Rediscovering Shailendra

One treasure of the Internet is the RMIM Usenet group and its more user-friendly compiled archive. One of my favourite pastimes over the years has been to open random articles from the archive, read about the songs there while making a playlist of the songs discussed in the thread. It’s one thing to listen to these songs. But the additional notes posted by the knowledgeable RMIM community along with the painstakingly compiled lyrics base of Giitaayan and create a totally different engagement.

Recovering from an illness at home, with lots of time to spare, I went back to the archive. I found this 1997 article by Amla Mazumder, daughter of lyricist Shailendra. Ms Mazumder writes a touching tribute of her father and presents the ideas and world views that went into many of Shailendra’s songs. She closes the article with a list of 11 songs – these are songs of Shailendra which Shailendra considered his favourites.

It is a remarkable list. When a writer (or any artist for that matter) picks his favourites from his own works, the list in a way showcases what the writer really wants to say to the world. They represent his view of the world and the writer feels these works communicate them better than any other. The writer finds himself in his true form in these selections.

I immediately made a playlist of this and spent a whole day listening to them. It has triggered many thoughts which I am putting down here below.

First, here are the 11 songs in chronological order

  1. Awara hoon (Mukesh, Awara, 1951, Shankar Jaikishen)
  2. Mera Joota Hai Japani (Mukesh, Shree 420, 1953, Shankar Jaikishen)
  3. Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke (Manna Dey & Lata Mangeshkar, Do Bigha Zameen, 1953, Salil Chowdhury)
  4. Sab Kuch Seekha Humne (Mukesh, Anari, 1959, Shankar Jaikishen)
  5. Mat Ro Maata (Manna Dey, Bandini, 1963, SD Burman)
  6. Ab Ke Baras Bhaiya Bhejon (Asha Bhonsle, Bandini, 1963, SD Burman)
  7. Koi Lautade Mere Beetein Huen Din (Kishore Kumar, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, 1964, Kishore Kumar)
  8. Jin Raaton Ki Bhor Nahin Hai (Kishore Kumar, Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, 1964, Kishore Kumar)
  9. Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamanna Hain (Lata Mangeshkar, Guide, 1965, SD Burman)
  10. Sajanwa Bairi (Mukesh, Teesri Kasam, 1966, Shankar Jaikishen)
  11. Sajanre Jhooth Mat Bolo (Mukesh, Teesri Kasam, 1966, Shankar Jaikishen)

Here is a YouTube playlist that I have made. If you want to listen to the songs, then I can suggest something. Pour yourself a nice shot of your favourite drink, settle into your recliner, dim the lights, quieten down everything and then press play. You don’t need to see the visuals (though there is some breathtaking black and white camerawork  and scene design by the masters), just engage with the songs word by word.

Now, to put down a few words that have been evoked by this list.


Language of the commoner

One of the first things that one notices is the simplicity of language. All songs form a vocabulary that a common person on the street can use. To some extent, the nature of the characters for whom these songs were written plays a part in the construction of the vocabulary. There’s a tramp, there are paddy farmers, women convicts and bullock cart drivers. Of course, there are a couple of urban, sophisticated characters like an engineer, a dancer and an army officer. But even for them, Shailendra keeps it simple. One can contrast this with “labz” play that other writers indulge in – Gulzar with his sargoshians and satrangis, for example. If you follow some of better modern songwriters, people like Irshad Kamil, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Swanand Kirkire,etc, you’ll see their songs dripping with some really sophisticated, esoteric words – khanabdoshiyan, sukun ka zazira, chand ki firaaq, etc.

One of SD Burman’s personal quality control habits was to test his tunes with his servants and various tradespeople like the laundry man, the security guard, etc. If he found them catching on and humming the tune repeatedly, he knew he had a winner. All his legendary folkish sounding tunes went through that QC. It appears Shailendra might have, mentally if not actually, done the same – test his lines with common people.

One example is the villager calling out to Shambhu as he walks to the city looking for a job. In order to reclaim his land, Shambhu has to go, his situation demands it but the villager knows this is a point of no return. So he says,

“Apni kahani chhod ja
Kuch to nishani chhod ja
Kaun Kahe is or tu phir aaye na aaye

Just two big words of three syllables. Every other word is a single or at most two syllables long. Easy on the tongue, easy to remember, easy to hum. You probably use these words everyday when chatting with friends over coffee. And yet such depth. Contrast with a similarly placed song, Kabira by Amitabh Bhattacharya

Ae Kabira maan ja, ae fakira maan ja
Aaja tujhko pukare teri parchhaiyya
Ae Kabira maan ja, ae fakira maan ja
Kaisa tu hai nirmohi, kaisa harjaaia

Lovely writing, meant for an urban, elite character – the effort of constructing sentences using inherently deep meaning words like fakira or nirmohi is praiseworthy. But it enhances, in a way, the charm of how Shailendra, in simple words, describes the same emotion of seeing someone close leave and go away.

Social themes – migration, alienation, boundaries

Let’s look at some of the themes covered in these songs. How do they convey Shailendra’s view of society? As Ms Mazumder mentions in her article, there’s a lot of Shailendra in these songs, even if they explicitly refer to the on-screen characters.

If you start with Awara, the first big idea is one of social alienation – the alienation that a poor orphan feels in modern urban society.

Sunsaan nagar, anjaan nagar ka pyaara hun
Awaara Hun

There is a metropolis outside but for the individual, he is as good as living in “Empty Ville”. Shailendra considered himself an orphan after his mother’s death. When he moved to Bombay for work, he found himself in a strange land. All that comes out in these lines. There is a story that when Raj Kapoor first met Shailendra (he heard a poem of Shailendra and wanted to buy it for his film), he asked him to say something about himself. Shailendra replied, awara hun, is gardish mein aasman ka tara hun. RK was floored.

Then we come to the the emotions and trauma of migration. In the 1950s, in newly independent India, people had new hope. This hope drew them to the cities where they would find new careers as engineers, craftsmen, scientists, etc. Shree 420 begins with this hope. A young man is off looking for new opportunities. But Shailendra has a twist.

Naadaan hai jo baith kinaare
Puuchhen raah vatan ki
Chalana jivan ki kahaani,
Rukanaa maut ki nishani

These lines can be read in two ways (at least I am reading them in two ways). One, it’s a good, philosophical rule of life to keep moving. Stagnation is death. The other way is a sly bit of trolling by Shailendra, if I may say so. The country is moving forward and everyone needs to catch up. If you don’t, it’s death. These lines raise questions on the inclusiveness of growth and change. People take their time to sense the new ideas and make their decisions to join the movement. However, in reality, there is always some coercion, some collateral damage of  any change. One can say that the need to migrate as a consequence of progress is an unfortunate but real phenomenon.

But the overall mood in Mera Joota Hai Japani is positive and optimistic and let’s keep it that way for now. For real, serious stuff, we need to see the next one, Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke.

One of Shailendra’s greatest abilities was to capture the essence of the film or the story in the song, and specifically in one or two lines.

This song does that. Do Bigha Zameen as a film describes how a landed family who have their goals and plans worked out and are steadily working their way towards them end up becoming landless roadside dwellers in the city with no hope of anything. It is the story of migration, of the impact of urbanisation on rural families, treating them, making them homeless nomads. About this, Shailendra writes

Dharti kahe pukaar ke,
Beej bichhaa le pyaar ke
mausam bitaa jaay, mausam bitaa jaay

Shailendra tells the migrant that to plant some roots else there may be no return. He will be left with nothing. And what is it that is really lost. It’s the social goods – the community, the collective love and support from everyone during harvesting, festivals, or anything that happens in the village. The seeds of love that you sow in a place, the migrant will miss that. He has to now start all over again in the city.

Tilt then, the poet gives the migrant a tip to maintain his humour.

Nila ambar muskaaye,
Har saans taraane gaaye
Haay tera dil kyon murjhaye

Man ki banshi pe
Tu bhi koi dhun bajaa le bhaai
Tu bhi muskuraa le

Relationship Themes – separation and breakups

There are three songs which are about separation – Ab Ke Baras Bhejo, Sajanwa Bhairi, Sab Kuch Seekha. Each one highlights a different cause of separation

In Ab Ke Baras Bhejo, a woman is serving her time in jail. She prays for someone from home to come and see her. She recalls the joys of the monsoon and the greenery and energy that came with the rain winds. It’s interesting that the lady keeps mentioning her “baabul”. She is in jail and euphemistically, a jail is often called a “sasural”. As a prisoner, she has been separated from her family and they seem to have abandoned her.

Baabul ki main tere naazon ki paali
Phir kyon huii main paraaii
Bite re jag koii chithiyaa na paati
Na koii naihar se aaye, re
Ab ke baras bhej bhiyako baabul

The stigma of being a convict has broken all relations.

Then we come to separation triggered by deceit and betrayal inAnari. Here, we see some very personal anguish infused in the words

duniyaa ne kitanaa samajhaayaa
kaun hai apanaa kaun paraayaa
phir bhii dil kii choT chhupaa kar
hamane aapakaa dil bahalaayaa

Shailendra had many incidents of people not keeping their commitments – film directors, actors, music directors. These include those who were supposedly very close to him and had great regard for him. The above lines bring out some of that angst.

The last of the separation songs deals with marital separation. The husband (Sajanwa) has become a stranger

Jaae base parades balamavaa sautan ke bharamaae
Naa sandes naa koI khabariyaa, rut aae rut jaae
Naa koi is paar hamaara
Naa koI us paar

The lines are quite explicit and clear.

Personal Themes – Nostalgia, loneliness and a second chance

There are two songs from Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein. Shailendra was Kishore Kumar’s favourite by far and he got some absolute gems as songs. If Pyaasa was Sahir expressing himself, DGKCM is Shailendra expressing himself in the voice of Kishore. Koi Lautade Mere Beetein Huen Din is very clearly about the old days. Again, it touches on changes in people’s lives and the havoc it causes.

Main akelaa to na tha, the mere satha\i kai
Ek aandhi si uthii, jo bhi tha leke gai
Aaj main dhundhun kahaan, kho gaye jaane kidhar

The nature of the storm is part of the film. But there may be some autobiographical element in here. Shailendra lost his mother early and that had long lasting effect on him. His daughter tells us that Shailendra brought out that angst in many of his songs. The descriptions of loneliness and feeling of hopelessness caused by such events came from his own personal life. The other song from DGKCM is even more depressing.

Raat ke taaron tum hii bataao
Meri vo manzil hai kahaan
Paagal banakar jisake liye main
Kho baithaa hun dono jahaan

Utter hopelessness. When someone loses all purpose.

We are talking 1960s now when Shailendra’s health has worsened, physically and mentally. He died in 1966. In these last years, he seemed to have decided on his second life. The last three songs are all about journeys and possible rebirth.

The first one is a death row convict being led to the gallows. It’s a fait accompli but the convict says he is only getting liberated.

Ho hanskar mujhako aaj vidaa kar
Janam safal ho meraa
Rotaa jag me.n aayaa
Hansataa chalaa ye baalak teraa
Mat ro maataa laal tere bahutere
Mat ro

Ho kal main nahin rahugaa lekin
Jab hogaa andhiyaaraa
Taaron men tuu dekhegii
Hansataa ek nayaa sitaaraa
Mat ro maataa laal tere bahutere
Mat ro

Then there is Heeraman, the bullock cart driver, making what appears to be a smuggling trip but is unaware of it. To further highlight the irony, he is singing

Tumhaare mahal chaubaare, yahii.n rah jaae.nge saare
akad kis baat ki pyaare
akad kis baat ki pyaare,
ye sar phir bhi jhukaanaa hai

Incidentally, the mukdha of this song comes from the original story i.e. it’s written by Phaniswarnath Renu. Shailendra took the two lines from Renu and added the rest. The certainty of mortality is presented thus and it puts a frame on the crime that’s happening on the screen.

Then there’s Rosie. She had tried to commit suicide but was saved. Now she is looking forward for a new life, a new career. Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna is probably, in my view, the only positive, optimistic song in the list, relatively of course.

Infinite Sadness

10 out of the 11 songs convey different forms of sadness. This is what Shailendra picks as his favourite. He has written lots of fun songs, mind you. But he seems to prefer these. In the words of his daughter,

“For me   there is  a Shailendra song   for  any emotion,   any situation, from birth to death, such  was his versatility. Millions of listeners feel this way about his work.”

Yet  the spectre  of death  always haunted him.   He   was obsessed by death. There was no fear involved, but a kind of helplessness drew him towards it.”


I shall close this article with a song which I thought should have been in the list. Here is the final song of Bandini where he explains the life story of Nutan’s character

“Main bandini piya ki,
main sangini hoon saajan ki”



The Golden Gaans of Bappi Lahiri

Back in the 1980s when the primary sources of entertainment were Vividh Bharati and Doordarshan’s Chitrahaar, it was quite typical to wake up in the morning to neighbourhood radios playing the latest Hindi film music interspersed with advertisements and the soothing announcements of Ameen Sayani et al. The radio and TV announcers would mention the credits diligently – singer, lyricist and music director. In the latter case, there were three names that were repeated all the time – Laxmikant Pyarelal, RD Burman and Bappi Lahiri. In some of the programs which were request based (Jhumritalaya se Sonu, Monu, Deepak aur saathi farmayish karte hain…), RD Burman and Bappi Lahiri generally got more mentions. It is this upbringing, if I may say, that leads me to pick my favourite music directors of all time – RD and Bappida.

In the case of the former, there is a lot of literature by his legion of fans. Bappida always seemed to get subaltern treatment from so-called critics who were more influenced by his appearance, inarticulateness and general demeanour. Not that it matters, but those who have heard Bappida beyond the overplayed disco songs will know that he was a much bigger talent than otherwise perceived. In this post, I will list 10 songs which I don’t think most people would have heard of, let alone heard. Once you hear these songs, we can then talk.

Song #10: Jalta Hai Jiya Mera, Zakhmee (1975)

The film, according to reports, did relatively well. 1975 was the year of Deewar and Sholay, so the word “relatively” is the keyword. Produced by Tahir Hussain, brother of Nasir Hussain and father of Aamir Khan, the movie was a typical multi-starrer convoluted story based film. But like all Nasir Hussain films, this film had good music – by Bappi Lahiri. This was his first major hit score.

In the 1980s, Bappi Lahiri scored a number of films of Jeetendra which involved, what people like to call, “raunchy” song sequences. These sequences involved Jeetendra cavorting with the likes of either Sridevi or Jayaprada singing songs with “suggestive” lyrics. But, back in 1975, in his only third year of his career, he did this song featuring Rakesh Roshan and Reena Roy.

Songs #9: Main Deewani Radha Tumhari, Shikshaa (1979)

A young man, with a privileged upbringing, drives around showing off his fancy wheels. He runs over someone killing that person. When the police come to arrest him at home, his privileged surroundings intervene and the driver steps up to take the cosh. The driver goes to jail and the young man is back on the road. This does sound familiar. And very recent too. Writer M Balaiah and director S Ramanathan might well be pre-cogs when they weaved this story into their 1979 film Shikshaa. Raj Kiran plays the young man. The film did moderately in the matinee shows and faded away. With films like Mr Natwarlal and Kaala Patthar anchored by the Big B doing the rounds, this film had no chance. But we may remember this film for two songs.

It was always difficult for any singer, especially female, to break into Hindi playback singing in 1950s and 1960s when Lata Mangeshkar was around. The occasional song offered by Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury notwithstanding, Arati Mukherjee would be a less familiar name for most listeners. Though popular in Bengali cinema sharing space with Sandhya Mukherjee for the coveted honour of doing playback for Suchitra Sen, Arati Mukherjee found fame in 1982 when she won the Filmfare and National Award for Do Naina Ek Kahani in Masoom. Here, she is singing this lovely Gita Govinda style song (poetry where Radha sings of her love for Krishna).

Song #7 & #8: Humse Tum Mile & Zid Na Karo, Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979)

This Mahesh Bhatt film starring Vinod Khanna was a reasonable hit but is notable for a more than significant role for Helen which got her a Filmfare award for best supporting actress. An interesting casting choice was to have Danny Dengzonpa as the son of Helen, suggesting some realistic film making techniques rather than pandering to box office formula on casting. There are two very interesting songs – a gem by Yesudas (I could not find the original film scene featuring the song. There is a Lata Mangeshkar version also).

The lyrics are by Farukh Kaiser, a lyricist who started song writing in the 1950s itself but his best work were in the late 1970s-1980s). Again, we see a lot of poetry in the songs. The second song from this film that I will direct you to is performed by Danny Denzongpa and Chandrani Mukherjee. Danny was a very competent singer with a unique voice.

Song #5 & #6:  Aawaz Di Hai & Kisi Nazar Se, Aitbaar (1985)

Mukul Anand had a brief but extremely exciting 12-15 year film making career. He started with the remake of the 1962 Gregory Peck film Cape FearKanoon Kya Karega in 1984. One year later, he took a Hitchcock classic Dial M For Murder and made a very competent remake – Aitbaar. Dimple Kapadia, Raj Babbar and Suresh Oberoi come together in this thriller and Raj Babbar as the insidious husband puts in a fine performance. The trio were however topped by Danny Denzongpa as a coughing Inspector Barua providing the denouement

Suresh Oberoi plays a ghazal singer and Bappi Lahiri produced a couple of ghazals for the film. Written by Hasan Kamaal, these two songs show the range that Bappi Lahiri was capable of. 1985 was bang in the middle of the decade and Disco Dancer, Sharaabi, Namak Halaal, etc had already made Bappi the leading contender in discos, pubs and parties everywhere. Here he was suddenly breaking the trend and producing these two gems.

Both the songs are duets featuring Bhupinder and Asha Bhonsle. I must say that Bhupinder’s voice does not quite cast well with Suresh Oberoi’s hamming. It may even be distracting. I suggest you listen to the audio and forget about the hamming.

One of the features of Bappi Lahiri’s songs is the fine poetry in his songs. While they cannot rival the greats like Shailendra, Sahir and Majrooh, Bappi Lahiri had the likes of Gauhar Kanpuri, Anjaan and Hasan Kamaal pen some fine words.

This stanza from one of the songs captures relationship between the three main characters, from the point of view of the woman. It also brings out the essence of the film’s story to follow.

Kabse khadi thi baahein pasaare
Is dil ki tanhaaiyaan
Duniyaa se kah do na ham ko pukaare
Ham kho gaye hain yahaan

Song #4: Pyaar Chahiye, Manokamna (1979)

Can we have a list of Bappida songs without Bappida singing? For that we pick a film starring Raj Kiran and Kalpana Iyer. I am not too sure anyone saw this film. I can’t find any review of this film online. This particular song, with lyrics by Indeevar, is filmed along Juhu Beach.

Song #3: Jaana Kahan Hai, Chalte Chalte (1975)

Incidentally, there are a whole lot of Bappi songs filmed on beaches. Like this one from Chalte Chalte. Vijay Anand moves in front of the camera and tries to work his elder brother’s charms.

Song #2: Zindagi Hai Zindagi, Shart (1986)

Ketan Anand, song of Chetan Anand, was a long time fan of Bappi Lahiri and had him as a music director in many films. Shart starring Naseerudding Shah, Shabana Azmi and Kanwalijit is an interesting film inspired by the Jack The Ripper story. Yesudas gives voice to this song.

Song #1: Mana Ho Tum, Toote Khilone (1978)

It is quite revealing to see the number of songs that Yesudas has sung for Bappi Lahiri. One normally associates the great singer with Salil Chowdhury or Ravindra Jain. I have already played two Yesudas songs earlier. Here is by far the best song from the duo. The film, directed by Ketan Anand, is notable for featuring Shekhar Kapur in the lead role. Not much of an actor, thankfully he was better off as a director.

And just to round it off, here is Sonu Nigam recreating Yesudas’ song.





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.


  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.

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.

Rediscovering Robindrashongeet

Despite the family background, I have had an arm’s distance engagement with  Robbie T. Some examples were films of Satyajit Ray (Charulata, Ghare Bhaire, Teen Kanya) or the occasional Hindi / Bengali film like Kabuliwala. And of course, our national anthem.

In terms of music too, my engagement has been indirect mostly through Hindi film songs based on Robbi T tunes. Recently though I kind of had this urge to rediscover Robindrashongeet. It happened when I was setting a quiz question on Kishore Kumar singing Ami Chini Go Chini Tomare in Charulata.

I was greatly interested in understanding how Ray, a self-proclaimed aficionado of classical music who preferred working with Pt. Ravi Shankar, Ud. Vilayat Khan and Beum Akhtar, came to be working with Kishore Kumar.

When in Kolkata recently, I went to MusicWorld on Park Street and decided to explore the appropriate music shelves. I picked up a lot of stuff including a fascinating piece “Tomar Akash Tomar Batash“. A compilation of a radio series hosted by Soumitra Chatterjee, it presents, in 3 CDs, a number of classic numbers sung by legends like Hemanta and Dwijen. The third CD featured RobindroShongeet influences in the movies of Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. The above song is one example.

The story goes, as narrated by Soumitra, that Kishore Kumar, a favourite of Ray, was busy but greatly interested in doing the song for Ray. So he convinced Ray to come to Bombay and do the recording. Ray had his wife Bijoya sing it and he took the tape to Kishore. Listening to the tape, Kishore sang the song to the accompaniment of only a piano. The piano piece is played by Ray himself.

20 years later, Kishore Kumar would do another song for Ray and Soumitra in Ghare Bhaire. The high energy, acapella song Bidhir badhon, a performance that is guaranteed to draw out those goosebumps every time.

And this song from Meghe Dhaka Tara which is significantly elevated by the performance of the on-screen actors and Ghatak’s filmwork, the black and white night time scene giving a different pathos to it.

There are many more songs with interesting stories. More in later posts as and when I have time. I shall close this post with this ever popular number based on the tune of Auld Lang Syne. (Hemanta singing in this Uttam Kumar flick Agnishwar)


Absolute Rubbish, Laddie!

Remember when the girls would scream at the DJ “please play the song ‘We don’t need no education'” and we would turn back with our nose pointed towards the pole star and say “the song is called Another Brick in the Wall Part 2”.

Okay so this Canadian based band of Iranian brothers Blurred Vision have blurred the lines between the autocratic school teacher who liked to cane students for writing poetry (‘Poems everybody! The laddie reckons himself as a poet‘) and the autocratic supremo of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some elements of George Orwell’s 1984 come in as well (but then any totalitarian regime will have Orwellian features).

Don’t miss out on the “Ayatollah, leave the kids alone” part.

“The song has a universal, anti-authoritarian message and we hope that our updated version for the 21st century can open people’s eyes to what is happening,” he said.

The song is also a celebration of freedom of expression, he explained.

Nice! After decades of being rebels without a cause, wearing black t-shirts, smoking stuff and ranting about the establishment, one gets some satisfaction that this anthem is out there with a real relevance to some deserving community.

The Highwaymen – In Memory of Dave Fisher

The NYT, in its obit of Dave Fisher who died last week, traces their fairytale twice over. First in the 1960’s when in a period of 4 years they came away with 3 Ed Sullivan Show appearances, lots of albums, concerts and the number 1 hit Micheal.

and this Leadbelly original.

There’s an interesting story about Cottonfields, from the allmusic website.

“Cotton Fields” was a Leadbelly song that even the late blues-folk singer’s estate had not recognized or, until then, copyrighted. It proved to be one of the most valuable copyrights owned by the Leadbelly estate and his publisher, discovered in the wake of the Highwaymen by a whole generation of listeners, among them Alan Jardine and John Fogerty, both of whom covered it successfully later in the 1960s as members of the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival, respectively.

This first fairytale ended around 1964 when the group members went their own ways – three of them went to Harvard Law, one went to Harvard Business School, another to Columbia while Dave Fisher continued with his music career doing productions, composing music for television and the movies.

The second fairytale happened in the 90’s when the supergroup of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson came together and called themselves The Highwaymen. Dave Fisher and his former band mate Steven Trott sued. Trott incidentally was one of the people who went to law school and became a Federal judge.  There was an amicable solution, the original folk Highwaymen would open the supergroup country Highwaymen in a series of concerts. The revival along with some studio albums brought in a new wave of hits and fame.

Indeed, the Highwaymen, with all of their other “firsts” in terms of cutting certain songs, may be the only folk group in the history of the United States to boast a sitting Federal appeals court judge, in the person of Steve Trott, in their lineup.

Mass Awakening songs by Salil Chowdhury

Gautam Chowdhury’s fantastic site is a site where I have been spending a fair amount of time discovering the different aspects of the genius of Salil.

One section I have been listening to are his mass awakening songs. A revolutionary himself and associated with IPTA, Salil wrote and composed many songs for the streets. Gautam has pieced them all together here.

Specifically check out the song about the 1946 Naval Uprising Dheu Uthchhe and the first song on the list Uru Taka Taka which Salilda later reprised in Do Bigha Zameen.

Folk and Anti-Folk

Just felt like listening to this. And blogging it.

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row


Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Contrast this with this:

Shysters live from scheme to scheme but my 4th quarter pipe dreams
Are seeming more and more worth fighting for
So I’ll curate some situations, make my job a big vacation
And I’ll say fuck Bush and fuck this war
My war paint is sharpie ink and I’ll show you how much my shit stinks
And ask you what you think because your thoughts and words are powerful
They think we’re disposable, well both my thumbs opposable
Are spelled out on a double word and triple letter score and

We won’t stop until somebody calls the cops
and even then we’ll start again
and just pretend that nothing ever happened

Nice way to end a weekend with this.