Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle
You’ve Stolen My Heart
any won’t admit it when they speak of a song being “exotic,” but they often imply its novelty, the darker hue of the singers, the “Otherness.” Indian music has been subject to this kind of thin critical appreciation for some time now, abducted mostly by the million random hands of Trip-Hop, Downbeat, and Hip-Hop producers who use the sitar or tabla like pieces of sonic flare. They completely ignore the music’s history, paying no attention to its roots, and instead slather it with whatever leftover beats they had on their PowerBook. Some have tried to tote the music into the modern age while preserving its originality—most notably Talvin Singh, The Asian Underground, and Tabla Beat Science—but have found their efforts bilked by the sheer tonnage of uncritical mixes, sometimes by even those who are Indian (Panjabi MC).
At the same time, however, don’t mistake my critical bile for a more nuanced form of Haterade. It’s not as if I want every producer to request the Indian-American and Indian communities’ benediction before using half of a bhangra sample from Bride and Prejudice; the slander I speak of stems from a lack of creative energy and nerve. Rather than maximize the full potential of the samples through cultural tutelage, they merely take bits of any given composition and stuff it poorly into the track.
But this Kronos Quartet album, this document of supposed deference to Indian music that I’ve been seeking for a while now, is a bit of a curiosity. It pleased me that the Quartet would finally choose to comport their sometimes affected style to that of Bollywood or, at the very least, use Bollywood as a directional tool. After all, Bollywood musicals possess the same excessive sentiment and diluvial instrumentation as the modern American musical, but seldom does the former give way to maudlin or milquetoast outcomes. Hell, they even have Asha Bhosle—whose voice is practically the sine qua non of any good Bollywood musical—who has performed for three generations of Indians, sang in over a dozen languages, and sold tens of millions of records. On top of that, the Kronos Quartet chose to record R.D. Burman’s songs, whose compositions still live on over a decade after his death.
So why does You’ve Stolen My Heart sound so goddamn, well, spartan? Why does it sound like a limp homage, a reticent plunge towards a musical world that requires all your energy just to be halfway entertaining? I mean, I’m genuinely ambivalent here. Kronos Quartet have paid a very fitting tribute to Bollywood, employing both a staple of that industry and merely revisiting the compositions of one of its standard bearers, but they forgot to bring the je ne sais quoi, the goods, or, to use the lingo of kids today, the hotness. Because to listen to the album and judge it upon skeletal concerns would merit it a pretty high score; their alacrity towards the task is palpable and rather genuine. But they never bother carving out the flesh and—because they probably did operate as solely a quartet—I don’t think they could have. They’ve performed optimally on a far more intimate level, one that required ambience and soft pressure rather than bombast. It’s why their work with Clint Mansell on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack was particularly moving.
But here, when they are simply required to sound greater than their sum could ever produce, there’s simply no beef. They try sometimes (“Mehbooba, Mehbooba [Beloved, O’ Beloved], “Koi Aaya Aane Bhi Di [If People Come]), but their efforts alone can’t offer reprieve or adequate rescue from their infirmity. They do tend to rear some ugly experimental heads—the synth cascade at the beginning of “Dom Maro Dom (Take Another Toke)” for example—but luckily they do so only rarely, if only to maximally preserve the authenticity they strove for.
Don’t think that I’m eating my own words about authenticity in music; veracious portrayals of music that come from a particular cultural ambit are rare and Kronos Quartet’s work here is respectful. But this effort strives to be only respectful rather than affective, and therein lies the crucial error. Lacking an emotional pitch, these songs are merely robust facsimiles. Lacking the emotional content, You’ve Stolen My Heart doesn’t possess the crucial element which gives Bollywood musicals and, indeed, any great form of music, a universal applicability.
Reviewed by: Ayo Jegede
Reviewed on: 2005-11-11