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Artist: V/A

Album: Bollywood Gold

Label: World Music Network

Review date: Apr. 30, 2007


What an enigma have we in Bollywood. To the delight of audiences worldwide, India's juggernaut Hindi-language film industry turns out nearly 900 movies annually, and while not every one brims with the over-the-top opulence of the blockbusters, filmi sangeet song-and-dance numbers are de rigueur. Aside from serving as one-stop-shopping for entertainment, the conspicuous bundling of music with film has a definite marketing advantage over the traditional approach. Where dialogue turns maudlin and plot falls short of plausibility, a lousy film can at least be redeemed by some unforgettable music.

From a typical Occidental perspective, eastern-tinged "world-fusion" music may have started when sitar flourishes buzzed their way into music of the Byrds and the Beatles, to be heralded eventually in the 1980s by the likes of Peter Gabriel and the WOMAD crowd. But, reframe the picture: Indian music directors like O.P. Nayyar, C. Ramchandra, R.D. Burman, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal had already been blazing that trail from the east, reaching westward for new compositional raw material since the late 1950s. What hybrids resulted ranged from the sublime to the infectious to the whimsical, owing to the novel incongruity of their eastern and western elements. And now, some 30 years later, producers in the west are listening. Ask the Blackeyed Peas, whose mega-hit "Don't Phunk With My Heart" jacked beats from Kalyandji Anandji's music from '70s Bollywood films Don and Apradh, an act which perhaps begs the ultimate irony of a debate over who borrowed from whom first.

Rough Guides' latest entry is, like its predecessor The Rough Guide to Bollywood, compiled by DJ Ritu, noted club promoter and Outcaste records co-founder. A cover image of Bollywood's reigning queen Aishwarya Rai is a little misleading, as nearly every one of the songs here were hits when she was a twinkle in her babuji's eye. Indeed, Bollywood Gold draws from the "golden era" from 1960 to 1980, as outlined definitively in Ritu's copious, personable liner notes. The duo of Shiv-Hari, comprising santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma (a fave of Sunn 0)))'s Stephen O'Malley for those keeping track) and leading bansuri (bamboo flute) exponent Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia starts off the volume with "Chandni O Meri Chandni, a duet pairing Jolly Mukherjee with Sri Devi. Devi, known more for her acting, turns out a coquettish performance replete with a stratospheric high-register, while traditional rhythms percolate around western drumset percussion. Similar roiling rhythms and racing strings drive "Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana, voiced by Kishore Kumar, a childhood student of Austrian yodeling of all things, who worked this skill into an acrobatic style all his own. "Mehbooba, Mehbooba," a central tune from the classic Bollywood "Western" Sholay appears here in a rare live version that's alone well worth twice the price of the disc. With a deep-gulleted vocal, composer R.D. Burman leads a rollicking band that grafts raga to garage rock guitar and a two-and-four dance beat seamlessly and perfectly. It's also the first example yet heard on this compilation of the curious filmi trend of speeding the tempo up to a breakneck climax at song's end. Exhilirating. Kudos to Rough Guides for following this up with "In Aankhon Ki Masti" a sublime breath-catcher based on the Urdu-language devotional ghazal form. The mellow whine of a sarangi leads Asha Bhosle's yearning, girlish vocal; tabla rhythms anchor a sitar melody that winds and lilts through ghostly clouds of sympathetic strings.

Like the best work of Morricone and Hermann, things really get fun when the arrangements approach the garish. Burman's "Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera" offers a bizarre interpolation of 60s rock, as if divined (sorry) from a John Waters soundtrack. The scratchy Chuck Berry/Trashmen intro recaps no fewer than three times before an avalanche of strings, then an Afro-Cuban verse, then it's back to "Let's Twist Again" for the chorus. Burman's "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" occupies similar territory with a vacuum-abhorring arrangement of jangly guitar vamping, vibes, string countermelodies, accordion, organ melodies and frenetic rhythms. The track demonstrates another common trait - perhaps based more on budgetary constraints than strict aesthetic - of gulab jamun-sweet string glissandi that are recorded so hot that the tape clips. Kalyanji Anandji cribs an exotic(a) page from Martin Denny with the birdsongs that lead off the seven-minute tour de force "Mere Desh Ki Darti, which somehow pulls off following up a bhajan- (a Hindu devotional song sung in a "round") styled chorus with a rousing surf-rock breakdown punctuated by Gene Krupa-esque snare fills.

As the songs are often quick-cut exercises in themselves, there's so much that stands out on this compilation: Hemant Kumar's instrumental theme from Nagin, where trilling strings flutter around a serpentine synth melody, or the "Happy Trails" shuffle of "Yeh Sham Mastani. One could fill volumes with the nuances. Even for the non-Hindi speaking attuned listener, (incidentally, for whom an added bonus is to figure out what onscreen activity accompanies these tunes) most every emotion evoked by this music from wistfulness to jubilation is undeniable. And that the compositions can stand on their own once separated from the moving image speaks for the craftsmanship of that era. As suggested by Ritu's wide-eyed and wondrous recollections, these songs are intricate, mysterious treasures that deserve lifelong listening.

By Adam MacGregor

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