(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 9, Number 6, 1990)


Special Historical Interest Technobeat from the Distant Past
(Some facts and opinions may no longer apply)

The numbers alone are staggering.

Over 800 feature-length films produced a year (twice Hollywood's annual output) released in as many as 250 theaters at once. 100 million movie tickets sold each week. 5,000 nomadic projection units trucking movies from village to remote village (more than the total number of theaters in Britain). Shashi Kapoor, a fanatically popular actor, was reportedly once contracted to work in 140 films simultaneously. This, in a country with 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, five chief religions and thousands of gods.

Add to this another shocking figure: "Three hours of Indian film music!" I gloated, citing the magic GlobeStyle number to a CD-glutton friend with a better than average tolerance for unholy noise. Rap, industrial, speed metal? Fine and dandy. But he shrank at the piercing sweetness of filmi, recoiling at the prospect of a three-disc anthology of the Indian cinema's greatest songs, Golden Voices from the Silver Screen, Vols. 1-3.

Without a doubt filmi's not for everyone, though its influence reaches from Egypt to Indonesia, and in its heydey 30 years ago shaped the East African music craze, taarab. To American ears, filmi's unabashed gallop through C&W, polka, rhumba, rock, ragas and the western classics inside four minutes of sustained delerium constitutes too great a leap of faith in the elastic bonds of pop. But it's a fitting soundtrack for a cinematic genre that thrives on excess, so we ought to love it too.

"The audience for Hindi movies do not want just to see a love story, a crime melodrama, a musical, a domestic tale or a moral parable," writes Pico Iyer in Video Night in Katmandu (source of the statistics above). "They want to see them all, with every spice and every ingredient stirred together in a single epic concoction." Though filmi is so stylistically perfidious it defies description, once heard it's impossible to mistake for anything else. Flavoring this manic mulligatawny is one part ball of corn, two parts husk of kitsch-the same proportions found in great art high and low from Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain to the Bee Gees' "Night Fever."

Johnny Ray notwithstanding, we have little in the American pop canon to match Manna Dey's emotional collapse in "Yashomati Maiya Se Bole Nandala," (Vol. 1) wherein he chokes on blubbering sobs unable to carry on. The tireless Lata Mangeshkar (she of a mind-numbing 25,000 recorded songs) skates in to finish the job. And neither Vangelis nor John Williams in all their pomp can touch the frozen bombast of the two-part dream sequence from the 1951 Hindi cinema blockbuster, Awaara, featured in Vol. 2. With three discs of sparkly conglomerate, where to start or what to buy?

Approximations are equivocal, but the series roughly follows the flow of a typical action-adventure flick. Vol. 1 vies immediately for attention, quick-cutting from one heartstopping stunt to another, including the speaker-frying title track from Junglee (yahoo!) and Asha Bhosle's Minnie-Mouse-on-helium star turn, "Jaadugar Kaatil." Volume 2 hitches its wagon to extended development, though like a car chase that's wound through too many exotic locales, disc openers "Daiya Re Daiya" and "O Megha Re Bole" lay on the scenery changes somewhat thick, and the afforementioned dream extravaganza, a once in a lifetime achievement, is best experienced in similar dosage. Still, the pop borrowings are nervy, ranging from haunting to hectoring but always sporting massive protruding hooks that disdain to dislodge from memory.

If Vol. 2 begins to resemble a skein of confusing plot threads going nowhere, the homespun mistresses of Vol. 3 exhibit the power of love to sort things out. What international man of action could resist the seductive mantra, "Sugar, come soon, sugar," muttered against the crashing thunderstorm that opens the vaguely sinister, James Bondish "Aaj Ki Raat?" Or the gauzy spiritual heat of the two-part romantiganza "Satyam Shivam Sundaram?" In this dance-happy disc, filmi flaunts a perpetually anxious beat capable of resolving all tensions. Since the first two volumes are heavy on late-'50s, early-'60s standards, sonics tend to be scratchy, nowhere near the quality of other GlobeStyle retrospectives.

Vol. 3, with its more contemporary disco aesthetic, further provokes the weepy ache for wineglass-clear production. Still, Voices' monaural window on an all-but faded glory is none too constricted to admit 10,000 diverse pleasures. One hopes the UK label sees their idea through of inflicting the 3 Mustaphas 3 on the subcontinent, guaranteeing a Hindi film orchestra recording in the wide-screen grandeur it deserves.

Meanwhile, on Soup of the Century (Rykodisc cd), having finished building their cleverly crafted machine of widespread ethnic musics, the Szegerely Svengali's take it out for a roaring ride, proving that a shepherd's flute, bagpipes, and bazouki-centered turbine can rock. And rock hard. At the rate these Mustaphas pulverize then reconstitute influences, playing "What's My Genre?" while listening without the Tylenol in tow is an exercise in masochism. It's Mustapha music-period-full of sound, fury and depth.

Feeling giddy? From Polish-language Mexican polka to nervous one-note bazouki breakouts, silliness fills the air. Cynical? Bit of a chip-on-the-shoulder spirit evident, chocked with showy button-busting solos aimed at demolishing the novelty act image. Angry? Glower in the great peals of commotion kicked up by "Ya Hibibi, Ya Ghaybine" and "Sadilo Mome." Comatose? "Ti Citron" and "Madre" redefine lightness of being. Poor in spirit? Absurd! This disc dispenses manifold blessings hidden behind demonic chops. As a bonus, "Mamo, Snezhets Navalayo" tucks us warmly into bed at the end.

Acting the dissheveled innocent, Hanan's equatorial bright hip-hop gives filmi influence a Bedouin twist on Mango's unexpected cd compilation, Yalla! Hitlist Egypt. Variations on two genres are highlighted: al jeel, a western-looking technopop, and shaabi, a working class-based music that takes to the streets for its grit. Of the former, Mohamed Moneer's stripped-down dubwise astringent, "Albi Saaf Safa," kicks ornate traditionalism in the butt; Khedr's "Balsam Shufee" brings a Fela-style Egypt '80 backbeat back to the Nile. Of the latter, Sami Ali and Sahar Hamdy's panting wedding night rap nearly chars the old D/A converter, serving notice that rai is no longer the naughtiest North African dance fever in town.

The unlikeliest instrument imaginable for sharing a disc of duets with acoustic guitar has to be the didgeridu, hollow-log sound chamber of the Australian aborigines which amplifies the buzzing of pursed lips. Boasting less obvious melodic and rhythmic possibilities than the average coffee grinder, it would seem an axe of poor choice for pop. Except that du-meister Graham Wiggins coaxes an array of startling sounds from the instrument-electronic drones, spelunker percussion, embarrasing bodily noises-on Baka (Hannibal cd), his collaboration as Outback with Briton Martin Craddick. The rich, wet mud of Wiggin's earthtones perfectly complements Craddick's narrative fingerpicking on "Camberwick Green" and "On the Streets." But there's simply no denying that Wiggins provides the spit that holds this band together. Witness "Hold On" for proof, in which the acrobatic-lunged American hums, puffs, burps and, like a bad-tempered nocturnal marsupial, growls through an impressive solo.

In the manner of Toots in Memphis, Joe Higgs' Blackman Know Yourself (Shanachie cd) is the rare collection of remakes and covers that doesn't beg comparisons with the originals. His version of Marley's underrated "Sun is Shining" elevates a troubled vocal above the morning heatwave, turning a song about unshakable faith into devotion heightened by the tinge of human doubt. To call this a comeback would be to deny Higgs' constant spiritual presence in reggae's continuing evolution.

Abed AzriƩ, Aromates (Nonesuch cd). A Syrian-born composer living in Paris, AzriƩ gives voice to the dispossessed of the Middle East, setting poems by Mayor of Nazareth Tawfiq Zayyad and Palestinian exile Samih Al-Qassem to intense, calmly foreboding music. Rarely louder than a whisper, his smoky vocals personify patience that grows tired of waiting, backlit against a synthesizer, hand-drum and lute accompaniment so subdued it almost seems imagined.

The Sabri Brothers, Ya Habib (RealWorld/Virgin cd). Contrary to the extended, modulated peak of Nusrat Ali Fateh's qawwali, these Sufi songs of praise from Pakistan vary the pace and emotional pitch of their ecstacy. And instead of domination by a single personality, a swirl of lusty voices conveys the varieties of religious experience, weaving in and out of handclaps, tabla and harmoniums. An inspiring testament to the joyous side of Islam, which our media would have us think consists principally of frowns and fire.

David Rudder, 1990 (Sire cd). I wouldn't have thought a soca artist of David Rudder's stature should want to dilute his music for perceived crossover appeal. Nor would I have imagined he'd be so inept at the trick. In "Calypso Rising," the most self-congratulatory anthem since Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love," he brags "My calpyso headed for stardom real quick, because it is world music." As in Weekly World News or "We Are The World," I guess he means the lowest common denominator. Even a South African solidarity song, "Johannesburg Woman," becomes an egocentric invitation to seduction. "Let your passion touch the sky like when you're in the war," he suggests, ignoring the minor inconveniences of armed struggle.

Mad Professor, Science & the Witchdoctor (Ariwa/RAS cd). I know, I know. It's a cultural thing. But a lot of supposedly wicked dub strikes me as roller rink material. This, however, is pure aggression, ectoplasmic voice, stropping razor psychedlia and bowels of hell bass. Sharp as Adrian Sherwood but without the poison tip.

Macka-B, Buppie Culture (Ariwa/RAS cd). Other rappers may have more wit and better rhymes, but none has Macka's amusing encyclopedic approach to wordplay. "Food Scandal"'s warning of a British salmonilla outbreak is conveyed via a comprehensive list of the many ways to safely cook an egg. "Respect Our Mothers" (now there's a seldom-heard subject) catalogs the trials and tribulations of motherhood. In this manner serious messages get across easy as pie, greased along by the Mad Professor's appropriately puckish production. Put this on your Top 20.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Egypt '80, ODOO (Shanachie 60-min. cd). Complaining that Fela hasn't altered his formula in years is like grousing that the pyramids never move. This Nigerian enormous band knows its way blindfold through a groove that the nth time around still keeps me inching up the volume. What's lacking in fire bubbles in rancorous stew of anti-government insults just clownish enough to loosen the ensemble an institutional notch.


[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]

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