Monday, December 29, 2008

To Boldly Write What No One Has Written Before

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 27th December 2008)

The only question that's more annoying than "What plans for Valentine's Day?" is, according to the results of a survey of men who have never worn shiny T-shirts or 'Kool' chains, women who have never cried at Shahrukh Khan movies and assorted organisms that recognised 'Rang de Basanti' as the unfortunate lovechild of 'Contra' and Boyzone, is "What plans for New Year?"

Aside from the fact that recession and terrorists have hit hard enough to mute down celebrations, there's also the question "what exactly turns new?" One of my brothers, who was born on January 1st, 1988, thanks to a collusion between nature's forces and his attention-seeking genes, obligingly turns a year older on the day, sort of putting a dampener on my current quest. Of course, it was a while before he realised he would spend most of his life running to the phone on his birthday to be told "Hi!!!!!!!!!!!! Happy New Year! Now…is your dad around?" It was longer before he realised that, until his voice broke (and for a few years after), the voices in the phone would say, "Hi, Nandini!!!!!!!!!! Happy New Year! Now…is your dad around?", ensuring he had a wicked childhood and miserable youth which would leave him scarred for life.

That little diversion done with, let's think about it – there's an Academic Year, which goes from June to April, or September to July, or February to October, or August to May, depending on where you live. So the few months no one in the world moves up a class, watches one's classmates move up a class, changes schools, gets done with a grade, heads off on holiday or turns a graduate are January, March, November and December. Then, there's the Financial Year, which ends in March, and thanks to its having begun in April the previous year, no one has holidays left for the winter months. One would surmise the Germans (something about 'March' makes you think it was them, though 'April' could be dressed in a shiny pink leotard and tap dance to Right Said Fred in Paris) did that to spite the Romans, really, though they needn't have bothered. The Romans apparently messed up the solar year with their kings' fancies so much, that by the end of 47 BC, the Roman calendar was about three months ahead of where it should have been.

That means, essentially, January is the last of three months during which you have just about nothing to celebrate academically or financially, and are sweating out the wait for your appraisal (which, in 2009, may not happen). November and December don't particularly count, given the Deepavalis and Eids and Christmases and Hanukkahs that keep you busy eating and going at crackers (in whichever sense you choose to interpret the word), to culminate in the Marghazhi Music Festival in Chennai.

Perhaps the month does deserve due distinction, because, if nothing else, January has chronicled the failures of the human race remarkably well. (Note: this is not a snide reference to my parents or brother). The late nineties were a period of frantic waiting-with-bated-breath for the culmination of Nostradamus' prediction. Five hundred years of anticipation and we were the generation privileged to see it. The scientifically-inclined of the superstitious saw it coming with the Y2K bug – flights crash landing across the world, businesses going bankrupt, the Swiss losing track of how much no-questions-asked money they held, students killing themselves after messed-up SAT scores, God's timekeepers getting all muddled up and programming Kalki's horse to get carnivorous…there were plenty of delectable possibilities. Unfortunately, the day passed in disappointment for the depressed, and failure for Nostradamus. January is also traditionally that time of year people get back from honeymoons that followed winter weddings, and figure out what they married. This January, we will all realise how much we truly miss Bushspeak (and some standup comedians will go out of business). Surveys have shown most people failed to keep up their New Year resolutions to quit smoking, several times in their lifetimes. But if you really think about it, the biggest failure of all – and a universal one – in January is…one's inability, despite years of practice, to break out of putting down the previous year when one attempts to write the date for the first time that year.

The Beats Behind Bond

(Published in The New Indian Express, dated 14th December, 2008)

Pete Lockett has arranged and recorded all the ethnic percussion for the five Bond films Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, Die Another Day, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough. City of Angels , The Insider,The Bone Collector, Snatch and Moulin Rouge are among his credits. He has worked with musicians including Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Vikku Vinayakram, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Mandolin U Shrinivas, Mandolin Rajesh, Bickram Ghosh, Vanessa-Mae, Pet Shop Boys, Hariharan, A R Rahman, the BBC concert orchestra and Sinead O'Connor. He was voted #1 BEST LIVE PERCUSSIONIST 2005 by readers of Rhythm & best live percussionist 2005 on international drum site,

Let's start off with 'Quantum of Solace'. Did you like the film?

You know, I haven't seen it yet. Of course, I've seen the snippets I've played for. I've been on tour here for a while now. We were planning to see it in Calcutta, but no, that didn't work out, and so I've not seen it yet. But it seems to have a lot of great action, and seems quite exciting, really.

How much do you get to see of a Bond movie before you compose for it? Is it the entire film, or just the snippets you compose for? And does it make a difference?

Well, obviously the composer gets to see the whole film, but with us musicians, it depends. With a couple of the films I've worked for, I've seen them through before I start working on them. Mostly, it's just snippets, and the terminology is still what it was when they were shooting it. So you're looking at your Reel 1, and Reel 2 and Reel 3. And no, I don't think it makes any difference at all. The music compliments a scene, and most scenes tend to be self-explanatory. Whether it's an action scene, or a love scene, or a terror scene, they have their own import…and you've got to get the right approach to it, when director and composer work hand-in-hand.

The percussion in 'Quantum of Solace' was a lot more muted than in 'Casino Royale'. Any reasons you took that particular approach?

To be honest, it's in the hands of the director what goes out in the final mix. For movies like Bond, you have two teams – the sound design team, which gets your sound effects and gun shots in, and the music team. And it's the director's call which gets heard more – so sometimes, the music can completely outrun the sound effects, and sometimes the sound effects outrun the music. So when you're a musician, you play and you hope the music outruns everything else! (laughing)

In 'Casino Royale', the nine-minute chase on the construction site, where the only music is percussion, was your 'moment'. Did you have a moment in this film?

Well, this one, I worked on all through, you know, and I did a lot more on 'Quantum of Solace' than I did on 'Casino Royale'. I did stuff right across the film really, do I don't think any particular scene stands out – though, of course, the action scenes were wonderful, and you really enjoy working on those because they allow you to really explore your rhythm.

You've worked with two Bonds – Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig – and I'm sure each of their characters and what they bring to Bond alters the music you make for them…so what is Pierce Brosnan's music and what is Daniel Craig's?

I wouldn't say each of them has their own music. You tend to approach each film differently and bring a bit of your own self, your own experiences into the work. I've worked with Middle Eastern music, North Indian and South Indian music, African rhythms…all over the world, really, and I try to bring some of that into every Bond film.Q: But then again, the music for Bond movies is a decades-old framework, and everyone wants to hear the music and know it's Bond. How difficult is it to innovate within those confines?A: Well, music's music. And one has to find ways to innovate, to bring in different approaches for different scenarios. Like this album I'm doing with Bickram Ghosh, 'Kingdom of Rhythms'. You've got your sound design, and your beats and electronic rhythms, and each of us brings something into it. We've got a whole lot of songs here, where you have a basic tabla and then the mood of a song might need a melodious groove, and another one might need blindingly fast fills and licks. So when you have a framework, you work within it, look at the scenes afresh…and the mood carries you.

You've composed for films as varied as 'Snatch' and 'City of Angels'. And some of them offer a lot more to a percussionist, with thrilling chases and whatnot. So which movie would you describe as your personal Everest? The one that was most challenging and which you enjoyed the most?

Well, I don't know if I can think of one Everest. You go in with an open mind, and you try to create percussion that says a certain thing. Film percussion is rarely very complicated and it's less of a technical challenge than a creative one. You need to look at what's suitable, what's appropriate, what fits into the film. Having said that, I've worked on five Bond movies, and I think that was the most challenging part. You're constantly searching for something new, and that can get quite challenging, especially when you get to the third and the fourth! (laughs)

You spoke a while earlier about how it's the situation and not an actor who demands a certain kind of music. But you've worked on Sivaji. You've been to Chennai often enough to know how huge Rajnikanth is. So tell us about that – making music for an actor, more than a movie.

Oh, wow! That project involved working with A R Rahman, who of course, was the building block for the score. And he's so enthusiastic and so involved, he gives you that creative freedom to explore. And you know, I'm always thinking of music, whether it's driving down the motorway or on board a plane or in a train. There are all these textural layers of rhythmic sound, and you can play around with them later. I got to do that a lot for Sivaji, and it was a tremendous experience.

I've heard a lot of your music, and there's something uncontained about it…like something which speaks to the universe. Where does control come in? At what point does the musician in you get tamed by the composer in you?

It's not about being tamed, really, because as you play, you begin to know intuitively what's right and what's wrong. Younger players could get carried away doing all these complex rhythms, sort of really exploring, without setting themselves limits. But after a while, you tend to know when you strike a balance, find something appropriate, something musical. Sometimes it's really simple, and sometimes really complicated. Your experience tells you what fits, and that's when you rein in.

You've been working on an album with Bickram Ghosh and Mandolin Rajesh. Tell us more about that, and more about the collaborative work you've been doing.

Oh, yes, that's 'Journeys with the Master Drummers of India'. Mahesh Vinayakram is in on it too. I've been really sort of looking at music from all over the world, and this is an attempt to fuse South Indian ideas and North Indian music, and bring it into a different arena, a much more modern climate, but the integrity of the music has to stay intact. So you bring in all the elements of traditional music, and look at it in a different way. All of our musician friends love how it's come out. And this new independent label, India Beat, is coming out with 'Kingdom of Rhythm', a collaboration with Bickram Ghosh. That should be out in January. That's going to be a Tour de France of music with tribal chants and all of that. We've also brought in Kai Eckhard, who used to play bass with Jon McLoughlin. And there's 'Made in Chennai', with Umashankar Vinayakram and Vinayaka.

You've been working in combinations of two percussionists and another instrumentalist…mandolin, bass…that's quite unique. How did you make that decision?

Well, it seemed a natural combination to me. You know, in Indian classical, you have the vocal component and then you play around so much with the instrumental component. What I wanted to do here was to make a journey where you have Indian classical music, and then you play that with electronics and drums, orchestra and drums. Of course, we were a bit nervous about how it would come out, but it's been fantastic, and it sounds great!

Your book – 'Indian rhythms on the drum set' – was published recently. It's a pretty complex subject. How long did it take you to write it?

Oh, that was a big write! It was about three years' work. Of course, I wasn't writing everyday, but it comprises a journey of that long or more. It's the first book of its kind, which looks at Indian rhythms specifically on percussion. It's primarily South Indian, Carnatic, music, but there are also components of North Indian music, and both Carnatic and Hindustani are so complex and developed a Westerner can't even get a foot in the door, you know, unless you've come here and studied it extensively. Now that I've made that journey, I want more people around the world to understand this music…I wanted to put down a solid, jargon-free introduction to Indian music, orchestrated on Indian rhythms.

You've got so many types of music within India – there's Carnatic, there's Hindustani and then you have Rabindra Sangeet. And then, you have Indian performers of Western instruments like the piano and saxophone and guitar. But while these systems were separate entities until recently, we see an increasing number of collaborations these days…

Exactly! I think we're moving in that direction, where music is not bifurcated into North and South Indian rhythms. Music breaks barriers within society and religions and people. You know, we musicians are all like brothers together, we make music together and we respect each other. It's a model platform, that it would be nice if politicians followed! (laughs)

Your website, has lessons put up regularly, and you don't charge for them. What is the philosophy behind that, at a time when artistes all over the world are struggling with internet piracy?

I see it as my way of giving back. I suppose I could charge five bucks a lesson, but I don't need to, because I make enough doing the work I do. Some people tend to retain everything, but then it dies out if you do. Some people make it very difficult for other people to learn from them, but I want to see more people getting out there and making good music. It was very hard for me when I started out, in the pre-Google, pre-YouTube days. Hard to source information and get what you need. Now it's much easier, and I want to make a contribution. I want to see people playing bongos the right way. You know, you walk into a club sometimes, and you see this guy or girl sort of going at a bongo in a casual way, accompanying the DJ, and you think they could do so much more if they knew how to play it, instead of just mucking around…and you wish you could hear that.

You play so many instruments, and I'm sure you have a special touch with each of them. And to know them, you need to practise often, keep in touch. So where do you find the time, how do you play all of them regularly?

Oh, that's quite hard, especially when you're away. I've been here in India for the best part of two weeks now. And after getting back, I'm going to be doing a tour of Europe. So, yeah, it's pretty difficult. I've got one or two specific routines, where you just limber up with your instruments. And you'd be surprised at how much that puts you back in touch. And sometimes, you know, playing one instrument can get you in touch with all of them. For example, the kanjira, it's not that different from playing the tabla, because you're touching those notes on the scale, you're articulating. So playing one instrument, it's like playing all of them, in a bizarre and unlikely way!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mumbai Terror Attack: Of Campaigns and Candlelight Vigils

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 13th December 2008)

Maybe it was Rang de Basanti that started it all. But research has indicated the sale of candles has gone up dramatically in the past couple of years. Little wonder, when one thinks of the wonderful opportunities that have been created over the past thirty months for people to swarm out with candles and semi-forgotten, also-ran-a-few-yards erstwhile movie stars to make their voices heard and faces seen on national media. To say nothing of the campaigns that have been taken up with loud echoes all over the country, and the chain mails that have been circulated.

The strangest of these, though, was a picture someone forwarded on a social networking site, calling for everyone to tag their own names against it. The picture was one of commandoes climbing out of Nariman House after the operations, and the general public that had watched the terror strike like some sort of thriller on national television was supposed to express solidarity with the men who had risked their lives by, guess what, tagging our names on their faces.

“Why haven’t you tagged yourself on it?” an acquaintance of mine asked.

“What’s the idea?”

“We’re trying to show we’re all out there.”

Those are the magic words. ‘We’re all out there’. We must ‘be the change’. On top of it all, chain mails have turned into our Dandi March.

“Terror has hit all of us. We’re not going to wait for the politicians anymore. I’M going to fight!” said a group mail doing the rounds.

“You’re right!” a reply it solicited proclaimed, “it’s time we stopped taking a backseat!”

And so they were going to sign their names on to campaign placards and walk about on candlelight vigils. Some others are not going to pay taxes anymore, and others think they should pay the security forces instead.

Just as quickly as the terrified face of a man pleading for mercy became the face of the Gujarat riots of 2002, Baby Moshe has become the face of the Mumbai terror attacks. Channels have been appealing to viewers to “Cry for Moshe”. True, the picture of a baby in its green clothes, holding on to a ball and looking back with a tear-stained face, could arouse maternal instincts even in someone who has a lower quantum of those instincts than animals that eat their own young. But at some point, we seem to have lulled ourselves into the belief that crying, burning candles, signing cards and putting our names down on virtual space amounts to ‘being out there’.
Perhaps it is the comfort of having cushy jobs, roofs over our heads and high-flying lifestyles, where one can intellectually dissect what caused the recession over a meal at a five-star hotel, which has given these exercises in burning about twenty calories, the veneer of proactive frenzy.
One wonders what would have happened if those people who fought for Independence did the same thing. If M K Gandhi had called up Jawaharlal Nehru and said, “let’s hold a candlelight vigil outside the East India Company day after. We should be able to get to Calcutta in a couple of days by train.” Or if Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukh Dev had decided they should sign a placard outside a police station, protesting against Saunders hitting Lala Lajpat Rai with his baton. Or if Subhas Chandra Bose had decided he would cry for the futility of the freedom struggle.

I’m not suggesting we should go around walking in lines up to terrorist camps and daring them to shoot us, or go around shooting people or start training at counter-terror camps. But perhaps, we should admit at first that we’re in a state of suspended disbelief, and the situation hasn’t changed much since the Mumbai train bombings or the serial blasts in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Bangalore and Guwahati, or the siege in Mumbai. Perhaps we should realise holding these vigils does not amount to much more than our leaders ‘condemning’ the attacks.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

When a movie opens with Google Earth and a cross between percussion beats and gunshots, one has a feeling the opening scene will be in Russia, possibly in the KGB. Well, the movie opens at a rather different locale, and has dialogue in English...a bit of a disappointment for the fanciful who expected guttural Russian. It is some time into the film that one gets it is a spoof on the CIA. At least, my excuse is that I didn't know the tagline was 'Intelligence is Relative' - a rather ironic coincidence, in the light of my revelation.

The Coen brothers' latest release is a comedy of errors of intelligence, in every sense. It is also a sardonic peek at what effect movies about cool agents blackmailing each other, and dramatisations of the Deep Throat Watergate interactions could have on the layman's aspirations. The movie does a good job of satirising the lure of cosmetic surgery, FBI sunglasses, the gun culture, internet dating, detective agencies, vulture-like divorce lawyers, conjugal pretensions and techno-incompetence. The irony of timing, of mistaken identities and the reality of being as paranoid as we have been since the turn of the millennium make for interesting subtexts.

John Malkovich does a non-hammed version of Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. He carries off Osbourne Cox's character pretty well. Tilda Swinton is not just tight-assed, but tight-arsed as the very British Mrs. Cox, while George Clooney's ADHD-ridden Harry Pfarrer is quite a show. After his last trippy appearance as Daniel Ocean, Clooney has brought a whole new set of characteristics into the former treasury agent he plays. A few minutes of watching him look around and try to make conversation with five different people on about twenty different topics had me craving a midnight snack.

Now, Brad Pitt, though...I'd like to get my claws into him, and that does not indicate carnal inclinations of any sort. I do rate him as an actor, but perhaps it is his duties as the co-founder of a domestic United Nations that has kept him too busy to sharpen his character in this movie. But Chad the Gym Guy is a lesson in hamming. Saying "shit" a million times and chewing gum all the time could work well with intentional hamming, but with a couple of scenes where the Brad Pitt of 'Snatch' and 'Meeting Joe Black' seems to temporarily revisit the body he abandoned a while ago, he seems rather lost in transition.

Academy Award-winner Frances McDermond steals the show. As the quintessential single woman with an unattractive face, unattractive body, unattractive dress sense and unattractive job, Linda Litzke proves to be a tough cookie, and is possibly the only one in the movie who gets what she wants in the end. McDermond's ability to cast herself aside and take on absolutely any character without concern for her image, at a time when the most ordinary people want to avoid compromising on their looks, if nothing else, ensures the character comes alive.

The casting, with the possible exception of Brad Pitt (even Ashton Kutcher might have done a better job), is quite perfect. The smaller characters, such as Elizabeth Marvel's Sandy Pfarrer, and Richard Jenkins' Ted Traffon, are quite convincing. Ted Traffon as the quiet gym manager with a secret crush on Linda Litzke, which he tries his best to reveal to her but chooses the worst times, is the perfect candidate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The music in the film does a smooth transition from pop to rock to country, and the beats are addictive. The closing song, 'CIA Man' is quite a trip, and my favourite couplet is 'Who can take sugar from a sack, put it in his tea and put it back, Fuckin' A Man, CIA Man'.

Watch if: you like spoofs, want a good laugh, are intrigued at how plastic surgery and internet dating could screw the brains of the CIA, are into music, like blitzy films, find blank expressions funny, are curious about George Clooney's contraption (no euphemisms here, he actually invents something.)

Do Not Watch if: you are a fan of Brad Pitt, are from the CIA and don't find this sort of thing funny, do not like spoofs, find swearing offensive, find dildos offensive.
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