Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Indian Music Show

I've heard it said that everything in the 60s can be traced back to Kennedy, Dylan, or the Beatles. Okay, it was me who said it, and I agree that it isn't true or fair, except insofar as it is.

Take Ravi Shankar. He was the most acclaimed musician of the sitar of his generation, and his fame reached beyond India even before his Beatles-linked fame. Put it another way: without the celebrity from his connection to George Harrison and popular music, Shankar might still have recorded his collaboration with Yehudi Menuhin, but the two musicians might have been of equal fame, or Menuhin might even have been the more famous of the two. As things actually transpired, it's safe to assume that the vast majority of those who purchased recordings of the collaboration did so because of Shankar.

By the time I worked at WRPI, there was a wealth of Indian music available on record, but, of course, Shakar was getting most of the progressive radio airplay. I have no specific recollection of the events leading up to the decision by Bruce Barnett and myself to start an Indian Music show on WRPI, but I vaguely recall that it had to do with us bitching about how we preferred the sarod to the sitar, and Ali Akbar Khan to Ravi Shankar. Then we probably compared notes on which of the available Indian music recordings we had scored in the bargain bins over the years, and we realized we had enough to do a one hour show every Sunday.

Purnima Jha
Indian Kathak Dance

I also expect that this happened over the summer; given the nature of volunteer college radio, you can do almost anything during the summer. There aren't enough people around to keep a full programming slate, and who's going to stop you, anyway?

Sundays were WRPIs "block programming" day. Many college stations (and non-profit stations of all stripes) resort to block programming, x amount of time devoted to a particular type of music, or some non-musical format, followed by a complete break and into some entirely different deal. WRPI was something of an anomaly, as was the progressive music format generally, although it has morphed into the "alternative" format that still exists on many college campuses. (WRPI currently seems to be entirely block programmed, however).

There is a minor paradox that what was, by far, WRPI's most popular show in the late 60s, "Request Line Oldies" was in the block programming ghetto. RLO was so popular that at least one local radio station (the dj, it must be admitted, was a WRPI alumnus) simply listened to the RLO programming and ran the same songs with a little delay. But, of course, "Hey, Baby, They're Playin' Our Song," (the show's theme song) is bound to get an audience.

Another block show of note was the folk music show, albeit not so much the version that existed in my first years at RPI, "Folk Fest," which tended toward performers like Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, which is to say, singer-songwriters who had started in the folk tradition. I once heard Merle Travis perform, and he told the story of being asked by a record label to write and record an album of folk songs. He said that he explained to them that they were sorta asking him to build antiques, but, hey, money is money, and he wrote "Sixteen Tons," and "Dark as a Dungeon," for it.

So the real folkies in the area (and upstate New York has a Lot of Real Folkies), kept carping, until finally, "Mostly Folk," with Jackie Alper, a majorly old-line folkie, took the helm. From there on out, it was pretty hard core folk music on display. (Jackie died last September, having been ill for a long time, but the show is still on the air).

Once Barnett and I started the Indian Music show, we had an excuse to really go hog wild, and both of us accumulated records like the vinyl junkies we were. Also, once the show lit up on the promo radar, we started getting promotional copies of every new Indian Music record released in the U.S. We also contacted (I expect that Bruce was the guy with the initiative on this one) Nonesuch Records, which supplied us with practically every one of its Explorer Series records.

Some of the Explorer Series were Indian music; many were not. So periodically, we'd slip some Egyptian or Balinese music into the mix. One show I did (Bruce was out that Sunday), just traced the sarod/oud/lute/guitar from India to England, by way of Northern Africa (side trip to Greece and the Balkans, however). Placed in geographic context, the cultural diffusion of music is pretty obvious, or at least it was to my ear. Eventually, the show became what would not be called a "World Music" show, but that was toward the end of my time at RPI, and overlapped the time I was banned from the station (a story I'll probably never tell, BTW).

The biggest obstacle we had was getting the audience to accept Indian vocal music. The quartertone warbles that are a key feature of much of it really grate on many western ears, so I spent a significant amount of time on some shows just trying to convince somebody on the phone to give it a chance, really, it can grow on you. Several people who heard me on these type calls remarked on how diplomatic I was being, an indication perhaps of both how much I wanted people to hear and accept the music, and how great my reputation for being, shall we say, less than diplomatic on other occasions.

It turned out that there was a sizable community of Indian immigrants in New York's capitol district, and we wound up meeting a number of them. Basically, they were asking that we play some contemporary music, which translates to movie music, it turned out. So Bruce and I diligently went out and collected a bunch of records and played them on one of the shows. I'm not sure what your opinion is about Bollywood musicals, but let me tell you, the music in them has greatly improved over the last 35 years. I was barely able to listen to our own show that day, though I imagine that, had I taken my own advice and given it more of a chance, well, maybe.

I was also found every one of the Indian nationals that I met to be just impressive, smart, personable, well-educated, the works. I eventually decided (perhaps correctly) that with half a billion people to choose from, we were getting the cream of the crop, and that was bound to be impressive.

In at least one case, Madam Chari, the result was nearly superhuman, or at least so said Bruce. This would be a woman who was a neurosurgeon and concert level sitar player that Bruce raved about for weeks after meeting her. Obviously, however, that would be his tale to tell and not mine. All I can say is that these stories are not always about me.


black dog barking said...

He said that he explained to them that they were sorta asking him to build antiques…

I've always liked Sixteen Tons in spite of the sheer disconnect between the subject matter and the actual music. All that talk about coal-digging, two-fisted brawlin', and high-toned women just didn't fit with the finger-snapping, muted horns, and drum brushes. "Building antiques" explains it pretty good.

James Killus said...

One song that stuck to me from the time I was very young was "Chicken Road," (by Michael Johnson) also from a Tennessee Ernie Ford recording:

Once I had a scorpion on the lobe of my good right ear
And I lived with my great-great grandma
Who could hear what she wanted to hear
Honey that's Missouri, the land where the sky overflows
It's a wonderful town, Chicken Road

Beasts of burden, nip at their hay
And a poolroom banjo playin' to the close of every day
Night so quiet, you could hear a mouse
Tippin' through the parlor of a boarding house

Once I got a sunburn on the back of my itchin' neck
Went for a ride in a Model-T and I died in a beautiful wreck
Honey that's Missouri, the land that the Lord never knowed
Yes, it's a wonderful town, Chicken Road

Of course, even the record player I heard it one would be an antique now.

black dog barking said...

Yahoo! Music doesn't have the PeaPicker's cover of "Chicken Road" but did have a mondegreen version from the Simon Sisters. Not sure I can conjure TE Ford's rendition but I did get a very strong Frogland vibe. Haven't felt that in a while.

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