Rhythms of the Indian Ocean

The chief language of Madagascar, Malagasy, belongs to the Malay family of languages spoken on the islands on the other side of the island. On the Konkan coast, from Karnataka all the way up to Gujarat, there are people who owe their origins to Abyssinia and beyond. In Maldives, they speak Divehi, a word which borrows from the Indian root Div meaning island. In Mauritius, Hindi (specifically Bhojpuri), French, Swahili and English have got mashed up into a lilting creole which Amitav Ghosh plays with in River of Smoke, his second book in the Ibis trilogy. Every piece of land on the shores of or sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean share languages, religions, cuisine, customs, trades and even disasters.

These are just a few examples which give evidence of the intense traffic in the Indian Ocean over millennia. Cargo including spices, rubber, teak, opium, coffee, horses, gold, frankincense, myrrh and slaves were exchanged between the lands. All this togetherness is also embedded in the music of this part of the world.

The rhythmic movement of waves and tides serve as the basic tempo of boatmen and fishermen songs from Indonesia to Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka to Maldives to Madagascar. Islam has contributed to a Sufi like structure to song writing where the Almighty is personified as the beloved. Africa and South India have sent out varieties of drums and percussion instruments to the far lands to lend the beats.

To start exploring the music of the Indian Ocean, we can follow the spice trail – starting with Indonesia and Burma in the east through Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the islands of Lakshadweep, Minicoy and Maldives in the middle on to Arabia in the north.

We can also follow the people trail – slaves transported from Africa to India and the East Indies; indentured labourers from Bihar and Bengal transported to Mauritius, East Africa and Southern Africa; Arab traders settling down in Zanzibar, Somalia, Kutch, Malabar and the Malay; pirates setting up free cities in Madagascar and Mozambique; peoples of one land crossing the seas to another land escaping persecution and war and of course the Europeans of all shades and tongues conquering everything in sight.

In this post I go east and explore the music of a contemporary band in Aceh.

Aceh, in the northern tip of Sumatra, has a history of its own. Being closest to India and West Asia, it was a port of call for ships sailing east. Islam came to this part of the world in the 13th century with graves of Sultans dating to the period found here. There may have been some influence from Hindu kingdoms of India as there are a number of places with Sanskrit names. But for the last 800 years, Islam has been the guiding force here and remains so. The Sultanate of Aceh was one of the wealthiest in the region because of the strategic location and was much coveted as an ally by the Portuguese, Dutch and of course the Arabs. It is still has a status of an autonomous region within Indonesia, the outcome of the peace accord that ended over 30 years of internal conflict, triggered by the tsunami.

This move towards peace, some people say, started with the huge destruction caused by the tsunami in December 2004 that wiped out 120,000 people from the town of Aceh and destroying 60% of the city. There was thus a two levels of rebuilding – one physical from the calamity and one more psychological from the horrors of conflict.

I found this band called Kande (meaning candle). Built around frontman Rafli, considered a rockstar in his country, the vocals and the strong bass lines of the band generate a powerful force that makes you pay attention. His vocals remind me of the legendary Baaba Maal of Senegal.

Kande’s 2006 album Meukondroe (If Not Us) discusses the dual rebuilding process which requires peace and unity and this message comes through in this album. Rafli himself traveled from refugee camp to refugee camp in Aceh province, singing and providing solace to the internally displaced people there. Incidentally, most music shops in Aceh were washed away and it is very difficult to find music discs in Aceh itself.

The songs which I have put in this playlist are in Acehnese. I don’t understand the words. But some of the visuals in the video give their own message. The vocals themselves resemble the muezzin’s call. Aceh is one of the most conservative parts of Indonesia and the call to prayer is very much part of the ambient audioscape. Rafli’s voice travels through like those of the best qawwaals and classical singers. The band that plays around him accentuate the power of the vocals.

Playlist:

  1. Meukondroe, the title song from the 2006 album. There are two versions – the original and a concert version with a string orchestra
  2. Hoom
  3. Bumoe, the opening screen of the video suggests that the song is about the tsunami and the destruction it caused
  4. Asai Nanggroe
  5. Meukuta Alam, which has old archival pictures of Aceh and has a touch of the saudade in its tune.

Jamaica: Journey of roots reggae – From Sugar Farms to Abyssinia

The history of the people of Jamaica is a microcosm of the history of the entire Americas – “founded” by the Europeans and populated by migrants from three continents with the Europeans coming in as landowners and the Africans and Asians coming in as the labourers.

From the sugar farms, came slow rural folk music styles like mento – one of the most famous mento songs is Jamaican Farewell by Harry Belafonte. As settlements became urban, music evolved as dance halls, clubs and urban hang out places mushroomed. Also as influences from New York and London started coming in, musicians of Jamaica saw themselves in a position to establish a new genre altogether. Ska and rocksteady evolved along with imported genres of jazz, samba and rock & roll. In this whole mix, Reggae music evolved from Jamaican styles of ska and rocksteady. The presence of Indians (through indentured labourers in the late 19th century) has also been a big influence in all the different Caribbean music styles. Later, reggae and Indian forms of music merged through the work of migrant communities in the UK.

The characteristic reggae beat was first recorded in the 1960s with an appropriately named band called The Pioneers credited with the earliest recording. Reggae music is and was always a dance hall phenomenon. It was controlled by the DJs, jamming the beats with random sounds. But the origins of reggae lay in folk music where the importance of lyrics was always paramount. As Jamaica progressed post independence, reggae musicians found themselves with a new way of expression.

This transformation of the genre happened when a whole army of Rastafarians took to the music form and made it a medium of expression. Big Bob was one of them. Perhaps the most famous. And according to American music critics, he was possibly the most profound and artistically sound.

One of Bob Marley’s classics is Sun is Shining, used by Ten Cricket as background theme song for its broadcast opening sequence for cricket broadcasts from the West Indies. Recorded by Bob Marley in 1971, it was covered in 1977 by Black Uhuru and it hit the charts again.

Sun is shining, the weather is sweet, ya
Make you want to move, your dancing feet
Who, to the rescue… here I am
Want you to know ya
Where I stand, know, know, know, know.
When the morning, gathers the rainbow
I want you to know, that I’m a rainbow too.

What Bob Marley pioneered was roots reggae – where the songs explored the roots of the Jamaican people – in Africa. Jamaica’s African heritage, both West African (physical origins) and East African (spiritual origins), resonates in these roots reggae songs. Songs that bring alive Jamaica flow into songs about Jah (Jehovah) and King Selassie (Haile Selassie) which in turn flow into songs about Rasta (referred to as dreadlocks in most songs).

In this post, we will not discuss Bob Marley. One single person, however influential, cannot define a genre. It requires a whole generation of musicians to work on this genre, produce some excellent exhibits or specimen musical works.

Bob Marley was a great ambassador for reggae and roots reggae of Jamaica. And also the worst. For the outside world, there does not seem to be anyone else in reggae music apart from Bob Marley. The nearest one gets is UB40. Or maybe The Police. Duckie Simpson of Black Uhuru says

“You notice, whoever sings reggae, apart from reggae singers, sells. But when guys from Jamaica sing reggae, it never sells. When UB40 or The Police do it, it’s great.”

We will listen to the music of three pioneering bands who balanced roots and dance hall beautifully, while living in the shadow of Bob Marley and Burning Spear – Inner Circle, Black Uhuru and Third World.

All the three bands are contemporary of each other. They began in the early 1970s where all bands start from – clubs and hotels of Kingston. The demand for more and more dance music – in clubs, on radio, on television – meant that they had work.

But these were not mere drum bangers and hip shakers. They were thinking artists. Duckie Simpson says, “.. I’m not the type who goes for DJ music. I strictly go for lyrics. I’m a songwriter, so when I hear stuff that’s not put together properlythen I don’t really go for it.

All three bands combined popular tunes and rhythms with thought provoking lyrics.

Inner Circle

Inner Circle, which had begun life in 1968, went through multiple personnel changes before got Jacob Miller, a strong vocalist and even stronger songwriter, and in the late 1970s, Inner Circle got themselves a recording contract. A bunch of albums and couple of US-Europe tours later, in 1980, only Bob Marley was more popular than Miller and Inner Circle. In 1977-8, one big hit of Inner Circle was Tenement Yard. While its rhythm has become iconic, the song itself is a lament or maybe a mild protest.

Dreadlocks can’t live in privacy
Anything him do, old near-guy see
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su-su-su-su

Till 2015, smoking marijuana or ganja was illegal in Jamaica. This meant people had to do it in their privacy. But the poor people living in tenements did not have their space to practice their religion. That is worthy of protest. Courts of various countries have barred the Rastafari people from carrying their herb stocks around causing, what the Rastafari call, oppression.

Jacob Miller died in 1980 in an accident and the remaining Inner Circle members, the Lewis brothers, moved to Miami from where they continue to work. Their 1987 song Bad Boys got picked as the theme song for COPS.

Why did you have to act so mean?
Don’t you know you’re human being?
Born of a mother with the love of a father
Reflections come and reflections go
I know sometimes you wanna let go

The special thing in the song is that, while it looks quite innocuous and preachy, there is also an empathy for people who may be have floated into crime because of poverty and economic desperation.

Black Uhuru

Black Uhuru gets their name from the Swahili for freedom. In that they follow the footsteps of Burning Spear in using Swahili imagery for their name. Their personnel changes resemble most bands of the era. Only Duckie Simpson remains as the constant member from start to present. Over the years, they had many members including Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and the ethereal Sandra “Puma” Jones

One really deep song by Black Uhuru is What is Life? From their Grammy Award winning album Anthem. The lyrics go something like this:

What is life? I try to see.
What is life? It’s unity.
What is life? I try to feel.
What is life? It’s really real.

Another song from the same album is the Black Uhuru Anthem where songwriter Duckie Simpson refers to the Rastafari faithful as the “living dread” and rhymes it with the “living dead”, referring all the other people.

Third World

Third World and Inner Circle had a lot of common members including Bunny Rugs and Stephen Coore. In 1977, they published an album 960 In The Shade. The title song referred to an incident in 1895 called the Morant Bay Rebellion where over 500 people were killed by the British either through military action or through execution. In the song, the songwriters write:

You caught me on the loose,
Fighting to be free,
Now you show me a noose,
On the cotton tree,
Entertainment for you,
Martyrdom for me.

These songs were, of course, very popular in Jamaica. But international fame required them to cross over. Third World got international fame when they did a number of cover versions like Now That We Have Found Love (The O’Jays) and live shows with Stevie Wonder who loved their song Journey to Addis. Stevie Wonder wrote a song for them called Try Jah Love which is a very syruppy American pop song.

In 1988, came Hurricane Gilbert. Willie Stewart, the drummer, was one of ther long standing members. He says that 1988 was a life changing year for him and most Jamaicans as Hurricane Gilbert tore through the island. Stewart says in Bordowitz’s Noises of the World:

From the whole thing we got a very important message. Your home is within you. You can’t get a physical structure and say, that’s your home, because that can be broken up.

Jamaica was going to rebuild the country fully. The world has to take theat structure from Jamaica. Say that we are going to rebuild a new, musical sound/

In 1989, the song Forbidden Love saw Third World go beyond dreadlocks, Jamaica and Jah and they were writing about love in a verySufi sort of way.

When I look into the mirror I see someone
Who’s life will never be the same again
‘Cause they say that what we found forbidden love, love
And the question we are up against

Dance Hall Poetry

In a very weird way, I find all these reggae bands very similar to our own Bappida. Ostensibly dance music, the songs themselves were extremely poetic with deep messaging embedded in them. When you listen to dance songs in a dance hall, you are not paying attention to the lyrics at all. In fact dance hall music is not supposed to have any lyrics. But these songs draw your attention, like Bappida’s disco songs which had some heavy lyrics.

Roots reggae takes you to the milieu of Jamaica, both physical and mental, and you are vicariously living the lives of the Rasta on the streets of Kingston or on the ridges of the Blue Mountains or in Addis Ababa. To close this piece, it would be apt to go to Bob Marley and his epic Roots, Rock, Reggae.

Feel like dancing, dance cause we are free
Feel like dancing, come dance with me
Roots rock reggae, this a reggae music

Reggae Playlist

I have created a playlist of 11 reggae songs here: They are:

  • Jamaican Farewell, Harry Belafonte, (cover traditional)
  • Long Shot Kick de Bucket, The Pioneers, 1968, considered the first reggae recording
  • Sun is Shining, Black Uhuru, 1977 (cover of Bob Marley)
  • Bad Boys, Inner Circle, used in COPS
  • Tenement Yard, Inner Circle / Jacob Miller, 1977
  • What is Life, Black Uhuru, 1983
  • Black Uhuru Anthem, Black Uhuru, 1983
  • Now That We’ve Found Love, Third World, 1978 (cover of The O’Jays)
  • 1895 (960 in the shade), Third World
  • Forbidden Love, Third World
  • Roots, Rock, Reggae, Bob Marley and the Wailers

Senegal: Returning to the Source of Jazz Music with Youssou N’Dour

Exploring the world through music

Part 1: Senegal with Youssou N’Dour

Senegal is on the western coast of Africa. Like most West African countries, its ports were used to load slaves on to European ships bound to the New World. This historical legacy triggers a simple question. Can jazz music be linked to Senegal? Can rhythm and blues, soul, rap, hip-hop, maybe even reggae, link up with Senegal?

The lexicon of music in America and Europe borrows heavily from languages of West Africa. Merengue, the dance, is possibly related to mererek, a Fulani word meaning shake or quiver. Marimbula, the plucked instrument in the Caribbean, is very much a West African contribution. As is jive, a Wolof word and jukebox, also Wolof. And the big one, jazz – among the many theories, the Mandinka word jasi and the Temne cognate yas are prime candidates for being the mother word. All these are, of course, theory from a linguistic history point of view for the simple reason, that there are no written records or chronicles or memoirs of that tumultuous period and the journey of words from one continent to another will remain a matter of conjecture even though it sounds convincing and matches up with the recorded history of forced migrations.

But, let’s assume it is so. So if Senegal, the home of the Fulani and Wolof people, is where they – the people, the language, the music – embarked on their journey to the New World, what if those people, the words, the music came back to Senegal?

Youssou N’Dour, possibly the most famous Senegalese musician, helmed a project in 2007 called Return To Goree. This project involved N’Dour going to all the musical hubs of America like New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and Chicago to meet some of the brilliant contemporary jazz musicians there and bring them to Goree Island for a concert. The island, just a few miles off Dakar, was a custom house – for slaves. Human cargo was brought in from the interior villages, stored here in the basement, weighed, accounted for in the inventory ledgers and then loaded onto ships. They went through the Door of No Return – a doorway opening on to the small jetty that led the slaves from the custom house on to the waiting boats.

For N’Dour, this project culminated over 20 years of being an ambassador of African and specifically West African music. Back in 1984, N’Dour was in Paris playing songs from his album Immigres (Émigré) when among the audience was Peter Gabriel. That began, to use an old cliché, a beautiful friendship. N’Dour guested singing Wolof in In Your Eyes from Gabriel’s most successful solo album So. Then he toured with Gabriel, Springsteen, et al in the 1988 Human Rights tour. Since then, artistically and commercially, N’Dour kept growing to become the superstar that he is today.

In 1989 came Peter Gabriel’s magnum opus – Passion, the soundtrack for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Youssou N’Dour was a major contributor as were many others including fellow Senegalese legend Baaba Maal (I will explore his music in the next post). You can hear N’Dour’s voice in the title track itself where his voice is blended with that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (with L Shankar providing the strings).

Musically, N’Dour’s work encompasses multiple styles. In Noises of the World, a oral history of musicians by Hank Bordowitz, N’Dour says

My music is modern African music. African music is the mother of all these other musics (sic), and that is the truth.

This sentiment, incidentally, goes back to the narrative in the beginning of the post – where do all the various styles of music come from?

Apart from the music, N’Dour the songwriter has also been very active in raising awareness and consciousness of the culture, not just outside Africa, but also within Africa. Very consciously, he has been writing songs in French and English, international languages, that, although imposed through colonial means, help reach out to a wide spectrum of nationalities and ethnic groups in Africa (and indeed rest of the world). Much of his music also ties up with his activism.

Birima is a song from 2000. It refers to a 19th century monarch King Birimba Ngone. Birimba was known for his hospitality, his honour and that he always kept his word. N’Dour’s song, translated, has this line

Ah! Birima! A day spent in your presence
Was the picture of hospitality!

This song comes from another part of N’Dour’s lineage – the lineage of griots. Griots are a separate caste in west Africa – they are story tellers, balladeers, historians, hagiographers. Their job is to convert the events of the day into song and ensure people remember those events through those songs. N’Dour, on his mother’s side, comes from a family of griots. Birima, a tale of a king, comes out of that. In 2008, N’Dour started a microfinance institution in Senegal and named it Birima Microfinance.

Youssou N’Dour is also a Sufi follower. He is part of a brotherhood called Mouridism founded by Sheikh Amadou Bamba. Mame Bamba, a song from the 1994 album The Guide (Wommat), written in Sufi style, celebrates his spiritual guru. The song begins in Wolof and then for the most part is in English. Sheikh Amadou Bamba was a Qadriyaa sufi saint in Senegal. He resisted the French colonial rule and was even exiled. His philosophy, ensconced in Mouridism, influences Senegalese life even today. N’Dour in his song writes:

The man in me changes
Every time I read your khassayids
My strong faith in you
Makes me survive in this crazy world.

In 2004, N’Dour hooked up with the Fathy Salama Orchestra of Egypt to record an album of songs celebrating the Sufi spirit. It was originally called Sant Allah (Thank you Allah) and was ready five years ago. The events of September 2011 and the general response of the Western world to all things Islamic forced him to hold the release of the album. It was finally released with a simple name Egypt. This was a coming together of extremities of the Sahara desert but it also established Senegalese Islamic traditions as distinct from Arabic traditions. There are songs about the leading figures of his brotherhood, about Touba, the city that serves as the cultural centre for the Mouridists and about his faith. Critically hailed by everyone, no one was surprised when it won the Grammy Award.

Robert Christgau, in the Village Voice, writes,

So for N’Dour, who for 20 years has been building bridges to Europe and America, to go to Egypt to record these pointedly pan-Sufi lyrics–in addition to praising the two Mouridist founders, he devotes songs to Qadiriya history, a Tijani anti-colonialist, a Tijani pan-Africanist, and an eccentric messianic brotherhood–is to remind his Western friends, and enemies, that in the crucial matter of faith he is not “Western,” not even a little bit.

The career graph of Youssou N’Dour, from the 1980s to the present, shows his journeys across the world. His music today is spans multiple genres – rock, reggae, electronica, jazz, soul. He uses synthesisers to generate traditional mbalanx sounds. His favourite music, apart from African sounds, if one might say, won’t shock anyone – Marley, Gaye, Prince. He is called to tribute concerts, charity concerts, World Cup football opening events, political events and other occasions. He tried to run for president but withdrew. He has set up a state of the art recording studio in Dakar, where he continues to live, when not traveling. His studio has now become a hub for Senegalese music which had to otherwise go to Paris to be recorded. He is an important person.

My Youssou N’Dour Playlist on Youtube has the following songs (You can check out a pre-curated playlist on Apple Music)

  1. Return To Goree, a documentary that rivals Buena Vista Social Project in artistic excellence
  2. In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)
  3. Passion (Peter Gabriel), a most goosebumps raising blending of voices of N’Dour and Nusrat.
  4. Birima, with a simple video from the streets of Dakar
  5. Badou, composed and created when he was still unknown to the rest of the world.
  6. Mame Bamba, one of his older songs about his spiritual guru Sheikh Bamba
  7. Egypt, 2004, Grammy Award winning work, to use a much abused word – seminal
  8. La Cours des Grands, a typical song for the World Cup, used in 1998. The original French song does however have a slightly more poetic feel than the modified English version.
  9. 7 seconds (with Neneh Cherry), from 1994, the title of the song refers to the brief fleeting moments of innocence that a new born baby experiences before being told who he or she is, what the colour of his or her skin is, what it means, etc.
  10. Ob La Di Ob La Da, a lovely rendition of a Beatles classic

Explore The World Through Its Music

The ancient Greeks used the word barbaros to refer to various groups of peoples – those who spoke Greek badly; those who did not speak Greek (and therefore were incomprehensible and strange to the Greek citizen); the Persians; the Turks; the Huns; etc. Today, the word barbarian has come to mean a person who is not civilised i.e. not from the mainstream.

However, one person’s barbarian was another person’s model citizen. The perspective of the observer was the deciding factor. Who decides what is mainstream? Who decides what is the reference point for being termed a member of a civilised group of people versus a barbarian group of people?

The term World Music was a lazy attempt at defining any thing which was not Western Popular Music. The perspective of the observer was clearly American.

Carl Rahkonen sums it up in his 1994 technical paper when he says world music is more about what it is not rather than what it is:

World music might best be described by what it is not. It is not Western art music, neither is it mainstream Western folk or popular music. World music can be traditional (folk), popular or even art music, but it must have ethnic or foreign elements. It is simply not our music, it is their music, music which belongs to someone else.

So the next time you select world music in your playlist settings, you are essentially saying, hey, let’s listen to their music.

I got hold of Paul Simon’s Graceland cassette quite soon after it was released. Like everyone else outside of South Africa, I got to hear artists from that country for the first time. The opening A Capella by Ladysmith Black Mambazo followed by the opening bars of the guitars in Diamonds on the Soles of the Shoes are to me one of the finest openings in pop music. Later, I learnt that this was fusion music. I also learnt that this music brought hitherto unknown ethnic sounds from South Africa into the mainstream. The commercial success had made Graceland a template for future musical experiments in cross-border music mash ups. To top it all, with record companies coming out with International or Ethnic recordings, World Music got its stamp of credibility when an artist of the stature of Paul Simon immersed in it with considerable artistic and commercial success.

Over the years, I have come across music from many countries and at any given point in time, my smart phone music player has a playlist of songs which cover at least 10 languages and sourced from at least 15 different countries. Each of these songs come from long musical traditions which have their own stories. Appreciating the differences between the music of the Senegalese musicians Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour or between Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen, both from Mali, and acknowledging that they come from completely different traditions should be as natural as discerning the difference between rock & roll and soul or jazz and reggae or electronica and heavy metal. As jazz, soul, R&B or rap tell stories of an entire race liberating themselves from slavery, the music from the world over tell their own stories about their people.

In the coming months, I will revisit all these musical works and explore the home country through the music. I hope to cover all the continents and will mostly avoid using the term World Music. Watch this space. Till then a playlist of six pieces of popular music from six continents which I will cover in the next six posts. I hope to hit at least 30 countries in the next month or so.

“A Sparrow Falls” by Wilbur Smith (and also “When the Lion Feeds” and “The Sound of Thunder”) – and a look at the narrow perspectives often held in conflicts

After a long time, came across a piece on Wilbur Smith whose books I once used to devour. Very nice read here.

Books, Films, Travel. A world of words; words about the World

These three novels form the original Courtney trilogy, an epic saga that has subsequently grown to more than twice that number of novels including both sequels and prequels to these original three.

This trilogy focuses mostly on the life of Sean Courtney (born c 1862 and not to be confused with his great-grandson, the later Sean Courtney) and covers several historical events.  The time span is approx 1875 to 1920s and Sean’s life includes involvement in such historical events as the Zulu War (1879); the gold rush in Transvaal of the 1880s; the Boer War (1899-1902); the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910); the First World War (1914-1918); and the beginnings of the wildlife conservation movement in the early 20th Century.

SPOILER ALERT: please note that this post does reveal some details of the story (although there is also  a considerable amount of the story that is not…

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This is My Generation. The End, almost.

Leander Paes, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly are all a few months to 1 year older than me. Bhaichung Bhutia is 2 years younger. These five people have been my contemporaries literally. And their life over the last 25 odd years has, in many ways, mirrored my own. The contexts are different but the questions are the same. The similar conflicts of choice, responsibilities, ambition and aspirations. The shared pain of graduating from random teenage dabbling to becoming a contender and then becoming class, the pressure of maintaining that class and trying to evolve oneself and maintain relevance and motivation as the environment changes and age and cynicism kicks in. I have followed the careers of these five people not just because they play a sport that one has an interest in but also because they faced and struggled with and overcame the same life questions as I did, at the same time as me.

The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar from active sport (he still has to play a couple of tests) makes it 80% down for my generation. That Leander is still around winning Grand Slams is something that, in a way, does not surprise one at all, given how one has seen him over the years. Of course, he does not wince when Patrick McEnroe calls him a senior citizen. He wears that tag quite openly and is still a medal contender at the Olympics, even with a rookie who did not even have a pair of shoes.

Given these almost parallel lives that one has lived with, it would be too shallow and meaningless to call myself a fan of any of these players. To me, each one represents a model of, a way of life in a way, of what an Indian can do. We all have our talents and abilities and our respective areas of interests, aspirations and passions. These five people demonstrate a very human and ergo realistic way of bringing all of those things to life in spectacular fashion, not just for a short burst of 15 minutes but for an entire lifetime of a generation, a quarter of a century. And more. These five people are not supermen who come from a different planet and have different non-human qualities. They come from the same social milieu (barring Bhaichung Bhutia whose background is far different from the urban middle class environs of the other four) as me (heck, Sachin flunked HSc, something that I was in danger off till I managed to get some tuitions classes) and I can see and empathise with their failings as many of those failings are issues that me and most people of our times face and have faced.

Bhaichung has moved off the football field for India but continues to score goals through his wards from his football schools and the United Sikkim club he founded to give opportunities to fellow Sikkimese people like him. He is the biggest voice India have in football and given his age, his role as a coach and manager is going to be huge.

Sourav and Rahul have moved on, immediately, to some commentary duties but there would be, no doubt, some more productive activities that they are likely to turn towards in due course.

Which brings us to Sachin. What is he going to do? This is a question that he has been asking himself for the last 5 years. It is a genuine fear. Sachin took to top level competitive cricket since his age crossed double figures. Since then, he has done nothing else. Like a software programmer who spends 30 years in the trade and knows only coding (and over the years has become brilliant at it). Take away the coding job of the software programmer, what is he to do? He has not bothered to engage with anything else. He has no other skills or affinities or preferences. Without the coding problems, he has no meaning in his life. Like actors who find it difficult to adjust to life when they retire, a Norma Desmondesque schizophrenia grips such people.

Sachin knows everything there is know about playing cricket. But that’s it. From the repeated use of the phrase (and variations of it) “It’s hard to imagine a life without playing cricket because it’s all I’ve ever done since I was 11,” it is very clear, this is a very big fear in his life. (A fear all of us have).

I, for one, never understand this whole farce of asking people to retire. It is the selectors’ job to pick and drop players. A player has the full right and freedom to play till whatever age he or she wants. This is true for all professions. A journalist can continue to write even if he or she has turned senile and is in advanced stage of dementia. It is for the editor to decide whether the copy is legible and publishable. Sachin was perfectly right in continuing to play and believe that he was helping Team India.

In the last test series against Australia, while most people, the regular hecklers who measure human achievement in quantitative terms QSQT (quarter se quarter taka company is as good as the earnings announced last quarter), claim he did not score a single century, I believe he played an innings that made the series a one sided one for India. In fact, one does not have to take the full innings. Just 3 shots. 1st test match, 12/2 in the first innings, replying to the Australian score of 380, given the performance against England in the previous series, it could very well have become 20/5. James Pattinson was easily the best bowler for the Australians in the entire series. In his 2 overs and 2 deliveries, he produced a burst of speed (150kph yorker to knock out Murali Vijay, 147kph shortish ball that Sehwag couldn’t control, it rolled on to the stumps) that saw the two openers walk back. In came Tendulkar in the middle of the 3rd over from Pattinson and he smashed 3 fours in 4 deliveries, all of which were above 144kph. This had shades of the Dale Steyn – Tendulkar tussle in the South African series in the previous season. The best bowler of the team being played out by Tendulkar. Leaving the rest of the batsmen to play the lesser bowlers. Almost the same happened here. Pattinson was out of the attack and the rest of the Indian team were happy to play a docile Australian bowling attack.  The phrase “India won the test quite easily in the end” is a bit misleading. Without that show of intent in the 6th over of the innings, things could have been vastly different.

The idea of Tendulkar, for me, stays in those moments. There are countless of them and this patch of 4 deliveries was one of them. I don’t really care about his not scoring centuries. (In fact, centuries are a bit like the photographs that people take once they reach the top of Mount Everest. Only the last step, probably the easiest, is seen. Not the climb itself.) He doesn’t have to. There are 10 other people in the team who are equally obliged to play for Team India. They can score those centuries.

The model of Tendulkar has always been to enter the worst challenges possible and try to win over it. And to do so, one has to be simply world class. Nothing less will do. Sometimes you succeed, sometime you don’t. Sometimes it is brave, sometimes it is foolish. But it is an idea worth appreciating. It’s an idea worth adopting.

Ganesh Visarjan 2013

Religious events are good for business. Take this family. Everyone is putting in their last breadth to stock up on balloons to sell on Visarjan Day. I saw them when I was walking towards Shivaji Park taking photos of the city. When I returned and walked past this spot, they were done. All balloons sold.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

18th September 2013, the 10th day of the annual Ganesh festival, like all parts of the city, Dadar in central Mumbai, was the scene of what I would call the Mardi Gras of Bombay.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

It’s an event. You can shut your ears and moan about it. Or like these college kids, go out there and volunteer to keep order. Or do some filming.

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

 

Ganesh Visarjan Mumbai 2013

The Death of Nehru

Yesterday, India survived (and done quite well for itself though things can always be better) 49 years of the post-Nehru era.

At 2 p.m. local time today 460,000,000 people in this country that has been forged on the anvil of this one man’s dreams and conflicts were plunged into the nightmare world which they have, in the last decade, come to dread as the “after Nehru” era. (link: Guardian archives)

But a small hint of one of the key factors why “India after Nehru” is where it is today (instead of being a developed nation).

One walked out to let in the diplomatists, the MPs, the Sikhs and the Hindus and the Moslems. They came – but they did not weep. Instead, the eyes shifted, there were tremors of disbelief, tinctured with moments of illumination as if this had to happen, and then the eyes shifted again. This time with fear.

Fear was the one dominant feeling one experienced as one came out. Fear that at this moment one had to avoid the reality of Nehru’s death and the Pandora’s box of suppressed ambitions it will release.

The funeral procession tomorrow will cover six miles. Mr Nehru will he cremated at Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated. The last rites for this agnostic will be administered by Hindu priests

Fear. Need to turn to someone to be a leader. Nehru. Gandhi.

Football vs Soccer – The Australian Debate

Soccer.

a word that summons up images of permatanned American sportscasters gabbering on about Sir Wayne Lineker’s famous goal in the 1984 World Cup final. (link)

The Guardian’s football section on their Australian edition is called, umm, soccer. Sports editor Tom Lutz of the Guardian says:

we think it avoids confusion with football as in Aussie Rules. Or football as in rugby league. Or, possibly, football as in sepak takraw.

Of course, Australia has its own football – there are four different versions of it. But…

In 2010 Craig Foster, our chief football evangelist, wrote in his book that “we can stop talking about the ‘four football codes’, since there is only one football code. The others are handball codes.” (link)

But this is insane. Trust Americans to do this (underlines put by me).

I own an American copy of Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against the Enemy. The word “football” has been cleansed from the book, autocorrected to “soccer” by the editors.

Even when Kuper is writing about American football – as in gridiron – his words have been changed to “American soccer“, which is just downright confusing. Taking the silliness to another level, Cameroon is described as “the most successful soccering nation in Africa”, surely one of the greatest grammar crimes in sports writing ever. (link)

Time to call John Cleese to close the debate.

 

On Gambling and Manipulation of Outcomes

For whatever reason, I have had very minimal consumption of IPL for last few seasons (perhaps after Sourav Ganguly got dropped by all the franchises). Of course it is difficult to avoid it completely. Every coffee shop, pub, quiz or anybody’s house you go to, the matches are going on in the wide flatscreens on the wall. Twitter and Facebook have nothing else on the time line.

When the news of the arrests of Sreesanth, Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila broke,  I suppose, there were a billion people who were betrayed (trust TOI to come with such a pompous headline).

(On the other hand, there were those self-righteous equally pompous folk who tried to shout they should be excluded from the billion people betrayed. Hey, the population of India is 1.21 billion as per the 2011 census. So consider yourself to be part of the 0.21 billion people whom TOI left out in the headline)

Anyway, to get back to the case of spot fixing. there has been a continuous feed of comments, views and recommendations on the issue. One such theme that is going around is the idea that legalising betting will reduce spot fixing. Nitin Pai explains this here. The logic used is that legitimising betting coupled with tougher enforcement reduces the incentive to cheat.

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Betting or gambling is one activity. Spot fixing (or match fixing or any related activities) is an act of manipulation. These are two separate acts and deal with different facets of human nature.

Gambling involves taking a chance on the likelihood of an event happening the way you want. In gambling, you are away from the actual event, an independent observer who cannot in anyway influence the outcome of the events. There are horses running and you bet which one will win, come second, etc. The outcomes are dependent on the horses and how they perform, you as a bettor have no influence on it. In a way, it does not matter whether it is called a game of skill or game of chance. As a gambler, your lack of control is the same. What separates a game of chance from a game of skill is the ability to make some informed guesses about the outcomes. Knowledge of the skills involved in a particular activity can at least give you an idea as to which one is more likely to win. If you are betting on a match between Roger Federer versus Rohan Bopanna, for example, a little knowledge about the abilities and previous records of either person as well as a general understanding of tennis as a sport will give you the insight that it might be a good idea to bet on Roger Federer to win.

(Of course, there is the other form of gambling – risk taking. People take risks with their careers, businesses, sporting performances, etc but here they directly influence their performance and success. We are not talking of that kind of gambling – where you gamble on yourself)

For the gambler, there is a basic expectation – that the events are made to happen within their existing known environments. Apart from force majeure, there is no out-of-the-ordinary actions which can influence the events. Whether the outcomes turn out the way the gambler wanted or not, as long as they happened within their internal logic, the gambler can live with it. In sport, the gambler expects that the contestants will apply their best skills / play their regular game and whatever happens in the end is a result of the fair contest.

Spot fixing / match fixing is different from gambling or betting. This is a case of manipulation. In order to achieve specific outcomes, external entities try to influence the events.

In the stock markets, investors can take a chance on a company and invest in it. They expect the company to operate in a fair manner in the market place and based on its performance, issue out appropriate returns. Now, if the someone decides to tamper with some aspects of the company to artificially boost the stock price, then that becomes a case of manipulation (the stock market version of fixing). The phenomenon of insider trading is a known evil in business. There are have been many cases of media publications (and journalists specifically) who have stakes in specific companies and publish unverified / false news reports that can drive up the stock prices. The media publication might issue a correction in the next issue but in the interim has already made the profits.

In cricket, what has happened has been specific individuals (bookmakers) influencing the game by paying cricketers to not play as per their best skills or natural game. This is an act of manipulation aimed at getting the desired outcomes.

In the IPL itself, this may be one of the many types (i.e. driven by betting) of manipulation that occurs. Since teams are run by businesses and many of these businesses use the teams to build their brand equity, often one sees players included in teams when cricketing logic would suggest that they should be dropped. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, according to cricket experts, should not be in the team. But he is a big draw – he pulls in people to the stadium in Mumbai, his numbered T-shirt sells more at all the outlets, its his face leading everyone on all the group photos used in the various endorsements. So he needs to be in the team, not for cricketing outcomes, but for more mundane business outcomes.

In the football fixing scandal, there was an out and out deliberate program to influence sporting encounters. An international operation spanning China, Philippines, Singapore betting on matches in Finland and Sudan does not come up randomly. There was tremendous planning and creative thinking in actually executing the whole operation. In fact, special football matches including international friendlies were organised simply for the purposes of betting (and the syndicate making money from the fixed outcomes).

So why are these bookmakers / syndicates manipulating the game? For the same reason that journalists manipulate news to promote the stocks that they own. They have a lot to lose / and a lot to win. And when you have a lot to lose, you want to control the events and make it go your way. You are uncomfortable and helpless otherwise. (According to some reports, Gurunath Meiyappan seems to have lost over Rs 1 crore in bets. That is a lot of money to lose. He needs to recover that money.)

There is also the thrill of being in control, having the power (money, position, authority) to drive things your way. Why would the head of an IPL franchise (the India Cements folks are desperately trying to wipe out all mention of Gurunath M on their site) try to go beyond his immediate functions and try to manipulate games? Because he can. He can order the captain to pick a particular player irrespective of cricketing logic. He can insist on certain formations. There’s a thrill to it.

To bring back Nitin’s point about the legality of gambling or betting, whether the bets were done through legal or illegal channels does not make a difference. People had too much going for them to remain silent spectators. They needed to influence the conduct of the matches. Even if betting was legalised and there were legitimate businesses running betting shops, the law still can’t do anything to stop the gambler / bettor from approaching the players and making attempts to get events happen their way.

The presence of the underworld is not so worrying. In fact, because it was the underworld who are under constant observation by the police (through phone taps), this whole saga was exposed. It is the explicitly legitimate personalities and organisations that one is more worried about.

Most cricket fans remember Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh betting against their own team in the Headingley test of 1981. England were in an impossible position and the bets were going at 500-1 for an England win. After England won, powered by Ian Botham and Bob Willis, there was a huge furore when it was revealed what Lillee and Marsh did. Did they manipulate their performances so that they could win the bet? Probably not. But you never know.

Manipulation of events cannot be reduced. As long as there are people who have a huge stake in the events, there will be attempts to control or make things go in their favour. But there can be a way out for the public to protect themselves. And the way out is transparency.

In the stock markets, one of the key roles of institutions like SEBI or SEC is to ensure there is transparency in the workings of all publicly listed companies. Every bit of news from personnel changes to purchases of new offices to mergers and acquisitions have to be made public. Specific advisories and guidance reports have to be given by the company management on what they are planning to do, their strategies, their thinking, etc. There are mandatory disclosures that have to be done. Investors benefit from this transparency. They can decide for themselves which companies are operating in a fair manner. They can pick companies where they can predict correctly. It also makes it difficult for individuals within companies to get away with rampant manipulation. A newspaper making a claim about a company has to be backed by a corresponding disclosure / public statement. Without the later, the SEBI can pull up the company for falsification and fraud.  They may not get caught immediately but whether it is Satyam or the LIBOR scandal, it comes a full circle in the end.

Sport, whether in India or abroad, is mired with opacity and obfuscation. Organisations like FIFA, IOC, IAAF, etc are known for all the stuff that is left unsaid. The selection of a host city for the Olympic Games (and what happens behind the scenes) is the subject of many investigative journalistic efforts including a book. The shenanigans of Indian sporting organisations are just a drop in the larger ocean.

What the public needs is more visibility. Even WWE publicly declared the nature of its wrestling contests (as part of some regulatory tax filing). In spite of the scripted contests (or maybe because of it), WWE still has its own cult and audiences. Sport will also have its audiences but the people who run it need to be (or forced to be) open about what they do.

For a team that is representing the country and carrying the India flag, it is expected that the nation knows how or on what basis the specific 11 individuals were selected. (In the case of Olympic sports, Indian athletes’ travel and allowances are paid for by the government, i.e. tax payers money. The case for right to information is stronger here.) It is expected that the selection committee select the team that can best deliver results. If there is any other motive to selecting a player leading to a sub-optimal team, then that is a break in the expectation of the nation.There are enough instances of people trying to figure out strange team selections. But selection committee meetings are never made public. And in the press conferences, the selectors are instructed by the BCCI to not say anything. By forcing the BCCI (and all other sports organisations) to be transparent and make public disclosures of what happens in every meeting, it makes it difficult for individuals within the BCCI to get away with many things.

Prem Panicker has spent most of his life writing about cricket and has regularly written about the need for BCCI to be more transparent. As of now, Prem has given up on the sport.