My Pop Life #136 : Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main   –   Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

سانس لینے میں ہار     –   ‘necklace of breath’

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Sanson ki maala pe simrun main pi ka naam

Apne mann ki main janun aur pi ke mann ki Ram

With every breath I take, I chant the name of my beloved;  I know what’s in my heart, and God knows what’s in the heart of my beloved

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Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park

In 1983 I lived in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz.  We’d met in 1976 in Carr Saunders Hall on Fitzroy Street, part of the LSE student accommodation portfolio.  We’d been an item since then.   The Finsbury Park flat was a bedsit really, under the roof of a three-story building with two sloping ceilings.  I was 26 and just starting out on a professional acting career.  Mumtaz had completed her law exams and was embarking on a career as a solicitor in the criminal law.  Downstairs was Laurie Jones, an old Communist who looked like both Burl Ives AND Vladimir Ilych Lenin, a Tottenham fan with Season tickets to both Spurs and Arsenal.   A very interesting man.  A legend in fact.  On the ground floor was a blues run by a friendly Jamaican man called Shirley.

Mumtaz was born in Aden, now Yemen, to Indian parents, and her father was a doctor who had left India at partition in 1949.  The family left Aden in 1966 when it became independent and being muslims decided to settle in Karachi in  Pakistan.  Having gone to school high in the Himalayas in Murree, Kashmir, Mumtaz had come to London to do a degree in international history and politics, then decided to become a lawyer, which meant years of legal exams.   Her elder sister Nasreen was a barrister, younger brothers Mahmood and Mehboob would start an accountancy firm together.  When we ate in, which we usually did, Taj would usually cook something from her cuisine – Roghan Josh, Chicken Curry, Keema Peas, Aloo Gobi, Basmati Rice, Dal, Raita, flat bread (often pitta bread) – and over the years she taught me how to buy the ingredients and cook this food.  The spices were never mixed – we bought black pepper balls, cloves, sticks of cinnamon bark – dry spices, and these would be cooked before the oil was introduced.  They flavoured the oil. Or ghee – clarified butter.  Then the onions, then the meat or veg, and then the other spices – all with their Indian names – I’ll do a brief translation…

Garam Marsala – the combination of pepper, cloves and cinnamon

Haldi  –  Turmeric – which gives everything that yellow colour

Jeera –  Cumin –  in seed form or as powder

Dhaniya – Coriander powder, or fresh coriander often used as garnish.  Also called cilantro in the US and shadow-benee in St Lucia (!)

Chilli – in powder form, or chopped fresh.  It’s the white seeds which burn the tongue

Ginger – also in powder form or chopped fresh as is

Garlic – powdered or chopped fresh.

Every dish we made always had all of the above in, with salt and often mustard seeds too.  To be eaten with yoghurt (Raita) sometimes with lightly roasted cumin seeds if we could be bothered, never with cucumber like they do in the restaurants, and pitta bread, which was wetted with water and grilled very slightly so it was warm but still fluffy.  The morning after a meal, Taj would fry two eggs and serve the left-overs as breakfast. Delicious.

Over the years I learned a little Urdu, and at one point made an effort to start reading it.  That was a challenge I never met.  But Taj would speak to me in Urdu, and things would sink in.

“Mai ghar jana Chahiye” =  I want to go home.

 “Bukle ghi hai ?” =  are you hungry ?

Mumtaz was a practising muslim – she prayed every day, perhaps not five times a day, and she covered her head when she prayed usually.  We never did go to the mosque together, and I never did meet her parents, who lived in Karachi in any case.  Taj was a relaxed muslim – clearly since she was living with an Englishman in sin, and drinking fine wines, smoking cigarettes.  We got on very well in my memory.  When we went out it was to plays or films or gigs – The Specials, Talking Heads, Nina Simone, Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Roxy Music.   King Sunny Ade (see My Pop Life #115).  Then one night Mumtaz took me to a Pakistani gig.

I cannot remember where she got the tickets, but there we were in the front row of the balcony inside Shoreditch Town Hall, before it was a hipster neighbourhood.  It was the top of Brick Lane, essentially.  The audience was almost entirely filled with sub-continentals, ie Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, perhaps some Sri Lankans.  One or two white faces including mine.  At risk of repeating myself, it was around this point that “world music” had started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67),Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  But this gig felt very much like an underground show, not one which the cognoscenti were attending. Unlike King Sunny Ade earlier that year, which despite being full of Nigerians, also had it’s complement of musical tourists.

At WOMAD, picture by Latvis

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would have been 35 years old at this point, almost ten years older than me.  A mountain of a man, with a beatific child-like face, he sat cross-legged on the carpeted stage and made himself comfortable, to huge applause from the audience.  The tension and apprehension was palpable.  Alongside him, a harmonium player.  Also a tabla player, perhaps another drummer.   I can’t be sure if there was a swarmandel or a tamboura – (a stringed instrument, not a sitar), but behind the front four chaps were four more seated fellows who were essentially the vibes – singing and clapping.  I had very little idea of what to expect, but as Nusrat indicated that he was ready to start you could almost hear the intake of breath before the absolute silence in the hall.

The harmonium played a note or three.  Nusrat raised a hand, concentrated, a bead of sweat already trickling down his face.  The entire hall was focussed on this man, his hand expressing some inner spiritual moment.  Then he opened his mouth and sang.  Long tones, which were immediately picked up by the fellows behind him, harmonising, echoing.  A melody was picked out and repeated.  Now I wish I’d studied Urdu better, but these were Sufi religious songs, ghazals and bhajans and qawwalis praising the prophet Muhammed either literally or poetically.  But I had no idea they were so powerful, so beautiful, so technically incredible.

Qawwal & Party

As the beat started to throb and the hand claps set the rhythm, the mood became celebratory, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started to lose himself in the music, started to float upon the bed of song that was being created around him, started to improvise.  Now the full glory of this man became apparent.  He sang slow, he sang fast, he chattered like a woodpecker, he made up impossible melodies as they occurred to him, he slowed down to careening hymn-like swells, all the while the band would follow his every note, with him all the way, supporting, lifting, praising, at one.  Quite sensational and unlike any concert I’d ever seen before.

The songs were over 20 minutes long and the audience were encouraged to clap along.  The atmosphere was quite mesmeric and spiritual, without being religious at all.  I could enjoy it in my own way as I’m sure devout muslims in the audience could as well.  It was quite simply one of the most astonishing things I’d ever witnessed.  Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan got hot and undid layers, got wet and dabbed away the sweat, got thirsty and drank water.  But I’d never heard anyone sing like that ever before.  It was like James Brown and Aretha Franklin combined with Al Green and Otis Redding.  Feverish, impassioned, live.  He was quite literally lost and found in the music.  His hand would trace the melody in the sky as he searched for new shapes to sing.  Now and again the familiar chorus line would swing back into view and everyone would clap along, then a new space would appear for Nusrat to improvise and extemporise into.  It was astounding.   We were witnessing one of the greats in his pomp.

By the end of the show we were drained and exhausted but moved beyond our wildest craziest dreams and the man next to me turned with a smile “Did you like it?”.  I was dazed and happy and said yes, I’d loved it.  “Better than your opera !” the man said, pretty sure of himself, not joking, full of fervour and pride in his own culture, proud to have it represented to his foreign neighbour.  He was right.

Mumtaz and I floated home.   We knew we’d been treated to a rare soul.

The following year the LP Allah Hoo was released in the UK, then Qawwal & Party Volume One.   I’ve bought a fair bit of his stuff over the years, but he’s made over 160 LPs on Oriental Star Agencies recordings alone (based in Birmingham UK), and I don’t have many of those to be honest.   I have about 60 songs I guess and I can play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all day long and not get tired of it.  It is made as spiritual music and perhaps that is the effect it has on me.  It lifts me certainly.

This song : Sanson Ki Mala Pe, is an old bhajan from the early 14th century originally sung in praise of Hindu god Lord Krishna.   It was first sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1979 as a Sufi praise song and was hugely popular.  The title and repeated phrase translates as

On the garland of my breaths I have bejewelled my beloved’s name

but other translations use the phrase rosary of breath.  The thing about Urdu, and Arabic, is that they are written in Arabic script, from right to left.  When you write it out in English, there are always these discrepancies in the spelling of words like Mala – Maala etc.  Not a good example – Mala = found and Maala = beads (the necklace or rosary).  Anyway (!) Urdu is an extremely poetic language and resists easy translation of the more beautiful poems and ghazals.  But I’ve never needed to know what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is singing to be honest.  The music sends me, as my Mum used to say.   And I feel extremely lucky and honoured to have witnessed one of the greatest singers of my lifetime performing live on stage, not once but twice.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in August 1997 of kidney and liver failure.   He was 49 years old.

the short version : an excerpt –

the full genius 25 minute experience :

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My Pop Life #115 : Ma Jaiye Oni – King Sunny Ade

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Ma J’aiye Oni   –   King Sunny Ade

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The winter of 1982-3.  Finsbury Park.  Top floor attic room, living with Mumtaz.  I think I must have got myself an agent by now – David Preston.  More about him later.  He came to see me in A Clockwork Orange on the King’s Road, the John Godber adaptation.  More about that later too.  My memory is dim of these events and their surrounding characters, much much more so than other people I talk to.  Some people can pin point what things people were wearing on certain days.  WOW.   I mean, my memory is seriously hardly there to be honest.  So why would I embark on a marathon blog attempting to chart my life through music if I can’t remember two thirds of it ?  Well partly to get those bits that I do remember down on virtual paper before they too disappear and become smokey robinson’s barley water, wisps of smudge on a page that once held such vivid clarity.  I live in the moment mainly so it isn’t a vast un-ending tragedy, but it can be a handicap.  My friends can nudge me into memories, and when I really concentrate for a length of time… the mists seem to part and there, just out of reach, an arm breaches the waterline, and in its clenched fist a sword, and then I know that I’m actually making it all up.   But I’m not dear reader, I’m not.  All these Pop Lives happened.

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Anyway the attic room in Finsbury Park.  It was around this point that World Music started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67), Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  I’m not sure where the term “World Music” came from but certainly on June 21 1982 France held a Fête de la Musique for the first time, at the behest of Culture Minister Jack Lang, and have held it ever since.  Many other countries have joined in – the day is devoted to playing music in the streets – from Russia to the US to Brazil to Italy, but it seems that the United Kingdom has deigned not to join in for reasons I can only speculate over.  In any event, African music started being played now and again on the John Peel show and in late 1981 the compilation of West african music Sound d’Afrique was released by Island Records with groups such as Etoile De Dakar containing the future superstar of world music Youssou N’Dour.  1982 brought a second volume which I bought, and then King Sunny Ade came to my attention via his LP Juju Music.

Featured imageIt was splashed all over the NME front page and could hardly be missed.  On the Mango label, produced by Frenchman Martin Meissonnier and very definitely aimed at the western market,  (at me!) it’s a brilliant record, a showstopper, showcasing Ade’s trademark Nigerian juju rhythms with a slight electro tinge.  His best songs, usually 20 minutes long in their Nigerian context, are here shortened and sweetened, but not too much.  The key component is the talking drum, held under the arm and squeezed, you can change the note of the drumbeat.  So-called because they have been used as communication tools in West Africa for forever.  As a musical instrument they are thrilling.  I have one !  The other unexpected element is the beautifully evocative slide guitar.  The production is immaculate and the whole package was a winner.  I’ve chosen a beautiful song Ma Jaiye Oni to represent his juju beat.

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King Sunny Ade and His African Beats played a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand in January 1983.  I went along with Mumtaz.  I can’t remember who supported him, if anyone, but this was an astounding gig.  Full of Nigerians as well as curious music fans it was an unmitigated triumph.  A huge line-up onstage of drummers, guitarists and singers, pure joy emanating from the performers.  They played for a long time.  One West-African tradition that I was unaware of will forever stay with me from this show.  Ade would be playing a guitar solo in the middle of a song – the crowd would be dancing and encouraging him, a definite energy going back and forth between band and crowd – then a man dressed in robes, or a suit maybe would walk up to the front and in an uber-ostentatious way pull out a roll of £20 or £50 notes and place them one at a time on King Sunny Ade’s body as he was playing, sticking them to his sweating forehead or his arms.  I was waiting for security to get involved, but this was a ritual with no danger – money is going forward.  I have seen it many times since at African gigs but that was the eye-opener.   I know plenty of British and American musicians who wish it was a tradition in the “West” too.  Oh well.

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It was a window onto another world for me, so much more than sitting down and getting stoned and listening to the record – great thought that is – this was an immersion into the music that went far beyond the comfy chair.  I was hooked on African music thanks to King Sunny Ade and have been ever since. I then bought his earlier LP Check-‘E’ (see pic above) and the follow-up Synchro System which was a huge hit too.  He is still going strong playing his music around the world and I commend him to thee.

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Here is some tremendous footage from Japan in 1984 – this is exactly the show we saw at the Lyceum.  Subtle, powerful, mesmerising, infectious, delicious.

Here is the original LP track:

but the shorter song from JUJU MUSIC is not on youtube sadly.  You may have to buy it !

My Pop Life #93 : One Day I’ll Fly Away – Randy Crawford

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One Day I’ll Fly Away   –   Randy Crawford

…still you made your mark, here in my heart…

They say that breaking up is hard to do.   They have no idea.    At all.   Talk about The Long Goodbye.   My relationship with Mumtaz lasted for nine years, off and on, from my first term at LSE in 1976 right through to the spring of 1985 when I left for the third and final time, without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.   We were about to get married.   My wedding suit had been brought back from Pakistan.  Shalwar-kameez, beautiful.   I was doing a play called Deadlines with Joint Stock Theatre Company at the Royal Court at the time.  But I’m running ahead to another time, another place.  Right now, September 1980,  Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away is released and gets to number 2 in the pop charts, and I buy the 12-inch single of this song because I love it.  But perhaps there was more to it than that.

The song appeared on my mixtape ‘The Immaculate Conception‘ that I made two years later in 1982 for members of Moving Parts Theatre Company, my first equity job.  So it was a real favourite – songs don’t usually hang around for two whole years.   But let me re-wind because the crowd may have said Bo.   (Selector).

Paul and I finally saved up enough money by spring 1980 to buy flights to Mexico City – and enough to last for a theoretical year in Latin America on ten bucks a day.    It wasn’t a gap year – I’d done that between school and university and hitch-hiked around North America with Simon Korner for five months.  No – this was an adventure, but more than that, it was the end of my relationship with Mumtaz.   I didn’t expect her to wait for me to return, and I didn’t expect that we’d get back together again when I eventually did.   If I did indeed – although the actor plan was still alive, the idea of settling down in Peru with a local lass wasn’t entirely fanciful either – and in fact one friend of mine from Edinburgh Festival days, John, did just that.   Where is he now I wonder?

So I was out of there.   It was farewell and goodbye.   So I thought.   But as discussed earlier in My Pop Life 25, I contracted Hepatitus B in Mexico and was flown back to Coppett’s Wood Hospital in North London, thence to Tower Mansions, West Hampstead, and thence to Somerfield Road and Mumtaz’ flat in Finsbury Park.  We were back together again like Roberta & Donny with the exquisite irony of One Day I’ll Fly Away as our new tune.

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I was grateful to be nursed back to health, and Mumtaz was gracious enough to welcome me back despite suspecting (surely? perhaps…) that I would leave again, someday.   Love is always a gamble isn’t it?   People around us were happy that we were a couple again, which blurs things.   Very very few people are honest in the end.  They’d rather say nothing and stay friends.   But I didn’t know what was going on – I was 23 years old, and while intellectually bright after a fashion (I could pass exams and do comprehension – would have been a good lawyer in fact) I was emotionally dim and un-evolved.  No idea.  I do believe that some folk are old souls – I know a few – and some others, like me, are young souls.   Born with no knowledge, expected to pick it up along the way.   It makes everything fresh, but boy, looking back on those early years I wince with embarrassment at some of the stuff that was going on.   I can put some of it down to youth, some of it down to a dysfunctional early family life, but the rest is just the behaviour of an emotional shrimp.  Locked up within there was another dude, but he wouldn’t evolve for decades to come.

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Somehow I knew in my bones that this song was the truth.     Someday, I felt, I would fly away.   I tried it again in 1981 in fact, Paul and I squatted in a reasonably miserable ground floor council property just off the Holloway Road for a few intrepid and vivid months after he came back from New York City (see My Pop Life 72) and then we were burgled, and I limped back to Finsbury Park and Mumtaz again after that, unable to make anything work as a single man.  Weak.  Needy.  Vulnerable.   And still there was this song with its lilting melody and gorgeous bassline, teasing me with its continued excellence.   I simply didn’t have the courage or strength to leave Mumtaz, and it would be three more years before I left, for the third and final time.

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Randy Crawford had been the lead singer on The Crusaders’ immense single Street Life the year before where she met keyboard player Joe Sample, one of the great 12-inch singles of all time running a full eleven minutes, jazz-funk-soul of the finest quality.  The Jazz Crusaders had been around since the early 1960s, influenced by hard boppers Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey, but were among the first jazz artists to embrace the funk fusion sound of the 1970s, and their Street Life LP was a huge success.    And herewith the blog must admit to a kind of internal tension, for I find Street Life to be a better song than One Day I’ll Fly Away.  Yet I choose not to blog it because my own experience of street life (rather like Bryan Ferry’s I suspect) is limited to a handful of chance encounters and a bit of busking and hitch-hiking, whereas my experience of wondering if I’ll fly away could cover several volumes.  Hence the blog title My Pop Life, not My Favourite Pop Songs.  

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Joe Sample and Will Jennings of The Crusaders wrote Street Life and One Day I’ll Fly Away, and both songs were produced by bass and saxophone player Wilton Felder.   The production is immaculate pop – the tremolo on the first guitar chord, the triangle pling ! the guitar harmonics that prick through just before the saxophone theme, repeated later by an oboe, the gentle strings just as Randy opens her mouth to sing – and what a voice she has, quite a sublime controlled vibrato with exquisite vulnerability.

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Randy Crawford would release a wonderful album called Secret Combination the following year  which contained hits Rainy Night In Georgia (a Brook Benton cover), Trade Winds and the title track.  And then she kind of disappeared.

Featured imageWhile searching for pictures to add to this blog I found this poster for a jazz trio gig in Japan with Joe Sample and Steve Gadd – session drummer extraordinaire on Steely Dan and Paul Simon LPs –  further evidence that after the break-up of The Crusaders (Felder became a Jehovah’s Witness) Sample and Crawford carried on playing jazz together.  Joe Sample died in 2014.

I could talk about this a lot more but I don’t think I will.   The depth of feeling involved at the time was epic.  Mumtaz kept my entire LP collection and all of my singles.  This is symbolic of course, for us both.  I think the fact that I’m writing my patchwork autobiography through music gives you a clue as to how important that record collection was to me.   Mumtaz knew that.   I felt guilty, she felt hurt.  C’est la vie, c’est l’amour, c’est la guerre.   If I try to analyse why the relationship didn’t work, I still don’t really have the tools available to me, young soul that I am, but she simply wasn’t the One, and deep down I knew that.   I feel sorry that I didn’t stay left when I left first time, but Mumtaz now has two beautiful children and a life of her own, and I am happily married to Jenny, who is clearly The One.

My Pop Life #67 : Yun Na Thi – Asha Bhosle

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Yun Na Thi   –   Asha Bhosle

..Yuun na thi mujhse berukhi pehle
Tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle.. 

you were not so indifferent towards me earlier….

you have completely changed from how you were…

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Asha Bhosle sang her first Hindi film song at 10 years old, and had eloped with a man 15 years older than herself aged 16.   Three babies later she left her husband with his name and returned to the maternal home in Mumbai, still singing for a living.  Her older sister Lata Mangeshkar was also singing Bollywood film songs, but Asha was determined not to just be Lata’s younger sister and looked for ways to follow her own path.  This meant often singing the ‘fallen woman’ role in B-grade movies, but as the 1950s drew to a close she and her sister dominated the Hindi film industry having sung more ‘playback songs’ than anyone else.  Her speciality was often seen as western-style and more sensual songs.  Her success and popularity grew from there.  Ashaji is now the official most-recorded singer in world history, having sung over 13,000 songs.  Most of these were for Bollywood, but she has also sung ghazals (such as this song Yun Na Thi), Indian classical pieces, pop, folk songs and qawwalis among others.   She was the subject of Cornershop‘s single Brimful of Asha (on the 45) in 1997.  She continues to sing and tour today, at the age of 82.    Some of her greatest work has been the most recent, a duet LP with young Pakistani singer Adnan Sami in 1997, an LP of Indian classical music with sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Kahn getting a Grammy nomination.  But she will always be loved for her Bolllywood songs, the mainstay of her career and the Indian music industry.

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Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan

It is impossible to overstate the importance of film songs in the overall picture of Indian music, rather like pop music in the UK, millions listen to it, go to the films and buy it.   Among her ‘greatest hits’ which are too many to include on one LP would be Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan (1981), Dum Maro Dum from Hare Krishna (1971), title track Chura Liye Hai Tumne (2003) and Aaiye Meharbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958).

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She sang in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, English –  in fact 20 languages in all.   Perhaps the most remarkable facet of her long life and singing career has been her relationship with her sister Lata Mangeshkar, who is the 2nd-most recorded singer in history, and is herself still singing aged 85.

I didn’t hear any Indian music when I was growing up – apart from Within You Without You, Love You To (Revolver) or Peter Sellers taking the piss.   Ravi Shankar came to educate us all in the ways of Indian classical music, having made friends with George Harrison, and received a standing ovation for tuning up his sitar at his first English concert.  He smiled and thanked the audience for appreciating his craft and hoped they would enjoy the actual music.   Then we saw what he could do at the Concert For Bangla Desh.  But Ravi was the classical end of things – a sitar player.  Asha Bhosle was the filmi end of things – a singer.

Part of the problem for western ears are the instruments used : sitar, tabla, sarod, dilrubi, saranga, bansuri, tambura, shehnai, swarmandel, harmonium.  We used some of these instruments when we played The Sgt Pepper show, eg the swarmandel as played by George in Strawberry Fields Forever.

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Sarod                     Swarmandel  player                                Sarangi

The other part of the problem is the pitch – shruti – in hindi which translates as the smallest possible difference in pitch the human ear can distinguish between two tones.  Thus our 12-tone scale,  in Indian music becomes 23 tones – quarter tones to us westerners, often heard as “blue notes” ie notes sung in a blues between two other notes, either sliding up or down.  Pianists are unable to play blue notes – they can’t bend the note like a singer or guitarist or saxophone player, but they overcome this by playing the two notes alongside each other together, creating a dissonance which is rather pleasing.  Indian music to my cloth ears relies heavily on these subtleties of pitch which seem to appeal directly to the heart and the emotions.  When Lloyd-Webber employed AR Rahman he called it “cheating” but really, what does he know ?

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Within weeks of starting my law degree at LSE I had a steady girlfriend – Mumtaz, who was born in Aden (Yemen) to Pakistani parents, the family had then moved to Karachi in the 1960s.  Mumtaz was schooled in Murree, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Kashmir.   She had come to London to study law, and having graduated the summer before was now studying for part 2 of the Law Exam.  Over the next nine years we would be, off and on, a couple.  Most of that time was spent in an attic flat in Finsbury Park as we both established footholds in our chosen careers.  Mumtaz’ parents never accepted me as a potential son-in-law because I am not a muslim, and although Taj’s older sister Naz had married an Englishman, it hadn’t lessened that pressure, and maybe made it worse.

Mumtaz introduced me to north Indian cuisine, and I can still cook basmati rice, perfect every time, rogan jhosh and prawns courgette, partly thanks to Madhur Jaffrey it must be said.  Taj taught me how to cook pitta bread – lightly brush water over each side then lightly grill it until it starts to puff up then whip it out, cut in half, careful not to burn your fingers.   We ate regularly at the Diwan-e-Khas in Whitfield St, and the Diwan-e-Am in Drummond St.  I learned all the spices, some Urdu, some basic tenets of islam.  And we saw a few Indian movies, with singing.  Not so many, but enough to introduce me to the whole world of Bollywood:  Awaara, Pyaasa,  as well as the more serious Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Mehboob Khan’s epic 1957 film Mother India.   I found some Bollywood cassettes somewhere, bought them and played them, their incredible arrangements, timings and melodies started to work their way into my ears.  Indeed one of these tunes I CANNOT REMEMBER WHAT IT’S CALLED OR WHO SANG IT, (but it wasn’t Asha or Lata or Mohamed Rafi) became the basis for a song I wrote for Birds Of Tin, the band I was playing in at the time with Joe Korner – a song called Dangerous Garden.  More about Birds Of Tin on another day.  Mumtaz also introduced me to the Beach Boys LP Holland, the band Earth Wind & Fire (My Pop Life #21), Fulfillingness’ First Finale and The Isley Brothers.

It was hard leaving Mumtaz.  But it had to be done.  Taj didn’t agree, but we had no future together.   It just wasn’t right.   I ended up in Bob Carlton’s flat in Bow in a tower block, with all my books and none of my records.   I never saw my records again.  Taj’s revenge.  Well, records : they’re just things, right ?  as this blog will testify…..

In 1985 I was a disciple of WOMAD.  World Of Music Arts & Dance.   I bought their first LP Music and Rhythm (see My Pop Life #4) in 1982 and had spent the next three years listening to anything that wasn’t some skinny white kid playing guitar – Irish music, south african township music, calypso, greek songs, jazz, classical, gypsy music, arabic, burundi drumming, algerian rai, flamenco, salsa, samba, showtunes, mexican pop music, and hindi film music, what a beautiful world of music there was out there and I wanted to eat it all up, to explore, to mine those golden seams of rhythm and melody, to hear strange languages, strange beats, unusual instruments, see then how things joined up, how distant relations were joined, the cuba-congo axis, the irish/scottish/quadrille/african birth of jazz in New Orleans, the music of Brahms and Jobim, Eric Satie and Oum Kalthoum, the Bhundu Boys and Sergio Leone.

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So when WOMAD brought out a Talking Book LP called Asia 1 I immediately bought it full price and consumed it with joy.  Asha Bhosle sang Yun Na Thi as the last track on side B.  Well, you can’t follow that really.  Of course, how foolish it is to create an LP of ‘Music From Asia” – which included the desert musicians of Rajahstan, Kurdish music from Siwan Perwer (brilliant), Ofra Haza, tabla solos, Iranian goblet drummers and Temple musicians of Sri Lanka ??  Absurd to group them all together – but – it was a sampler made especially for people like me who were trawling the world for their music, who’d got fed up with the radio, whichever station it was, who wanted to explore with their ears.  It was, I have to say, a completely brilliant album, but the outstanding songs on it were from Şivan Perwer and Asha Bhosle.

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Ashaji had made Abshar-e-Ghazal – the source album for this track – as a break from Hindi film music.  She was a hugely respected and wealthy star in India, had restaurants in the Gulf and could do what she wanted.  She wanted to do some more classical and traditional music.  All the music on the LP was written by Hariharan and the lyrics are ghazals – an ancient pre-islamic form of poetry.  As near as I can get to an understanding of this form is the Sonnet – all of the rhymes must be a certain way.  A ghazal is a love poem, always about unrequited love, and often takes the Sufi form – a poem about love of God, the ultimate unrequited love.  A famous Persian ghazal poet Rumi, who died in 1273, is known a little in the west, although scarcely enough – but the ghazal goes back at least 500 years before him.

I’ve asked for translations of the words to this ghazal, when they come I’ll add them to this blog.   Perhaps the unrequited love is Mumtaz’ for me.

Yun na thi mujh se berukhi pehle

tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle

jismeain shaamil tunhaari marzi thi

humne chaahi wahi kushi pehle

jab talak woh na tha toh ai raahi

kitni aasaan thi zindagi pehle

My Pop Life #42 : African Children (live) – Aswad

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African Children (live)   –   Aswad

African children living in a concrete situation

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Finsbury Park in 1983 was a crossroads of the world.   I started taking photographs of the shops on Blackstock Road with some kind of exhibition in mind.   Turkish, Bengali, Nigerian, Indian, Moroccan, Jamaican, Polish, Italian, Pakistani, Greek, Portugese, Ghanaian, and on.   You know when you’re young and you think everything you do is important.   I loved living there.   The park was a stone’s throw away with its gentle hill and giant trees.  You could buy weed in the Finsbury Park Tavern in times of need from the Jamaicans.

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I’m playing in a local band called Arc Connexxion, whose afro-beat/soul grooves were the brainchild of genial Nigerian Londoner George (Adebayo ? I can’t remember his surname 😦 )   I’m in the horn section with three others, and we play some of George’s songs like “Agar Grove” (a street in Camden) and also some covers.  I’m still playing the same silver saxophone I bought in Lewes in 1972.  We think we sound a bit like Fela Kuti.  I don’t suppose we do,  we don’t get many gigs, but they are joyful affairs.  Then one day George comes into rehearsal beaming.  We’re playing Notting Hill Carnival !  General joy all round – this is frankly the top gig you could possibly get as an unknown unsigned no records band and we get seriously into rehearsal.

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Rumours start to spread nearer the time that Aswad are playing Carnival too.  This band were all over my 20s.   They are a London reggae band formed in the mid-seventies by a group of 2nd-generation West Indian musicians from Holland Park school, near Ladbroke Grove.   They were the sound of West London while I lived there, along with The Clash.   When I started studying law at the London School of Economics in 1976, Aswad played in The Ents Room in Freshers Week.   They were probably the first reggae band I saw live.  I was hooked, and they were amazing.  In those days Brinsley Forde was singing lead and Drummie Zeb Gaye was on the kit.  They played LSE at least twice more while I was there, and I bought all their records from then on – 1st LP Aswad 1976, 2nd LP Hulet 1978, then the mighty mighty 12 inch single Warrior Charge which really didn’t leave my turntable for months, especially the dubplate on side B “Dub Charge“.   What was even more exciting than listening to the track was watching them play it live – and they could.  I lost count of how many times I’ve seen them.   And of course they were Burning Spear‘s backing band at the Rainbow in 1977 (see My Pop Life #10).  The next two albums A New Chapter and A New Chapter Of Dub really put them on the map musically, their strong melodies and song structures giving their reggae roots a real pop twist – although the dub elements left all that in their wake.

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 Not Satisfied, released in 1982 is a landmark reggae album.   I used the title track in my first play as a writer “Sanctuary” for Joint Stock when I wanted the busker character Raz in the underground to sing something – but that was years later in 1987.  But here we were in 1983 Carnival and Aswad are now a 3-piece – the classic line-up with Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson on bass with Drummie and Brinsley.  We couldn’t drive anywhere near the stage, so had to unload gear miles away.  At least we were sharing the drum kit?  I had to carry my sax around, so we decided to hang around Meanwhile Gardens, Westbourne Park end of the Carnival since that was our stage there and we were going to play on it.   Just by the canal.  We would be last up.

Featured imageCarnival was amazing that year.  Who knows why ?  I’m sure it’s always amazing, but it seemed happy, packed, and the weather was perfect.  Everyone was against Thatcher.  Food was fantastic.  And then In the afternoon at about 2pm Aswad took the stage and played one of the most beautiful powerful and righteous sets of reggae and dub that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.  When I say they could play Warrior Charge/Dub Charge live – they could, they did.  The horn section was sweet and tight, and they would go into a breakdown with Drummie staggering the beats and echoing the horn stabs to create the dub effect.  Brilliant.

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 They played Not Satisfied, African Children and Roots Rocking.   We finally got on eventually just as the stage was closing and got to play two songs – all that rehearsal!! – one of which was Dancing In The Street by Martha and the Vandellas.  We smashed it, and plenty people danced as the sun set.  Happy memories.

Some months later Aswad released a live LP called Live & Direct.  It was that set.   It opens with the words of Brinsley Forde “We are Live and Direct.  You know what Live and Direct mean?  It mean Live an Direct !”  Stunning.

My Pop Life #25 : There There My Dear – Dexys Midnight Runners

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There There My Dear   –   Dexys Midnight Runners

…you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things…

In the summer of 1980 I had what remained of my tail firmly between my legs and I was licking my wounds.  The trip to Latin America with brother Paul had foundered in Mexico where I’d contracted hepatitus B and been rushed back to Coppett’s Wood tropical diseases hospital for a couple of weeks.  I was weak as a kitten, couldn’t drink for a year, and had to start thinking about getting a job (over and above my Saturday all-nighter at the Scala coffeebar).  Mumtaz, whom I had left to go on a hitch-hiking year off with Paul, had gracefully welcomed me back into her attic flat in Finsbury Park. I was 23 years old.

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“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years” sings Kevin Rowland on track 2 of Dexys first LP “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels”, a record which blasted into my ears that summer and blew (almost) everything else out of the water.   It had bags of attitude and swagger, it had a manifesto, but most of all it had soul.   English white kids from Birmingham playing soul.   Legend has it that Kevin Rowland walked into the first rehearsal of Dexys with a box of Stax singles and announced “We’re doing music like this”.   But listening to that 1st LP there’s loads more than Stax influences – there’s Jackie Wilson, Motown, the Bar-Kays, Northern Soul.   Since I’d spent the previous three years cramming a PhD in soul music (to make up for my teenage pop youth) I was ready to play my part as a disciple of Dexys and spread the word – not that they needed me – the NME and the nation were already enamoured.   I’d bought the first single Dance Stance the year before, and helped Geno to get to number one in the spring (B-side: Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache a cover of Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon !!).   I think my first Dexys gig was in the National Ballroom in Kilburn, appropriate for their Irish/Celtic roots.   But did I see them support The Specials?  Is that where I discovered them in fact??  Sometimes I simply cannot remember critical details of these formative years.

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They were absolutely brilliant live, real power and passion.   Of course I loved the horn section and spent hours playing along with the album on my ancient alto sax.   I’d always wanted to be in a horn section – playing chords, harmonies with other brass players.   I was particularly fond of “Keep It”.   They actually did manage to do that Stax sound – Booker T & the MGs with the Memphis Horns.    I’m less convinced that Kevin had the vocal chops of the soul greats, but he certainly committed to it heart and soul, and more importantly he sounded like he meant it.

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It’s hard to remember now, how much that mattered in those days, as punk morphed into Two-Tone and battles with the NF, Rock against Racism, and “whose side you were on” felt like your daily bread – those early Thatcher years were full of aggro and passion, maybe it was just me but the times were intense.   Live and onstage Kevin demanded attention and respect.   Watching him sing “Respect” live was an exercise in faith, he would end up writhing on the floor whooping and squealing and I would feel equal amounts of embarrassment and admiration.    He would continue to make a career out of this strange dialectic, even today he stretches what is acceptable in a musical context beyond what is simply cool, out to the edge of reason.    But these were early days when he wanted to be a soul singer.   And he was a white boy, my age.   Christ I wanted to be in that band.   Lyrical interlude : “Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you…”   Those early gigs were a riot.   Wilfully antagonistic toward the audience, we were used to it old punks that we were, there was an atmosphere of danger, aggression, risk in the air.  But most gigs in those days felt like that.   The band were tight as anyone I’ve ever seen.    Pete Williams, Al Archer, Big Jimmy Patterson on the trombone.  The Teams That Meet In Caffs.   They were formed with gang membership in mind, a ready-made pop subculture.    That’s just how it used to be.    They would go on to have different line-ups, different instruments and their biggest hit as a bunch of raggle-taggle pseudo- Irish punks with ‘Come On Eileen’ and weddings thereafter would never be the same, but for me the first LP is still an astonishing listen.    Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.

As a footnote I have to mention that Kevin Rowland moved to Brighton around the same time as us in the late 90s and we spoke on a number of occasions at parties and so on.  He was a gentleman and a scholar, softly-spoken and funny.  He moved to Shoreditch around 2005 “because Brighton was getting too cool”.

My Pop Life #18 : Kalamazoo – Glen Miller

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Kalamazoo   –   Glenn Miller

…hi-ya Mr Jackson, everything’s OK-A-L-A-M-A-Zee-O Oh, what a gal, a real pipparoo…

I’ve never really felt confident around jazz music, always imagining that there’s something there which I’m not getting.  I’ve tried playing it on my chosen instrument – the alto saxophone – and my suspicions were confirmed.  It’s hard.  I feel more comfortable around older jazz from the 20s and 30s maybe because it’s got better tunes, or is more danceable, or just less intellectual generally, but maybe that’s partly been the point of jazz anyway – only a select few will get it.   I diligently bought jazz LPs though from the age of about 20 onwards : Mingus, Ellington, Coltrane and Getz have been with me ever since.

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Back in the day I used to make people mixtapes which actually were 90-minute tapes – C90s by Memorex or TDK or BASF.  The great thing about these was that you could fade things in and out or just pause the tape in the middle of a tune.  CD mixes are naturally inferior in this respect.  Kalamazoo was one of the first jazz tunes I’d put onto one of my mixtapes and thus represents a level of cautious bravery.

In 1981 I’d joined a socialist-feminist Theatre Company called Moving Parts, who wrote their own plays and toured them to youth clubs and unemployment drop-in centres around the UK, preaching tolerance, equality, marxism and revolution.  It was my first professional job as an actor, even though I was only getting £40 a week it would “lead to an Equity card” in the hallowed phrase of the time.  It actually did, three tours later.  The core group was Ruth Mackenzie, Rachel Feldberg, Anita Lewton and Saffron Myers.  We played music in the shows too, some covers but always with the lyrics changed in a cabaret style. After the show “there would be a discussion”.  These were almost always fantastic.  Sometimes we had polo mints thrown at us, or heckles, but it was righteous rockface work going into deprived communities with an alternative viewpoint.

One particular mixtape I made for the gang was called, with no apparent embarrassment on my behalf “The Immaculate Conception”.  I can still remember most of the running order on this tape and most of the songs will probably trickle out somehow onto My Pop Life.   I was about 23 years old when I made it, living in an attic flat in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, and becoming, before my very eyes, a professional actor, working my passage in a Ford Transit van up and down the M1.   The tape was for the endless journeys, up to Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire.  Pulling the set out of the van, setting it up, doing the show, doing the discussion, packing it all back and grabbing some food before the next show – always two shows a day, sometimes three.  The Immaculate Conception mixtape went from jazz to pop to classical to spoken word to country without apology or transition, abrupt startling juxtapositions of styles which clearly clashed, there was Robert de Niro from Taxi Driver, Hawaiian guitar, clips from Star Trek, Beethoven, Bach and Randy Crawford. I’m still pretty proud of it.

It’s funny I was going to suggest that Kalamazoo was the first jazz tune I had the confidence to include on a mixtape, but I’ve just remember that Duke Ellington’s Black & Tan Fantasy was on there too, following Randy Newman’s Sail Away (oh the daring).   No matter, Kalamazoo was still a gateway song.  Simply put – it’s a pop song with jazz elements, not really jazz at all.

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It’s funny, clever, brilliantly arranged and played, and slightly creepy.  Miller took a popular song and “jazzed it up” – not particularly by the way – but rearranged it in his own layered swing style.  The rhythm, mainly carried by the woodwinds and swishing hi-hat is lazy and yet urgent at the same time.  But I think what captured my pop heart were the vocals – not just the alphabetical tricks but the layered harmonies, Andrews Sisters style and the hook of “zoo zoo zoo” which reminded me (perhaps) of Baloo the Bear.   Jazz purists have always derided Miller for his simple pop take on swing jazz, preferring Ellington, Basie, Hampton, Kenton, Teddy Wilson and so on, and now that I’ve been exposed to all these great bandleaders I can see their point.  But there will always be room for Glenn Miller in my ear – he had the real popular touch, and there is a strange innocence in this song that makes me feel that America can’t be all bad.

Addendum : I’ve never seen this long version in the clip, but it’s a good find I think.