In My Gully, Rupees Beat the Dollar…

In the ten plus years since Asian influenced electronica started making the musical rounds, the sound has gone in various directions. From the pulsating Indian classical-oriented tabla and bass to bollywood dub step, the music has evolved and morphed with other styles of contemporary and popular music. A prime example of this evolution can be found in Hello Hello, the most recent studio album put out by the New Delhi-based duo of Tapan Raj and Gaurav Raina, collectively known as the Midival Punditz. Hello, released on Six Degrees Records, sees the evolution of Punditz’s engaging electro-desi sound into new directions I haven’t see the Punditz delve into in past albums. Don’t worry though, it’s mostly a good thing!

The album’s opener, Electric Universe, is a strong tune, that marries a bansuri based melody with the now very-trendy vocoder lyrics and an up-tempo western dance groove. Universe is a good start to a very good album, and serves as a nice introduction of the diverging sounds to come. The last track is an acoustic version of Universe, except with unadulterated vocals and acoustic guitar by fellow Asian-massivist Karsh Kale. In fact, Kale’s influence on the album is heavily felt, with credits on more than five of the album’s 11 tracks.

With Hello, it’s clear that the Punditz haven’t forgotten where they came from, or the type of music that has led them to be called “the sound of 21st century India.” The album has the raga and folk influence I have come to expect and love from the Punditz, but also a classic rock and pop influence that one might hear in the nightclubs of Delhi, Bangalore, or Bombay.

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There is a First Time for Everything!

Given our people’s track record in professional sports in the United States (virtually nonexistent outside a small handful), I was pretty surprised to see the following story on the Pittsburgh Pirates signing two Indians, yes Indians, from India — Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel — as pitchers. From the article:

The two 20-year-old pitchers, neither of whom had picked up a baseball until earlier this year, signed free-agent contracts Monday with the Pirates. They are believed to be the first athletes from India to sign professional baseball contracts outside their country. Singh and Patel are believed to be first athletes from India to sign professional baseball contracts outside their country.

Patel (L) Singh (R)

I think these are probably the first Indians to sign professional baseball contracts period. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think there are even any Indian-American or South Asian American professional baseball players. The way this happened is pretty interesting. Singh and Patel came to the United States six months ago after being the top finishers in an Indian reality TV show called the “Million Dollar Arm. ” The show drew about 30,000 contestants and was trying to find athletes who could throw strikes at 85 miles per hour or faster. One would think this would be possible in a country of over a billion. Hmm, not exaclty. But while neither pitcher threw hard enough to earn the $1 million prize, Singh made $100,000 from the contest and Patel made $2,500, plus his trip to the United States.

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Food Network Giving Desi Love

It’s been pretty serious around the bunker these past couple of weeks, and since I’m finally allowed to change the television channel from convention coverage, to “anything I want.” I’m changing the channel to The Food Network since I like to eat and because The Food Network has been down with the brown, as of late.

A few months ago, Minnesotan and Indian Cook, Nipa Bhatt was a contender on the Next Food Network Star. Nipa made it to the fourth episode, but was eliminated after a poor showing in the fish challenge. I think her bad attitude and limited knowledge of food had something to do with it, as well. I don’t want to undermine her effort though, she did make it through a few rounds, and was the first desi contestant on the show. On top of that, Nipa represented for cooking not often sampled by mainstream America: Gujarati food. I know it was the first time I had seen someone make Sukhi Bhaji (seasoned potatoes) or Rasa Valu Battaka Nu Shak (potato curry in gravy) on American television, and more importantly further promote regional Indian cooking to mainstream America.

I thought Nipa was a good introduction to Indian cooking, but what I’m really looking forward to is tonight’s episode of Iron Chef-America. Tonight’s battle pits one of my favorites, Bobby Flay against Floyd Cardoz, Executive Chef of Tabla, New York’s most famous “New Indian” restaurant. Cardoz was trained in Bombay and Switzerland, and opened Tabla in 1998. The main restaurant features food that is Western in orientation, but seasoned with the Indian aesthetic (think a Tandoori BLT or a Fricasse of Wild Mushrooms accompanied by “Upma” Polenta), while the restaurant’s Bread Bar, features more home-style Indian food that we would expect to see on the menu of most Indian restaurants, like chicken tikka and sag paneer. Given the variety and uniqueness of the ingredients highlighted on Iron Chef, I think the show will be a good opportunity for Cardoz to highlight his fusion of Indian and Western techniques on food that might not necessarily be perceived as Indian food. And for those of you in New York, Tabla is offering Cardoz’s Iron Chef menu starting tomorrow, August 8 through October 31. Continue reading

Sounds of Devotion

It’s difficult for me to wake up once I hibernate for this long in our North Dakota Bunker, but for few things, like good music, I’ll tend to get out of my bunk for awhile. The thing that woke me up this time was the familiar sound of musical adventure in the form of bhajans (Devotional Songs).

I disliked bhajans growing up. I don’t know if it was the monotonous/repetitive tone of the vocals or my inability to understand the words or meanings of the songs. I was able to avoid bhajans from the time I left home for college until a trip to India (I know, in India, how cliché?), four years ago, when the songs just seemed to click as a natural soundtrack to my travels. I started to appreciate the songs more. Maybe it was the place and time, or maybe I was able to contextualize the songs more, but I think I was finally able to grasp the intent of the song, of its purpose as a tool for Bhakti (Devotion).

So it was with much excitement when I saw the most recent musical release from one of my favorite global music pioneers, San Francisco based producer/DJ Cheb I Sabbah, entitled Devotion. This album, his seventh on six degrees records, is his fourth album focused on religious music from India — the first three, also available on Six Degrees Records are Shri Durga (1999), Maha Maya: Shri Durga Remixed (2000), and Krishna Lila (2002)-and while mostly similar in content, Devotion features music from three religious traditions found on the Indian Subcontinent, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Sufi Islam.

It’s important to note that Cheb i Sabbah’s work is not a “remix” album, of bhajans simply reworked electronically. The eight songs on Devotion are entirely organic creations of Cheb and various artists, including Master Saleem, classical songstress Shubha Mudgal, and the bhajan maestro Anup Jalota. The album opens strong with Jai Bhavani (Praise to Durga) with vocals by Jalota, in a typical “call and response” structured bhajan that builds slowly into a frenetic ending. Other highlight tracks include Morey Pya Bassey, featuring an inspiring Mudgal vocal, and Qalanderi, featuring the vocals of Riffat Sultana, and reinvented by Cheb I Sabbah to create a from of contemporary qawwali. (Click here for a free download of Qalanderi, courtesy of Six Degreees).

Cheb is in in typical form on Devotion, intricately weaving modern sounds with ancient vocals, without losing the music’s underlying intent, Devotion. His production, is as always, impeccable. I should be clear, the songs on Devotion are slower than those on his other albums, and unlike Shri Durga , Maha Maya, or Krishna Lila, I can’t picture hearing any of these tunes on the dancefloor, outside of Qalanderi. As Anna mentioned last week, Mutineers in DC will have a chance to find out what songs Cheb i Sabbah plays at one of his shows when he takes the stage at the famed DC venue, Bohemian Caverns. Joining him for the show will be one of my favorite turtablists Janaka Selekta, V:shal Kanwar, DJ Darko, and Julez. Bohemian Caverns is located at 2001 Eleventh Street N.W. Washington, D.C. Hope to see you there.

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I’m Bringing Desi Back

No, I am not referring to Sanjaya Malakar, because I wouldn’t want American Idol commentators to think that desi-Americans are monolithic in their support of him (we’re not), and I am not referring to me because well, desi never left my life. What I am getting at is the attempted resurgence of desi influences in mainstream American popular music, and surprisingly (or not so surprisingly depending on how you look at it) the current effort by producer extraordinaire Timbaland to bring desi back by featuring two desi-ish tracks on his latest release, Timbaland Presents Shock Value. The first of the two is “Bombay” featuring British-Asian songstress Amar, and the other “Come Around” with our girl M.I.A., which for some strange reason is only available in the U.S. as an import.

Like much of the album, both tracks are solid. Bombay is a straight up Hindi track, it features Amar’s vocal (rather than simply using it as a hook), its addictive, and makes good use of the “Bollywood of Yore” effect. The track has additional production by long-time Timbaland collaborator Jim Beanz, who recently released a couple of sanctioned remixes of two Nelly Furtado Tracks featuring Amar, Promiscuous Girl and Maneater, both of which are available for free download on Amar’s myspace page. Many of you might remember Amar for her hauntingly awesome vocal on the opening track Jaan of Talvin Singh’s groundbreaking compilation Anokha. On the heals of Anokha, she released a solo album, Outside, produced by Nitin Sawhney, but then seemingly fell off, until Beanz’s remix of Promiscuous started to make the rounds. For now anyway, it seems Amar may be the new Raje Shwari, the singer Timbaland and many others used for their Indian hooks a few years ago (Indian Flute, Bounce, Disco etc.), but hasn’t really been heard from since. I hope things work out better for Amar then they did for Raje.

As for the M.I.A. track, I don’t know, I can’t get enough. It’s got M.I.A.’s grimey rapping style, Timbaland’s typically solid production, and desi beats, incorporating and flipping the hook from a recent indi-pop hit “Let the Music Play.” The only thing wrong with this track is it isn’t on the American release.

Do I think Timbaland can bring desi back? I hope so. He’s gonna need help though, and by the lack of really good records from the desi diaspora over the past couple of years, it is going to be tough. For too long the desi music scene has relied upon British-Asian talent to bring the heat. I love British-Asian music, but its sound has gotten stagnant and it is time for desis on this side of the Atlantic to step up. From the word on the street and from what I’ve been hearing, I’m hopeful.

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The Tabu of the Namesake

It is a picture that I imagine many who read this blog have a variation of in one form or another. You know, that image of the the nuclear desi-American family– returned to the sub-Continent for a long (summer) vacation– of mom, dad, brother, sister posing in front of the Taj Mahal. The group is huddled close on that bench hoping for the perfect portrait. And really, how can the picture be bad? That grand marble monument towering in the background, its skewed reflection glimmering in the rectangular pond. Observing that familiar image reflected on the movie screen and understanding that feeling of closeness and comfort of being together in a foreign place, put a big smile on my face, as did most of Mira Nair’s latest film The Namesake.

I know we’ve previously blogged a review of the film, but this was a very personal book for me, I think for most of us. I even made my mom, who doesn’t usually read “English novels” read the book, and she loved it. So I think the movie merits more than just one review. In any case, I’ll do my best not to repeat too many of the things cicatrix mentioned earlier, and promise to stay away from the word timepass. The film was “just too good yar,” to merit the use of the word to describe it.

I find it hard to have high expectations for movies based on books. I have been burned too many times. With that in mind, my expectations for the movie were upward leaning, but not over reaching. I didn’t know how Nair could add visuals to a novel that was for me already so vivid. As the stunning opening credits blurred between Bengali and English, I immediately knew Lahiri’s story was in good hands. Nair and her longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala’s treatment stayed true to the novel while also providing an original point of view. Their take does a fine job of including the highlights of the book, but in their attempt to hit all the major points, the movie misses some of the extras that made the story so poignant. (Warning: Spoiler Alert, especially if you haven’t read the book)

The inclusion of the Ashima and Ashoke’s early years was good, but I wanted to see more of their early married life, more of Ashima’s struggle adjusting to life in America. To life without her family. To life without the familiar. I wanted to see her overcome that struggle, and grow into her life in America, as we saw in the novel. I think that is an important part of the story, and not spending enough time on some of these nuances took away from the story’s gravitas. The significance of the late night/early morning phone call for example, how was the audience supposed to know that odd-timed phone calls only meant significant news from India, usually bad?

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I’ll take the Calphalon Indian Wok

When my wife and I were trying to decide on new pots and pans last year, it was kind of hard to pick the right set. Not only were we confused by the all-clad versus the myriad types of calphalon sets, we wanted to get some nice “crockery” that would be good for cooking Indian food. Outside of the handy prestige pressure-cooker that I am slowly learning how to use, we couldn’t find any real options for fancy-shmancy cooking pots-and-pans specifically for Indian food. So imagine my surprise when I was perusing the most recent Williams-Sonoma catalog and found a whole section dedicated to Indian spices, Indian food-specific pots and pans, and Williams-Sonoma Kitchen recipes for a variety of different indian food items, including, samosas, chapatis, and even kheer (Indian rice pudding). Sure, my mom would kill me if she knew I entertained the notion of buying a 9 ounce, $39 set of spices, or a $13 dollar simmer sauce, but I appreciate that Le Creuset is selling a tava griddle, and that Cuisinart is uping the ante in the pressure cooker game. I must admit though, I am a bit confused by the Calphalon One Indian Wok (Wok, India?). My initial thought was that maybe it would be perfect for cooking tasty Indian-Chinese food like my favorite gobi manchurian, but the description in the catalog cleared it up:

“Based on the karahi, the traditional Indian wok commonly used for simmering curries and stews, stir-frying and deep-frying, this infused-anodized wok is ideal for recreating the favorite dishes you enjoy at Indian restaurants. Its interior sears and browns perfectly and develops the rich caramelized flavor essential for creating delicious pan sauces. Adapted from the karahi’s customary round bottom, this wok’s flat bottom makes it easy to use on Western stoves. Two beautifully shaped loop handles – inspired by graceful scrollwork on Indian architecture – allow you to carry the oven-safe pan to the table for serving in authentic Indian style.” (link)

Look at those loop handles, clearly inspired by the graceful scrollwork on Indian architecture. I can hardly control myself. And who among us knew that serving desi khana in a Calphalon-One branded Indian-Wok at the table was authentic Indian style? I for one had no idea. Sarcasm aside, I do think it is pretty cool that some of the high-end cookware companies are starting to make Indian items, although I doubt desi-America is the target audience. As appealing as the Williams-Sonoma catalog offerings are, I don’t know that I will be purchasing this cookware anytime soon, but I would love to know what those of you who have some of these products think of them. I do however plan on trying the samosa recipe soon and will definitely report back. If any of you happen to try any of the recipes, please relay your experiences in the comments section.

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Indian-American Idol

In the we-watch-so-you-don’t have-to category, I thought it would be nice to provide an update or two on our non-Bollywood desi brethren continuing to make it in the world of reality television. We blogged previously about the Singing Malakars, and unlike Abhi, I have been known to watch American Idol and other reality fare, especially when they feature South Asians. (For the record, I think it is way better than toilet water.) In this weeks installment of American Idol, we saw saw the splitting of the Malakar siblings, as Simon, Paula, and Randy decided to send Shyamali home, but advance Sanjaya all the way through to the final 24 (link). I thought Sanjaya’s rendition of “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” was pretty good, and it was great to see a desi make it through to the actual competition. Even if he doesn’t win, as long as Sanjaya doesn’t give a performance like like this one from the U.K.’s Pop Idol (definitely click on the link–it is hilarious), he will be a winner in my book. You can follow Sanjaya’s progress, here and on American Idol which airs Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s on Fox.

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Getting to Londonstan(i)

I think my infatuation with British Asian culture began three or four years ago, when Bobby Friction and Nihal started their radio show on BBC Radio One. In fact, it was some of the music they spun that provided me small glimpse into British Asian life. One group in particular The Sona Family and their desi remix of “Oi, Who’s That Asian Girl” got me hooked on this British Asian sound, and its accompanying slang instantaneously. I wanted to say “Bruv” in that accent, end sentences with “innit,” and have all “ma bredren know what I was chattin about.” Sure, it took awhile to understand some of the many references to British Asian life highlighted on the radio show and on the Sona Family track, but I eventually started to understand the lingo, and to the annoyance of many of my friends actually started to use (perhaps inappropriately) some of the slang.

I thought after my religious following of the British Asian scene I was sufficiently well versed in the dialogue of the British Asian. So despite all the many British reviews mentioning the strange language, (linguistically inventive is how the Times Literary section described it) I wasn’t intimidated when I picked up Gautam Malkani’s recent work of fiction, Londonstani. As soon as Manish mentioned this book I knew I needed to read it, and so when I came upon it during a recent trip to India, I snatched it up.

I turned to page one and simply put, the writing gave me a headache. How could one possibly write entirely in slang, in a “desi patois”, and get it published (and undergo a bidding war no less)? I thought it couldn’t last. Using “an” instead of “and” in every chapter? My head was pounding. I thought I liked the slang, but I found myself having to re-read paragraphs. I don’t like to re-read paragraphs, it ruins the flow. Was there an index? How were people supposed to read this? I know the American version has an index to help readers comprehend “the linguistic inventiveness,” but I got my copy, a British one, at Crosswords in India. And I can’t imagine how an Indian, or any person entirely unfamiliar with British Asian slang could understand half of the things Malkani “was chattin about” in the book, especially without an index.

“Hear wat my bredren b sayin, sala kutta? Come out wid dat shit again n I’ma knock u so hard u’ll b shittin out yo mouth 4 real, innit, goes Hardjit, with an eloquence an conviction that made me green with envy…”

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They Drank the Water

The big news in Oscarland this morning (with a Desi Angle of course) was the inclusion of Deepa Mehta’s Water amongst the nominees for “Best Foreign Language Film.” According to, Mehta said that she was in a state of shock over learning that her film had been nominated. Frankly, so was I. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy for Mehta. She clearly put a lot of hard work and time into the film. And it is clearly something she is (and should be) proud of. I just don’t think the movie was that good. As I mentioned in my quickie review here, I thought the film was a good timepass, but in the end I thought it lacked the authenticity a period film like Water should really have.

Mehta’s third film in her trilogy of elements is set in 1938 India and revolves around Chuyia, an 8-year-old Hindu widow – brilliantly portrayed by Sarala – sent to leave her family behind and live in an ashram with other widows. The movie follows Chuyia and focuses on her interactions with Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), the de facto caretaker of the widows, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a widow who wants to start a new life and relationship with Narayan (John Abraham), a Gandhian. While Biswas and Sarala both give really good performances, I thought the third facet of the plot, that of the relationship between Ray and Abraham, along with the misleading sets a definite contributor to the mediocrity of the film.

Water will be competing for the Oscar against Denmark’s After the Wedding, Algeria’s Days of Glory, Germany’s The Lives of Others and Mexico’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I did find it noteworthy that Water is the first non-French film from Canada to be up for a best foreign language film (link). I think that is impressive initself: think about it, Canada submitting a Hindi language film as its submission for Best Foreign Language Film. I think that is amazing.

Given that many of the reviews of Water published in the mainstream media are quite positive of the film, clearly my impression of the film is not that of the majority. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with the reviewer who wrote that the many overly positive reviews are a reflection of people confusing an honorable message with a good movie. I do wish Mehta the best at the Oscars though.

The Academy Awards air February 25 at 8 PM on ABC.

Related posts: Fun With The Reviewers: Deepa Mehta’s Water, earth, fire, WATER, Water Is Finally Here, Is Deepa Mehta Back in the Game?

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