Writing by Neil Kulkarni

Thursday, 28 January 2016


13:50 Posted by neil kulkarni No comments

Basically, I miss them LOADS, so here's everything I've written about them. Only 'conventional' guitar band to spin my propellor in nearly 20 years.

Johanna Kustannus Records
*review first appeared on The Quietus, June 29th, 2009*

(Edith fucking Bowman, how shit is guitar music right now? No wonder those off-the-peg indie-duds H&M and Topman are making such a killing with are in such infant-sizes - indie-fans must be fucking starving, malnourished, Biafran on these rations, these crumbs in the dust. 14 years ago I wrote this about indie-rock nearly-rans Sleeper- "Indie is four people getting together wanting to create something sublime and immortal having had their lives swallowed by pop and needing to do the same, surveying the infinite possibilities and deciding three guitars some drums and some good songs will just about do". I wrote it whilst frowning and not getting any, but in 1995 it seemed like a fair response to the 2nd gen tide of unpleasant big-sideburned britplop swilling around the stevelamacq-skidsmeared u-bend of our everyday, an era in which we were being earnestly told by all kinds of earnest movers & shakers in rugby shirts that Echobelly & Republica & Cast & The Verve were more deserving of our attention than Sepultura & Killah Priest & Tarnation & Pizzicato 5 (I know! sheer madness!), an era in which the foundations & blueprints of that crucial RETREAT of nerve committed on our behalf by a shitscared media (the retreat that we can now blame for our current Britschoolumni hell) were being drawn up and decided by pusillanimous pie-chart wielding chuckleheads across the capital (now in higher-waged dotages across our airwavesthankyouverymuch) .

Now, in 2009, in this permanent 85 we're in Jeez, 'some good songs' by a guitar band would be a Godsent mannabomb from heaven, now that the 'craft' has been so thoroughly ambushed and owned by Xenomania & Gary Barlow (show me an indie-rock song from the past three years that's been better - let alone sounds better - than those Take That singles?) & fucked up and fallen-short of by virtually everyone else (especially the kind of suppurating arseholes currently forming bands faster than Zane Lowe can empty the spitoon). I'm not holding my breath for a big indie pop band to care about again, but I do try and keep my mouth shut - like you would in a festival toilet - whenever exposed to indierock in case some of the particles get in my mouth y'know? Kings Of Leon to the left of us and Kasabian to the right of us and all that Oasis in the middle and hippies twiddling everywhere else. Never mind giving it ten minutes, we need to leave indierawk the fuck alone for a year or five just to shift the stench.

On the upside we can't deteriorate further than the plateau of ordure we're surfing on at the moment. For the longest time the wrong people have been forming bands and are getting signed & hyped & played & supported by those same kinds of wrong people currently running tings across this industry-that-will-not-die. You've seen the next-decade's-stars the past 12-years of withered expectations and ambitions have bequeathed us: walking the streets with Peavey bags on their backs, our future captains of pop - not-really-posh-honest-off-the-peg-shabby fucks for whom music is everything maan cos they don't have anything else to fucking worry about, too many beanies, way too much facial hair and nowhere near enough care, poise or genuine ostracized commitment.

Never in the past five years have I felt like I'm listening to a band whose music has to negotiate the cracks in their life (apart from the one in their arses obviously), or for whom music serves any purpose beyond itself. There are no cracks in their life, no bigger battles, nothing the campus indie-soc/Oasis doesn't know about music: crucially all this bad art they're making never lost these chumps any friends, it inevitably finds them entire circles of wankers to applaud their planet-sized smugness. The atrophy & pffft that's crept into schmindie songwriting, it's inability to stop either whining undeservedly (Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay, U2) or whoop smartarsedly at its own mistranslated-fortune-cookie profundity & pissweak satire (Los "Hipsters' Scouting For Girls" Campesinos, U2, Radiohead, Elbow, Coldplay) or simply be about utterly pointless shit (Kooks), it's crippled inability to step anywhere beyond relationship-advice, text-speak self-pity or wtf confusion - pop squeezed out in the gap year, pop who's vaunting ambition is to find itself scratching it's stubble while getting it's arse kissed on the T4 couch, pop in loathing of any language you couldn't read in the Heatmag advice pages. Pop which, time and time again, when confronted with the very real threat of Jools 'Someone Shoot Him He's The Piano Player' Holland throwing down some hoary ol'dogshite boogie-woogie ivories over it never responds with the frenzied fists the viewing public crave, always only the nod, the smile, the shrug, that masonic-handshake made of laid-back gestures that ushers you into club Sunday Supplement-Pop. Such beige horizons and the immortal belonging they promise are wide enough to include everyone from the most globulous dinosaurs to the spikiest new straplings,

Fatally, this sick mainstream is fed by an equally spineless underground. So the grisly authenticity of most chartpop remains unchallenged by all the noodledoodling in the peripheries - all that proof that sonic confection is nothing without conviction. Aimless meandering muchly - I'm not remotely suggesting that wanting to form a band should be reason enough for imprisonment or detention (I'm thinking thumbscrews & waterboarding might be more effective as it goes) but can't somebody stop these gurgling giggling galoots gathering together after dark in their rehearsal rooms and recording studios, can't something be done once we've figured out bands have nothing to say to stop them saying it anymore? This whole decade of indie guitarring, when whittled down to only what is top pop quality extends as far as the first two Strokes albums, the first Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys singles, the Good Shoes & Vampire Weekend albums and what else? The decade of Oasis and Green Day if we're being real, the twin middle-aged millionaire perpetrators of GENERATIONS of damage to young hoaxed pop minds. That's a separate case to be brought to the European Court of Human Rights in due course but for now, for the next thirty minutes, don't worry about it is the message. The Finns have sorted it out for everyone. Don't they always?

See, I can't stop playing this Cats On Fire thing. It's not the greatest album of the year, probably - that'll be a toss up 'tween far hipper, more self-promoting outfits from nascent scenes across the planet. Cats On Fire are actually getting dissed on the internet for their lack of self-promotion, and the first thing people seem surprised by is that this be Finnish and doesn't sound like Darkthrone. If this record slips on by 2009 it'd fit, accidentally, with the sound and the songs - for these are special and precious and perhaps not for these times. For starters, you can hear them (a lot of what I'm about to say sounds like the kind of thing your mum and dad said about pop when you were a kid for which I can't apologise). No fog, only the fireworks that can happen between clean, pure unpedal-affected guitars and drums. Strong rhythms. Killer tunes. No new production tricks, a 50s radiance and shimmer with a 70s warmth and an 80s pose - down to what's important, and all is important. Needed at this groggy stage for rock - some purity of purpose linked with a purity of sound, some fucking balls, some proper dignified campness shot through ennui and standing up for a vintage cynicism, an unrequited endless love, a heroic warmth that's the coolest response to this cold dry age.

Right now who cares whether guitar music's being 'inventive' or 'innovative' enough? Cram all that doodaddery, guitar music needs to rediscover the art of songwriting again, wipe the slate clean, earn its right to piss about again ‘cos we're drowning in the lukewarm yellow stuff down here. And only what's noble and dignified is gonna save us, something that sinks in rather than sinks us in that fathomless portabog that noughties indierock has become. At times like these the clear and good-hearted stops being a tradition to kick against with confusion and aggression, starts becoming the real alternative to all the faux-extremity and frowning.

So on one level the perfectly-monikered Temperance Movement IS just 'some good songs'. And hallelujah, it will more than do. It's an album I love because it's so likable, possibly that likability wouldn't survive the perils of modern fame - but I hope Cats On Fire make it because they've made this and they deserve it. Tempted to toss it at first. The guys' voice was so Morrissey I felt furtive. But the band made it impossible to leave. Opener 'Tears In My Cup' throws down trump cards and silver with such controlled joy, the sound rich with a swing and punch that aren't pushy or perfect, just locked-on, confident, beautiful. In a flabby age where even the boiled down seems too loud Cats On Fire make the revolutionary leap of sounding just right, and hit all the right balances. It's a sound that's close but not forced down your throat. In the room but not petulantly raw. A sound informed by all sorts but somehow unique to the characters in this room and thus able to fly where the words take it. The sheer chest rush of 'Tears' masks its conciseness, how the gorgeous melodic ease (or the illusion of ease which is the neatest trick of all) from Ville Hoppenen's Fender gets the tune cleaved to the heart within a minute's exposure. Most miraculously, for the next 30 minutes and nine songs there was no fall-off, only new shapes of the same sweetness and fire, vocals that mattered, harmonies that mattered just as much. Even weirder, by the time I emerged dancing in the daze of a crush with guitar music again I was most in love with the man up front, the star who should be, dishy dreamboat Matthias Bjorkas.

He's gorgeous, which helps. Cats On Fire all look amazing as it happens. Very pretty, very fuckable. As pure eye-candy and heart-quickener Bjorkas twangs the same straps as the young Edwyn Collins, but if you can't pick your heart out of the lines he sings and the way he sings them you have my full permission to continue running the planet."Expel the Marxist ghost the cynical consumerist remains" he nails himself a minute in, thence come tales of misplaced arson ('Garden Lights') , the skewered precocity of "Letters From A Voyage To Sweden" (on deck amidst the meatheads and stag parties the teenage Bjorkas takes a fringe-hidden 'great pleasure in being right'), the wondrous 'Play With Fire'-feel of 'Never Sell The House', the Love-like 'A Steady Pace' ("you're not into art / The moment someone wants you to be / And I could leave you here / Tie my shoes and prance away") and the pre-Army Elvis stylings of 'Lay Down Your Arms' & 'Horoscope' ("We should have gone a long time ago / Now Sweden has drifted too far away / You come from a family who can afford to be eccentric / Go back and cry to them").

Throughout 'Temperance' the lyrics are male without being lairy, wonderfully & winningly fogyish as only the young can be and, okay I'm naming soundalikes, but Cats On Fire are a band smart enough to know nothing's original but the people putting it together. Bjorkas has a voice that you want to hear again and again because it can be more than one thing at a time: arch and witty without causing resentment, Lothario and feather lite, heartfelt & sentimental whilst still confident and convincing, because his voice has that thing, that real in-the-room/unreal beamed-in-from-Venus thing that makes your insides flip, that thing everyone in Cats On Fire plays to. And it's been a long fucking time man - you lot had the Smiths. I could never get over my prejudices with them. Vis-a-vis boy-guitar-pop, I've found something to listen to once 'Between The Buttons' has run out. Yeah, a long time. No filler because each of the ten songs here become killer at different times in your relationship with this record as it unfolds over the coming months. You want to spend time with it. You don't feel you ought to. And that's miraculous.

Miraculous. That a record so thoroughly traditional in sound never sounds like it's copped-off or desperate or over-stretching itself. For something just to be beautiful inside and out. That you're hearing a band neither hiding in distortion's familiar cushions or stroppily minimalising what needs oomph . That you're hearing a band uninterested in guiltily making moves on electronica's perfection and ironing out all nuance, a band careless about the testosterone and perma-tan and ruffled machismo and mithering sanctimony modern rock production offers with the tug of a knob. A guitar band only interested in making the best pop music they can. A band simply & naturally existing in their own sound in their own room at their own imperfect pace armed with songs worthy of such a four-man marvel. Let's avoid (as some unfortunates already haven't) hysterically tagging Cats On Fire as 'the rebirth of indie' like what's going on here is defibrillation. The corpse is gone - put the tag on the toe & close the draw. NO, what's going on here is truly beautifully great pop, pure and simple and jeez people, keep your voices down. Nobody let the bastards tromp in and spoil this, don't let it be corrupted by anything so vile as being on today's pulse Cats On Fire are smaller & way more important than that, too cherishable to give up to modern-pop's spectacular irritations and infections. Amidst the blather and blare of all those bills and gongs elsewhere, Our Temperance Movement, a guitar record free of cacophony, feels like the moment an entire genre can get over its inferiority & superiority complexes, and start genuinely competing with the best of pop again, start swimming in the same place as Britney & GA & Outkast & the important playaz who really own your days this decade. On the quiet like.

Of course I secretly hope it blows up like the godfather, to whit a quote for the ads: "Best Scandinavian pop album since Gran Turismo or Arrival" but let's make this youknowhat, and everyone else from Bowman to Wylie to Fearne and Vern and Conor and all those Marks and Alexes can just step the fuck OFF of something for a change. Not for you fuckers. For us starlets. So good it hurts your heart.

THE GUARDIAN 4th May 2012 

A wet Wednesday night in London, and a handbag is repeatedly hitting us in the face. We don't care, because we're dancing – as is the handbagger – to the best pop music being made on the planet right now. The crew responsible for ramming out the steaming Bull and Gate is Finland's fantastic Cats on Fire, fondly loved in Europe yet virtually unknown in the UK, where they have difficulty even getting their records released.

That's odd, considering the three albums they've given us since 2007 do nothing less than reinject possibilities, politics, wit, erudition and joy into guitar pop. We're not just here, nose-to-nipple, because we love Cats on Fire, or because they also happen to be the best-looking band on Earth. We're here because 2007's The Province Complains contained 'I Am the White Mantled King', one of the greatest songs of this millennium; because 2009's Our Temperance Movement was the most pristinely perfect pop album seemingly no one but us ever heard; because this year's All Blackshirts to Me is, impossibly, even better. Cats on Fire are sleeping on someone's floor tonight. By rights, it should be the Queen's; by rights, as everyone here knows, they should be stars.

"I don't love music more than anything else," admits the lead singer and songwriter Mattias Bjorkas, "which means I haven't been blinded by the love of music. And I have certainly not been blinded by money. I was a very straight-edge, socialist youth – Cats on Fire has been my lesson in frustration and dealing with second-bests sometimes, but we try to always make the music move on and matter."

The five-piece has come together in fits and starts from the small, isolated town of Vaasa, sharpening and solidifying their magic every step of the way. "No music industry tentacles were long enough to reach as far up north as we were in Vaasa," Bkorkas says. "But trying to be loved was always my main preoccupation, whatever political or musical ideas I may have presented as the true spirit of Cats on Fire. I nurtured the idea of a small, provincial army that was musically righteous and ready to strike against the trendy, metropolitan hypocrisy."

All Blackshirts To Me is a fab mix of classic indie-pop shimmer, radiant cynicism, and joyously open-hearted wonder. Whether it's the strung-out doom of Our Old Centre Back ("But if you think I look good in a beret/ Then I'd be more than happy to be there and get the chance to say/ That art just imitates football"), the bittersweet honesty of My Sense of Pride ("I've been an idiot for years/ Now I speak in a lower voice to blend in/ And I try not to dress up queer"), or the stunning lullaby to old Europa that is 1914 and Beyond ("Greece don't pay your debts/ don't bother with the debts/ Iceland, go on and cover us in ashes"), Cats on Fire seemingly can't help making indie-pop matter again.

They make songs you can't shake and write lyrics that stop your day in its tracks, the sound exquisitely puckered throughout by Ville Hopponen's addictive licks, Iiris Viljanen's poptastic keyboards, and the band's sheer stealth and grace. The last time you felt this way about indie-pop was Pulp. Yeah – that good. Judging by tonight's rapturous reception, it's only their own shyness that's stopping Cats on Fire becoming major stars.

"In big cities," Bjorkas says, "we observe all the other groups of four or five people with good haircuts, unable to shake the worst thought of all – that each of these 10,000 bands had an idea as valid as our own."

They don't. Not by a long chalk. European album of the year. Avail yourselves immediately.

Soliti Records
*first appeared on Collapseboard*

“But if you think I look good in a beret/Then I’d be more than happy to be there and get the chance to say/That art just imitates football” – ‘Our Old Centre Back’.

Gawwshucks, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit at my age but I’m in love. I don’t just love this album, or the band who made it. You throw love at products. This isn’t a product, it gives you too much. This is the only true masterpiece I’ve heard in two years and  I’m IN love, head over heels, and as with any infatuation all the clichés reveal their truth fresh again, all the pangs of heart and soul become reanimated,  you remember how pop can go beyond matching your thoughts and actually start transcribing your pulse, your precarious balance between hope and despair, resignation and aggravation. I thought pop music in this agile, ADHD age would never make me feel like this again, obsessed, living and loving and lurching and lounging in these songs to the exclusion of all else. But All Blackshirts To Me is one of those records that simply won’t become background, is impossible to live with rather than live within, a record you’d be a prick to ignore. And I can’t help but be alternately evangelical & furious because it illuminates truth like holy fire and couldn’t even find a label to release itself on over here. I can’t just be happy I own it and leave it at that and hope you dig it too, I NEED to press this fantastic plastic, this concrete chimerical CLASSIC into your lives right fkn now. Because I give huge fucks about you hearing it,  because time is short, and there’s a world to win.

Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on his youth: “I was an extremist. I was convinced that nothing good could ever come from sex, drugs and rock‘n’roll. For me, the only way forward was Straight edge, Socialism and Zoloft. I guess it goes without saying that I couldn’t really have it my way. And so is the history of Cats On Fire, from my point of view, a history of dealing with second bests, pale shadows, budget solutions and endless, endless frustration. Eight and a half years, for what? I don’t love music more than anything else, which means I haven’t been blinded by the love of music. And I have certainly not been blinded by money. So what remains for me to be blinded by then?”

Must admit, I was worried about All Blackshirts To Me. Cats On Fire’s last LP Our Temperance Movement was such a bolt from the blue, such a pristine and perfect shot of joy to the head I couldn’t see how it could be topped, worried when I heard the band were ‘dissatisfied’ with Temperance and wanted the music to get ‘deeper’.  Needn’t have worried – yes the music here has more shade and suggestion than Temperance’s straight-ahead popgasmic bliss, but c’mon, it’s been two years, two years in which the continent’s collapse has got worse, two years in which glimpses of love, feeling the sun on your face, has become even more of a struggle to attain. Cats On Fire aren’t a band that can ignore the world. Their music is intimately connected with what it means to be alive right now, the evil deals and blessed bargains you have to make on a daily basis to retain your sanity. They are that most impossible and rare of things: a guitar band that matters, that doesn’t see pop as either pure escape or agglomeration of borrowed moments of past-meaning. They give pop it’s true due, by refusing to create songs that are just songs, only making music if it touches you on all levels, speaks across the room to you with no dumb-down or posture. That’s why All Blackshirts becomes music you don’t use, but that uses you, music to live with, music to make life feel tangibly different. This is its true revelation and revolution. All Blackshirts isn’t just a collection of great songs. It’s a model of thought and life. It raises your standards as you listen and does it through joy, harmonies and words that resonate with a continental-sized clamour. Music that fkn MATTERS again. And that you can sing along to.

“I’ve been an idiot for years/ Now I speak in a lower voice to blend in/And I try not to dress up queer”‎ – ‘My Sense Of Pride’

All Blackshirts swings with the lightness and finesse of a band looking in on the heat and chaos of auld Europa from a position of glacial remove. Right in the middle of the album is this song, ‘1914 And Beyond’, a song quite unlike any other I’ve heard this year, full of words and melody, all of it astonishing. New member Iiris Viljanen’s keyboards are weighted perfectly ‘tween ballad and nursery rhyme (the addition of female backing vocals has also added exactly what COF needed vocally, harmonies even clearer and crystalline than they were before), Mattias’ words a searing look at everywhere we’ve been and where the drift onward might go, “Greece don’t pay your debts/Don’t bother with the debts/ Iceland, go on and cover us in ashes/Don’t let the parting upset you/Cos we will meet again”. It’s a breathtaking, elegiac, weighty thing for a song to attempt, let alone carry off, the kind of poetic ambition and political bite you thought had been written out of ‘our’ music. Helps as well that COF are finally sounding effortless, natural, whole – not that previous albums didn’t have moments like that, but they became albums with highlights you went for. All Blackshirts is one big highlight. You find yourself clicking the repeat button and living in it for days.

Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where they’ve been: “The Cosy Den club in Bergsjön, Gothenburg, was the work of a madman. We played in that shared apartment on the first club night in the summer of 2004, and we played there on the last, in November 2005. By then, Mattias Jansson had already realized that in the long run, it wasn’t a good idea to run a club night in your living room and that he had to move. I could’ve told him, because when the second toilet was a funnel with a pipe that went into the first toilet, you simply know. But these nights serve as fine examples: there was no money and no promises of anything bigger. There were anxiety attacks and bad equipment. But in that crammed apartment, there was also football-style sing-a-long, and my heart, melting.”

Throughout, All Blackshirts is a reminder of exactly what a band can do with pop, exactly how pop is the form that can be the most revolutionary music in your life, can do things politically and melodically and lyrically and sonically – SIMULTANEOUSLY. There’s an extra layer of suggestion going on in COF’s sound now, a fuller sense of space and silence that makes the moments when the band fully flowers truly heart stopping, skin-puckering. Always contact-high addictive-licks from Ville Hopponen but where previously his precision had sounded almost TOO perfect to be true, here his playing’s allowed to live and breathe, the machinery allowed to hum and frazzle a little, a tactile sense of space and atmosphere immediately THERE as soon as each song starts. My highlight, ‘Rise & Fall’ is just exquisite, barely there, a tiny fold of a song which opens up the vastness of the vistas within us all, a heroic song, a thoughtful walk in the rain and wind captured, the ache and glow of our defeats and convictions evoked with chest-thrumming delicacy – last time around COF wouldn’t have known how to end it, here they end it in a beaming girder of Talk Talk-style noise that works beautifully. A band finally moved by songs, not the other way around. You’ll feel proud to even know this record exists. You’ll get the same evangelical bug I have, the feel that people need arming with this, the faint disbelief that people can cope with life without it.

“From what I gather you are still in his command/This is what I try to understand/I remember last march when you were in Madrid/I admit I left no stone unturned” – ‘The Sea Within You’

And crucially, pop stompers throughout. MODERN pop stompers. They’ve made a record that performs that ace trick of sounding like it couldn’t have come from any time but right now, but with songs that touch you, that become part of you in a way you didn’t think your modern agility could countenance anymore. Sources are there if you wanna spoil the show but you realise the irrelevance as you list them, realise how much more than the sum of parts All The Blackshirts is, realise how massively more than music is going on (e.g ‘After The Fact’, if you’re looking, is the sound of Postcard, the sound of ‘Nite Flites’, the sound of ‘Sulk’, the sound of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ AND of course,  the sound of none of those things. It’s a Cats On Fire song). Bjorkas’ voice is crucial – first time I heard it I nearly (god, it scares me now to think of it) ditched ‘em cos it sounded like Morrissey. That was just my arsehole prejudice though: Bjorkas’ voice does things Moz couldn’t dream of, carries his accent clearly, tightropes between yearning and indolence, somehow remains utterly bereft of affectation but wobbles and breaks in ways that skewer your heart more than any showier theatrics could ever manage. And he’s written the best songs he’s ever writ for that voice –  in the lazy discipline, in the way COF have pulled together to make this, by the time you’re through to the supra-spectral psaltery of ‘Finnish Lace’ that new focus they seem to have starts feeling heroic, unique, entirely at odds with COF’s status as obscure Finnish ‘indie-rock’ band.

Mattias Bjorkas, Cats On Fire, on where he is now: “So, keep up? Wind down? Soldier on, push through? Give in? Slide along? Or go under, happy ever after?”

So far Cats On Fire’s audience has been the proudly schmindie, the shuffling, the twee. Utterly fkn wrong. Time for us normal stars to claim them as our own. No band on earth is being as clear, as suggestive, as nip-stiffeningly righteous in sound and word and vision right now.

S’too short, this existence malarkey. We should only be letting music in that makes it different, better, fresher, new. Music that says, onwards, that feels like company, consolation for life. European album of the year. Get it, live it, love it.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016


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.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

WHITE POWER: BLACK POP - 1Xtra's Power List

(Originally from this blog, then hosted over at The Quietus)

JULY 16th 2014

Suckered in the morning, wise by teatime but still at sundown an old graze stings again, a dormant papercut refreshed. Initially I was tickled by the fact that 1Xtra had published a list of their most 'Important Artists In Music' of which three of the top four were white, nodded at Wiley's amusement, growled a little at those who thought something could be remedied or set right by the names on that list being more preponderantly black. Never gonna happen. You're in England, remember. We don't progress in our racial politics, we just get more self-congratulatory and blind.

Hence the immediate dismissal of criticism, the semantic pirouettes, the insistence that all keepers of the racial order always insist on - 'it's not about race'. We'd all expect a list that foregrounds overwhelmingly white male pop names to be defended thus, but what did tweak my nips about the screens I looked at this morning was the deeper, longer narrative about British pop you could see moving under the skin, behind the pixels. "Compiled by industry professionals".

Absolutely goddamned right. I know what quantifies importance for those guys and consequently the list hurts cos it's true as the FTSE or Nasdaq - the problem is not that Sheeran and Disclosure and Sam Smith shouldn't be on such a list, the problem is that in terms of 'importance' to the music industry and influence over that tired-old keen-young industry's idea of what 'black and urban music' means, Sheeran and the others genuinely ARE influential.

By equating, as we all have to now, 'importance' with economic impact, the industry can safely ensure it never seeks out any music straying too far from the golden-aim of 'crossover', or that would antagonise a white middle class audience. And so we arrive at a place where a racist, snobbish industry, with the ongoing acceptance of the press, can continue to eliminate and shut out big neglected swathes of the music being made by the people of this country. A fake meritocracy that operates on pure favouritism, that can only push from the margins to the mainstream those names blandly palatable enough, safely connected enough with the existing power-structure, the right school or parents with their feet already in the door and a few hundred-thou in the bank to buy their kids the future they dreamed of.

Part of the problem is the existence of 1Xtra itself. I have problems with that, just like I have problems with the Asian Network and Radio 6 and a lot of the BBC's specialist networks. I think they benefit older radio listeners to the detriment of kids in need of protecting from the ceaseless power move onslaught of corporate pop. I don't think those stations benefit the minority communities in a real way because they make it easier for the BBC to continually marginalise those stations' output away from their 'one-nation' voices, thus being able to keep those major stations as safe and neutered and unplayful as possible. Keep the Locals local, the Loyal loyal, and the great unwashed at the edge of music, paddling in the shallows, any depths or drop-offs safely farmed out to those who are prepared for them - the privileged 20-odd percent of listeners and dedicated fans who listen digitally.

Despite the looming big switchover, despite their supposed commitment to digital minority programming, the marketing of BBC radio tells its own story, a massive foregrounding of 1, 2 and 4, an almost dreamlike non-mentioning of anything else unless something cross-platformy (e.g. the Proms, Glastonbury) comes along. It bugs me that the BBC seems content to let its 'lesser' brands linger on the margins, comparatively massively under-promoted compared to their flagship networks, while still being under threat of closure should their precarious and small RAJAR figures slip. Beyond that, it bugs me that the major national radio stations are becoming more blanched and ossified, more parochial, more expressive of a primarily white understanding of modern British pop and British musical history. It fits with industry notions of the categories and strictures and shapes pop's present, past and future must remain within - we have reached a point where, for all its self-piteous life coaching, the idea of pop as transformative of life, rupturing of the intellect, breaking barriers, busting heads, has been all but abandoned. Pop is confirming of life on radio right now, the hand on the shoulder too earnest to even think about straying down and copping a feel or reaching up and tweaking your nose. A soundtrack to your consumerism. The wallpaper of your essentially commercial existence, and thus it has to 'clean up' the more rugged genres it pulls from, make garage cosy, make rap tuneful, make grime behave itself and always always always, just as it's always been in the UK, it's only white artists who can perform that magical act of thievery, dilution and repackaging, it's only white artists who can fully reap the benefits of black innovation. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Pop radio, like the pop it plays, merely waits to settle on your lifestyle. Would never threaten it. Surprise is abandoned, the unforgettable radio moment of chance revelation forgotten in favour of the surety of loyal ratings, quite rightly of course, to stay 'competitive'. The structure exudes itself an extra layer for this competitive edge, a 'diverse network' where the key is knowing your place, the sense of shared learning that was the BBC shattered into shards and target-audiences, a fragmentation in which mutual education stops and private indulgence is sated. In the name of catering for diversity the BBC's output becomes ghettoised, the playlists become narrower in the precise place where they should be opened up, on the network enjoyed mainly by kids. So black and white kids, the CDE's lumbered with old ways of listening (as opposed to those agile hyper-connected ABCs who for some reason BBC Radio seem to think are their target audience) listening to Radio 1 get fed only the most watered-down cross-fertilisers and stage-school pootlers in every genre, very-rarely the hardest-core from within those genres, the spitters and shredders who might really challenge but, more importantly, really delight. The three million odd people who listen to 6, Asian Network and 1Xtra are 'catered for', certainly - I just wish more of that content could be considered worthy of the rest of us. A bhangra tune, a grime tune, a voice not sanctioned by a major label in the daytime playlist? The national radio station sounding like the nation? Too much to expect perhaps, but some of my most formative pop memories are from when something was put in my day that my day couldn't deal with, whether that was something odd spun by Annie or Peelie or those odd moments where something non-pop (hip-hop/metal/alternative) crashed into the breakfast playlist. Even yearning for such moments seems antiquated now. Get with the program. You're catered for, somewhere.

Beyond the individual source of this latest nonsense (and I happen to think that too often 1Xtra is a model of wasted potential) the major fault line in this shitstorm is that word 'important'. 'Important' (like 'iconic') is pure management-speak when it comes to music. It means 'stop here, look no further'. 'Importance' will always favour that which finds itself open to compromise, that which can adhere widely, across 'territories' and 'reaches' and 'awarenesses', build up enough agglomerative strength to hit those magic numbers whereby money starts coming your way. And the more often other notions of importance get written out of music, the less likely they are to return or be rediscovered, so the future looms, a hierarchy from old, old roots of race and class, a hierarchy that kids us it’s a meritocracy. At the teat-end, we can't afford a future anymore. It's been postponed. So what we must do is engage far more furiously with the present and win ourselves a future. For they, those who have a future, will do anything to prevent us being there. And they have more time than we do to make sure of that, to ensure our vassalage and fealty or if we refuse, shut us out from the system altogether. It's colder than it's ever been out there. What are you willing to give up to make it?

Of course, as they're idiots for making these lists, we're idiots for paying attention to them, but I'm sure 'importance' meant something else once. Or at least, could mean something more than just mercantile credit, a canny investment. As politics has delegated its responsibilities to business, so goes so much critique (so much 'content' about music is too content about music), analysis becomes a look at the figures and stats, appreciation a tacked-on checklist of tired cross-reference and cliché. I loathe the idea of a 'Power List' but it's a bitter pill we should suck on a while cos it suits these mendacious, craven times, is something of a perfect emblem of the endlessly infantile listed ordering and Top Trumps competitiveness that comes when a culture is looked at through backwards opera-glasses from the safe remove of the capital, fogged by chortling. 'Power' and 'importance' are useful things to write about because you don't have to write about the music, and they're particularly useful things to hide behind when ostensibly speaking for music fans you don't understand. Y'know, just like Jay-Z is the most important rapper of the previous decade, Kanye the most important rapper of this decade. Nothing to do with music, all to do with the most superficial of impressions, the bullying of airtime, the weight of hashtags and clicks: 'importance' and the search for it is a way for a lazy white superstructure to ameliorate its guilt about its own ignorance, the blatant contrast between its love of 'serious' white music in all its variety, its faint distaste for investigating anything bar the most obvious, deodorised or corporate-backed music from the other side of the racial tracks.

I know, change the record, been backspinning this a while now. But what unsettled me this morning was my own unsettlement. At my age, you might want to be resigned to this stuff cos you've experienced it so many times in your life as a pop fan, British pop's superiority complex about black music, the pat on the back it gives itself for when it reintroduced black American music to white America, the enabled entitlement to turn a blind eye to what's going on now down its own streets. The elbows it throws out to ensure that any such flourishing of interest in black music from within our own borders can't get any oxygen, light, a chance to grow or go beyond the grassroots of localised scenes, without blanching itself with a touch of folk, a pinch of house,something to make it palatable to the playlisters.

Reading the 'power' list, I had that not altogether unfamiliar feeling of apprehending how much worse things are getting, especially as the majors, the PR and the press get increasingly sewn up by an ever-narrowing class and race base. One of the most magical things about music is that it is communication between people unlikely to meet, a window into other worlds that are going on alongside your own, a response to urges you didn't know you had. By reducing music to a lucrative centre of overarching dullness creatively fed and sustained by margins of ever-dwindling opportunity, the BBC are part of the damaging process of centralisation and conformity currently strangling the life out of pop and eliminating wonder from the charts. By qualitatively reducing music's analysis to an almost-mathematical evaluation of 'mobility' within markets, the 'Power List' eerily mirrors an entirely corporate and governmental idea of what music and the creative industries should be all about. By talking about it, of course, we're all merely adding to the 'success' 1Xtra doubtless see the list as being, but our conclusions should be clear. Turn your back on the powerful. Seek the powerless. Fuck the statisticians. Do your own digging

Tuesday, 19 January 2016


When the love & emergency credit runs out, if you lie face-down long enough you can arrange the duvet, your coat, the pillow, the floor and yourself until all light is extinguished in your world, until you live in a post-stellar universe. There is no difference between opening and closing your eyes. A panorama of pitch resolute blackness. After a while the eye adjusts, the mind ticks over, you can start picking out details. The hairs on your arm, the crook of your elbow, the bony straits and ridges of your clenched hands. A little longer, a few hours, and you start existing in this dark miniature cavern, this shrouded netherworld beneath the bedding. You, foot to head, are as tall as your eyeball, in a murky expanse where your lacklustre limbs become cliff-faces, mountain ranges viewed from the salt-lake plateau of the mattress, you start to wonder what lies beyond the wrist’s horizon, who sails down your muddy veins through the valley of the clasped sheet. I saw you, traveller, exile, walking there, tiny against the vista of creases, a dot in the tear-stained egyptian-cotten scenery. You stepped from a train, strolled up a hill, over a bridge whose lozenged walls lent your breath deep tremolo. You turned a corner the shape of the moon, near where monastery orchards once lay and got to number 7 and, somehow knowing, you knocked my door. I don’t get many visitors. You will be my last.

Neil Kulkarni, August 2011

Chapter 1. 
 Sunset These Are The Elements 

Vultus oriens, Ecce Homo Sacer, Rodus Dactlyus Aurora I don’t have long so listen now, before your house wakes and time starts stealing your future again an ancient song for a new dawn. See the sun? Feel it in your heart. 

Listen to Ghan Shyam Sundara, from the film Amar Bhoopali. In 51 this movie was nominated for the Grand Prix Du Cannes, one of those rare Marathi films to gain a brief international audience, but don’t watch, close yr eyes and hear. Ask yourself, as Lata’s voice soars, why is this poet teaching this beautiful song to a whore, one of the whores he’s dedicated his life to preaching against? Why is she singing it more beautifully than he’s saying it? Vasant Desai, the composer, comes from a little strip of land in the state of Maharashtra called Konkan, same place my mum sprang from, same black sands my roots got lost in a long time ago. He created the tune that made the song a nationwide hit in India, a song you have to almost have implanted in your false-memories before you can even call yourself a Maharashtrian. The words were writ by a cowherdpoet, Honaji Bala, who lived in Maharashtra between the middles of the 18th & 19th Centuries, and the movie is the story of his life. The words are simple, littered with original Sanskrit amidst the Marathi (hence the song’s ease of translation into the similarly Sanskrit-derived Bengali later), and are about the morning, the sun, and what God must do today. He must, like the rest of us, pick up pots, watch the kids, and work until sunset. These are the elements the song contains but quite why it still contains me, confounds me, remains a mystery, particularly to me.

This morning, like many mornings, I hold onto it to stay alive. Because like all the Marathi music that’s saved my life it’s about acceptance and refusal, the need for god when you know you live on a godless planet. And though it comes from a definite place, it’s in the key of me, which is a twisted, in-crisis key, as willing to be destroyed in an instant as it constantly searches for immortal renewal.

You can go tomorrow morning. I hope that’s good for you. I hope it’s good for me.

I’ll keep it short, about survival now, barely controlling those dangerous whims that could become intent, like when you were stood in assembly and a school kids death was announced and you have to bite yr lip to stop laughing. There will be similar stifled giggles tomorrow when news percolates out of this critic’s final demise, I have decided to make tonight my last night of stepping in between music and you. I need no stress-ball, have no happy-place to float my mind to, rather all my life I’ve had this little mental trick, an invisible yet realer-than-real realer-than-me ice-cold ring of steel I can conjure at my temple that makes the heat leave, a fantasy gun-barrel beaded with my own sweat that makes the mind rest, promises deliverance, a platinum doomsday slug to my super-solipsist noggin.    Enquiries have been made since about the age of 15, access to an idiot-proof firearm secured and ready to roll whenever I want it, only interrupted when its owner takes a spell behind bars. He’s out at the moment, said he might pop round later and so I’m inside my house, a pop fan dying and expiring as pop dies and expires, my nerve-ends fading into obsolescence. If pop is a conversation that’s reached its end, and I can’t talk about or live by anything else cos it made me, in order for these exit-strategies to stay a trick and a fantasy and for me to stay alive, a different conversation is going to have to start. I have to find a different party to vanish myself to because this one, this black and white one called Western Pop that I haven’t been able to leave until now, is played out, is populated now by the kind of white folk who say ‘kmt’ and the kind of black folk willing to humour them.
    Everyone forgetting. I have many friends. None of them can help me. I have some products made of plastic that have helped me in the past. None of them can help me anymore; can only make time slip by faster, when it’s precisely time I’m running out of, time I need to hold on to, time I need to spend carefully. I have a memory and a sob in my heart that it creates. Only this can save me and perhaps I’ve been dumb to even imagine that the white or black could lend a hand - black and white folk have always hated me anyway, as any true second-generation Paki should have learned and never forgotten a long time ago. If the only thing that ever pushed me on, the pop music you made from each other, is now actually starting to drag me down into its morass of meaningless cliché and paralysing indeterminacy then I have to conscientously object to this battle now so deoderised, wax-tipped for safety, listed into listlessness. This banter is going to have to step off its cultural-tourist treadmill between uptown and downtown, between the right and wrong side of the tracks. I don’t want to sulk and scowl on these stairs any more. Tonight I wanna get rid of this writer I’ve been because I have nothing more to say about music and a new relationship with music to forge. My life is going to have to turn around and get possessed by quiet, earthshaking voices from elsewhere, looking and leaning eastwards and listening a while, just as music itself must listen, rather than just hurriedly thieving what’s useful for the old empire, saddling shards of Chinoisery and other exotica to the same old 4/4 modes of transport before militarily rolling them down the streets back home to the ‘oohs; and ‘ahhhs’ of the easily duped and desperate.

This is what I want to suggest to you before the night’s out, that we need to recalibrate our sights to find an escape from these old tactics. Sometimes, fear of the future is the greatest reason for doing anything, and fear can point the way. And racial fear, if anything, has gotten worse in my lifetime - even though I’m of a generation that isn’t in the pioneer situation my parents were in, a 2nd-generation that, perhaps cos we were more scared than them, rejected the timidity or politeness that was their only available response to what racial hostility they encountered. Forty, and surely by now a man and a dad and a grown-up that shouldn’t be scared, carry that fear in my cells, still look out for myself and see no reflection anywhere. I grew to depend on that isolation, that throne above where you think you can’t be reached. Only later with the death and onset of family, the realisation that god might as well exist for those life-and-death moments, those stopped clocks where you need magic again, do I find myself a heart and a sound head at the precise moment the nation becomes demented with tearing into each other. Until then I’m a certified dipshit, maybe still am, just realise you’ve come to the house of one man. This is not a movement. This will not win. But I'd like to suggest to you a new way of thinking about sound, a new direction away from the diminishing dimensions of our new glass identities.

You’re here because no-one else is really talking. Ask people about Indian music as processed here and they’ll point you towards Madlib or Timba if smart, more likely M.I.A, fkn Diplo and his Blackberry, 70s/80s garish sleeves of second-hand disco pastiche, perhaps some bhangra, the vaguelyoffensive notion of ‘desi-beats’ and a lot of UK hip-hop if you’re lucky. Too often the treatment of Asian music displays a racial awareness & sensitivity only marginally above that of an Uncle Ben’s advert. Too often, if white pop has ever looked east , in a bored sahib way, it’s usually about that which can be used, dear boy; what can be salvaged from Indian pop and retooled for Western consumption, so that the Beatles can be less bored, so the Pussycat Dolls can buy a new house, so that folk on the dancefloor can throw those stupid head-moves and make the snake with the praying-hands, what stray bits of camp nonsense can get a giggle or sit with a breakbeat; or handily (but with good humour and the full acquiescence of ‘bollywood’) reaffirm the bouffant-barneted big trousered big collared stereotypes we’re comfortable with. In the case of the best Timba, RZA & Madlib, or in the heat of a DJ Nonames track for Foreign Beggars, vintage Indian pop is treated as pure sonics, as an equal against Jamaica & Düsseldorf & New York. In mainstream pop culture though, and throughout the mainstream media, what’s going on is the reassurance of another culture getting Western culture a little bit wrong, a little bit laughable, the silly smiling Western Oriental Gentleman trying to crash the party. Like the word ‘Bollywood’ itself, a construct that needs the West, that can only ever be seen as a ‘charming’ or ‘colourful’ attempt to replicate Western cultural invincibility, an essentially failed occasionally ‘interesting attempt’ that only re-emphasises the West’s inherent, inherited, immortal superiority.

Bhimsen Joshi 1922-2011

Sure there are more opportunities than ever to ‘dabble’ in music from elsewhere, but I don’t judge the health of a supposedly tolerant culture by how many sidebars or specialist-sections or shitty 2-page guides it gives music from elsewhere to assuage it’s guilt, I judge it by what happens when genius dies. Sure everyone’s equal round here. Check the obits. At the end of January 2011, legend, alcoholic, playback singer, classical vocalist and musical titan Bhimsen Joshi died at the age of 89. He’d been making music for 78 of those years. It is some of the greatest music ever made on this planet. Answer me – had you heard of him? There’s no right or wrong answer there, only an honest one, and if the answer is no it’s not yourself you should be questioning but those who made you, those who are meant to keep you informed, those who decide the fit and constrictions of what you listen to and how you listen to it. And further, what music you can pass on: music, of all types, and from all places is instinctively appealing to kids, the freshness of new sounds and words they’re not used to always intriguing to young minds yet to build their mind into an impregnable edifice of ‘taste’.
   The xenophobe cultural blockade that nurtured us Brits never admitted voices from the commonwealth that weren’t easily amenable to our own orthodoxies: if we’d ever been informed of the wealth of stuff we weren’t hearing, the shape of pop would’ve changed from the mainly African, American & European impulses that govern most of what we hear. Pop is stuck in congestion at the moment, all is resurfacing, no new journeys are being made. Even though current technology has made more from more places more instantly accessible than ever, listeners still proceed along tired, pot-holed roads, tied-up traffic-laden routes from which pop’s sat-nav won’t permit detour, never admitting that the very blood and guts of music could be saved by a look east, not just for new sounds but for new ways of thinking about music, and being a musician. Musically, we’re all still looking at the same old pre-47 maps, goggling at the pink bits and wondering what savagery we’re gonna step into. If we’re facing a future in which, in the west at least, what can be learned is under serious threat of strangulation in the name of economic purpose and vocation, then don’t be fooled into thinking that a more globalized world doesn’t mean you’ll end up hearing the same old hierarchies. The music from elsewhere will still be processed into what they think is fathomable to you, what can be fed into the grinder to churn out more of the same old same old.
   You and I have been lied to because what this music, this old, old music, suggests time and time again is not how to re-fry, reheat, or reinvigorate Western models but a whole new ancient different revolutionary way of thinking about music altogether. Surely be the next step if we’re going to move on from the dwindling needy dialogue of today’s monochrome eclecticism, the shackles and trade between black and white. Going back not just to accumulate shit and make ourselves look cool but to find a way to fucking live again, because right now if I keep feeling things less and less at this rate, by tomorrow I’ll be in a coma. Look. The window. See the sun? Feel it in your heart.

At times, when I want to time travel I look at the sun and I pull my arm across it, left to right, because that’s my earliest memory, when all was colour and shape and sound and I saw my dad’s arm flashing left-to-right across my 6 month old vision, across a window in an estate in Coventry as I goggled and doubtless dribbled outwards. Every time I do this move to this day, it moves me back through time. Now that my arm is older than my dad’s was when this originally happened the magic happens even quicker, the years fall away in an instant. I go left to right, like this, and see the cartoon spirals, hear the falling clocks, feel the distant light accelerated towards at a geometric rate? Vanished through the 4th dimension to my chosen glade of reverie – I use magic not because I can. But because if where you are right now is hell, and you know it’s partly because you’re making it so, sometimes you have to get out even if your means are suspect & stolen and your motives cowardly. Hold my hand. Come with. Fifteen thousand days ago.

Walsgrave hospital.
Another beautiful Coventry Building
Born in Walsgrave hospital 72 and back to Wood End, Coventry. Now Cov-snob shorthand for shithole, a dream estate turned desolate warren, always like much of Cov an odd combination of blue horizon far ahead and grey step right in front of you, in my big brown eyes things were simple. Green. Space. Old folks home. No memories at all bar that arm, protection, colic, chickenpox, whooping cough and a whole lot o’love. My parents have been married five years. My mother, a Chitpavan or Konkanastha (i.e. from Konkan) Brahmin from a reformist family, is the descendent of shipwrecked reanimated corpses from Greece, Iran and the Middle East who’ve been dragged ashore in Konkan 3000 years ago and given life by the 6th avatar of Vishnu, Parasuram. This is as good an explanation as any (and there are many explanations) for such a remarkable woman as my mum. Her family are magicians and farmers, turn out milk and hexes and she has light skin and a look that means she’s been spoken to like a native everywhere from Spain to Dubai. My dad’s family weren’t called Kulkarni until they were given clerical jobs – Kulkarni is a name given to households in which village records are kept and maintained. ‘Scribe’ is the closest translation of Kulkarni, ‘Lord’ is the closest translation of Thakur, his family’s original surname. They all have a beautiful cobalt-blue ring around their black eyes, a genetic quirk I unfortunately don’t inherit. He came in 1963 on a boat that stopped in Egypt and Italy with a suitcase that 50 years later is on top of my wardrobe, she came in 1967. In 1972 I am called Neil after Neil Armstrong who was landing on the moon when I should’ve been born, three years previously. My elder sister was born instead, but my parents keep the name and with an unoriginality I still lament (I would’ve much preferred ‘Buzz’, or of course, ‘Chilli’) apply it to their son when he finally turns up. The astronaut-connection pleases me now, but nothing but milk and Fab bars and toast and breaking my sisters nice things pleases me for my first two years on planet Cov.

The Konkan coast. Where my folks are from. 

What I can’t know then, and can barely understand now, is that my genes have been 5000 years in the forging. A responsibility I’ve been kicking against and resigning myself to ever since my my feet started touching the floor, ever since I stopped sitting at the back of the bus cos I thought it gave me a longer ride. A Bhramin is a fire-priest, a rememberer, one of the 4 highest castes in India. A caste you can proselytize yourself into if you’re canny, but a community whose millennia-long laws of clan and marriage are, to a huge extent still, a closed system. Even though those clans have long been marrying with each other, to this day marriages within the clan will be sought, & only after those avenues have been exhausted will marriage outside be even countenanced. Bhramins are taught that we were made this way, and like the Vedas which are our texts, we are without beginning or end. Genetic research from the Europeans who found us so fascinating (incl. Hitler – the swastika is a symbol I was familiar with long before I even knew about Nazism) indicates that we were actually migrants from Iran and Central Asia, who at given points between 6000 and 4000 years ago drove the native Indian population (Dravidians) towards the south. The division of labour and specialisation that was propagated in those roaming groups made Bhramins the top of the pile, given the highest reverence, expected to perform ceremonial and ritualistic duties whilst also keeping records of village life, and having the inside word from God, if God were needed as explanatory device to the masses. We bought our Vedic rituals and fire-worship south, assimilating in the gods and rituals of the indigenous population. This synthesis creates what you might call Hinduism. We called ourselves Aryans, the Sanskrit word for ‘noble ones’, our caste called ourselves Brahmins and saw it as our duty to hand down the ancient rituals, to also hand down the ancient taboos & strictures & freedoms. Brahmins give women a role in ritual where Hinduism does not, but those rituals have been preserved & guarded by us zealously for thousands of years, never shared. Our ritualistic root is sound, through mantra, archaic emanations that have emotional, physical and mental effects.

The first mantra ever taught to me, the 'Gayatri' mantra

This is not language, or communication in its usual sense, this is the recitation of sonic phonic patterns that follow elaborate rules but have no explicit meaning. Meaning is meaningless in a mantra, this is simply what is handed down, a genuine living breathing audible relic of an otherwise inaccessible, and unimaginably ancient past. The doing, the chanting of a mantra is its point. Not language then, but perhaps music, which, like ritual doesn’t need meaning to exist. Certainly, like music, a mantra (even the ones I was taught and can falteringly recite) is a sound-object, an experience that creates emotion, but it was only later in Brahmanical history, when texts and stories started getting woven around the new gods and practices we were assimilating, that we could approach anything resembling a rational system or religious ‘order’. Computer analysis of Brahmin mantras shows that they are closer to birdsong – perhaps the prayers I know and keep to myself, were performed long before human language even emerged, back when sound and it’s arrangement by the throat was purely a ritual matter. A good atheist should denounce it all as bunkum, but it’s the link through and beyond religion to a pre-linguistic world of nature-magic that makes Brahminism, if your name and genes denote it, less easy to shake from your system than simply a book, or a figurehead or a god.
   Looking at what Brahmin history we can legitimately retrieve it’s clear we’re the big baddies in Indian history, the unfairly privileged elite keeping the masses in ignorant slavery to maintain our status. In modern India we account for about 10% of the population, in some areas that drops to less than 1%. Transplant that minority overseas and you can imagine what happens – you end up with 2nd gen kids who are not only part of a minority simply by being brown in a white country, but are part of a minority within that minority, elevated by birth to a position impossible & undesirable to maintain in a country & community where thankfully you can't flex that power or assume that holy status. Amongst particularly hard-headed soft-brained Brahmins (and I’m sure, other castes) there’s a current attempt to maintain an almost medieval notion of caste & marriage over here, the usual attempt to cling to a racially pure past in fear of the inevitable interracial future. Lords of nothing, aristocrats of a long-defunct empire, spiritual leaders who’s spiritual home has vanished, many of us are still subliminally expected, by our parents, to somehow rise above, keep some sliver back to the ancients, even though those parents are frequently at a loss to explain Brahminism’s significance, can only frame it with books and rituals and prayers you can recite but never understand. At age 13, I am initiated properly, a sacred thread wound round my skinny torso, my head shaved in a piecemeal fashion (like many ancient Hindu ceremonies enacted now, we go through the motions of symbolic importance without going the whole uncomfortable hog), mantras chanted & droned into hypnosis, water and rice and coloured dyes thrown over me and smeared on me, my dim confusion at the whole thing still to this day a fog unbroken by reading, only occasionally cleared by music. Looked at from the uncharitable angle of a kid trying to fit in, Bhraminism has been a head spinning barrier to much progress, the insertion of astrology and philosophy and witchcraft into a kid trying to get on being a good non-believer like everyone else. For my folks growing up it was all more woven in with day to day reality, the way things are rather than the way things were, although both my mum & dad’s natural leftism & teenage idolisation of Ghandi meant they also knew it was a way that must end, a system they resisted and a system that is absurd. A system increasingly taken over in modern India by more complex lattices of local corruption, but that still endures.

The caste system, presented in India's favourite format, the comic book. Clockwise from top left, Brahmins (Priests, academics), Kshatryias (warriors, kings), Sudra (commoners, peasants, servants), Vaishya (merchants and landowners). Not pictured - Untouchables

By the time my dad was 6 days old in 1934 he’d had his nose & ear pierced, had been placed, as youngest brother of 7 kids, in the line of equigeniture, knew the obligations of his identity whether a soldier, student or engineer. He did all three, and most of my dad’s generation kept & carried the ghosts of that Bhramanical past into the new cities of technologically advancing India, occasionally high-tailed to the mountains to meditate when the rub between their pasts and present got too confusing, wondered how to not lose their roots whilst irresistibly losing them, a battleground that accompanied them all the way from the jungles of Maharashtra to the factories of old England and a battleground us 2nd Generation Brahmins waited in the trenches on, waiting to see how that first wave would end up. Within the Bhramin caste, my parents come from two distinct branches. The Chitpavan Bhramins who are my mum’s clan could’ve come from Turkey, Iran, might even be Jewish in origin: they grew in prominence as the Maratha empire extended out of Maharashtra in the 18th century, given major roles in the Maratha confederacy by successive Peshwas (prime ministers). They are generally mistrusted amongst other Bhramins as being too close to the dark arts of sorcery & witchcraft, a reputation that still pursues my mum’s family back in India and has dragged them into court on a few occasions. My father’s family are Karhade Bhramins, darker, what a Victorian anthropologist might call exquisitely featured, i.e. with a finely-filigreed pomposity I can still detect in myself but more mongrel according to legend, bought forth from the smouldering bones of a camel, relics of the Yushan empire, vice-royalty of the lost Yuezhi tribes, depending on who’s taking the piss at the time (usually my mum). Marriage between different types of Bhramins was strictly forbidden for centuries, only relaxing in the 20th century as travel to the big smoke of Bombay and the dwindling of security & jobs in the rural communities that are Bhramin strongholds really sets in. Consequently I’m a mongrel like everyone else, but I’m also made of two families, Kulkarnis and Dandekars (my mum’s maidenname) whose roots were ancient and lost in the dizzying movements of people thousands of years ago. I can point to a point on the map where I’m from. I can point to points on the map where my folks are from. But where their folks came from is more complicated, becomes more mystical the closer you try and hold it.
    Digging as I tentatively did growing up, into my family’s backgrounds, I heard stories that horrified me, about Aunties married at 10, widowed at 12, spending the rest of their lives in head-shaven shame. I heard stories that entranced me, of spells, and creatures and ghosts that walk our farmlands, the dizzy dream of the palaces we could have if we ever followed ol’ Enoch’s advice, cashed in and returned home. We, me, my mum, my dad, my sister, were living relics, and when I look to our antiquary I feel simultaneously warmed by its age but confused by its mystical distance. We’ve been tutored by modernity’s hype & hurry to think that if we ever hark back, it’s to simpler times, easier structures, a clear sense of place and space. What actually emerges, when you turn back and prod your roots, is that they’re suggestive of a time when the array of influences on your life were way more variegated than the brute simplistic confines of categories as nebulous & fashionable as ego, or your personality, or your beliefs or your income or your ‘class’. And you’ll never know, even if your lazy 20th century ass is properly careful about surmising anything about people who were always dirtdirtpoor and worked unimaginably hard, whether they felt freer than you’ll ever be. You would have been, at various times in your ancestors’ past, a magician, a mystic, an ascetic, a spreader of manure, a spouter of glossolalia, a milker of the herd, more important than a king but seeking a smallness and superfluity beyond the sub-atomic, consulted by the great, hated by the good. My dad had 4 elder brothers, 2 elder sisters, and a little sister who also ended up in England (big up the Deo-Kulkarni Woodford Massive). Their births spanned the first 3 decades of the 20th Century. One of his elder brothers was called Shridhar. Everyone called him Abba because everyone in India has a real name and a used name and usually a birth-date that doesn’t translate to our calendar (my mum came over, only knew her birthday was a certain point in April, so put down 1st April on the first form she had to fill in & of course it had to stick – me and my sister still have a chuckle about that every year). Abba was a poet and writer, a freedom fighter, teacher, Shakespeare obsessive & had to elope with his lover to marry her because she was a Konkanastha Bhramin and he a Karhade - it’s odd to think that his younger brother, my dad, would only 20 years later have an arranged marriage with a Konkanastha Brahmin, my mum, not only without the need for midnight dashes by rickshaw & boat but with the full blessing of both families, families whom increasingly through the last years of the Raj & the new years of independence, were en-masse flying their rural poverty for the hunger & heat of Mumbai. My parents grew up in changing times for India, times that perhaps changed a bit too much & too fast for some, hence India’s current vacillation between benevolent technocracy & rural-nostalgic fascism – they were part of the first generations in India to see through, with moral clarity, the absurdity and horror of the old rules and the old life, the first generation, with Nehru (another Brahmin from Kashmir) at the helm, to truly accept secularization, understand its importance in positioning India to be ready to slide into the modern world.

Nathuram Godse, Ghandi's assassin pictured before the trial 

Being a Bhramin, particularly a Chitpavan/Konkanastha Brahmin, has frequently been at odds with that modernisation. The hard-line Bhramin Hindu-nationalists (Hindutva) in Nehru’s party would eventually break his will to govern. Chitpavan Brahmins, a small world within a world, made up most of the Hindu-nationalist assassins of Gandhi, and innocent Chitpavan communities faced public rage that spread in a state-wide explosion of anti-Konkanastha thuggery the night after Gandhi’s death. My mum remembers our banana-field burned, her father my granddad (who I met once, as a month-old baby), surveying the smouldering vista and declaring ‘old people, who know us . . . did not do this” - family friends who’d left Pural, her village, for Mumbai found themselves fleeing back to seek shelter in our stables & barns, particularly those who shared a surname and family with the assassin, Nathuram Godse. Small world of agitants, extremists, intellectuals, mystics.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar
The man who blessed Gandhi’s assassins before the act was also a Maharashtra Brahmin. Like our Abba a poet, playwright, writer and scholar, like my mum a Konkanastha, like many of their generation amongst the first to demand the dismantling of the caste system - Vinayak Damodar Savakar came from just down the jungle path. He was also a terrorist, nationalist & self-avowed pragmatic realist who through his writings gave birth to the Hindutva movement currently polluting India’s body-politic. Chitpavan’s have a history of rabble-rousing in this regard: the British called them ‘the Pune Brahmins’ and singled them out as a community to be watched. In a secret letter dated 09 July 1879, the then Governor of Bombay Province Sir Richard Temple wrote to Viceroy Lord Lytton, “The Chitpavans imagine that some day, more or less remote, the British shall be made to retire, into that darkness where the Moguls retired. Any fine morning, an observant visitor may ride through the streets of Poona and mark the scowl with which so many persons regard this stranger”. In his book Indian Unrest (1910), Sir Valentine Chirol wrote, “Among Chitpavan Brahmins there has undoubtedly been preserved for the last hundred years…an unbroken tradition of hatred towards the British rule, an undying hope that it may some day be subverted and their own ascendancy restored”. Balchandra Tilak, who Chirol famously dubbed ‘Father of the Indian unrest’, was a Chitpavan Brahmin and first leader of the Indian Independence league, born a year before the armeduprising of 1857. In the mid-stages of a busy life he wrote a wonderfully suggestive book in 1903 (in the midst of his far more important nationalist, insurrectionist & terrorist activities) called The Arctic Home In The Vedas, wherein he argued that the Vedas could only have been composed in the Arctic before Aryan bards brought them south after the onset of the last ice age. Looking at my mum’s features, I can almost believe it, or at least understand how Tilak might seek that explanation for his own unique, outof-step Konkanastha skin tone. Tilak saw this as a positivist explanation for what had previously only been myth, that Chitpavan meant ‘corpse saved from the funeral pyre’, a reference to skin colour & their uncanny avoidance of Buddhist persecution. Likely also that Tilak believed the rumours that Chitpavans had purer Aryan blood than any other Hindus - Chitpavans have let the rumours about them grow, unconcerned, unapologetic for their slippage back into myth – in a way I see mirrors between their visible oddity in India and my selfperceived oddity here. I also see mirrors in how, in resistance to the English a hundred years ago, different Chitpavans reacted differently – some seeing the issue as one of anti-imperialism, socialism and progress beyond religion, others seeing the struggle as religious, essentially about claiming back what belongs to a people, including a chance to wipe the slate clean and create a new ethnic purity in being Indian. For all Chitpavans, struggle against the British wasn’t just that of the downtrodden against a new persecuter – it carried the ferocity of the dispossessed racial aristocracy, inspired by western revolution to see their moment to return to their proper status. My mum remembers being told by her elderly great-aunt, for whom the Aryan past of the Chitpavan’s wasn’t a literary-motif or theory but a fact taught to her and her grandparents in turn: “To be reborn a human makes you special. To be reborn a Brahmin makes you even more special. To be reborn a Chitpavan Brahmin, makes you one of the most special people on earth.” You can understand how Chitpavan Brahmin’s have seen their destiny and India’s destiny as intertwined, how passionate unhinged ambition can be accepted as an ancient trait.

Balchandra Tilak, spiritual godfather of both early 20th Century Maharashtrian unrest and later Hindutva nationalism

Despite his theories, Tilak’s nationalism and demand for self-rule was always a secular vision, even if his resistance to appeasement kept him at the extreme, nationalist end of the Congress, with the kind of antimoderates who attracted the most violent radicals. Religion mattered hugely to him, but his nemesis was the British, not the races and religions within India he saw as equally important. When, in 1908 he was arrested for sedition by the British Govt. (for supporting 2 ‘revolutionaries’/train-bombers’ in the Kesari newspaper he wrote & self-published), he asked a young lawyer called Muhammed Al Jinnah to defend him. My granddad read Kesari, my mum remembers him spreading it out on the ground and reading it cover to cover, she also recalls him firmly rejecting the anti-Islamic filth spewed by Tilak’s more extremist comrades and disciples, the intolerance that didn’t reflect the open-house diversity of friends our family always had. Emerging from imprisonment Tilak was a more mellow, chastened, non-violent voice but his words had always lit fires, and it’s his political disciples who take them to an extreme new frenzy. 2 years before his hiring of the future creator of Pakistan, plague had broken out in Pune, the old capital city of the Peshwas who first boosted the Chitpavan Brahmins into politics. Heavy-handedly dealt with by English civil-servant W.C.Rand’s Special Plague committee & the British army, Tilak heard reports of rapes & intrusion & thuggery & theft & blasphemy, sees an opening & writes inflammatory articles in Kesari, citing the Gita & insisting ‘no blame could be attached to anyone who killed an oppressor without any thought of reward‘. The next day Rand & another officer are shot and killed by the 3 Chafekar brothers, Pune-born musicians, Tilak is charged with incitement and given 18 months, the three Chafekar brothers & an accomplice are publicly hanged. Like Godse, Chafekar's a surname famililar in our home, their descendants are part of our family. The Chafekar-bros hanging is remembered as a crucial moment of tragedy & turnaround by all Maharashtrians, but Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, at the time a young man progressing past local Muslim-bashing to a more militant strain of nastiness, sees it as life-forming. When Tilak emerges from prison and adopts the slogan “Swaraj (self-rule) is my birth-right and I shall have it” Savakar devotes his life to explaining and bringing about Swaraj and sees Tilak as his guru. Savakar’s Swaraj however, as expounded in his books, poetry, plays & political activity was a scarier kind of rule than Tilak’s, more spuriously founded on his own fascistic philosophies, and insistent on Hinduism as being the key to the religious reform needed, or rather Hindutva, his atheistic vision of Hinduism as grisly fusion of patriotism, common blood and fatherland. Seeing any compromise with the Muslims (esp Jinnah’s Muslim League’) as appeasement and one-way, he rejects Islamic separatism (in 47 he issues delighted statements about the formation of Israel), and at rallies & marches spouts threatening warnings that Muslims should not expect ‘special treatment’ in a post-British India, could only ‘expect representation in proportion to their minority status’. Savakar’s militancy grows when he studies in London in the 30s, his sophisticated terrorist plans to suicide-bomb the capital of the Empire scuppered by the British government and leading to his imprisonment, then escape, then re-capture. .My granddad, and his kids, quickly spot Savakar for the lunatic he is – something made plain by his desire in WW2 to seek rapprochement with the axis powers in order to fight the British, a batshit proposal that fellow psychopath & Indian Independence leading light Subhash Chandrihsda Bose took all the way to a deal with the Japanese.

Subhash Bose, freedom-fighter, nazi-sympathiser
Hatred of the English translated into a lot of fascist sympathy in WW2 India from both Hindu-nationalists and Muslim-separatists: to this day, accusing Savakar’s ancestors in the Indian far-right of ‘fascism’ frequently engenders an instant retaliatory accusation of ‘colonial tricks’. Even so, by 1947 Savakar’s murky connection with the assassination of Gandhi made him a political outcast and a hated figure by many of my parents generation. Savarkar commits suicide by starvation in 1966 still protesting his innocence, a martyrdom that ensures his prison writings and Hindutva philosophy cast long shadows over modern India, shadows perhaps more damaging than those cast by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic fundamentalist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. What Savakar says feeds directly into the workings of the Sang Parivah movement, the umbrella organisation whose roster of political affiliates includes the virulently Islamophobic BJP & RSS parties. Of course, Bollywood loves him, this poet who wrote his lines with thorns and stones in his cell wall – he’s a ‘hero’ like Michael Collins, a figure whose righteous anti-Britishness masks his actual words and deeds. In 2010 a lavish labour-of-love biopic Veer Savarkar is made by long-time right-winger,RSS supporter, and Marathi-film legend Sudhir Phadke, a release that hips me to the fact that one of my favourite ever Marathi composers is also a wielder of the Saffron swastika, casting a new light on the beautiful Marathi songs he’s filled my life with. As I find later, this taint, this fine-line between pride and dogmatism is something that many of my favourite singers & composers in Marathi song stomp over, and in doing so stomp over my love for them. No movie was ever made about my Uncle Abba, but I’ll always go for the inscription on the only photo I have of him over Savakar’s bigotry any day: “I don’t want to teach you to know, but to interpret . . . “ . He grew up, like Tilak, like Savakar, between Brahminism’s ancient roles and new political ambitions but he chose love & teaching over fear and loathing. Brahmanism, in the 20th century, meant choosing between the past and the future, for me not life or death, for those only a few decades older than me, absolutely that. The definitions of Bharat, or India, were, are, still up for grabs – but being a Brahmin (and there are Buddhist, Jain & Sikh Bhramins too), being a Hindu, isn’t a choice at all, and that’s why Savakar’s lies permeated so deep, twisted pride so completely into chauvinism. Hinduism, even if you’re a carey-sharey Hindu as I am, is nothing you can join, no matter what the Hare Krishnas or new-agers think. It’s something you’re born as. Taking part in Hindu ceremonies, sitting in Hindu temples, is forbidden to no-one, anyone of any faith can be part of them. But being a Hindu is something you don’t have a choice in, something you can’t just step into with the pass of a bindi on your forehead. Where Savakar saw Hinduism’s history as meaning we own/deserve something, some piece of the rock, I like to think me my dad & my uncles know that the precise fact we’re born Hindus means we have only one duty. To try and figure out what the hell that means. Start reading back dictionary definitions of the supposed ‘beliefs’ that have been foisted upon you by your Hinduism and you’ll be puzzled . We believe in an afterlife? Well some of us do, some of us don’t believe in life at all. We believe in God? Well, some of us did, many huge schools of Vedic thought saw no need for him. We’re vegetarians? Well I’m descended from 5000 years of Bhramin stock and I’m sat in my little chair in Wood End aged 3 eating crispy bacon and waiting for Friday night’s treat of Goblin burgers out of a tin. Bhramins, as peddlers of the mystic, as my uncles and father and I understand it, have always moved around, and adapted wherever they’ve settled, ended up having ketchup with their bhajis like all good Hindus, can’t be tied to notions of nationhood without explicitly denying their past, not affirming it. The populations I’m talking about, especially in the context of such a vast nation as India, are tiny – Karhade Brahmins number about 60,000 in the whole world, Chitpavan just shy of 100,000. Strict introversion of those societies has kept those numbers low, my parents were of the first to freely break those bounds and marry ‘outside’ their Bhramin-clan, and they also were amongst the first to feel a slight shame in what they were, a distaste for the ideas of hierarchy and birthright that seemed entirely out of place in the new secular India they were growing up in. To a point, that rapid secular progression has meant the history and genealogies of these tribes has disappeared into the obscurity of local knowledge and temple-scriptures, in my mum’s case a whole language has been lost, Konknii, spoken by her elders but never by her friends and containing words unheard anywhere else in India, now vanished. Such vanishings of the past, in the rush to the cities that accompanies independence bred a dangerous obscurity that breeds myth and misinterpretation. But even given that increasing obscurity, even given the perilous 20th century history of when Brahmins start historicising, it was clear, and always made clear to me, that we, esp. me and my sister, were special, came from something that though incompatible with the modern world still warranted remembrance and absorption. A Brahminism that could somehow stay, not intrude, and be a positive force. Put that mindset in a country where you’re just another nigger, just another wog, just another (my personal fave) blackistani, and you’re headed for trouble, if not for the outside world, then for the internal world within. Born a problem. It’s taken me a long long time to realise I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have it any other way.

In 76 we move to Stoke Aldermoor, Coventry. No space. Another old people’s home. Still no memories bar nights of pain and illness, days of matchbox cars and pillow fights. Starting, perhaps, to realise that indoors and solitude is safety, suits me. One day, my sister thinks she’s killed me but it’s just one of the few, occasionally self-inflicted concussions that I chart my early childhood with. Trapped in the lift I can’t understand to step back from the door and cry until I fall back. Door opens, a swimming sea of concerned faces, 90 year olds, people who remember when it was all fields and farms around the disparate villages that Coventry was. I toddle, inspected from above by people born in the previous century, people who occasionally die, bequeath their snuff tins to their cell-mates, good spreads, roll out the barrel. Wonderful people with terrifying lives and pasts of their own, themselves born in Britain’s imperialist days, people who recall workhouses and orphanages, people with vintage manners not reflected out in the street, where I start to learn that dogs and other kids, don’t really like me. At 3, my parents are worried that I’m deaf as I flatly refuse to speak. Speech therapist finds out that I can speak but am too shy, a problem I will later bequeath to my own kids. It’s from this moment, of being played tapes in a surgery, and being asked to respond and speak that sound finally enters my memories in about 76. Through this process my parents worries are allayed. Sound, and the recordings of it, become an obsession, the sense I choose to lose myself in beyond all others. I become instinctively hungry for music, and the processes of making it happen through buttons pressed and plastic placed. Records have been given to us by friendly staff at the old-folks home and they make their way up to our little flat and onto the Dansette. I’m starting to watch way too much telly, I hear the Seekers and Charlie Drake and see the Sex Pistols on telly and Val Doonican and Johnny Cash & it all sounds the same but it all has rhythms popping under my skin. In a few years, in our new home, me and my sister will conduct yay/nay boos and hisses to the run-down on TOTP lolling on the floor, thumbs raised or lowered like Roman emperors as each hit flashes past. I also hear orchestral music for the first time in our last year at Aldermoor thanks to a few ‘100 Greatest Tunes’ records, and that blows my tiny mind, puts me on the 40 year chase for melody I’m still engaged in. But there’s another song I hear just before we move. A song that takes me out of the here and now realities of others, and magic-carpets me back, scarily, to myself. This song I don’t see on Top Of The Pops or hear on the radio or learn at school, it’s played in a quieter, sleepier moment, a moment I can neither precociously conduct with a knitting needle or dance to, a moment in which I realise that songs can make me cry and choke, that there’s something inexplicable yet immensely intimate about music, even if the identity it touches on is something I have no awareness of. The song is called Ghanu Waje and is played to me by my dad on a Phillips EL3538 reel-toreel tape machine. Straight away, I can tell it’s not from round here, I can tell it’s from another place.

Later, I learn what the words mean and it’s clear not just that this is music from elsewhere but that this is music created by people with different concerns than the love and romance that seems to dictate all the Western pop I hear. “The clouds softly rumble/The wind sings a melody/the shelter/the moonlight/Champak flower & sandalwood/I have no desire without you . . .” The song sounds soft and glowing like moonlight, like shelter, but is about looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself looking back, “I anoint myself with sandalwood/But it burns my body/It is said the bed of flowers is soothing/but it scorches me like fire/ Oh you cuckoo birds/cease your sweet song/ When I look into a mirror/it’s not my reflection I see/God has done this to me‘. The vocal swoops and melodic teasings transform God into your lover, then says there is no distinction between the lover and the loved one. It says that Krishna is you, that you can blend your blues with his reds and become one blackness. It’s by Maharashtrians of a similar vintage to my parents, Hridaynath Mangeshkar and his sister Lata, a familial combination that created gold whenever it collaborated... but at age five I knew none of this. I just knew it felt funny, that this song woke and walked into new chambers of my still-growing heart, instrumentation I couldn’t quite picture that pulled the brine from your eyes in pure melodic yearning and sent you on through your day levitating a few inches above the ground. A poem that’s over 1000 years old. Hits you like it were writ tomorrow. With music growing in my life, but this song keeping a creepy, unwavering presence within, we move elsewhere in 78. Revolutions Per Minute, learning new things, new prone shapes to throw, new realities. Like real sadness. Like real fear.

('Eastern Spring' is published by Zero Books and is available here)