Showing posts with label Punjabi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Punjabi. Show all posts

Das Racist Splits up

So: Das Racist has split up.

I have mixed feelings about it. As an Indian American kid raised on hip hop in the 1980s and 90s, I was for a while quite taken by the promise of a rap group with two Indian-American members suddenly becoming famous (cover of Spin! K Mart commercials!), even if they were a generation younger than me. But I was also often frustrated with their choices and actual performances (i.e., the terrible performance on Conan), and in some ways I'm not really that surprised they've broken up.  Below I have some thoughts about what I really liked about Das Racist and also some of what I found frustrating.

* * *

I've been aware of Das Racist since Abhi blogged about them on Sepia Mutiny in 2009, though truth be told I didn't actually bother to click on the link and listen until Phillygrrl did her two-part interview (Part 1; Part 2) with Himanshu Suri that September.

I also saw the band perform exactly once, at the Roots Picnic in June 2010 (an event that was photographed and described a little [not by me] here). I meant to write something about my thoughts after that event but didn't. Briefly now: I thought the rise of a rap group with a strong Indian-American presence was kind of amazing, and I wanted to love them -- but the actual live performance was a little disappointing. By that point I had been enthusiastically listening to band's mixtape, "Shut Up, Dude," for a few weeks, and even knew some of the verses to songs like "Ek Shaneesh" by heart.

But at the DR show I went to the sound levels were set so high that it was impossible to hear any actual lyrics. And Heems, Kool A.D., and Dapwell just seemed to be running around the stage like maniacs--not working at all to win over the crowd or draw in potential new fans. DR was followed that afternoon by a Black Thought side project (Money Making Jam Boys), and you could instantly see the difference between Das Racist's self-referential, semi-comic "rap in quotation marks" and the serious posture and delivery style of Black Thought and his peers. Black Thought seemed to care about what he was saying and wanted the audience to hear it and understand it; to my eye, that afternoon, Das Racist did not.

Of course, Das Racist has been, from the beginning, as much interested in commenting on rap music and hip hop culture as they have been in actively participating in it. Even the band's name refers to a famous  MTV meme from 2005 (the band was clearly ahead of the curve in naming themselves after a meme that involved a Gif!). Also, their debut track, "Pizza Hut/Taco Bell," was intended as a kind of clowning version of a rap song, and several of the band's songs on "Shut Up, Dude" seemed to "do" rap more referentially than literally. (The most compelling of these efforts is of course, "Fake Patois," which is beautifully explained and decoded via crowdsourced hypertext links at Rapgenius.)

Still, you can only get so far in rap -- a medium that prizes authenticity and the singularity of the voice (even if those values are present more in the breach than in the observance) -- while performing as a kind of postmodernist simulacrum of a rap group. Either you have to start being real and aim to have an actual career in the music industry, or the joke has to end.

I don't want to suggest that Das Racist didn't write some really amazing lyrics. On their recordings they seem to take their task quite seriously, writing witty and even, sometimes, brilliant verses.

Good vibes PMA
Yeah, believe that
Listening to Three Stacks, reading Gaya spivak
Listening to KMD and feeling weird about Naipaul
Fly or Style Warz, war-style Warsaw
Listening to jams with they pops about dem batty boys
Listening to  Cam while I'm reading Arundhati Roy
Yeah, yeah my pops drove a cab, homes,
Now I drop guap just to bop in the cab home
[Again, see Rapgenius for help decoding some of the obscure references here]

Seeing the references to Gayatri Spivak, V.S. Naipaul, and Arundhati Roy alongside Andre 3000, Cam'ron, and the notorious homophobia of dancehall reggae all in seven short, witty lines is pretty exhilarating. (Not to mention the element of personal biography: Himanshu's father did briefly drive a taxi when he first came to the U.S.)

In a way I am the perfect listener for this sort of song -- as a postcolonial theory scholar and old school hip hop fan, I'm exactly the kind of person who, in college and then graduate school, might have been culturally multitasking on precisely these terms. At some point, I'm pretty sure I've listened to Illmatic or Enter the Wu-Tang while also trying to figure out Homi Bhabha's frequently baffling Location of Culture or Spivak's even more baffling Critique of Postcolonial Reason (interestingly, both hip hop and postcolonial theory can involve readers & listeners hustling to get to the bottom of deeply obscure references).

Despite the exhilarating moments, in the end I often felt a little let down by Das Racist tracks, mainly because the political self-consciousness and desire for critique seemed to lose out to a broader enthusiasm for easier reference points: the banalities of middle-class American consumer culture, and of course the endless references to weed and booze. The booze in particular often troubles me (I'm agnostic on the weed), especially since so many accounts of Das Racist performances in recent years have described the trio as drunk on stage (Google "Das Racist drunk" to see what I mean). From Das Racist I wanted to hear more songs like "Ek Shaneesh" and "Fake Patois" and fewer that contained verses like this one:

Finna spark an L and have myself a Big Mac Attack
Known to rock the flyest shit and and eat the best pizza
Charge that shit to Mastercard, already owe Visa
Catch me drinking lean in Italy like I was Pisa
We could eat the flyest cage-aged cheese for sheez, ma
Pizza, big macs, mastercard, visa, the leaning tower of Pisa... Oy, vey. Can we go back to talking about Arundhati Roy, Gary Soto, and Junot Diaz again? I was feeling that more.

To his credit, Himanshu has taken an approach on his solo mixtapes that seems a little more serious. There were the amazing Punjabi tracks on Nehru Jackets, for one thing (see especially "Chakklo," track 15).  But even more than that I was impressed by the searing condemnation of police brutality and corruption in "NYC Cops" (see Rap Genius again).

Himanshu's second mixtape, Wild Water Kingdom, wasn't quite as strong as Nehru Jackets overall, though I did think the track "Soup Boys," which samples the viral Indian pop hit, "Why this Kolaveri Di?" and nicely mixes the postmodernist randomness of Das Racist with elements of protest and critique (drone warfare, Islamaphobia, Hinduphobia... lyrics at Rapgenius).  

Translation Workshop: Prabhjot Kaur's "Bewildered" (UPDATED)

My first attempt a couple of months ago at translating from Punjabi was humbling, but I'm back to give it another shot. As readers may remember, with help from a couple of friends, I put forth an attempt at a translation in the earlier post, only to find that Jasdeep of Parchanve did a much better job of it in the comments.

I'm still looking at the same anthology of Experimental Punjabi Poetry from 1962 (Prayogashil Punjabi Kavita), though this time I'm looking at a poem by Prabhjot Kaur, "Pashemaan Haan," or "Bewildered." This time, with humility in mind, I'll just translate the first three verses today, and put out a call for help from our friend in Chandigarh (Jasdeep) as well as anyone else who might wish to help. The poem is on the theme of corruption....

Translating from the Punjabi -- K.S. Duggal

I have been looking at an obscure volume of Punjabi poetry published in 1962, as part of a project I'm doing on South Asian progressive and modernist writing. The volume, Prayogashil Punjabi Kavita ("Experimental Punjabi Poetry," edited by Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia), has never been translated as far as I can tell.

One poem I've found particularly challenging, owing in part to the vocabulary, is by Kartar Singh Duggal. Duggal is a writer whose short stories I know well & have worked on over the years; this is the first time I've seen any of his poetry. Below are three renditions of the poem, the Gurmukhi/Punjabi, the Roman Punjabi, and finally an attempt at an English version. In some cases I had trouble getting Google's "Transliterate/Punjabi" site to render certain Gurmukhi letters, so I left those words in Roman.

Incidentally, I don't necessarily know that I love the message of this poem yet; I'm more interested in the kinds of ideas and the style of the poetry from this period.

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ
ਮੁਸ ਮੁਸ ਕਰਦੀ ਹੋਈ
ਲਿਬੜੀ ਹੋਈ ਵਿਸ਼ ਨਾਲ
ਕੱਜੀ ਹੋਈ, ਢਕੀ ਹੋਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੇਇ,
ਚਘ੍ਲੀ ਹੋਈ, ਚਟੀ ਹੋਈ
ਕੁਤਰੀ ਹੋਈ, ਛਿਜੀ ਹੋਈ
ਗੰਢੀ ਹੋਈ, ਤ੍ਰਪੀ ਹੋਈ.

ਫਿਰ ਈ ਹੈ
ਫੁਲਿਆ ਹੋਇਆ ਅੰਗ ਅੰਗ,
ਸੁਜ਼ਿਆ ਹੋਇਆ ਬੰਦ ਬੰਦ,
ਅਕ੍ਰੀ ਹੋਈ, ainthee ਹੋਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ
ਪੂਰੇ ਦਿਨਾ ਦੇ ਨੇਰੇ,
ਆਲਸੀ ਹੋਈ, ਹਫੀ ਹੋਈ
ਢਾਹਿ ਢਾਹਿ ਪੈਂਦੀ ਪਈ

ਫਿਰ ਆਈ ਹੈ,
ਝਗ ਝਗ ਬੁਲੀਆ ਤੇ,
ਮੈਲ ਮੈਲ ਦੰਡੋ-ਦੰਡ,
ਕੂੜ ਦੀ ਪੰਡ ਨਿਰੀ.
ਫਿਰ ਈ ਹੈ ਫਾਈਲ
ਹਾਜਾਈ ਔਰਤ ਦੀ ਤਰਾ.

Phir Aaee Hai (written in 1962)
by Kartar Singh Duggal

phir aaee hai
mus mus karde hoee
libRee hoe vish naal
kajee hoee, DHakee hoee.

phir aaee hai,
chaghlee hoee, chaTee hoee
kutree hoee, chhajee hoee
gandhee hoee, trappee (?) hoee

phir aaee haie,
phuliaa hoyaa ang ang,
sujiaa hoeaa band band,
akRee hoee, ainTHee hoee

phir aaee hai,
pure dina de neRe
alsaaee hoee, haphee hoee
dhahi dhahi paindee pei

phir aaee hai,
jhag jhag buleeaa te,
mail mail dando-dand,
kooR dee panD niree
phir aaee hai phaaeel
harjaaee aurat dee taraa

Still She Comes

[UPDATE: I decided to remove my own attempt at a translation, as Jasdeep, in the comments put forward a much better rendering of the poem, which I'm now copying and pasting.]

again, she has come
smiling coyly
doused in venom
veiled, concealed

again, she has come
disgraced, decrepit
clipped , smacked
sewn, stitched

again, she has come
puffed up body
swollen limbs
numbed, stiffened

again, she has come
in the last days
slumberous, exhausted

again, she has come
frothing mouth
begrimed teeth
like a pile of trash
agin, the file has come
like a fallen woman

Assuming that the meaning as rendered above is roughly correct, what is this poem actually about? What is Duggal's "message"?

How to Gender a Hawk ("Shikkra"): a look at a Shiv Kumar Batalvi poem

I came across a link to the Punjabi poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi on YouTube earlier today, in the course of doing some research for an encyclopedia entry I'm working on. It's Shiv Kumar himself, probably sometime in the early 1970s. Shiv Kumar in person is every bit as magnetic and mannered as you might expect.

After I shared the link on Twitter, Sepoy of Chapati Mystery sent me a link to a Shiv Kumar poem he liked, which then led me to yet another Shiv Kumar poem here, as sung by Jagjit Singh:

Here it is in transliterated Punjabi (forgive any errors; I'm doing this partly by ear):

Maye ni Main ik shikkra yaar banaya
Ohde sir te kalgi
Te perin jhanjar
Oh chogg chuginda aayea
Ik oh de roop di dhoop thikeree
Oh duja mekhan tirhaya
Teeja oh da rang gulabi
oh kise gori maa da jaaya

Ishq da ik palang navare
be aisa chandni vichdaya
dhan di chatt ho gai maili
us pair chappal ke paaya

Dukhan mere Naina De Koye,
Te vich Harh Hanjua Da Aya,
Sari Raat Gayi vich Socha,
Us Aye Ki zulm Kamaya,
Subha Savere Layni Vatna,
We Asa Mal Mal os Navaya,
Dehi De vich Niklan Chinga,
Ni Sada Haath Gaya Kumlaya,
Churi Kuta Ta O Khanda Nahi,
Weh Asa Dil Da Maas Khawaya,
Ek Udari Aisi Mari, -2
O Mud Vatni Na Aya,
O Maye Nee, Main Ek Shikra Yaar Banaya

And here is how one person translated the poem in English:

Mother! Mother!
I befriended a hawk.
A plume on his head
Bells on his feet,
He came pecking for grain.
I was enamored!

His beauty
Was sharp as sunlight.
He was thirsty for perfumes.
His color was the color of a rose,
The son of a fair mother.
I was enamored!

His eyes,
Were an evening in springtime.
His hair, a dark cloud.
His lips,
A rising autumn dawn.
I was enamored!

His breath
Was filled with flowers,
Like a sandalwood garden.
Spring danced thru his body
So bathed was it in fragrances.
I was enamored!.

In his words
Blew the eastern breeze,
Like the sound of a blackbird.
His smile was the whiteness of a crane in the rice fields,
Taking flight at the clap of a hand.
I was enamored!.

I laid
A bed of love
In the moonlight.
My body-sheet was stained
The instant he laid his foot on my bed.
I was enamored!

The corners of my eyes,
A flood of tears engulfed me.
All night long I tried to fathom
How he did this to me.
I was enamored!

Early in the morning
I scrubbed and bathed my body
With vaTana.
But embers kept bursting out,
And my hands flagged.
I was enamored!

I crushed choori,
He would not eat it.
So I fed him the flesh of my heart.
He took flight, such a flight did he take,
That he never returned.
I was enamored!

Mother! Mother!
I befriended a hawk.
A plume on his head
Bells on his feet,
He came pecking for grain.
I was enamored!

What struck me at first, reading that, was the surprise at what seemed to be a celebration of male beauty. His beauty, his eyes, his body... um, is there something about Shiv Kumar we should know?

Another interesting thought from my wife, who noticed that "Jhanjar" would be the anklets that might be worn by a woman, while a "kalgi" would generally be an adornment for a man (as in, ornamentation on a turban). The fact that these two images are juxtaposed does seem to support the idea of a kind of ambiguously gendered love-object.

Actually, the gendering of the word "hawk" ("shikkra") is male in Punjabi, but it's probably a mistake to read too much into that accident. The literary critic Manjit Singh, in "Glimpses of Punjabi Poetry," suggests that the inspiration for the poem (one of Shiv Kumar's earlier works) was a woman who betrayed him:

Another source of inspiration for his poetry was Anushia, who came in his life and promised him life-long companionship. Now Shiv felt somewhat comforted but when she left for abroad without any intimation, he could not bear the loss a second time and sent messages to her to return but she did not come. Shiv likened here to the bird 'Shikkra'... (Manjit Singh, "Glimpses of Modern Punjabi Literature", 1994)

Ok, so maybe this poem isn't what the English translation might make it seem like it is. It's still interesting to me that he chose a metaphor that is so strongly masculine for this poem of longing, loss, and betrayal.

Incidentally, if anyone reading this wants to correct either the transliteration or the translation (which is not my own), I'd be grateful.

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.