Overlooked Gem: S.B. John

Sunny Benjamin John, a Christian singer from Karachi, is one of South Asia’s overlooked gems!

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S.B (Sunny Benjamin) John is known in Pakistan primarily for his hugely popular song Tu Jo Nahin Hain from the film Savera (1959). It is a wonderful song with lyrics by Fayyaz Hashmi The song introduced John to a national audience. Critically acclaimed as one of the all time classics of Pakistani film music, John almost missed his date with destiny.

He had been down with the flu and fever for several days and only went to the audition on the insistence of a friend.  He apologised to the infamously moody music director Master Manzoor, “I’ve got a fever so won’t be able to sing well,” but Manzoor cut him off and told him to get on with it. After his rendition, Manzoor sat back stunned and exclaimed, “Where have you been all these years?”

History was made and a new voice was discovered.

With the advent of television in…

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Foolkiller: Farewelling Mose Allison

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Mose Allison has passed away, the latest music icon in what is turning into a bumper year for the Grim Reaper.

I came late to his fan club. I was well into my 40s when I first heard Mojo Woman, which stopped me dead in my tracks. The notes moved through the room like meandering molten lava. Every inch of space was conquered by the pristine melody and syncopation.

For the next several years Mose was the man I turned to most frequently when I wanted something no other musician could give: bluesy jazz or jazzy blues. Neither and both.

For years, as I trudged through the snow banks at the University of Minnesota, I would see handbills with Mose’s picture stapled to lampposts all over the campus. Sadly, poverty and limited curiosity kept me ignorant of this genius for 25 more years.

When my wife and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child we were in instant unanimity about what his name would be: Mose. And though we were blessed with a boy and harbored quiet hopes he might take after his namesake, he has not.

But, he is aware of the great man after whom he is named.This afternoon when I announced the news, Mose (the younger) immediately stepped forward and embraced me.

The first thing that amazes you about Mose Allison is his piano playing. It’s fluid, syncopated, lively, inventive and completely off the cuff. He works the keyboard as if it were an orchestra producing swells and variations of sounds and pitch and tone with a dexterity that is endlessly alluring.

The aforementioned Mojo Woman is, of course a wonderful place to start. But there are any number of other pieces such as It’s Crazy and Mule where he takes on and conquers the world with his piano.

Someone said that each of Abba’s songs are mini symphonies. That’s how I feel about Mose’s piano solos. They are filled to bursting with exuberance, jollity and a totally unexpected ‘Aw shucks’ nonchalance.

He was self-taught for the most part. His father had been a semi-professional stride blues player but when his turn came round, Mose opted for boogie woogie. That style’s rapid and repetitious rhythms are evident through almost every Mose Allison piece, even his interpretations of others material.

But there are strains of ragtime and even classical music as well. Indeed, his first and most popular song, Back Country Suite (Young Man Blues) was inspired by Bela Bartok’s blending of folk songs in his classical compositions. “If he could do that, I wanted to try to do the same,” Allison has said.

Allison had no intention to be a singer or songwriter but his first label, Prestige, wanted him to be a pop star. And pop stars needs songs to sing. Allison’s repertoire was drawn from the blues which he grew up with down in Mississippi. “I always change the words and make them my own” he confessed. But he also turned his hand to crafting his own lyrics. Ironically, it was this unforeseen development that attracted attention.

It was especially the first generation of rockers in Britain who fell under Mose’s spell. Peter Townsend, John Mayall, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame all recorded Mose’s songs, giving them a completely new context. New audiences were created and by the late 1960s, Mose Allison had the reputation of the coolest of cool cats in rock ‘n roll circles. He himself was grateful for the exposure and royalties, but never took to the heavy rhythms of rock music. “Its’ hard to improvise with such a strong backbeat.”

Though his songs have not entered the mass consciousness in the same way other singers have, he has had a huge influence within music circles. His lyrics are laced with sardonic often self-deprecating humor and though often philosophical are never heavy or ‘serious’.

When delivered in his conversational, laid back style each song has a lightness about it. And they are often simply hilarious. Case in point, Ever Since the World Ended .

Every since the world ended,
There’s no more bible belt.
Remember how we all pretended?
Going ’round, lying ’bout the way we felt.
Every rule has been amended,
There’s no one keeping score.
It’s just as well the world ended
We couldn’t have taken much more.

The world has not come to end with Mose’s passing. But we are certainly feeling much lonelier today.

Rest in beautiful peace, Mose.

[download a playlist of Mose’s music]

Three Mistakes that Led to My Success

Mistakes made on purpose have played a big part in my success.

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I have a history of making wrong decisions at critical times in my life.

I was raised, like most people in the American middle classes, to place a premium on success. It was important not just to achieve that elusive state but also to be perceived as being successful by others.

Lord knows I tried.

In my college days I agonized about how I was going to launch myself from campus to ‘respected big company’. And once, by some miracle I did that, I stressed about how I would move ever forward in an upward fashion.

A couple of days ago, as I marveled yet again about the wonderful life I’ve had so far, it dawned on me just how much of my success has come, not because I made the right choices, but precisely because I often made the wrong ones.

Here are three of the biggest mistakes I’ve…

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Redemption Song: Farewell to Leonard Cohen

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There is a certain cosmic but bitter timing to what happened in the week gone by.

On Tuesday, we watched a rank caricature of a man capture all the keys to the kingdom. On Thursday, we witnessed the passing of one of the true great souls of popular music. It is as if the arrival of the former demanded the departure of the other, like darkness snuffing out the light.

In this week in which some hailed the revival of democracy, but more feared its demise, Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy (The Future/1992) remains the best lyrical exploration of conflicted America yet.

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

— (Democracy / 1992/ The Future)

As powerful a song as Democracy is though, Leonard Cohen, unlike his friend and only true peer, Bob Dylan, never fancied himself a writer of protest songs. The politics that really interested Cohen were the ones that happened between the sheets and deep in a man’s soul.

Born into a well to do family in Montreal in 1934, Cohen enjoyed a happy, “tribal” childhood secure in the knowledge that his family were well-respected members of the Jewish community. Though he led a folk band in his teens, his first and enduring love was poetry, especially the writings of Spaniard Federico Garcia Lorca, which Cohen credited with giving him permission to express his own voice.

As a young man he moved to London before settling into what he thought would be an idyllic artist’s life on the small Greek island of Hydra. In a lazy atmosphere of writing, loving, spiritual practice and drug taking he honed his unique, svelte way with words. A novel, Beautiful Losers, and some poetry received little attention.

This was, after all, the age of rock ‘n roll – thin volumes of poetry did not exactly fly off the shelf. Frustrated that his long-idealised life as a writer was stalling at the first turn, Cohen gravitated to New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene, where he began to sing some of his poems.

He created waves immediately. Established singers like Judy Collins championed his work. And it wasn’t long before the ultimate talent scout, John Hammond of Columbia Records, the man who had “discovered” Bob Dylan several years earlier, heard Cohen and signed him up. So moved was he that after recording Cohen’s first album, he is said to have exclaimed, “Watch out, Dylan!”

Dylan often comes up in conversations about Leonard Cohen. Both men share much: Judaism, iconic cultural status, insatiable appetites for literature, and a spiritual bent. They are also amiable rivals whose styles are as different as night and day.

While Dylan screamed through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s making headlines, setting trends, shocking and mocking his audience, Cohen focused in on slowly, painstakingly ploughing one furrow at a time. Where Dylan seemed to snap songs in their entirety out of the ether, Cohen could labour for years over a single set of lyrics. His songs often sounded effortless but each had a difficult birth.

With the diligence and humility of a disciple, for over 50 years Cohen practiced his craft. He was a man of meticulous tastes. Things had to be just so. He was wearing dapper suits in the 1960s when most rockers showed the hair on their chests. He tweaked his lines over and over, never quite satisfied even after long periods of effort.

Over the years he developed a lyrical style and musical sound that he burnished into one of pop music’s most elegant and sparkling jewels. And right up to the time of his last album, released just a few weeks ago, his work continued to garner high praise from fans and critics alike.

Extravagance and a pop star’s lifestyle were of no interest to Cohen. He loved living a simple life and as his biographer, Sylvie Simmons, points out, was from a young age obsessed with inner emptiness. This had its dark side but it also introduced a certain minimalist structure to his life.

What mattered was not the house or the jet, but the words and the music. Leonard Cohen’s great contribution has been his unshakeable commitment to exploring the grand themes of human life – love, God and death – within the structure of a pop song. He had the magical ability not just to condense deep philosophical ideas into concise lines but to render them with a gravitas that was nearly scriptural.

Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul
Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned

— (Sisters of Mercy/1967/Songs of Leonard Cohen)

When you listen to a song such as Hallelujah or Anthem you can’t avoid the feeling that they convey ancient human truths. Almost as if they have been channelled from another dimension. And though they were weighty enough to be read liturgically, as a Montreal synagogue did, his songs always hover lightly on the heart. It was a unique magic. Even he seemed transfixed by his creations, claiming that he had no real command of the process.

Despite his self-described happy childhood Cohen struggled with depression for much of his life. And like many in his trade, he sought redemption in drugs and drink. But it was the spiritual discipline such as submitting to the rigours of strict Zen practice for several years in the 1990s that brought the greatest peace.

Yet, though he was ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1996, his melancholy lingered. It was not until he spent the better part of a year attending the lectures of Ramesh Balsekar, Mumbai’s famous Advaita (non-dualism) teacher, that the depression at last “inexplicably” dissipated.

For the best part of a decade, Cohen had released no music and seemed to have retired from public life altogether. But after his time in India, and liberated of depression, Cohen staged a comeback that saw him produce some of best work and reinvent himself as the wise old sage of popular song.

In addition to the powerful and deceptively simple lyrics of his songs, Cohen’s sound was unique and special. All his melodies, he said, were based on six chords he’d learned from a Spanish flamenco guitarist over three short lessons. His teacher took his own life unexpectedly before Cohen’s fourth lesson. But the singer now had a musical framework in which he could set his voice.

Over the years he perfected the interplay of three basic elements: his gravelly baritone, spare thoughtful arrangements of the six chords, founded often on the strains of a nylon-stringed guitar, and female backing vocals.

In time, these elements blended together with such natural warmth it was impossible not to feel blessed by simply hearing the sound. Each song comes wrapped in a beautiful melody and moves at a deliberate, unhurried pace. It is here, in the slow, gentle unfolding of each song that his years spent immersed in Eastern philosophy are most clearly evident.

Cohen’s passing leaves a huge hole in the culture. We will miss his humour and his unflinching love of the human condition. We will miss the sly smile and his elegant double-breasted suits. We will miss his deep “golden voice”. But most of all we will miss the canny prophetic words he seemed to have for every occasion.

His best songs are rich hymns of hope. Not the sort of hope a devotee feels for heaven, but rather the gritty, scarred hope of the broken, doubtful, addicted and beautiful human.

Like a baby stillborn
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out to me
But I swear by this song
By all I have done wrong
I’ll make it all up to you

— (Bird on a Wire/1969/Songs from a Room)

It is that recognition that redemption is available to each of us, no matter what we have done, that is a constant thread through Cohen’s songs.

And that is a good thing to hold on to in this week gone by, where hope is very much needed.

 

 

 

[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SCROLL.IN]

 

The Bitter Revolution

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As an American/Australian I’ve become increasingly unfamiliar with the country where I went to University and spent some of my childhood.

Those days (1975-86) seem halycon ones from this time and place. Gosh, we thought Gerald Ford was a nerd and an idiot. And Jimmy Carter, God Bless him, got pilloried by the press for confessing he ‘lusted after women in his heart’. [Of course, his love of the Allman Brothers Band was pretty cool for a President!]

And in 1980 I remember feeling despair and horror with the assumption of the Oval Office by one Ronald Reagan. In fact, I think my sense of ‘gutted-ness’ was greater back then. How could we have elected a man of such shallowness and retro-ideas?  And his bold jingoistic language at the height of the Cold War was truly frightening.

Of course, in hindsight, Reagan was a far preferable choice than the man Americans have just elected. Reagan may have been dim but he was grandfatherly. And old school. The idea of Ronnie bragging about grabbing any part of a woman’s anatomy, let alone her crotch, is incomprehensible.

I’ve willfully turned my attention away from this campaign so have no opinion on the soundness of any of Trump’s policies. Indeed, other than The Wall, I couldn’t name one. But even way down here in Australia it has been impossible to escape his crude, rude, inflammatory, sophomoric pronouncements. And on that basis alone, I feel sorry for the United States. Is this the man we really want to represent us?

How did this happen?

How did the pundits not detect the millions of disgruntled and angry citizens that came out of the woodwork like armies of termites to cast their votes for a man of such ridiculousness?

I have a cousin (quite a few, if truth be told) who is an ardent fan of the man. Early in the campaign she informed me that it was his business mind that would set America on the right path. She also offered some complaints about foreigners getting help from the government while people like her got nothing. Ever.

I didn’t argue with my cousin. Mainly because I like her and didn’t want a man like Trump to ruin family harmony. But it was my first real exposure to the deep feeling of resentment middle class Americans harbour towards their rulers in Washington.

The real narrative of this election is not Donald Trump, no matter how colourful the media and his team made him.

This is a tale of how truly disenfranchised the average white American feels. And today they expressed their rage. That the Donald is crass, gross and crude and has weird hair is EXACTLY the point. Those who voted for him are saying         ‘ Screw You’ to the entire Establishment. This they could not have done with any of other 16 (!) candidates the Republican machine produced. Bush, Cruz, Rubio and the others were all part of the very system Trump’s supporters detest and distrust.

That the media and commentators did not sense a mighty wind blowing as each one of the other candidates fell by the wayside and Trump stormed through his campaign is an indication of just how far up their own derrieres their heads were.

So the angry white middle class and blue collar American has staged a revolution. But is there a coherent agenda?

There doesn’t seem to be and clearly those holding the pitchforks don’t care.

How many video clips have we seen in which Trump supporters admit they cannot name a single policy position of their hero? This is not because they are idiots. Policy is simply NOT the point in this election. It’s about revenge, pure and simple. Revenge for electing a black man perhaps. Revenge for a world that is changing so quickly. Revenge for an awful lifestyle. [Americans’ real wages have been on a plateau since 1970!]

Now that the anger has been vented, what happens next? Will this translate into real change? Will the forgotten white people of America get a bigger slice of the pie? Or will they be eaten by the system, yet again?

Two final observations.

First, when things started to tilt away from HRC today I came across an article by Paul Krugman. In it he bemoaned the disconnect between the Establishment and those Americans who were delivering a huge win to Trump. The article was insightful as most of his are. But it reeked of the very arrogance Trump supporters so detest. Here was a well educated East Coast liberal speaking about them and their ‘issues’ as if he knew what they really were.

Why, I wondered, don’t we let these people speak for themselves?

Then the penny dropped. They were speaking. Through their votes and their embrace of the comic grotesque mannequin Donald Trump.

Second. Why does Hillary feel she is exempt from doing the final task that is required of every politician in the democratic world who draws the short straw? What her refusal to meet her supporters and concede graciously revealed about her–disconnect, self-importance, arrogance and a sense of scorn for those unlike herself– summed up exactly why this was such a bitter election.