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Ear Is The Bad News

In a land that can boast of a Bhimsen Joshi and a Lata Mangeshkar, why auditory hell blares out in almost every neighbourhood boggles the mind

Ear Is The Bad News
illustration by Jayachandran
Ear Is The Bad News
It's 3 am and the jagaran next door in Indra Vihar has just about reached the point when even the boys and girls who've being eyeing each other all evening are thinking of home and bed. I have been in bed for several hours desperately trying to keep the utter tunelessness of the jagaran chorus out of my head. I've gone through Baba Maal, Coltrane, Peter Tosh and Billy Joel on the CD player, to no avail, the chorus penetrates all.

I begin to think of all the music I've heard unwillingly over the years. I mean, it's all very well when people ask you what kind of music you listen to. They don't seem to understand that mostly my 'listening' is a completely involuntary affair. My ears are powerless, my brain held open with vice-like clamps, while sound masquerading very thinly as music pours into my neural pathways with glee, taking up residence here and there, conducting sight-seeing tours of the weaker parts of my auditory cortex. In some miraculous fashion my brain (and hopefully yours too) manages to filter this out most of the time.

Sometimes, though, some horrible 'chalk-screeching-on-blackboard-while-fingernails-scrabble-on-walls' times, you're left an open, naked, hopeless, helpless sponge. Such moments stand out in horrific, crystalline detail. Ambur-Calicut all night on a ptc bus, trapped right below a tinny distorting speaker while very bad Tamil songs blasted out via a cassette player whose speed varied in a non-linear fashion with that of the bus. Altaf Raja, again all night, six of us and band gear crammed into a Sumo driving Surat-Mumbai, while I tried to figure out why 'Yaaron maine panga le liya' was playing yet again. Do you have your worst music moments too? Write in to me, let's make a collection.

I live in a Punjabi-dominated area and thus jagarans are part of my life. While there are great 'Mata ke bhajan' singers such as Narendra Chanchal, the ones that land up in my neighbourhood seem to be from the Mata D or even E team. And I've played with a Mata B team jagaran band, so I should know. It doesn't help that my studio lies right between the Jhandewalan Mata Mandir and a park where there seems to be a wedding every night. This location allows me to hear the latest Mata hits played through very bad loudspeaker horns all day during Mata season, "Krishna"-based hits during Krishna season and whatever-based hits during whatever season, and it's amazing how many seasons there are. And during wedding season, at least one baraat per night passes by, spending inordinate amounts of time right outside our gate while the brass band plays some mutilated version of 'Main nikla, gaddi leke...' or 'Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai...' All along, just 10 metres or so behind the brass band, the dhol masters play a completely different beat in a completely different tempo, with no apparent impact on either the band or the baraatis. Add to this cars passing by with stereos emitting a dhuk-thiss, dhuk-thiss sound and my misery is complete.

In a land where Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Kumar Gandharva, Nusrat, Lata Mangeshkar and countless others have sung so beautifully about God, the musical hell that wafts out of local neighbourhood temples every day boggles the mind, never mind what it does to the eardrums. In a secular vein, contemplate discos. I avoid these on principle since mindless techno played at deafening levels with both treble and bass speakers distorting mightily makes me feel ill. I have also been trapped into judging various music competitions at different times, where 90 per cent of the competitors should have stayed home.

My good friend and bandmate Asheem claims that there exists a "Krishna mandir" near his house where 'sur' can never penetrate since years of daily bhakti caterwauling has created a dense, impenetrable fog of tunelessness.I'm tempted to create a calendar of cacophony. We can be proactive and actually go out and record our own personal "worst of..." collections for all seasons. These can then be gifted to particularly hated relatives on random religious occasions. And of course, a filmi "worst of...", an Indipop one (a certain Tanya comes to mind as the No. 1 of all time), a Bhangra-remix one. Careful watching of Channel [V], mtv, etc, Zee Music, Lashkara, et al should yield rich dividends in this endeavour.

OK, OK, I got carried away, I admit. Why, I can remember perfectly a Blueline bus ride two years ago where the driver actually played these great Kishore Kumar hits from the '70s. And then there was this drive to Agra.... All right, I'll stop this. Yes of course I've had my moments of music magic. All those wonderful Delhi winter evenings at the Shriram and Chaturlal type Festivals, spic-macay concerts, particularly when one was younger and in love. Luariya singing in his hut in Jalsindhi on the banks of the Narmada. Rare Thursday evenings at the Nizamuddin Dargah when the qawwal families put away their differences and held everyone spellbound. Kanhai and Kartik Baul singing all night. Playing along with Jalaluddin Langa and his mates. Don Cherry at the Jazz Yatra years and years ago.

But notice how I'm reduced to this pitiful beachcomber-like gleaning in my listing of 'good' musical experiences in daily life. And all those were sought out. I don't count listening to recorded music in front of a system at home, that's cheating. So let's just be honest and face it. Unless you actively seek out brilliant concerts every evening, and who has time for that, the music of the streets is your fate. God help you. Happy listening.

(Rahul Ram plays the bass guitar and sings for the band Indian Ocean, whose next album will be released in March.)

Oh Lord 1970: M.S. Subbulakshmi does a classical rendition of 'May The Lord Forgive' at the United Nations

White Noise 1969: Ravi Shankar receives a standing ovation at Woodstock even though he was only tuning his sitar

Siren 1998: Failed actress-moll Mandakini attempts a comeback as a pop diva with '(Sorry Handsome) No Vacancy'.

Copyright 2002: Disco copycat Bappi Lahiri sues producer Dr Dre for lifting his music in a remix hit, ‘Addictive’

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