The Undead

Why this album of cover versions of some of Hindi cinema's most ironic songs has' 'hauntology' written all over it

01 November, 2011

WITH MY CAB WAITING OUTSIDE, I hopped into Rhythm House; I was looking for The Bartender: Classic Bollywood, Shaken not Stirred (Sony Music). Rhythm House, a music store established in the 1940s, is something of a Mumbai institution but torrent(ial) reigns (puns intended) these past few years have no doubt shaken the Kala Ghoda landmark.

Since magazines are all I’ve purchased on my recent visits, I was certain I’d be cartographically clueless when it came to locating the album, so I sought the help of the staff. After a couple of sharp turns around the corners of heavily stacked shelves, he promptly held out The Bartender. I thanked him and began rushing to the cash counter—thinking of my ticking taximetre—when he directed me to Prem Joshua’s CD, Prem Joshua and Band, on the next shelf, and suggested with some authority that I also consider the German Indophile. A personalised and offline, albeit entirely misguided, ‘similar products you may like’ service.

Mikey McCleary, who has conceptualised and produced The Bartender. PUNEET CHANDOK/HT PHOTO

I can’t claim to have an in-depth knowledge of Joshua’s discography, but I’ve given some ear-time to several of his tracks. From that experience alone I’d like to assert with the appropriate amount of authority that the Oshoite’s shiny happy music—complete with album titles like Secret of the Wind (1996), Water Down The Ganges (2001) and most recently, Luminous Secrets (2010)—has little in common with the spare and haunting arrangements of The Bartender. It can only be presumed that the staffer’s recommendation had to do with the fact that, produced by Mikey McCleary, the latter album too is a firang’s. Nothing else can explain this dubious package deal.

McCleary was born in India, grew up in New Zealand and worked in London before finally heading back to Mumbai, where he currently lives and works. The 42-year-old songwriter, composer, performer and producer has worked on several projects locally; he began his career in India by composing music for Lucky Ali’s Sunoh (1996). More recently he produced a handful of songs for Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha (2010). And now, McCleary has conceptualised and produced The Bartender, an album of cover versions of some of Hindi cinema’s most iconic songs.

Although there is little doubt that McCleary’s smoky arrangements make for a compelling drinking companion, the album’s title is unfortunately reminiscent of the dreaded remix formulas of the 1990s—the sounds, also known as jhankaar beats, that were inescapable that decade, when every popular song would have a remixed jhankaar twin audible over the noise of traffic and the furious revving of a rickshaw. However, that’s not something you should hold against the album; marketing strategies are conundrums best left undiscussed here.

The slipcase of the CD has a slip-up of its own. A certificate of honour of sorts packaged within lists the album’s salient features: “Vintage classics with a contemporary twist” is one such highlight. Marketing jargon redux. This time the album’s really selling itself short—making it sound ordinary when it’s got hauntology written all over it. Allow me to explain.

The term ‘hauntology’ was coined by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book, Specters of Marx. Explaining hauntology, he writes about a past that “is neither living nor dead, present nor absent: it spectralises. It does not belong to ontology, to the discourse on the Being of beings, or to the essence of life or death. It requires, then, what we call, to save time and space rather than just to make up a word, hauntology.”

Even as he activated it, Derrida was aware that hauntology is an awkward term and felt obliged to explain his choice of vocabulary; hauntology won’t be winning a phonaesthetics prize anytime soon. Besides, for some inexplicable reason the term calls to mind ‘horn ok please’, the ubiquitous phrase painted on the behinds of commercial vehicles. Truth be told, ‘horn ok please’ and hauntology have a connection: If the former warns vehicles to blow their horns and announce their intention to overtake, then hauntology is that same vehicle approaching from behind, waiting to race past.

Think comparing a concept put forth by a giant of continental philosophy to a chuckle-inducing Indianism is cheeky? Then this album’s got some more cheeky for you. How does one even begin to compete with Mohammed Rafi on ‘Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho’ from 1972’s Hanste Zakhm? Simple, you turn the song on its head by bringing in a feisty young female vocalist. Suman Sridhar’s cover doesn’t play out like the original. No taxi joyride, no breeze to ruffle driver Navin Nischol’s cravat and definitely no pouting Priya Rajvansh. Sridhar’s cover stings like a papercut—and is smoother than the richest of velvet.

Although the album contains four Rafi classics, and one by Hemant Kumar, it has an all-girl lineup: Monica Dogra, Anushka Manchanda, Mauli Dave and Sagarika Mukherjee are the others. When they’re not taking on the dudes, this motley group of indie singers is breaking beats with Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt, both redoubtable.

The best covers, like of Jimi Hendrix doing Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, or of Nirvana reworking David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, don’t try to outdo the original. They just make a new song out of it. The same holds true for most of the tracks on this album; after all, competing with the originals in this case would be harakiri.

To return to that word: hauntology in music first started getting attention around 2005; and so some might insist that the moment has passed. But the thing about hauntology is that the moment has never passed. We only need to look around us to realise that the spectres of the past still gain traction in contemporary culture—and that the old Urdu phrase, der aaye durust aaye (better late than never), has never been more pertinent. Unconvinced? Then listen to Kaifi Azmi’s poetry in ‘Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam’ from Kaagaz Ke Phool, originally sung by the ethereal Geeta Dutt, and covered in The Bartender by Mauli Dave. The song is almost prophetic in its announcement of the intentions of the past.

Ever since the term hauntology was adopted by music writers and critics, it has often been used in reference to dubstep. McCleary’s album, however, has little in common with the tightly wound MO of that genre of electronic, in which esoteric scraps of music—audio samples as varied as old news telecasts and advertisements—are cast as ghostly emissaries. The Bartender has an altogether different set of hauntological markers.

To begin with, there’s the album’s slow-burning, low-fi temperament, for which the steady beat held by the cymbal in most of the songs is, in particular, responsible. It comes at you like the footfalls of the past, followed by a supporting cast of ambling drumbeats, sharp guitar moves and some sweet sax work. Added brassiness is thrown in by Kishore Sodha, RD Burman’s original trumpet player.

Majrooh Sultanpuri is one among the poet-lyricists whose works feature in the album. HT PHOTO

Significantly for the album’s Derridean atmosphere, nine of its 10 songs have been written by poet-lyricists—Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra—who more than just leaned to the left. In 1949, Sultanpuri’s anti-establishment poetry got him thrown into jail, and his refusal to apologise resulted in a two-year sentence; Shailendra was a leading light of the left-wing Indian People’s Theatre Association; in 1942, Azmi participated in the Quit India agitations, and a year later accepted membership of the Communist Party of India. A member of the famous Progressive Writers’ Movement along with Azmi, Ludhianvi’s activism led the government of Pakistan to issue an arrest warrant for him, causing him to flee Lahore for Delhi in 1949.

And so the song selection on this album raises the ghosts of a more nuanced, lyrical past. Although none of the songs are actively political, the men who wrote them were. Every time you listen to the song ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ from Yash Chopra’s 1976 film of the same name, remember that Ludhianvi also wrote ‘Taj Mahal’—not as lyrics for that 1963 film, but as a standalone poem. In it the poet urges his lover to meet him someplace other than Shah Jahan’s Taj because he believes that its grandeur and beauty are the result of a haughty emperor’s will. Shah Jahan’s monument of love belittles and makes light of the loves of the impoverished, he asserts.

In The Bartender the interred past is made undead, and reiterates its intentions. And to think I haven’t even begun to invoke the ghosts of Guru Dutt, Meena Kumari and Geeta Dutt.