“Nobody knows you like I do…”
A statement like that is kind of the point of getting an artist we respect to do one of these Vouch features, where they tell us why or how an artist, album, track or suite of music affected them, personally. And sometimes you get something great that ends up being way more than you bargained for…
Geiom is a name with a strong following that’s always been on the periphery of the dubstep collective’s vision. Kamal Joory’s an operator who’s very much set on his own keel, a guy content to do things his way and produce music that represents something in himself, rather than vying on trends. We’ve written before about his prevalence as a label owner, after he introduced Brackles and Shortstuff (now Mickey Pearce) to the world on his Berkane Sol imprint, but as a producer he’s consistently proved himself to be able to mesh an experimental narrative with all sorts of beats and approaches.
There was a while there where he was a little bit quiet but at the tail end of last year he resurfaced, working in partnership with Frijsfo Beats to release a lauded and applauded album of material called Black Screen. Formed of both ‘Geiom’ material, the Black Screen album also features a few tracks accredited to Hem, Joory’s more electronica focused alias, that contribute to the pout and flow of the record purposefully.
To continue our Vouch series, we asked Joory, in the run up to the album’s release, to give us a little time and recommend an album/artist or work that might learn us a few things we hadn’t expected about his musical heritage. Over Christmas he came through choosing the RD Burman soundtrack to the film Sholay… noting “the sound quality on the YouTube clips is quite bad, its well worth buying the MP3s or CD/vinyl of the soundtrack. Also, the full version of the film on YouTube features a censored ending, which was imposed by the Indian government. The DVD version is better.”
RD Burman – Sholay (1975)
The soundtrack to Sholay is one of my earliest musical memories. My folks love music and I was surrounded by it throughout my childhood in the house, in the car, in films, even Hindu religious ceremonies are all about the singing. Maybe that’s why I almost feel anxious if I find myself in a silent setting. Sholay is arguably the most popular Indian film of all time, but I’m guessing that some of your readers might not know about it…
Watching Indian films in the early days of video was a real collective experience. One family would hire a VCR machine and some tapes, make loads of food and invite their friends round. Like many Indian families, my folks were always into the latest entertainment technology. I can remember lugging a video recorder and separate camera around on holidays just before the Back to the Future era of integrated camcorders. I think this fascination with new technology is partly what led the Bollywood session player Charanjit Singh to get hold of the gear that he used to accidentally invent acid house in 1982, on his 10 Ragas To A Disco Beat album.
The cinemas in Mauritius, where my family is from, are a full-on sensory experience. They play the sound louder than any other cinemas I’ve been to, and the soundtrack is released before the film, so people already know the tunes and will sing along to their favourites.
Sholay is like a huge encounter between Bollywood and Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. It’s got wide-open landscapes, gangsters, vigilantes, steam trains and a lot of dance routines. The soundtrack was written by R. D. Burman, and mostly sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar. As for the other musicians, it’s difficult to say who they were because despite their high level skills, only the singers and composer would normally get credited on the sleeve.
This soundtrack is a classic example of analogue multi-track recording, all warm and saturated. The mix is a bit harsh in the midrange, which is typical of Indian film music from that era, partly due to the low fidelity of audio playback systems in Indian cinemas at the time. Mobile cinemas in particular used public address tannoy horns, which have no depth or clarity at all. The sound design of Sholay, like other films from the same era, is very psychedelic. They love using over the top dub-style delays on cues like gunshots, punches and screams. The 1982 film Disco Dancer is another good example of dub delay abuse.
The songs on the album run in a different order to the film, so I’ve rearranged the track order for my commentary. The theme music doesn’t have a proper clip on the net, so the first link takes you to the entire film. I recommend watching it from start to finish, it’s definitely the best way to appreciate the soundtrack.
A film like Sholay needed an epic theme tune, and this is perfect. Its Spaghetti Western qualities owe a lot to Ennio Morricone, particularly the feel of the melody and the use of whistling. I love the way that Burman orchestrates the main riff, alternating between brass, strings, harmonica and the whistle. All of this is backed up with some sleek funk drums that wouldn’t sound out of place on a David Axelrod record.
Indian film composers are in an enviable position. They are surrounded by classically trained session musicians who are also able to pick up an electric guitar or synthesizer and work the same magic. Film music offers a space for composers to combine religious, folk and classical musical traditions with diverse influences from around the world to create unique fusions like the ones you hear in Sholay.
Yeh Dosti [This Friendship]
Indian films have had a global reach for a long time, I know people from Iran and Sudan who know this song as well as I do. It’s a seriously ambitious piece that begins with a distorted acidic LFO squeal and then casts a spotlight on virtuoso bursts of analogue synthesizer, electric guitar, harmonica, trumpet, ukelele and whistling alongside electric bass, Cuban style congas and the Indian film staples of tabla and strings. It must have blown people away when it came out. The song accompanies an archetypal buddy scene, where the two main characters, having just got out of prison, are having a good time and promising “we’ll never be apart”. Which is always a bad sign.
Holi Ke Din [The Day of Holi]
This is the most upbeat song in the film. It’s set at Holi, an Indian festival to celebrate the start of spring where people light bonfires, spray coloured water and powder at each other, and dance a lot. The song has a perfect blend of tabla and dholl drums driving it along in a Bhangra style. If you live near a Sikh temple you will already know what dholl drums sound like. Bhangra has some of the worlds best dance rhythms, and it was nice to see ragga and hip hop producers starting to realise this a few years back. The track also features dramatic strings that sound a lot like grime. There’s a lot of grimey string parts on this album. When the strings take a back seat we get treated to some blaring woodwinds, an iconic sound in Indian music. The call and response between the two lead singers and the choir really helps to accentuate all the flirting that goes on in the scene.
Holi is supposed to be a bit like carnival in places like Brazil, a time when social divisions are ignored, so the lyrics to this song contain lines like “On the day of Holi our hearts are full of joy, and colours become mixed together. Forget all your sorrows and grief and let us rejoice. Even enemies become friends and hug each other”. Needless to say, all this celebrating precedes another tragedy. Look out for the world’s smallest ferris wheel, which appears in this scene, as well as some of the samples that feature in the Horsepower tune ‘Sholay’. Benny Ill is a proper Indian film aficionado.
Mehbooba Mehbooba [Beloved, oh Beloved]
This song accompanies an over the top scene featuring a feisty belly dancer. Actually this one is a bit dodgy musically but it works in the context of the scene. It does feature some tasty arabesque santoor, clarinet and flute melodies as well as some tuned beer bottle playing reminiscent of the start of the Headhunters song ‘Watermelon man’. Strangely enough, this seems to be one of the most popular songs from the film.
Koi Haseena [Beautiful Girl]
This is a gorgeous song which features the two romantic leads on a horse and cart. The song fully incorporates the action of the scene, including a galloping rhythm and props like sleigh bells, whip sounds, the horn on the cart, even a distant train. This kind of literal interpretation might sound hackneyed to a modern observer, but its all part of the charm. In the scene, the lead character is trying hard to get the girl, while she’s playing hard to get. Like a lot of the songs on this album, it feels both seductive and danceable, Burman’s session players had it all. The lyrics are basically saying ‘you look even better when you’re angry’, which reminds me of a song like Ne-Yo’s ‘When You’re Mad’.
Some themes never go away.
Haa Jab Tak Hai Jaan [As long as I have Life]
Lata Mangeshkar is one of my favourite singers. Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle pretty much ruled Bollywood from the late ‘50s onwards. I think Lata alone features on over a thousand films. Most Indian film actors don’t sing, but have their songs voiced by playback singers like Lata. So I grew up with the slightly surreal experience of seeing many different actresses sounding just like Lata (or Asha) in the musical scenes. It’s the same sort of situation with the singer who voices the male actors in Sholay, Kishore Kumar, both he and Mohammed Rafi were everywhere.
This is a classic section of the film, it’s where the lady has to dance on broken glass and sing to try and save her man from being killed by the gangsters. The way that Lata evokes the pain of the dancer, and the music when she collapses are both sublime. The main melody is a heartbreaker, lilting and melancholy. There are some amazing breaks in this song as it stops and starts, all sorts of mad percussion fills and more grimey strings. There’s a song by one of my favourite Iranian singers, Googoosh, which contains exactly the same melody. I would love to know who copied who. Burman did have a reputation for ‘borrowing’, and made no secret of this in interviews, so I’m guessing that the Persians did it first.
Yeh Dosti [Sad]
This is a mournful, minimal rendition of ‘Yeh Dosti’, with the instrumentation stripped right back to an ethereal vibraphone and violin. It’s surprising to see a big star like Amitabh Bachan die during the film – I read that the producers actually wanted to remove this scene. It would have been a bad plot change, and would also have led to this version of the song being removed.
There’s a lot of incredible incidental music in Sholay that sadly didn’t make it to the cassette, vinyl or CD versions of the soundtrack. One particular favourite is the psych rock styled piece that accompanies a fight scene between the two main characters and some hired thugs. I’m sure Burman must have been into bands like Silver Apples and The 13th Floor Elevators. There was a two way appreciation going on at that time, psych bands of the 60’s and 70’s loved using Indian instruments like the sitar.
Burman was strong on suspense and mystery, as demonstrated by scenes like the night time section which follows the fight. He illustrates that part with big pizzicato arpeggios and some spooky minor key synthesizer playing. He excels himself during the films most evocative section, the long flashback where we get to understand the older man’s anger and desire for revenge. He uses a stringed instrument, probably a santoor, to create a sound similar to the creaky, now empty swing as part of his orchestration. It’s a chilling sequence.
Chand Sa Koi Chehra [Appearance of the Moon]
This song appears on side B of the album but not in the film itself. It’s a fiery Qawwali number featuring all the hallmarks of that style such as forceful tabla, handclaps, harmonium and a devotional intensity. Qawwali music is of Islamic heritage, and despite the deep religious divisions across the Indian subcontinent, the entertainment industry seems quite well integrated. A soundtrack like Sholay borrows from Hindu, Sikh and Muslim traditions. The biggest Qawwali singer of all time is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, go check him out if you don’t already know him
Getting hold of a harmonium and making songs like ‘Pheli Nazir’ and ‘Zalim Maar Daala’ with the Pakistani singer Khalid a few years ago was a fascinating learning curve for me. It was also the first material of mine that my mum would acknowledge as ‘real music’.
It’s been great to come back to the soundtrack of Sholay over the years as I’ve grown to know more about how music is performed, recorded and produced. I can definitely say that I respect it more now than ever.
Geiom’s Black Screen album is out now on Frijsfo Beats.