Why Aren’t Desi Tunes More Popular in the West?

There’s an interesting blurb from Tyler Cowen on why he thinks Desi music isn’t as popular in the West as other types of world music (at least for now… times are always a-changing, of course). Asked by a reader

Why do the US (a wealthy country) and Africa (a poor continent) put out more influential modern music than Asia (a populated continent of both wealthy and poor extremes)?

Tyler responds –

3. The micro-tonal musics, as we find in India and the Middle East, don’t spread to many countries which do not already have a micro-tonal tradition. Cats wailing, etc., though it is a shame if you haven’t trained your ear by now to like the stuff. It’s some of the world’s finest music.

4. Many Asian musics, such as some of the major styles of China and Japan, emphasize timbre. That makes them a) often too subtle, and b) very hard to translate to disc or to radio. African-derived musics are perfect for radio or for the car.

The comnentors also make some important points. For example, even though we don’t see desi tunes in the West very much, they are all over the rest Asia (outside China/Japan/Korea), the Middle East, Africa, and even some former eastern block countries. Second, most Indian pop music it is driven by the film industry rather than by a separate “music” industry. Another commentor further expands Tyler’s point about the micro-tonal aspects of Indian music –

While there is no contemporary popular style that uses the scalar melodic microtones of the Ancient Greek enharmonic scale, both the Islamicate and Indian (Hindustani and Karnaktic) repertoires use intervals that differ audibly from the Western tempered scale by microtonal intervals, thus the Islamicate scales use both intervals very close to the western semi- and whole tones, but also intervals close to three-quarters of a tone and somewhat wider than a whole tone (with a ratio of around 8:7). A scale approximating a western diatonic scale is possible in both these repertoires, but is only one among 18 or so in wide use in Arabic/Turkisk/Persian music and among significant many more in Indian practice.

I’m going to go way way way out on a limb and toss out another personal, vastly underinformed, pet theory on this question. Instead of musical structure, language barriers, and the like I also wanna toss in some cultural context…

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Raj Bhavsar is Going to the Big Dance

Numerous readers have been sending us tips regarding Raj Bhavsar, an alternate on the U.S. men’s gymnastics team who will get to compete for the gold in Beijing after all. The space opened up on the team after star gymnast Paul Hamm was forced to withdraw due to injury.

Bhavsar was an alternate in 2004 as well, but didn’t get to compete. Despite a discouraging few years, Bhavsar continued to practice and train hard this spring and summer on the off-chance that a space might open up. Now his perseverance has paid off, and we wish him all the best. Based on what his colleagues and trainers have said about Bhavsar, as well as his own quotes in USA Today and The Houston Chronicle, he seems like a class act. (The ESPN story on Bhavsar also talks about how Bikram Yoga has helped him learn to concentrate better in the past year, a fact that I find quite interesting.)

NBC also had a nice profile of Bhavsar during the 2008 trials:

And you can see him performing a whole routine on rings here. (The dude has some serious biceps!)

Along with the stories about Raj Bhavsar (an Indian-American), KXB linked in the News Tab to a story in Foreign Policy about the “world’s worst Olympians,” where India actually tops the list (only 17 medals in its entire history). There is an inevitable discussion waiting to happen there, on why India always does so poorly (as I recall we had a version of it two years ago, when the World Cup was on). I don’t have any big answers, other than the obvious ones given in Foreign Policy: lack of sports venues, lack of school sports funding, lack of investment in preparing athletes for the Olympics. I don’t know whether “culture” is also a factor; I tend to think not.

At any rate, this year India is sending 57 atheletes to the Olympics, including the Paes and Bhupathi team for tennis doubles (where I suspect they might have a real shot). We might profile a few of the athletes in subsequent posts, depending on what comes up upon typing their names into the Google. Pakistan, for its part, is sending 23 athletes; Sri Lanka is sending eight (or maybe seven, depending on how we add 3+4); and Bangladesh is also sending a small contingent, to compete for wild card spots. Continue reading

The Pilgrims & The Indians [updated]

And now, some interesting news from down under. The beautiful country of New Zealand is in the final process of rounding up 40 illegal immigrants (aliens? undocumented workers?) of Desi descent who entered the nation under the guise of a Catholic pilgrim group. The 40 had entered New Zealand in the run up to the Pope-sponsored World Youth Day in neighboring Australia –

About 220 Indians came to New Zealand as part of Days in the Diocese, a pre-World Youth Day event that gives pilgrims time with Catholic families and acclimatises them to the host country’s culture. For the first time, Days in the Diocese was extended beyond the host nation, with Sydney’s organisers asking New Zealand to be included.

During those days, though, 40 Indians went missing at different times in what appears to be an orchestrated attempt to stay in New Zealand.

…Parish priest Fr Peter Murphy said host families were “obviously upset” that the young people went missing, some leaving in the middle of the night ­- even jumping out windows.

Interestingly, the local Sikh society played a key role in the drama & in rolling up the ring – Continue reading

Black July At 25

This weekend marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of war in Sri Lanka, which is commonly dated to the anti-Tamil riots there in 1983—a time now known as Black July. The immediate catalyst for the violence: the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of Tamil militants. The longer story: ethnic tension that had simmered for decades, under British colonial rule and beyond.Sri_Lanka-CIA_WFB_Map.png

On the 24th of July, rioting began as news spread about the deaths of the soldiers. The government was obviously complicit in the pogroms. (This link is to a Sri Lankan government website.) People with voter lists directed the mobs to the homes and properties of Tamils, which they destroyed. Thugs stopped vehicles on the streets, and, ascertaining the Tamil identities of the people within, set them aflame. When the violence finally ended, days later, as many as three thousand Tamils had been killed. Thousands and thousands more were left homeless. Shortly after, Sri Lanka saw a flood of Tamil emigration.

The 25th anniversary of such a hellish hour in the country’s history should not pass unnoticed on the Mutiny. Sri Lanka is Mutinous; it’s Mutinous in all the wrong ways: fostering ethnic hatred, distrust, violence, censorship, betrayal, and rootlessness in its own people. And it’s Mutinous in all the right ones: Sri Lanka and its diasporas are full of people who resist easy definition and boundaries, who refuse to cede to what they believe to be wrong, and who still fight, after twenty-five years, for a just home in the most beautiful place on earth. This is not a country that can be seen in black and white. This is a country in which authorities helped Sinhalese civilians to attack their Tamil neighbors. And this also is a country in which the people who saw that what was happening was wrong took their Tamil countrymen in and tried to protect them from the chaos. The best of human nature beginning a long battle against the worst of human nature.

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Synchronized Bombs Kill Two in Bangalore

In a move “designed to create panic”, at least seven small bombs exploded in Bangalore, earlier today (thanks Janeofalltrades and smallpress):

Bangalore Police Commissioner Shankar Bidri said the seven blasts went off within several minutes of each other at different spots across the city. One woman was killed in an explosion at a bus stop in the city’s Madiwala neighborhood, he said.
Another person died later of his injuries, federal Home Minister Shivraj Patil said.
Bidri said each of the small bombs contained the amount of explosives equal to “one or two grenades” and appeared to have been set off by timers. [AP]

No one has owned the terrorist act, which took aim at the city’s neighborhoods (vs. its companies), as of yet.

The police took pains to say that the city’s famed technology sector did not seem to be targeted, and that the blasts were designed to create panic. The blasts took place in crowded, middle-class neighborhoods. The city has grown rapidly in recent years from a boom in technology outsourcing.
By Indian standards, where several cities have been hit in recent years by large-scale terror attacks, the explosions on Friday were relatively minor. In the last major attack, serial blasts in Jaipur, an historic city and a main tourist hub in western Rajasthan, killed more than 60 people in May. The authorities have said in the past that terror attacks were designed to sow hostility and fear among Indian Muslims and Hindus.

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Coming Out Swinging

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is often described, not entirely without reason, as a somewhat passive and non-confrontational leader — an accidental politician, with the real strings being pulled, behind the scenes, by Sonia Gandhi. (Manmohan may wear the Pagri, but Sonia wears the pants, as it were.)

However, in the speech he gave yesterday in the Indian Parliament before the Confidence Vote (which the UPA government won, by about 20 votes), Manmohan Singh showed no signs of meekness or passivity. Indeed, his take-down of BJP leader L.K. Advani is rhetorically ferocious. I was impressed:

“The Leader of Opposition, Shri L.K. Advani has chosen to use all manner of abusive objectives to describe my performance. He has described me as the weakest Prime Minister, a nikamma PM, and of having devalued the office of PM. To fulfill his ambitions, he has made at least three attempts to topple our government. But on each occasion his astrologers have misled him. This pattern, I am sure, will be repeated today. At his ripe old age, I do not expect Shri Advani to change his thinking. But for his sake and India’s sake, I urge him at least to change his astrologers so that he gets more accurate predictions of things to come.

As for Shri Advani’s various charges, I do not wish to waste the time of the House in rebutting them. All I can say is that before leveling charges of incompetence on others, Shri Advani should do some introspection. Can our nation forgive a Home Minister who slept when the terrorists were knocking at the doors of our Parliament? Can our nation forgive a person who single handedly provided the inspiration for the destruction of the Babri Masjid with all the terrible consequences that followed? To atone for his sins, he suddenly decided to visit Pakistan and there he discovered new virtues in Mr. Jinnah. Alas, his own party and his mentors in the RSS disowned him on this issue. Can our nation approve the conduct of a Home Minister who was sleeping while Gujarat was burning leading to the loss of thousands of innocent lives? Our friends in the Left Front should ponder over the company they are forced to keep because of miscalculations by their General Secretary. (link)

Unfortunately, I gather the din was too great for the speech to actually be heard. But hey, at least he tried to say it.

In terms of content, the only thing that seems off key here is the reference to Advani’s “ripe old age” — I’m not sure that a 75 year old man can really get away with that comment! (Advani, for reference, is even older — about 81.)

The rest of the speech (read it here in its entirety) is more focused on substantively defending the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the general policies of the current government. It is, by comparison to the above, a bit dull… but necessary.

In the interest of opposing dullness, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the second remarkable thing that happened in the chaotic Parliamentary session yesterday: Continue reading

Dude, where’s my car?

Just when former Senator Allen thought it was safe to leave the house, Wonkette reports a sighting of a car with a VA license plate reading MCACAS [HT: Blue].

Of course, a photo like this is just begging for a caption.

Also, feel free to speculate as to whose car this is and how it ended up with such a vanity license plate. Do you think this is the Macamobile of S.R. Sidhartha himself, with its patriotic bumper sticker? I mean, hopefully he does satire. Or is it a tone deaf racist exclamation by a die-hard Allen supporter? Or perhaps it belongs to an aspiring DJ, an MC Acas? What say you, intrepid Macacans?

Related posts: One Macaca, two macacas, three cute ‘lil macacas

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Disturbing, yet…

I was catching up on news at Huffington Post this afternoon when I came across this really disturbing (yet oddly compelling) music video by Devendra Banhart featuring his hottie girlfriend, actress Natalie Portman. I like that the video (to his song “Carmensita”) even starts out like an authentic Bollywood movie. Even though I don’t see what she sees in this disheveled mess of a Venezuelan “folk rocker,” I thank him for the new images of Portman he’s now put forever into my mind. The rest of the video (except for Natalie) is a mess of religion, mythology, and camp (Nina Paley did it better) and I can’t wait to see if the fundamentalists start rioting somewhere in the world.

Here are the lyrics in Spanish. Now I’m just afraid to see the eventual YouTube clip of Arnold that you know is coming.

Update: Looks like Manish at Ultrabrown took the time to translate, hoping to find deeper meaning perhaps

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SM T-shirt contest: Making a Fashion Statement at the DNC

Folks, it is time to get excited about the fact that we will have greater South Asian participation than ever in this year’s Presidential election. Through this blog we also hope to provide a perspective from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver next month that has been missing in previous years. This has been one of the long term goals of this blog after all. I will sniff out every conceivable brown angle I can find once I get there (especially if Huma is there). However, I would like to make this event as bi-directional as possible. I don’t want to show up there and simply write about what I want to write about. I want you all to send me ideas for what you’d like to learn. I’d like you guys to get me in touch with other South Asians you know will be there. I also want to know what you’d like me to communicate to the other bloggers and citizens I meet while I’m there.

In the spirit of that last point, and so we can have some fun with this, I am asking you guys to dress me. That’s right. You, the SM readers get to decide what I will wear on the convention floor next month. It is simple really: design a t-shirt that features a political or social (but non-partisan) message and I can order it using Café Press, Threadless, or one of many other internet t-shirt companies. Send me the design at abhi [at] sepiamutiny dot com. I will narrow it down to the best entries and have SM readers vote on the finalists. I will be at the convention for three full days so I will purchase up to three winning t-shirts to wear on the floor. The more clever/funny/relevant/socially conscious your t-shirt, the more likely it is to grab attention and communicate your message to all the varied citizens expected to be in Denver (the picture below is a perfect example of what I’m looking for). Let’s have some fun with this. My mom (retired from a major department store) has been dressing me all these years. It’s time for you guys to have a turn.

Just a clarification: I am looking for full t-shirt Designs, not merely slogans or catchphrases.

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Perhaps the I.S.I. Really IS To Blame For Everything

On the News Tab, KXB linked to an article in the New York Times regarding the relationship between the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agency, the I.S.I. Most recently, the I.S.I. is thought by some to have been behind the dastardly terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month (see this story), though I don’t there is any conclusive evidence of that. Some in India have also blamed the I.S.I. for any number of terrorist attacks over the past six years, sometimes merely on suspicion.

But what is less talked about is the fact that American intelligence operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan have for years been deeply dependent on the I.S.I., even as Americans have known about the I.S.I.’s links to terrorists.

Given that history, it’s no surprise that the C.I.A. and the I.S.I. don’t trust each other at all:

But most C.I.A. veterans agree that no relationship between the spy agency and a foreign intelligence service is quite as byzantine, or as maddening, as that between the C.I.A. and Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or I.S.I.

It is like a bad marriage in which both spouses have long stopped trusting each other, but would never think of breaking up because they have become so mutually dependent.

Without the I.S.I.’s help, American spies in Pakistan would be incapable of carrying out their primary mission in the country: hunting Islamic militants, including top members of Al Qaeda. Without the millions of covert American dollars sent annually to Pakistan, the I.S.I. would have trouble competing with the spy service of its archrival, India. (link)

The article does offer one interesting explanation as to why the ISI might have, to begin with, cultivated ties with questionable individuals in the NWFP — ethnicity and language:

Even the powerful I.S.I., which is dominated by Punjabis, Pakistan’s largest ethnic group, has difficulties collecting information in the tribal lands, the home of fiercely independent Pashtun tribes. For this reason, the I.S.I. has long been forced to rely on Pashtun tribal leaders — and in some cases Pashtun militants — as key informants.

Also, sometimes the I.S.I. has been incredibly helpful to American interests:

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