By Adam Heimlich
BROTHERS Kalyanji and Anandji Shah were but cogs in the staggeringly productive machinery of the Indian film industry in the '70s, when "Bollywood," as the Bombay film center is called, was making a transition from Busby Berkeley-style musical super-extravaganzas to low-budget James Bond-inspired thrillers. Their job was to extrapolate a culture-specific version of the new genre's music from the Western original.
Apparently, Kalyanji and Anandji spent a lot of time locked in a room with nothing but the scores from Dr. No, Shaft, and S.W.A.T., a Casio keyboard, and a sitar. What they produced, with the help of an orchestra of Bollywood session players, outstrips mere imitation. Like the best Bollywood films, it presents a reinterpretation that is at once shamefully derivative and proudly original.
Folks with a less critical ear might simply call it "bizarre," and they wouldn't be wrong.
While Kalyanji and Anandji's suspended animation of opposing musical values is part of the East's version of the birth of hip-hop, the tricky part comes in reinterpreting their reinterpretation for young Westerners. Bombay the Hard Way (Motel Records), a selection of Bollywood soundtrack music, set to hip-hop beats and composed by Kalyanji and Anandji, arrives at the very moment when cultural difference itself is becoming a selling point, no reconfiguration required.
New Agers buying Tibetan chant CDs and college kids getting off on Japanese Muzak are, as we speak, replacing the old problem of fashion-focused aesthetics with culture-focused fashion. This doubles the challenge faced by a label trying to put interesting foreign music in discerning domestic hands.
The album is like a needle in a field of exotic haystacks--and the people who like needles have stopped looking.
Bombay the Hard Way has intentionally degraded its exotica pedigree by hiring Dan the Automator--producer of Dr. Octagon and a few tracks on the last Cornershop and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion albums--to re-engineer Kalyanji and Anandji's tracks. His trademark is a hermetically sealed quality that envelops the music's many out-of-context samples. The result is closer to that of the neo-lounge projects. The CD doesn't deserve to be lumped in with the Indian originals, but that's for the best. Bombay the Hard Way would be no more a purely Indian artifact if left in its '70s form. It makes more sense to build on the composers' original project and tweak it, again, to fit another world.
In this spirit, the album tags its "new" Kalyanji and Anandji tracks with names like "Fists of Curry" and "The Good, the Bad and the Chutney."
To the Automator (aka Dan Nakamura, a Japanese-American from the Bay Area), this process of snowballing recontextualization must be the essence of beat science-- he's pictured in the Bombay the Hard Way booklet wearing a lab coat and safety goggles.
The Automator's slick seguing makes for the first reasoned, Western response to the jarring anti-narratives of Hindi pop. The Mission Impossible theme collapses into a snippet of raga performed by a staid string quartet on "Fear of a Brown Planet"; a bit of dialogue from a Bollywood movie ("Now let's walk English style!") introduces "Satchidananda," driven by an electric bass mimicking the sound of a finger skipped across the head of a tabla drum. "Ganges a Go-Go" sounds startlingly like something off Nuggets (with English lyrics "I've got no time to think/ 'Cause I need somebody to love," it could be an outtake from the Wild in the Streets soundtrack), but with a bit of badly dubbed film dialogue, the whole bit comes off no stranger than your everyday Wu-Tang kung-fu/rap juxtaposition. "Theme from Don" introduces a blaxploitation funk theme, then (without warning) a classical Hindu theme, and then bravely merges them, all over a steady beat.
THERE'S SOMEONE ELSE who speaks Kalyanji and Anandji's language of odd rests and alarming changes. When Bombay the Hard Way's dozens of Bombay surf-rock and Parliament-by-way-of-Loony Toons interludes give way to longer, more grandiose cinematic material, they come off a lot like the restless soundscapes of DJ Shadow. The restrained precision of the beats from "Fists of Curry" and "Satchin-dananda," for instance, boast a vision every bit as three-dimensional and peacefully progressive as Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." Those beats make the best argument for the notion that DJ culture can make sense out of the gaps in music history.
This article originally appeared in Salon.
From the July 8-14, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.