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In Music Heaven

July 2021
In Music Heaven

As a young boy growing up in 1970s India, my main source of music was Vividh Bharti, the national radio station. It was mostly Hindi film songs that dominated its airtime. Choice? What choice? We listened to what they played—and cherished it too, humming along with the popular tunes. The frequent static and the flat, mono sound of the radio did not by any means take away from the enjoyment of listening to music in the comfort of our homes.

As much as Vividh Bharti loomed large in Indian households, we were a step ahead in the music game at our house. Our German-made Siemens gramophone record player not only made us the envy of neighbors a mile around, but also offered a luxurious experience in music in those days. At almost three feet tall and a couple of feet wide, this turntable was gigantic as far as music players go.

My uncle, who had emigrated to the U.S., had left this proud possession behind for us, along with about a dozen LP vinyl records. Most of those records were Western classical music; could have been Beethoven or Mozart for all I know. To the young boy that I was, it all sounded like background music.

But there was one record of the songs of the 1967 movie Shagird which was the favorite of all in our family. I remember listening to the catchy tunes DilVilPyaarVyaar and BadeyMiyanDiwane with great joy. Compared to the static-laden sounds of the radio, the crisp music—even though, still flat and mono—emanating from those black vinyl records was an experience of delight available to a rare few in those days.

A few years later, my uncle, on one of his visits to India, gifted us a Panasonic audio cassette player. And that started a cherished indulgence for my brother and me. We would take a new TDK cassette to Rhythm House, our local music shop, to have them record songs of our own choosing. The charge of 20 rupees for this service was not cheap considering our limited spending allowance in those days. But the payoff was a priceless privilege: we were young teens who could now own music personally cherry-picked by us!

It never occurred to us that spending an amount that called for sacrificing a good many candy bars, ice-cream cones and video games at the parlor to get less than a couple dozen tracks of our liking still left a whole universe of songs that remained unavailable to us. We were just tickled pink to have our own curated music, no matter how limited in size. We would then play that tiny universe of songs repeatedly to the point of absurdity. I remember how the songs of Golmaal, the UtpalDutt-Amol Palekar starrer comedy, played incessantly in my head even in the middle of school days. We had ordered those songs not because we thought that was great music, but because, I guess, that was what was trending at that time.

And then came a milestone moment in my musical journey. A new friend we made in the neighborhood owned the latest, swankiest boombox. With its two large circular speakers, shining in all their metallic glory, the boombox not only looked way groovier than our modest and aging cassette player, but also boasted audio quality that was something to write home about.

That dazzling device was my introduction not only to stereophonic sound, but also to Western pop music. I remember being blown away the first time I listened to ABBA on that boombox. Especially Voulez-Vouz!

We soon became addicts of the friend’s growing collection of ABBA, Boney M., Michael Jackson and other global icons of those times. For someone who had grown up on a steady diet of the melodies of Lata,
Asha, Kishore and Rafi, these new sounds of Western pop were downright psychedelic in their effect. Night Flight to Venus, in particular, I felt, accomplished its mission of transporting the listener to a place far outside the orbit of Earth, at least figuratively.

Fast-forward a few decades, and we have now notched up our music experience to a level unimaginable to our 1980s selves when we thought we were already at the peak of futuristic sounds.

Today, our smartphones, while performing hundreds of other valuable functions, also have the potential to provide us with 8-D surround sound audio. Top it with virtually unlimited choices of music from all around the world, earbuds with technology that would put to shame those fancy boomboxes from our past, and we now live in an age of music nirvana. These modern earbuds, tiny as they may be, pack enough technology to deliver sublime sounds created on multiple tracks in modern studios boasting thousands of dollars of equalizers, sound mixers and other high-tech equipment.

On a recent Sunday, I perched myself, shirtless, on an easy chair on the deck of our suburban home with the intention of nursing my pain-riddled, arthritic body with some Vitamin D from the morning sun. As someone who enjoys good music in rare moods, and by no means is a well-informed connoisseur of music, that morning I made up for all those times in the car when I hadn’t listened to music (I prefer audio books or silence). Armed with my noise-canceling earbuds and my subscriptions to Spotify and Gaana, I soon lost myself in a long list of ‘catch-up’ stuff that I had intended on playing precisely at the kind of laid-back time I was fortunate enough to have that morning. Before I realized it, I had indulged in a four-hour-long musical marathon that was as wild as it was satisfying.

‘Wild,’ because of the extreme hodgepodge of genres that I felt in a mood of mixing up. One minute I was playing Pitbull’s Give Me Everything Tonight, and the next, a classical bhajan by the timeless maestro Pandit Jasraj. From Garth Brook’s Thunder Rolls I went straight to Falguni Pathak, the garba queen of India. I found that while sometimes you may be in a mood for a particular genre over a stretch of time, there is a different kind of excitement in contrasting wildly divergent genres, one immediately after another.

In that single morning, I traversed a wide spectrum of music that included all of the following and surely more that I forget now: old Hindi hits, American classics from Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to Nat King Cole, ghazals, qawwalis, contemporary Bollywood hits, Gujarati folk songs, Rajasthani folk (the mischievous songs of Ila Arun!), pop—(Prince, Madonna and more), a cappella (Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy), the fantastic contemporary music coming out of the Coke Studios of both India and Pakistan, and even some Persian classical instrumental. And since I was really in the mood for experimentation, I also took in a song or two of Barbershop Quartet and

African American Choir. What is indeed wild is that the latter came in immediately following a beautiful rendition of Hanuman Chalisa by Shankar Mahadevan and Pandit Jasraj.
And did I mention the knock-out session in between all of this, of the fusion of Zakir Hussain on tabla with Jazz drummer Eric Harland? Zakir is one artist, one genre, that I could easily do a whole four-hour stretch of. Not only is he a masterful virtuoso of his instrument, but he plays with his entire being. His dancing eyes and delightful facial gestures accompanying his brilliant improvisations during live concerts are a sheer joy to watch. His many collaborations with diverse world musicians, each at the top of their game, are guaranteed mood elevators. And no one does jugalbandi—the playful, improvised interactions between two instrumentalists—like this Ustaad of the percussion. With playful aplomb, he teases out the best from his talented co-conspirators in any given concert.

Listening to Duma Dum Mast Qalandar by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a treat in and by itself. What I felt, at least that morning, is that it is even more fun to listen to when it comes at the heels of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire!

Try it sometimes. Go on a crazy roller coaster of a ride in music constrained only by your imagination and your mood. No rules! That morning, even I didn’t know what was coming next till I was done with the track on hand. Heck, sitting on the deck on that warm, cloudless blue-sky day, I even indulged in a song or two of white Christmas and loved it!

Parthiv N. Parekh is editor-in-chief of Khabar. We welcome your comments. editor@khabar.com

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