The late American singer Nina Simone’s voice was markedly distinctive. A contralto (the term used to describe female singers with the lowest musical pitch), when Simone sang, her voice seemed full of passion and character – a voice that you couldn’t not take note of.
In recent weeks, I’ve been listening to several of her albums: 1974’s It Is Finished, 1984’s Live at Ronnie Scott’s and the mega ‘Best of’ collection, Sugar In My Bowl, which, on two discs, has 40 songs spanning the early part of her career.
Simone, a North Carolina preacher’s child, wanted to be a classical pianist but couldn’t get admission to a music school because she was black. She turned then to playing and singing in small venues and clubs, covering everything from jazz, gospel and blues to pop and R&B.
Many of her recordings are of songs written by others but covered by her in a style that is her own. On It Is Finished, she does a version of The Pusher, a song that was made famous by Steppenwolf but was written by Hoyt Axton.
Simone’s blues-soul version of what is originally a rock classic is unique. As is her cover of Mr. Bojangles, the country song that has been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Arlo Guthrie.
Her own songs span an impressive range of themes. Mississippi Goddam, which became a civil activists’ anthem, was written after the bombing and killings of blacks in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s.
I Want A Little Sugar in My Bowl, a delightful blues song, was based on a composition with a similar title (Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl) by Bessie Smith, the early 20th century blues singer, but with Simone’s own tweak to the lyrics. But the one song that got her fame and became her first hit in America was George and Ira Gershwin’s I Loves You, Porgy.
Simone’s was not an easy life. Her early years as a performer were filled with long hours at small bars and clubs where she sang nightly. Her husband (a former New York cop) who also managed her career was abusive and violent (the marriage finally broke up).
And finally, after finding success as a prolific recording artist and performer, she had to live in exile in France for much of the latter part of her life because of taxes that she left unpaid in the US (as part of her protest against her country’s involvement in the Vietnam war).
I had read about Simone and her troubled life but last week when a film turned up, a biopic titled What Happened, Miss Simone?, with rare footage, interviews and narratives, it gave me a deeper insight into one of America’s finest musicians – as well as an inspiration to rediscover Simone’s music.
The film has some footage of her performances, which were known for their magnetic nature and her powerful presence. She often blended dialogue with the audience or just self-spoken words into songs.
Simone died in France in 2003. She was 70. Her discography lives on, of course, with her music frequently used by others – from filmmakers to rap artists.
As I wrote this, I was listening, back-to-back, to her versions of three songs: Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne; The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun; and Bob Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. All three are classic songs. Without doubt, Simone’s versions must have made their composers proud.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
I just managed to restrain the temptation to lead with this part of Download Central. Last Sunday at 8am, I used a combination of Airtel, Google Chromecast, my Internet browser, my laptop, my TV set, and (of course) my credit card, to watch in its entirety (three hours plus) the first concert of Grateful Dead’s last tour from Santa Clara in California.
I was, of course, in my bedroom. Trey Anastasio (lead guitar) joined the remaining members of the Dead (Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart) as did Bruce Hornsby (piano) and Jim Chimenti (keyboards).
The setlist was vintage Grateful Dead: think Truckin’, Alligator, Cryptical Envelopment, Dark Star, St. Stephen, Drums, The Other One and plenty, plenty more. Superb. The closest you could get to a Dead gig in Gurgaon.
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Himanshu Suri is a name that should roll quite easily off Indian tongues but if Himanshu Suri is the name of a New York-based rapper, it could be a good idea to have a stage name that is more rap friendly.
So Suri, once part of the erstwhile hip-hop group, Das Racist, raps under the name Heems. Das Racist was a short-lived group and has to its credit a discography of three releases: two freely downloadable mixtapes (Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) and a studio album (Relax).
Humour was a big part of Das Racist, which was essentially a duo plus a backup singer, and, especially after one of their infectious early compositions, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, went viral, they began getting labelled as a joke rap band.
After Das Racist disbanded, Heems, whose talents by all accounts are multi-faceted (besides rap he’s into art, activism and has his own recording label), launched his solo career and recently released his debut album, Eat Pray Thug, which was, by the way, recorded in India – in Mumbai’s Bandra, to be precise.
Eat Pray Thug is no jokey album. It’s serious. It’s political and introspective. Issues of identity (Suri’s a second generation Indian American) appear in many of the songs, particularly on a few that describe the experience of being young and of Indian origin in New York City in the days and months after 9/11.
Suri was in school when that attack happened and its aftermath affected him profoundly and the one track that stands out is Flag Shopping.
It’s about how Indians and South Asians were targeted after the World Trade Center attacks and how they tried to demonstrate their oneness with the USA: We’re going flag shopping for American flags/They’re staring at our turbans/ They’re calling them rags/ They’re calling them towels/ They’re calling them diapers/ They’re more like crowns/ Let’s strike them like vipers… Politics recurs in some of Heems’s other tracks as well – in the one titled Patriot Act; and in the cleverly titled AlQ8a.
But Eat Pray Thug also has its lighter moments. Pop Song (Games), is a fun, danceable tune; Home and Damn, Girl are about relationships; and Sometimes, the album opener, is almost schizophrenic.
Like all good rap albums, what makes Eat Pray Thug a compelling listen are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional and evocative. Heems has a background that is unconventional for a rapper: he attended New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University and then worked on Wall Street before becoming a rap artist.
I’d heard both the Das Racist mix-tapes and their only album, Relax, which, besides a dose of Punjabi in the form of a bhangra-pop song, featured the rock band Yeasayers’ brilliant multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder, and hip-hop artists, El-P and Danny Brown.
But Heems’s Eat Pray Thug is different from those Das Racist releases. There’s the seriousness, of course, but there’s also the unmistakably deep politics that tinges much of his work. This is a rapper that deserves to be watched.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
In 1969, when The Beatles were releasing Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It was a double album by a new band – not a format that a rock band normally chooses to debut with, but they did.
Chicago Transit Authority had to change its name to just Chicago shortly after that – when the real Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s mass transit operator, threatened to sue. But not before the debut album racked up sales of over a million.
That double album, which I consider a rock epic, is an early example of experimental rock; of a jazz-influenced big band playing tracks that stretched to seven, eight and even 14 minutes.
In an era when rock bands usually had four or five members, Chicago had seven, including, besides the very talented Terry Kath on guitars, Peter Cetera on bass and vocals and Robert Lamm on piano, a trumpeter and a trombonist. It was, as a band member once put it, a rock band “with horns”.
Chicago’s music lost a bit of its edge in its later years (the band, incidentally, is still in existence) but in their heady early years, their music created a huge impression on their peers, including the legendary Jimi Hendrix who is believed to have once said that Terry Kath (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot) was a better guitarist than himself. To check that out, give Chicago Transit Authority a listen.
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My playlist got a little weird last week. It all began with a version of Paint it Black, the Stones’ song from 1966. The version, a cover, was stunning: slower and with none of the original lyrics. There was an Afro-beat and a funky feel to it, replete with congas and stuff. It was rather good. Instead of the original lyrics, the band covering it occasionally chanted “Paint it black”, pronouncing black as ‘Blaak’. I got curious and found out that the cover version was by a band, or rather, a collective, called Africa who put out just one album in 1968 called Music From Lil Brown. I later found that that Music from Lil Brown was an African-American response to Music From Big Pink, the debut album from The Band, which, of course, is the Canadian-American band that got fame because it was Bob Dylan’s back-up band but which on its own was easily one of the best rock bands that I’ve heard. Read more
Every time this column makes even the tiniest mention of the Grateful Dead or offers on its web version, a download link for one of their concerts, there is one guy, a friend, actually, but also a virulent critic of that band, who makes it a point of making a snide remark. There are many people who consider the Dead’s fans as drug-addled hippies who get lulled into a happy, semi-comatose state by the band’s improv-heavy meanderings. That certainly amounts to gratuitous stereotyping. Read more
Around 10 days back, my colleague in London mailed me a link with a short note that simply said “Yes they are back! And I can die in peace”. The link was to a lyric video (the kind where you can read the lyrics while listening to the song) of The Rolling Stones’ latest new single, Doom And Gloom. And the note from my colleague who’s obviously a huge Stones fan besides being an erstwhile (or, is he still one?) bass slapper himself, is an example of how much diehard Stones fans love the 50-year-old band. Read more
In a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the American actor whose role as the young policeman, John Blake, in The Dark Knight Rises I liked, the musical guests were Mumford & Sons, an English indie folk band. They played two songs live—I Will Wait and Below My Feet—both from their recently released new album, Babel. Both the performances were nice. And I thought to myself that Mumford & Sons were probably better heard live than on albums. I’ve had a copy of Sigh No More, their debut album, for a couple of years but I must admit that although I liked listening to it the first couple of times, it soon got a bit clichéd, repetitive and whiney. Read more
My daughter, about to be eight, has an earworm. You know, a piece of music that seems stuck in your ear so seemingly permanently that you just couldn’t get it out. It’s a song that she hums, sings and dances with vigorously even though it’s not being played anywhere. And I’m happy. Delighted, actually, because the song happens to be Lonely Boy by The Black Keys. Actually, the duo that makes up The Black Keys may also seem like an earworm for Download Central, in case you are one of those readers who for some strange reason follows this column fairly regularly—I don’t know how many times I have written about them, obsessively, compulsively and, perhaps also, maniacally.