Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A newbie's introduction to Nirvana and the Experience Music Project

There is this excellent, really enlightening piece on Nirvana's advocacy of feminism on the Daily Beast which has inspired this post. 
The 20th anniversary of the release of their album, 'Nevermind' just went by on September 24 and the stories about it were all over the media including CNN and local radio stations.

Growing up in India in the pre-MTV and nascent stages of the cable/MTV revolution, I hardly had any access to Western rock and pop music.  I listened to Bollywood numbers and old Hindi classics that were played on Vividh Bharati and some FM channels. Occasionally, we bought tape cassettes of the latest blockbuster (because you see, dear non-Indian reader, Indian movies have songs and dances built into them and the film industry has so completely dominated popular music as well that the only independent music that existed in its own right was Indian classical with some devotional music. Indipop, comprising native Indian pop singers was still a poor cousin in popularity). Things are changing now with lots of rappers coming on the scene but independent Indian music that is not classical or devotional still has a long way to go.

If you were born after 1993, you might be horrified to think that we had to deal with ancient, primitive devices such as tape recorders and walkmans:). Some people in my generation rib each other about this, ha ha, so this is not an original joke but anyway...

I heard Western music when my teenage neighbor in the apartment complex where I grew up would blare out songs from the stereo in his house and the adults would get all worked up about it, especially if you were studying for some crucial exams such as your tenth or twelfth grade Board examinations that still determine the course of most Indians' lives.
For some people, Western music and culture was still associated with drugs, decadence and no melody, all noise. However, many embraced music in all varieties, too.
Then, of course, came college life and during college festivals, giant speakers blared out hits such as 'We will, we will rock you', 'Where do you lovely...' (one of my favorites) while waiting for the crowd to assemble for events as we active participants darted about in preparation. Those were the nostalgic days...
My roommates played FM while completing assignments, in fact, one of them could not get any work done without something humming in her ears whereas I could not do any work that required intense analysis except in perfect silence. Routine, brain-numbing, grunt work assignments were okay, though so I got introduced to songs such as 'Don't love me for fun me for a reason, let the reason be love' thanks to my friends. No hard feelings, I enjoyed such experiences that my college life gave me and cherish my friendships.
I had heard of Nirvana but never heard them. In fact, I started paying more attention to this band only recently.

One of the sources of my interest was the movie, Definitely, Maybe which is one of my all-time favorite love stories. The heroine (there are actually three actresses that play the hero's love interests), April Hoffman, played by Isla Fischer, incredulously asks the character of the hero, William Hayes, played by Ryan Reynolds, how come he has not heard of Nirvana. The scene where they both get together at April's house for the first time has Nirvana's track, 'Come As You Are' playing in the background.
This movie not only struck a chord with me but I found surprising parallels between the characters and events/people in my life and I also noticed similar coincidences with Nirvana. Without going into too much personal detail, let me sum it up by saying that I grew more curious and enchanted with the image and impact of this band.
During this time period, while living in the United States, I started listening to radio stations more than ever before and have become a fan of Coldplay (knowing Chris Martin distinctively from his vocals rather than just Gwyneth Paltrow's husband), U2, Green Day, the Killers, Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Snow Patrol, Sarah McLaughlin, Katy Perry, Adele, Lady GaGa, newer artists/bands such as Mat Kearney, Owl City, Mumford and Sons and many others. I also became acquainted with terms such as 'grunge' and 'alternative rock', thanks to Pandora, Wikipedia and the Internet in general.

I must thank Portland, Oregon's radio stations for my music education. The first among them, (101.9) plays music from all eras and even has online streaming radio. I got introduced to Lady GaGa and Katy Perry through another channel, 105.1 and now I also listen to 103.3.

More than a month ago, I visited the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle, Washington. This is a very unique museum where they have exhibits related to movies and music with actual equipment displayed with explanations. When I visited, they were showcasing Nirvana, the landmark 3-D film, Avatar and the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica.
I had come across a headline somewhere a few days before that Kurt Cobain was from Aberdeen, Washington and hearing the lovely, well-informed guide talk about Cobain's adolescence in Aberdeen, his growth as a musician and his guitar smashing in the dorm of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington made me feel proud as a former resident of Olympia. [Note: Guitar smashing is probably cool to some musicians but in India, smashing a musical instrument would be sacrilege, tantamount to insulting Goddess Saraswathi, the goddess of knowledge. This is not to be judgmental, just that different people across various cultures treat art differently.]

It was interesting to hear about Kurt Cobain's support of gay rights, the do-it-yourself culture of the punk rock movement where band members and fans themselves designed T-shirts, promoted themselves through fliers and played at various venues. In fact, as explained by the guide who happened to be a Nirvana fan herself and passionate about her work, the mainstream came to Nirvana rather than them going to the mainstream, begging to be recognized. It is sad that he died so young.

I was surprised to see the number of small and big bands that have come out of the Pacific Northwest, especially the Seattle area.  Here is a picture of the map of the region with the names of the bands that originated here and the interconnections amongst them that was displayed in the museum:

                              Nirvana and other bands in the map displayed in the Experience Music Project

The museum also had a demo room where one could try out different musical instruments, in fact, there is a table where you can tap on the images of drum-like instruments from different cultures and hear what they sound like. There are karaoke rooms where one can sing along like a professional recording an album for a certain allotted time. If I remember the names of the songs and the artists correctly, I tried some songs such as Sarah McLaughlin's 'I will remember you', Nirvana's 'Smells like Teen Spirit' and a couple others by Stevie Wonder and Heart ('Crazy on you'). I had never heard any of them before as far as I could remember except the song by Sarah McLaughlin.

                    An exhibit featuring different kinds of guitars at Seattle's Experience Music Project

They could build a musical center along similar lines in India, we have a ton of classical instruments that would educate millions about music.
One of my friends and I were discussing this long ago that the music industry in India should start having its own identity. We need to move away from the mundane lyrics on love and hot girls so that the youth can express their aspirations, dreams and frustrations through music, come up with original scores and styles and, in short, create a unique profile.
I am sure there are many Indipop bands now that I do not know of. Pop artists such as Alisha Chinai (who can forget 'Made in India'), Suneeta Rao, Shweta Shetty (loved her 'Deewane deewane to deewane hain') and many others truly did light up my school and college days.

It is true, music can cross all barriers, but only if you open your mind.  Many of us keep listening to the old and familiar in the languages we know rather than new melodies in other languages, even those of our own country. Thank goodness A.R. Rahman was discovered by the Hindi film industry and later by Hollywood or else many would have never been exposed to his brilliant and refreshing musical scores.
I have a theory: it has a lot to do whether you are a 'lyrics' person or a 'tunes' person. I am more of a 'tunes' person, that is, I tend to focus more on the melody than the lyrics, in fact, I completely bungle up words in songs at times so I am game for music in any language.
There is an earlier post of mine on encouraging a wide variety of vocal chords in the Indian music industry.

All said, I am deeply grateful for the freedom and ability to enjoy all kinds of music and cannot imagine life without it.

Note: This post has been slightly modified since yesterday. Please look for text in italics and brown for updates.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The last post should have been titled Doctor Zhivago

The last post should have been titled Doctor Zhivago because that is the name of the novel. Sorry about that.

Dr. Zhivago - Some thoughts - On freedom

I started reading Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago a few days ago.
Set in the early 1900s, this novel has the backdrop of a tumultuous period in Russian history - the start of the Bolshevik revolution that transformed the country into the world's largest, (probably the first?) and most dreaded Communist regime. I am reading the version translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
First of all, this is not a novel you can read casually while the radio is belting out your favorite songs and you have other things on your mind. The book has so many details that to truly grasp the era in which it was set, you have to give it all, mind, body and soul.

The novel started me thinking very deeply about individual freedom, political and economic freedom, socialism, communism, democracy, capitalism, the Cold War and America's role in promoting democracy around the world. I did a Wikipedia search on democracy and was astounded at the sheer volume of data on this subject. I knew that the ancient Greeks had pioneered this concept and that there were some ancient/medieval kingdoms in India that had some form of democracy, too.

America did not invent democracy; rather, it was one of the first governments to implement a direct democracy (voting by the people) and do away with the monarchy completely.
This is what other people should realize when they feel that America is imposing their way of life on the world or when they are bristling with a mix of anger and envy at the U.S. branding of democracy.

The concepts of individual freedom, welfare and human rights were espoused by Jesus, too, in a slightly different fashion and perhaps by many ancient faiths such as Buddhism. The Indian emperor, Asoka, who was a violent and over-ambitious warrior, embraced Buddhism and repented for his ways, then transformed into a peacemaker and defender of compassion.

Individual freedom and rights got translated into the political sphere gradually with the introduction of democratic practices. Some city states had councils elected by a portion of the general public and slowly, over the ages, through the landmark document of Magna Carta and violent revolutions such as the French Revolution, every individual has come to matter in decision making. There were local village councils and tribal societies where some form of popular consensus was involved if not direct voting. Even the U.S. gradually granted suffrage to non-white people and women. In short, democracy has been and continues to be a "work in progress" (do see this post on 'work in progress' by one of my favorite bloggers). All the above information is gleaned from Wikipedia although I must credit my old school history books and other sources of information on the Internet, too.

I was thinking - what contributes to some societies descending into totalitarianism and some others making it as free societies with good law and order? Imagine if India were not led by Gandhi and Nehru but by some over-enthusiastic communist revolutionaries ready to take the law into their own hands. Would India have (shudder) descended into a despotic dictatorship or communist regime like China, the former Soviet Union or Vietnam or Pol Pot's Cambodia? For all their shortcomings, India was lucky to have leaders with the humanitarianism and insight of Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and others.

I felt terribly sad for Russia, for all those lost souls who were too afraid to speak up against a cruel regime, for those who lost their lives and families in opposing it, for their lost ideals and potential.
From what I read and have seen in the past, Russia was a land of  poets and intellectuals such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, of ballet dancers, music composers, great thinkers and romantics, men and women of peace, justice and idealism.

[I am loving Wikipedia! I learnt a lot more about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (also spelled as Dostoevsky) than before. I did not know that Tolstoy was instrumental to Gandhi's principle of non-violence and other ideas directly although I knew that they were friends.]

Classical proverb: The pen is mightier than the sword.

Coincidentally, I am reading this novel during the Banned Books Week. Doctor Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union for a really long time and the author, Boris Pasternak, had to even turn down the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I have come to realize that one's understanding of literature, the characters, the milieu and even views on romance, marriage, family life and world views as espoused in a novel, can only be truly fully grasped when you know the socio-economic and political background of the author. This is even more so in the case of certain novels, such as Doctor Zhivago.
I had read somewhere (can't find this resource now) that a work of art is so unique that the loss of an author/artist is irreplaceable. In science, however, the discovery of a principle or law of the universe or anything that exists can be done by subsequent generations, even if the scientist were not there. As a student of science, I remember feeling a little riled up about this piece but I know know that this does not mean that the contributions of Newton or Einstein or Pasteur are to be devalued. It is just that art is ultimately the world view and even the soul of the artist whereas science's discoveries belong to the universe itself.
They should teach courses in school that are holistic, that involve history, contemporary literature and art, science and economics, religion, all rolled together into a delicious intellectual stew so that students appreciate how different ingredients blend together. More on that later...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Neuro-Linguistic Programming series

There is a new self-improvement technique that I am currently exploring - Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

I have been listening to some sessions for free online, having come across this courtesy of Steve Pavlina.

This is a series put together by Learning Strategies. There are two presentations and a bonus presentation that is being offered free of charge until Thursday. The series began on September 12, 2011. I did not start listening until day 4 (to the previous day's presentations) and have been forwarding it to all my friends.

Here's the link:

You can listen to new daily sessions from 9 p.m. Eastern Time until the same time next day, for ten days starting from September 12, 2011. 

After the 10 day period, one has to pay for it.

NLP stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming and is designed to help you understand yourself better,  get rid of negative thoughts and behaviors and live up to your true potential.
An online Festival of Powerful Change and Achievement brought to you Free of Charge by Learning Strategies!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It is ordinary citizens that make a city

People generally think of icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa when they talk about the people who have made the most difference to a country or to humanity at large.

However, the common citizen has a lot to contribute, too, and thousands of responsible, fun-loving citizens doing their everyday jobs with passion truly make a city a great place to live or visit.

While I was in India, I probably did not appreciate the fruit vendors, the 'chaat' (spicy Indian fast food commonly sold on streets) stall owners and the artists who would draw giant 'rangoli' portraits of Jesus or Hindu deities as much as I notice and admire the stall owners who sell hand crafted soaps or fresh blueberries or paintings drawn by hand. The United States as commonly seen on TV and in Hollywood movies is depicted as a country of fast-paced, modern cities with skyscrapers, glamorously dressed folks, cool stores and restaurants.
There is another fascinating side to the States - that of the country life. People who own small farms and even vineyards, starting up their own winery or bakery, in short, agro-entrepreneurs - pardon me, this is a term that I have coined myself:). There are city fairs where you find vendors selling charming products such as all natural handmade soaps, lotions and candles, folks who sell handicrafts, paintings and bracelet charms.

Above:  The marketplace under the banyans in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii where artists sell their wares                                      
Below: Tender coconut shells near a small roadside stall in Maui, Hawaii

There are those people who run their own outdoors company and take customers out on fun rafting/snorkeling/scuba diving trips. These are filled with young, enthusiastic people, typically those out of college or older employees who take up summer gigs.

                                          Sand dune buggy ride in Florence, Oregon  

Then there are the myriad restaurants, serving up everything from freshly squeezed juice to pastries to steak or purely vegan/vegetarian restaurants. In fact, the number of small coffee shops, bistros, patio restaurants and bars in many US cities is simply staggering. This is not even counting all the 'proper' restaurants serving three course meals.

                                          City view of Seattle from Queen Anne Hill

Case in point: A few weekends ago, we were on a visit to Seattle. While meandering around the picturesque and warm, welcoming Queen Anne neighborhood, we walked into this absolutely charming coffee shop tucked away in a corner. To top it off, it was next door to a bookstore, Queen Anne bookstore. The cafe is called El Diablo and they serve Cuban style coffee such as Cordanito and snacks such as chips with mango salsa. The interior decor is absolutely funky, combining Spanish style colors with the eccentricity of the Northwest. They have a sofa in a corner called the Love Grotto:) and another wall shows a picture of a devil like creature whispering 'Drink more coffee' and an angel whispering 'Eat more cake' to the same guy.
I fell in love with their Cafe Con Leche which is a latte concocted with Cuban style espresso with the sugar mixed in and foamy milk. Mmm... The accompanying mango salsa with chips and the toast that I had ordered were absolutely lip-smacking. The prices were reasonable, with some items being slightly above that in, say a Starbucks although I must say their menu is unique and has options for vegetarians and vegans, too.

                                          Flower bouquets at Seattle's Pike Place Market
No matter what you do for a living, if you do it with all your heart and contribute to the community around you while acting as a conscientious, good citizen, you are enriching your neighborhood, city, country and the entire world. So blaze a trail in your own way. Build eco-friendly, charming structures, grow and sell organic produce, decorate interiors with ethnic charm, offer free dental/medical services occasionally to the poor, volunteer at the local park, do something that makes a positive difference.

It is the citizens that make or break a city.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The abortion issue - Part I

I was watching the Republican Presidential nomination debate last night. One of the candidates mentioned President Obama's policy regarding the Plan B contraceptive and opposed it, classifying it as 'the abortion pill'.
The Plan B contraceptive as most of you would know is also known as 'the morning after pill'. When you have had a wild drunken night and have forgotten to use protection and are freaking out about getting knocked up, that's the pill that would probably first come to the top of your mind.
The main reason for objecting to this emergency contraceptive is that it may facilitate abortion by preventing the already fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, thus killing off a potential living being.
However, the site for the Plan B contraceptive categorically states that it does not affect an already existing pregnancy.
Some people such as the group Physicians for Life disagree.
I am not a gynecologist so I would advise people reading this to search for information on contraception from reputed health sites or ask their doctors. Anyway, I am trying to explore this issue from different angles and the perspective of public policy making.

I was thinking: True, even if this pill may not allow the fertilized egg to grow into a fetus, isn't that a better alternative to allowing abortion at a later date? There are two possibilities if the abortion pill were not freely available but regular abortion were to be legal in at least some states:

Depending on religious beliefs, economic conditions and proximity to the place where abortion is legal, a woman could either
(a) choose to abort an already implanted embryo    or
(b) carry the pregnancy to full term and then decide whether to raise the child or give him/her up for adoption

Note: The following argument is based on the premise that Plan B actually worked to prevent the fertilized egg from implanting rather than preventing fertilization. 

***************************Begin ************************************************

If you are a staunch believer that the fertilized egg should have the same status as a fetus with a head or even a real baby, then this issue is a closed book. There is no Plan A, B or C that is relevant.

However, if your beliefs are such that an egg < embryo < fetus < baby meaning that at each stage from conception to delivery, the status of the incubated life increases or any variation of this theory, then it is highly probable that you would abort an actual embryo or fetus that has started to develop tiny body parts if you did not have access to Plan B.
There could probably be guilt involved even if you called yourself pro-choice. Even the ardently pro-choice left wing radical would definitely say that Plan B is more humane even if you assume the worst about it.

Even if I were a staunch believer of the former, strictly conservative kind, I would probably be served better by preventing an actual abortion procedure involving killing an embryo or fetus even though it is not completely congruent with my beliefs. The Plan B option is a kind of compromise but a politician can only do so much. One cannot force one's beliefs down another person's throat.

*************************** End ************************************************

First of all,  the chance that this pill would actually work in the manner that is against religious conservative thinking is actually very small. A woman would have to have to be in her fertile period with a mature egg released for this to occur. This period lasts for hardly one or two days in the entire menstrual cycle.

The trouble I see with Republican candidates is that many of them want to stick to their beliefs without considering pragmatic solutions that benefit everyone, regardless of religious beliefs.
They forget that once they get elected, they will have to work with all sorts of people, even those who do not absolutely share their convictions.