Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Italian Voice in American Music

Louis Prima

The late-1940s and 1950s were an enthralling time, when American music was being pulled in a thousand directions. By the 30s, jazz and blues had become institutionalised in the American music scene. By mid-40s came up the faster version of jazz -- bepop. By the early-50s, rock-and-roll emerged from the assimilation of jazz and blues on the one hand and European gypsy swing on the other. Amidst all this, and quite unsuspectingly should I say, some beautiful unheard-till-now melodies capture out ears. This is the music of the Italian-Americans.

The operations of the Sicilian and Italian mafia in the USA since the early twentieth century had led to the racial stereotyping of these southern European nationalities as violent and criminal. Like so many other communities, the Italian and Sicilian immigrants, flowing into the USA in the 20s and 30s in the wake of fascism in Italy and the World War II in Europe, were welcome in the new land with hatred and hostility. These immigrants were ghettoised in different American cities into 'Little Italy's. The late-40s, marked a change in the racial/cultural status of these people for the first time. Around this time, several musicians of Italian-American background rose to prominence in the music scene. These included solo vocalists like Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and groups like The Gaylords. These second and third generation singers and musicians brought into American music the beautifully melodious tunes of Italy and Sicily for the first time. Most of these songs were based on traditional Italian/ Sicilian tunes. The lyrics of some were partly in Italian/Sicilian, and partly in English. This music brought southern European instruments like the mandolin and the harmonica into American music in a big way.

Here are some of their melodies:

Louis Prima | Che la luna

Louis Prima | Buona sera

Dean Martin | That's amore

Dean Martin | Mambo Italiano

The Gaylords | From the vine

The Gaylords | Eh cumpari

The Gaylords | Come prima

Frank Sinatra | Luna Rossa

Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin | Glad that we're Italian

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II (1825-1899)

The music of Johann Strauss II is something else. I’ve never heard anybody else whose each and every composition is so damn festive. Waltzes, operettas, polkas – they all pour down upon you like candies and cookies and lemon cup cakes. No wonder he had all of Vienna dancing and dangling to his tunes all this while. I could listen to him and dance around in my mind in some ballroom of Victorian Vienna all day.

PS: Here are some samples:
                          The Emperor Waltz | Johann Strauss II
                          Vienna Bonbons | Johann Strauss II
                          Tritsch Tratsch Polka | Johann Strauss II
                          Blumenfest Polka | Johann Strauss II

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kesarbai Kerkar

Kesarbai Kerkar (1892-1977)

Kesaibai Kerkar is one hell of a voice. Very few female singers, or even male singers for that matter, have had such timber, strength and depth in their voice, while being so damn melodious at the same time. I got initiated into Kesarbai through the book The Music Room by Namita Devidayal. The book traces the days of learning music of three generations of musicians – the author herself from Dhondutai Kulkarni, Dhondhutai from Kesarbai Kerkar and finally Kesarbai from her guru Ustad Alladiya Khan, the doyen of the Jaipur gharana. Curious, I logged on to YouTube, and was blown away instantly. This was a few years back. At this time only three and a half minutes-long LP recordings of Kesarbai were there on the Youtube. Of course now, longer khyals, taped at private mehfils are available. While the LPs are compact and crisp presentations, not unlike grilled pieces of spicy meat, more like appetizers that leaves one craving for more, the bada khyals are like proper curry versions, where the depth of taste of the music remains untainted, but comes with a range of other flavours. Intricate in the little details of the alankar and habitually fluid in her taans, what makes these recordings extremely personal are her candid conversations in Hindi and Marathi that punctuate the otherwise unhindered flow of robust melody. From the moment it commences, Kesarbai’s voice is a dish that can’t be put down for a moment!

PS: Here are some of the select dishes:
                   Raag Malkaus | Kesarbai Kerkar (30:11 mins)
                   Raag Lalit | Kesarbai Kerkar (4:20 mins)
                   Raag Miyan ki Todi | Kesarbai Kerkar (3:20 mins)
                  Jaat kahan ho | Kesarbai Kerkar

Why Hindustani Musicians are Good Cooks

Adrian McNeil playing his sarod

Around two decades back, the Australian sarodiya-musicologist Adrian McNeil wrote a fascinating article called Why Hindustani Musicians are Good Cooks’. In this extremely imaginative piece, McNeil shows how the process of exploration of a raag by a Hindustani classical musician is very similar to the process of cooking. Not only this, he manages to explain, mainly for an audience who is unfamiliar with this genre of music, the nature of performance of a raag in culinary terms. He says that just as in cooking, one needs three kinds of ingredients – primary (like chicken, potatoes etc.), secondary (like onions, ginger, garlic, oil etc.) and tertiary (like spices, salt etc.), so in the performance of a raag we need three such kinds of constituent parts – the basic scale/mod as the primary component, vadi, samvadi, chalan, pakad etc. as the secondary elements and gamak, shruti etc. as the tertiary ones. Just like cooking, the performance of a raag hinges on the right mix of all these components. McNeil closes with the perceptive comment:

I have observed during my association with many practicing Indian musicians over the last decade or so, that on the whole their ability to prepare tasty food is by no means confined to one or two individuals from amongst this profession. This situation could be due to the parallels that exist in the cognitive processes involved in preparing a tasty dish of Indian food and interpreting a rag, as has been described above. It is for this reason that I assert that Hindustani musicians are good cooks.’

Got impressed by the idea and convinced by the arguments in my first read. It has also been one of the major inspirations behind this blog. McNeil’s recipe is ready to be tried out in Asian Music, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1993-1994, pp. 69-80.

Raag Kedar

The sixteenth-century painting above portrays the evening raag Kedar. It is typically represented as an ascetic in meditation. Here, a yogic practitioner holding a veena is visited by a Muslim dervish.*

The long evening is my favourite part of the day. It’s probably for this reason that I’m always preoccupied with the evening raags in general. And Kedar is an absolute favourite, right after Yaman. It’s just so glamorous! I just can't get over the ma-pa-ma-pa-dha-ma-sa-re-sa bit and just go on singing it under my breath at times. Unlike how it has been portrayed in raagmala paintings, I hardly associate it with any form of austere divine mood. On the contrary it makes my imagination land up in some brightly-dressed evening party, full on chit-chat, snacks and fancy liquor. Kedar is like the elaborately made paan, that rests stylishly inside one cheek and perfumes up the breath of the decked-up host of the soiree. It makes me want to just go on singing Kedar. 

PS: Taste this beauty in Kedar by DV Paluskar: Raag Kedar | DV Paluskar 

*Detail: Kedar Ragini by Shaykh Hatim; Chunar, Uttar Pradesh, India; Hara dynasty, reign of Rao Raja Bhoj Singh, 1591; opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Let me begin by saying that I just adore Franz Liszt. He is one of my all-time favourites. I love the way the sudden changes in the pace of his music take place and the way the different tunes conspire to create an eerie environment. The deliberate momentary cacophonies that interrupt the melody occasionally are probably what make his music so special for me. Inspite of being situated in the cultural universe of Hungary, the way he manages to be so very different from the Austro-German tradition on the one hand and the Russian one on the other, is breathtaking. I also find his style quite different from what Bartรณk, the other great Hungarian composer, created eventually.
I was going through a particularly dense Liszt-phase a couple of months back. It so happened that during this period we produced Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at my university. In charge of direction, I was elated to be able to use a couple pieces of Liszt as background score of the play: Hungarian Rhapsody no. 14 in F minor and no. 3 in B flat major. So happy!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Niccolo Paganini

Niccolo Paganini (1782 - 1840)
I stumbled upon Niccolo Paganini, the Italian violin virtuosi, guitarist and composer of the Romantic era, rather late; a couple of days ago actually. After having read up a little about him, I decided to download his works. Two days of waiting down the line, I am listening to his violin pieces as I write. Played by Maurizio Preda and Luigi Alberto Bianchi, these compositions are tantalizingly beautiful and soulfully melodious. Mostly happy tunes, they flow at a brisk pace, at times quite fast, and create a sweet tuneful world around them. I am just loving Paganini!