the house I fell back into after my first drink, first joint, first spell in the cells. It’s the house that fronts the garden I fantasised in, cricket stump as AK-47, the world’s leaders in helicopters hovering into the range & scope of my rotating-washing line gun turrets, the house that housed my dilettante armchair-revolutions and tripped-out epiphanies and gassed-up concussions. In that accelerated way that spoddy fucks, geeks & general malcontents do, I grew into the 150 year old man I am now in those teenage years, ready for death & other fictions and thinking I knew it all, promptly and on-schedule, by age 15, 1987, ready for Public Enemy and Throwing Muses and Young Gods and Melody Maker to propel me onwards.

My school friends had girls and sports and games to play: my Saturdays and weekends were spent in libraries, accumulating sounds and words (Cov library & its lunatic 80s staff BIG SHOUT OUT), building my bedroom into a shrine to my immaculate impregnable taste. That bedroom is my kids bedroom now, that garden the one I find myself in throwing the same green-fingered shapes my dad did, shapes I never thought I’d fit. After moving back in, a trip to the attic after enough weeks of plain walking-around-feeling-weird meant I rediscovered the EL3538, the tapes, the vinyl, the fiddly reels, and now I listen to this music in the same rooms I did 30 years ago and the air is thick with the past, spirits this and that side of death. Utterly unable to write. The other room, the front room, is where my dad would listen to music, pint of home-brew in hand, his own thoughts inaccessible to me, his emotional involvement clear whenever I strayed in’n’out of there. I sit in here, the back room, the room he was taken to die in so he could see the garden, the room I saw plenty of things I’d rather forget.

Nigh on 30 years after I first heard it, and a good half-century-plus since these songs were composed and sung, I’m listening to a volume of songs called Marathi Chitrapaat Sangeet Volume 1. Most of these songs my dad had on various tapes patiently collated, after his death committed to bin-liners in the loft. And whilst these songs made my dad feel at home abroad in his new home in the 80s, they simply made me, in 83 in this new house, feel strange, odd, and aware that my own alienation from ALL cultures wasn’t a result of coincidence but down to it being encoded in my cells helices. Melodies I couldn’t explain, rhythms without time conjured by the all-powerful multi-tracked voice above the drone, one song in particular transfixing me then as it does now. Another Hridaynath/Lata Mangeskar gem, another 1000 year old libretto by the Saint Naneshwar who translated the Gita into street-level Marathi from Sanskrit and that has the good sense to know that God is a perfume, and his stink is everywhere.

The song’s called Avachita Parimalu and is sung by Lata for the film Amrutacha Ganu and featured heavily on the all-new cassette tapes my dad would play whenever he had a chance, the old reel-to-reel banished to the attic in 83, starting its 27 year wait to be respooled and feel it’s electrics hum into life again. Reels creaking in the silence the Mangeshkars leave, it hinted to me, before all the rest of what would be swimming through my 80s managed to, that pop didn’t have to be about verse-chorus-versechorus and the last note didn’t have to make you whole, or make you smile. It taught me, on Lata’s strange arcs of black-hearted yearning, on the orchestra’s disappearance into their own shadows and echoes, that pop could just as easily be wonky as symmetrical, could just as easily be hewn and moulded with an almost Gaudi-like sense of nature and form, didn’t have to add up, could subtract down until it hit the negative realities of dreams and death. It was, perhaps the first song I heard to suggest that the synaesthesic hints & hits I’d got from music and sound since the deaf-clinic, can actually be the intent of that music, the ability to see a melody, see its limbs and their horrific congress with the earth, see that spirit get up and crawl across the room towards you. It chilled me as a child and does now in 2010. If you’re watching it now on youtube, screens off if you can bear to be reminded of pure sound, and the pure visions that can come from it. Format matters see. I listen to these songs on vinyl and cassette but initially I heard them on quarter-inch reels my dad had bought over from Mumbai, recorded from his elder brothers’ & friends’ vinyl in India.

The fag-packet-sized mic he used would occasionally be hooked up in Cov too and our voices recorded, now lost is a version of ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, surreptitiously recorded by my dad and sung by me in the bath aged three. I’d spend hours with the Phillips machine, fascinatedly recording & playing back our voices, slowing myself down until I was as deep as my dad, speeding him up so I could imagine him as a child. That degenerated sound, the signal-loss from all that MOVING of this music from one format to another, is both an essential part of the immersion for me and also laceratingly reminiscent of those old days, even before the song starts, fondly remembered crackles and hiss, the sound of my dad moving the microphone towards the speakers back in his previous life, his previous home, his previous identity in our previous homeland. Putting a record on, playing a tape, are rituals, and the only one bar the sacred thread that two Bhramins as disparate yet close as me and my dad ended up sharing with any regularity. Some HMV Indian vinyl replaced Nipper the dog with a cobra (particularly on the classical/raga stuff that was an even bigger obsession for us than the film stuff), heavy shellac relics of the ‘benefits’ of empire, only accessible to that empire’s subjects after the Raj retreated. If we’ve gone from objects that feel weightily full of sound to the dull convenient emptiness of data sprayed on discs or burned to hard-drives, then at least don’t let your eye be distracted. Resist Stockhausen’s correct insistence that ‘the eyes dominate the ears in our time’, try and give Avachita Paramilu’s ectoplastic reach some weight the only place you can any more, inside your head.

   As, I think, with all music, you don’t need to know what the lyrics mean. The reductive lie of word-exchange might blind you to your pre-lingual reaction which will be more accurate, honest, and open to an unpinned wonder. The weight of each concept is lost in such a process of retelling, the pure phonetics bereft of referent are clearer communication because they’re something that anyone listening can understand and share – the words’ antique import and meaning are unmoveable from the poet-saint tradition they emerge from without crumbling, or worse, being literally translated. Don’t bother reading this most ancient mumbo-jumbo, but feel its force as sound, as invocation, as part of the song. Hinduism is the only faith on earth that should always come in inverted commas cos more than any other ‘religion’, Hinduism is about magic, is about the magic of rituals. That sacred-thread ceremony I shivered through in our living room, though mannered and tainted by inevitable Westernisation was still a real attempt to pass wisdom and knowledge on through the generations. At the temple on a Sunday every week, the music was dazzling, hypnotic, loud, communal – but the simplicity of the ceremonies at home always struck me deeper, the symbolic importance attached to rice, flowers, turmeric, flames and always the emphasis that the initiation had been passed on in one unbroken line for thousands of years. Whilst friends had confirmation gifts and christening cups and boy-scout badges, I had a thread of string, cheap as chips, beyond cost, fragile physically but unbreakable spiritually, something I was told that once received could never be renounced, was mine throughout life. No one could ever take it from me, I could never reject it, and that sacred-thread, long since lost as object but always alive in my memory, was always presented as perhaps the only permanent thing in an impermanent life. I’m discovering there might be more to my background than I’d been able to understand before, and more about god than simply the irrelevance of whether he exists or not. My dad’s tapes and albums were the first songs that hinted to me that maybe sound was time-travel, that only music made time a dimension that could be stepped through, tapes that now suggest to me that maybe the future of music could be thousands of years old. In all Marathi songs, there was a linguistic umbilicus back to Sanskrit clearer than in Hindi or Urdu songs – Marathi as a language shares more ancient Sanskrit words and constructions than Hindi.

Every Maharashtrian's favourite poet-saint, Tukaram. 

This, in conjunction with Maharashtra’s ancient singer-poet tradition, the fact our saints (Eknath, Gnaneshwar, Tukaram) communicated through poetry almost exclusively, and the strict rules of subject-matter and shape that govern Marathi song has always given golden-age (for me, 40s-60s) Marathi films a different intent and intrigue - for me entirely separate from Bollywood, entirely at odds with Bollywood’s gleeful selfexploitation at home and abroad (entirely fittingly Marathi film is dwarfed by Bollywood now). Whether devotional or ritualistic (Abhangs/Bhajans), or romantic or plain randy (Lavani), ancient Marathi song’s sense of purpose is clear, even if at our remove its exact place is enchantingly nebulous and nomadic. Bhajans are formless, improvised, based on scriptures or anecdotes from the lives of saints and focus in on an internal, personal journey to transcendental knowledge. Abhangs are less introspective, are meant to be sang by the community – the Marathi poet Tukaram specialised in them in the 17th Century as promo-tools for his Vakari movement, a religious revival that sought to put the emphasis back on a popular devotion to God rather than blind obedience to arcane ritual. The Lavani songs that also find a happy home in post-war Marathi film are a different kettle of juice altogether, and once I’d figured this out in the mid-80s it was like stumbling in on yr parents fucking.

“The main subject matter of the Lavani is the love between man and woman in various forms. Married wife’s menstruation, sexual union between husband and Wife, their love, soldier’s amorous exploits, the wife’s bidding farewell to the husband who is going to join the war, pangs of separation, adulterous love - the intensity of adulterous passion, childbirth: these are all the different themes of the Lavani. The Lavani poet out-steps the limits of social decency and control when it comes to the depiction of sexual passion.” K. Ayyappapanicker, Sahitya Akademi

Inevitable that when these ancient traditions, devotional and indecent, take themselves to the pictures in the 40s and 50s the results are pumped with independent pride, as well as touched with a new melodic. In comparison to the coy/whorish borrowed fantasy/chasteness of Bollywood, Marathi ‘Shringarik Lavani’ (literally ‘titillating songs’) are genuinely erotic, useless to the repressed west, but entirely linked in with folk and classicalmusic traditions that are ancient, that link songs to times of the day and everyday activity, songs that understand how music must find a space in life to resonate, not pompously just boss reality into submission. No accident that in the new upwardlymobile globalized Mumbai, Marathi songs, especially Lavani, aren’t played much on the radio, spurned for their ‘down market’ feel. A fact exploited, as we’ll see, by the scum in the Maharashtrian far-right as proof of a further erosion of Marathi (i.e. Hindu not Muslim) ‘values’. Lavani songs bring the beats way more than Abhangs, that Dholki/Dholak thump that defies you not to dance – they’re also harder to find in their raw state, before their motifs and modes got so comprehensively stripmined by fledgling Marathi film. My dad had a few obscure 7”s and tapes of pure folk recordings of religious ceremonies that he’d play loud, extremely loud, first thing in the morning of a weekend, just massive massive beats covered in shouting. The Lavani use those beats & when you hear those beats, and when you hear the filth the women sing on top of it, s’impossible to resist - in comparison to the foreplay and teasing of current Bollywood pop, the nitty-gritty vulgarity of Lavani genuinely makes the earth move and the cheek blush.

Classic Lavani collection
These aren’t women singing and dancing with Western ideas of sexuality neutering it all, these are women singing and dancing in the heat of a pure passion, with the power and strength of a real lover in a real sexual moment, part animal, part out-of-body experience, part a body at it’s zenith of pleasure and fusion with another. Too heavy for these times, too freely libidinous and informed by an ancient randiness for our modern days of fear and repression. The use of old forms like Lavani & Abhang in Marathi film’s fledgling days represents Maharashtrians pride in their past, a holding on to something old and local even as the medium used was a new exciting one that had a mass audience. It’s also an act of desperation – as talkies emerged out of the Marathi silent era in the 30s it was to the travelling Tamasha shows (travelling plays & music thrown on in villages) & the more formalised tradition of Sangeet Natikas (operas & musicals) that cinema looked for inspiration to fill those soundtracks. The golden age of Marathi film extended from the 40s to the 60s, as a growing urban audience, the total lack of competition from television & the relative cheapness of a ticket meant it was the entertainment option of choice for an entire generation. As Bombay became Bollywood however, the shift in focus towards Hindi film (which could be marketed nationwide as opposed to just locally) meant that Marathi film became sidelined in the 70s & 80s, a marginalisation reflected in the slow quality-drop in Marathi film and Marathi song over that period. Always perennially boasting of its return, Marathi film is still a fairly insignificant part of the Indian film industry in 2011, pursued & hyped by politically-motivated Maharashtrians but failing to hold that central part in Marathi life it once did. Odd thing for a critic to admit in these days where we’re meant to be down with the kids (ignoring of course the fact that one of the joys of being a kid is being the most ferocious snob), but that precise dwindling in the source is undoubtedly part of the elitist pull of this music. The withered petrifaction of contemporary Marathi song helps and focuses my blockheaded mind, particularly at a time when we’re continually told how it’s music criticism that is dead, over, not-needed, a time when every critic has to ask not only why the fuck they started but what in hell they’re playing at carrying on. The disappearance of much Marathi song suits me perfectly. I’m glad the market’s over. Gives me a static set of songs to renew on rather than an ocean of new songs to bemoan. If I‘d had to keep up with Marathi song as well as Western pop I’d have been too exhausted in the late 80s cos that was the time my mind stopped smouldering and started burning for real. In 87 I’m walking through WHSmiths looking to kill another five minutes, a couple of bandit tokens in my pocket. I see a magazine called Melody Maker which has Public Enemy on the cover. I buy it and the rest of my life begins. Writers, popwriters, come to dominate my thoughts, map out my musical consciousness, give me a cannon and an anti-cannon to believe in & explore with clear, historically sure points of explosion and contraction. But always slightly resistant to that learning is this old music that even they don’t write about, that I can only learn about when my dad or mum can be bothered to tell me what they’re listening to. This music’s reassuring yet revelatory place in my life always suggests to me that there’s more to music than what the west has implanted in me and the further I’ve got into this music over the years the more I’ve realised that I have to shed what pop’s taught me, I even have to shed what pop-writers have taught me, and start again with this music.

That’s why tonight the critic dies and my life starts again. This Marathi music is entirely resistant to the ideas of lineage and lists and order that pop criticism relies upon, the crit that maps my musical mind to a huge extent, but ends up in the stale dead ends I find myself in now. In the new millennium my default position is writers block, finding western music rotating around the same dead scraped-out ends, the criticism of it yawning forth reheated fan-boy vomit and rag-mag smugness. Marathi music, with its roots so distant, its history so stalled and over and gone, is paradoxically way more intriguing and thought-provoking than pop’s sham of forward-progress. Crucially, in its untranslatable mystery, it forces me to re-teach myself that music isn’t simply ‘all I care about’, or ‘my whole life maaan’: listening, I remember that for whole chunks of the world music is as necessary every day as food, light, and shelter. Not just something you couldn’t manage without, but something that makes you a human, makes you able to carry on being a human. Starts you from the dawn and gets you through. What strikes me, rediscovering these songs in 2010 is how the entire Hindu ‘faith’ is a song passed on. We have no bible. No book. The Vedas, the Gita, the Upanishads – are barely texts to be analysed. Always a dead give-away to me that western attempts to understand Hinduism all attempt to codify it in texts with translations and commentaries and purports (usually the chance for the auslander evangelist or power-hungry mystic to dissipate mystery or ambiguity & crowbar in their own prescriptions and dogmas). Fatally misrepresenting Hinduism as a religion like all the rest, where books and the written word are finally the word of god. Hinduism makes no such claims for its works – it’s all orally passed on poetry, turned into song to make it memorable to the illiterate. You don’t have to believe in god. You just have to believe in the song. So what I oft-find in these soundtracks, soundtracks frequently from lost films I’ll never get to see, is the exact opposite to a soundtrack. I hear not the backing to life or the recollection of image and celebrity that my parents enjoy, but life itself. My life. Everybody’s life. Our separate lives.

In the 80s, in the decade I spent between speakers and pages too indulged in time-wasting to have any room for God, the suggestion through pop songs in a foreign language that magic could be real, or that the dead could walk or that god wasn’t a matter of reality but a matter of imagination was unsettling in a way the weirdest noise band could never be. Now, in 2010, it’s unsettling to all my notions of who the fuck I am and what the fuck I’m playing at. Criticism, its habits, can’t help me with this stuff. In 2010 just as my trips to the attic are yielding this dusty plastic goldmine, I find myself genuinely facing the inability to write about any music any more. Paralysis, the way the great days we live in make you feel strapped down & force-fed to a gluttonous bloat. The texture of rotting celluloid captured on quarter-inch tape stuffed in suitcases & scrawled in indecipherable characters would easily be a fond retreat from the brashnesses of latenoughties pop – crucially beyond the pleasures of archaeology, 30 years later these songs all still sound like they’re happening now, still speak for daydreams or a hope that’s ageless and immortal. It couldn’t have come at a worse/better time for me. In Spring 2010 I’m sent a Chess compilation of some of the greatest pop music ever made and can’t say a word, and that coma of inarticulacy becomes an obsession in itself. For what possible response to ‘Bo Diddley’ can you have that would be better than listening to it? Go listen to those drums now. Comic voodoo heat untouched since and unencumbered by a coffin of pedals or any trick other than the unique joy of Bo himself. The more I hear the more I become convinced that the wrong people are making music in the West now, the wrong people getting those wrong people heard, more convinced that moments as head-shredding as Bo will never, could never, happen again so why bother listening to a form when it’s mainly been so much pootling after the real fire has been laid down? How can you write about a culture when you’re becoming convinced it has to roll itself back, learn the basics again – you’re just an old fart continually bemoaning something you can’t pin down beyond a loss of character in musicians, a loss of belief and ambition that you can’t effectively critique cos it’s all you feel about yourself. In such circumstances what becomes important aren’t new sounds, but making the very act of making music in the first place a new thing, an effort disencumbered by the old leathered dreams of stardom and excess. The ongoing deadening the tinterweb has brought only makes those vintage souls all the more irreplaceably mysterious and untaintable by the spoddy manoeuvres of the pencil-pushing likes of me.

You end up loathing that knowledge you can’t shake – though I find myself fired up by the Marathi music I’m rediscovering how can I now write about the beats on Airanichya Deva Tula (another Lata-sung moment of bliss from the film Sadhi Menasa), or the weird sounds of Om Namoji Adhya (yet another Lata/Hridnyath ocean) without hearing Pram and Can and Moondog and a whole host of later discoveries hinted at? When it’s nothing to do with them but the sounds of a bellows and an ironmonger, the unfolding and melodic problematisation of a drone until the drone disappears, less about avant-garde art or tin-pan-alley pop than it’s about a village life and a spiritual self-immolation I never knew or can scarcely comprehend? There is, for me, at least some effort implied in my understanding of this music, whereas when I look at Western pop I can only feel my brain locking into the same old habits of categorisation, reference and curatorship.

Looking at other writers’ treatment of ‘exotica’ (i.e. anything from the ‘commonwealth’) for a route out I still read too many descriptions of oriental or African music practically gleeful in their realisation that ‘Hey this sounds like [insert hip/laughable yet digestible western ref.point]’. In 2010, when the web seems to no longer be a launch pad into music, rather the ground we imprison it upon, it starts seeming more apposite to not only look deeper at the context and reasons behind eastern musics (at least to drag us away from the increasingly dwindling returns of the white/black conversation that is western pop) but also to, with some humility (foreign to most western perceptions) admit we can’t just neuter this music with false lineages, by peripheralising it as an obscure point on maps we’re over familiar with. We’ve got to stop seeing so much ‘foreign’ music as accidental simulacrum of the western forms we’re familiar with but love it for the entirely alien things it can teach us, less a superficial recycling of its sounds than an internal absorbing of its structural oddity, the functions it serves in its native communities. We’ve got to rob our response of the easy options of amusement or our smug glow of geopolitical self-improvement and simply listen. We’ve got to see beyond the datedness & chuckle-icious cultural differences, contextualise our understanding/knowledge more but actually de-contextualise our listening, be more open to the music by being humble before it rather than arrogantly correcting it (or cheesily loving its incorrectness). In the face of something so instantaneously suggestive and wondrous as much of these tapes are, that’s a difficult extra-effort, impossible of course given how we have so many years of western learning to overthrow and battle, but I’m totally bored with what’s possible.

   In 2010 I crave our overthrow, our invasion, our surrender. I’m convinced we need to explore modes of listening rather than simply jazzing on the ‘foreign-ness’ of this other music. Because there’s an infinity of it to explore and it’s the only way out for us. Or for some of us, the only way back in. This is what those tapes, pulled down from the attic, offer me the promise of: an ancient way to recast what it means to be a musician, and therefore what it means to write about music. When you think about Eastern concepts of music our current lazy-assed wankery in the west frequently gets exposed for the indulgent water-treading it is. The mathematical intervals of Shruti, India’s tonal system, were worked out in prehistoric times and have an uncanny alignment with the frequencies & tones of Marathi film music. The seven-note Swara-scales always practised against a drone, each note linked not just to a part of the body but also to an animal sound the note is intended to mimic, can also be heard in fledgling Bollywood song . In classical music the ornamentation of those Swara notes is also formalised into the system of Alankar, the way a human voice (and by extension the instrumentation that came to mimic those voices in ancient Indian musical history) can slide between notes, fall like a monsoon rain and ascend like a spirit.

   The seasonal/temporal relativity of Raga (in Sanskrit, the word that means ‘colour’ or ‘dye’) is ancient , but as the major Indian music form & the template for composition & improvisation from which Indian classical music & film music springs it gives that music a discipline, a capability for experimentation within that discipline, unmatched by the West’s more technologicallyderived explorations. When my dad, belatedly started bringing back Tablas, sitars, harmoniums, dholkis, shehnais from his trips back home he also bought back books to learn from, books where the categories and confines of Indian music are explored in esoteric pages full of magic, science, and mystery. In comparison to the ‘play from the heart’ orthodoxy of the West, this was fearsome, foreboding shit for me to be finding out about music it was so easy to respond to. The production of rhythm or Tali, presented most explicitly that irreconcilable difference between theory and execution that’s plagued my faltering understanding of Indian music ever since. Taal is a rhythmic cycle of beats with an ebb and flow of various types of intonations resounded on a percussive instrument – that much I understood but how could my Western-tutored pop mind cope with these weird beats, these patterns that only gained resolution after minutes of polyrhythmic mathematical/magical exploration, rhythms with their own verbal notation system taught on to musicians through phonetic mantras.

   This was, and is, mind-boggling stuff, suggestive not just of the inherent complexity of Indian folkmusic, but also the wider oddity of being a musician in India. This isn’t something you do because you want to be a star. This isn’t a life you commit to for the trappings. This is never merely a hobby. This is an ancient discipline that requires years, decades, of steady & relentless mental & spiritual commitment. Western pop says anyone can make it, relies upon the myth of the meteoric overnight rise from local talent to global superstar. Indian pop says the same can happen, but demands more than simply hard-work, the ability to publicise yourself – it requires the ability to time-travel, to surrender to a system in order to find your artistic and personal liberation.

   This closed book of intrigue and science was usable by a money-making young Bollywood, but the motives of the composers and singers behind that young Bollywood were clearly more complex than fame, motives and impulses millennia older than even the empires and confederacies that the new independent India emerged from. Reading about such time travel, listening to the products that had been made from it gave me that arm across the window again and again in the 80s, that sense of an ancient security that still holds me, still stops the ring of steel from belching forth fire across my temple. And if the western music that once fired me is starting to sound like a ghostly emanation from a past of wholeness my broken self can never recreate, this Indian music, based on entirely different ideas of wholeness offers a chance to rebuild the horrified, looking-back, trapped person I am now. Like I said, a matter of survival, then as now. When I first moved to this house I quickly came the realisation that my soon-come teenage years were not gonna be about fighting for the right to party, but fighting for the right to not party and to bleeding well concentrate. Happy chappy. Miserable bastard. Serious times the 80s, and that’s often forgot. No-one but ourselves to look to. Realising that, like our parents, we are also, whether we want to be or not, pioneers.


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