January 1, 2017

2016: My year in music

Montage

Just a few years ago, the universe of music I had access to was small. I also had limited means of discovering new music. And while Napster and torrenting made acquiring music easier, I rarely used them. I guess where others saw a greedy music industry that we didn’t owe our hard-earned money to, I saw artists and labels that deserved to be paid fairly for creating something that consistently brought so much joy to my life1.

Apple’s iTunes music store didn’t come to India until relatively recently. I was still buying CDs till about five or so years ago. I’d usually buy from local stores in Bangalore (MusicWorld anyone?). Occasionally, when traveling to the US on work, I’d order them from Amazon to friends in the US and collect them when we’d meet. Some of the CDs in my collection were procured from Airports in Europe - for direct flights to west-coast from India don’t exist and layovers in Europe were inadvertantly long2.

When we moved to Amsterdam, I had to digitise my entire collection and leave the CDs behind. This helped shift my notion of ownership of music from being something you bought physically to something that only existed as a file on your machine.

Moving here also dramatically expanded my musical horizons. How it started happening was a happy accident. Just five years ago, Spotify was not mainstream and other services, including Apple Music, didn’t exist. Almost everyone had hours of music on their work laptop and almost everyone used iTunes. Turns out, iTunes has a feature called Home Sharing”. When it is enabled, others on the same network can see and listen to your entire library - just as you can see and listen to others’s library. At a workplace where there were at least 30 nationalities at that time, musical tastes were bound to span genres and artists I had no idea about3.

I had always considered myself something of a prolific listener so discovering so much new music that others would consider mainstream but I hadn’t even heard about, let alone heard, came to me as a bit of a shock. I also found new works by artists I already knew and enjoyed. Asking about musical tastes of others over lunch would often lead to new discoveries that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon myself.

There was also bit of a moral dilemma for me. While I was buying a lot of the music I was discovering4, I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the sheer volume of new music I was now listening to. The advent of affordable streaming services couldn’t have been more timely.

With Spotify’s ad-supported freemium” model, it was a no-brainer to get started. Once their catalog grew (as did the frequency of advertisements and the sort of arbitrary restrictions they’d place on the mobile app), it was an easy decision to become a paid subscriber.

2016 was probably the first year where I almost exclusively streamed music. And while Spotify’s algorithmically generated Discover Weekly” playlist has been uncannily good at recommending music I would enjoy, I found that like the Hosts” in Westworld, it’d get stuck recommending the same narrow bands of genres and artists over and over again (theres only so many cover versions of Summertime” one can enjoy).

So I’ve had to do some legwork myself and go in search of fresh music. I’ve had to keep my ears peeled for music in cafes, bars and on the radio in cabs. I’ve had to keep an eye out for tweets that mention music, pay attention to passages in books that reference music (which btw happens a lot if you are reading Murakami), and generally browse around Spotify’s catalog using an artist or band I know as an anchor.

I found around 248 new tracks (of the thousands that I must’ve I heard) that I considered worth adding to my favourites” playlist in Spotify. Of these I picked around 52 tracks (spanning 50+ unique artists and albums) for my year-end retrospective. A lot of this music featured here was released way before 2016 - I only happened to find about it this year.

I’ve compiled a playlist with these tracks on spotify. Below is a short review of each track in the playlist. It’s futile to try and rank music this diverse, so I’ve listed the songs in the order in which I came across them in 2016.

Don’t Wait Too Long: Madeleine Peyroux

Spotify | Youtube
Perhaps because I discovered this track early in the year, the lyrics almost sounded like a call to action for seeing all those new years resolutions through:

You can cry a million tears
You can wait a million years
If you think that time will change your ways
Don’t wait too long

Madeleine’s voice is unlike anything I had heard before and I was instantly hooked.
On My Way To Bamako: Eric Bibb & Habib Koité

Spotify | Youtube
Spotify recommended a fair share of music from and about Africa to me this year. This song takes me to a sunny place inside my head, I guess exactly what the lyrics intend:

Well I’m on my way to Bamako
A place I always wanted to go
I’m on my way to Bamako
To see what I can see
I Didn’t Know What Time It Was: Cécile McLorin Salvant

Spotify | Youtube
A very unexpected discovery. The piano interlude around the half-way mark (2:56) still gives me goosebumps.
Daydreaming: Groenland

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Sous le ciel de Paris: Zaz

Spotify | Youtube
Paris must hold some kind of record about the no. of songs that’ve been written and sung about it. A cover version of a classic (I personally consider this an improvement over the original), it conveys the bustle, the chaos and the energy of life in Paris beautifully.
New Slang: Alex Guilbert Trio

Spotify | Youtube
The sort of melody that grows on you and then begins to loop inside your head days after you last heard it.
Primrose Green: Ryley Walker

Spotify | Youtube
I have no idea why this song reminds me of the period in the 60s when the Beatles visited India. Certain songs work for you for weird reasons. This one takes me to a place and a time I’ve never experienced personally.
Sunrise in Beijing: Christian Scott, Elena Pinderhughes

Spotify | Youtube
Another one of those little tunes that grow on you slowly and then go on to acquire tenancy rights inside your head.
Summer Time: Andrea Motis, Joan Chamorro, Scott Hamilton, Ignasi Terraza, Esteve Pi, Josep Traver

Spotify | Youtube
I wasn’t complaining about Spotify serving me more than my share of cover versions this year for nothing! Now even as an accomplished group of musicians, a cover of Summertime is not something you’d consider doing lightly. This one works because of the wonderful chemistry between the members of the ensemble and also because of the improvisation that takes this familiar number to a new territory. My favourite part is around 2:11 when the Saxpohone takes over from the vocalist who in turn takes it forward after a minute - but as a trumpeter! (Andrea Motis, the lead vocalist, is a trumpeter too)
Ladino Song: Oi Va Voi

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Félenko Yéfé: Momo Wandel Soumah

Spotify | Youtube
Wikipedia describes Félenko Yéfé as having a characteristic gravelly voice”. It’s certainly a voice that as a child, I wouldn’t have believed capable of making music. As an adult, I find this voice magical. The Saxophone is a powerful presence throughout this song.
Nu te fermare: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

Spotify | Youtube
The probability of me discovering a traditional music ensemble from Salento (in southern Italy) before Spotify would’ve been close to zero. In this song the full, passionate voices of the vocalists find a perfect match in the fiddle. The music video is worth a watch too and should have you tapping your feet in no time.
Svatba (The Wedding): Bulgarian State Television Female Choir

Spotify | Youtube
A lot of my time in 2016 was spent finishing the Game of Thrones books. If I were deciding the music for the TV series, this is the song I would’ve picked for the Red Wedding episode.A great reminder of the power of the human voice.
Sicilienne, Op. 78 (version for piano): Gabriel Fauré, Simon Crawford-Phillips

Spotify | Youtube
Came across this piece in an episode of Better Call Saul - glad I looked it up.
Invention No. 13 in A Minor, BWV 784: Johann Sebastian Bach, Simone Dinnerstein

Spotify | Youtube
Back in the 90s when getting a SoundBlaster for your PC was a big deal, the installation CDs used to come with MIDI files to demonstrate how realistic the sampled sounds stored on the sound card were. I’d heard this little piece on one of those CDs and even used it in one of the college computer science projects. I had no idea the piece was an Invention by Bach so I hadn’t been able to find it all these years. I was ecstatic to discover the real thing this year.
New Amsterdam: Moondog

Spotify | Youtube
Moondog’s music is saxophone at its most sublime. The choir singing:

New Amsterdam was her name
Before she was New York

Takes me to a strange place in my mind. As a foreigner living in the Netherlands I can perhaps feel the pangs of homesickness the Dutch settlers of New York must’ve felt.
A Lady Of A Certain Age: The Divine Comedy

Spotify | Youtube
Beautiful singing, poignant lyrics. This song breaks my heart every single time.
Con Toda Palabra: Las Migas

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Gne’ gne: Giorgio Conte

Spotify | Youtube
This song reminded me that music can be fun and playful even if you don’t understand a single word being sung.
Décollage (feat. Lou Lou Ghelichkhani): Thievery Corporation, Lou Lou Ghelichkhani

Spotify | Youtube
French lounge music - why not?
Beijo: Bïa

Spotify | Youtube
I made a conscious effort this year to seek out Portuguese music that’s not Fado. I haven’t been disappointed.
Me At The Museum, You In The Wintergardens: Tiny Ruins

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
M’Envoyer Des Fleurs: Sandrine Kiberlain

Spotify | Youtube
First two bars and you know you are going to like this song a lot
Via con me: Paolo Conte

Spotify | Youtube
Love the dark piano notes and Paolo Conte’s voice. I didn’t understand a word of Italian being sung here, but then out of nowhere comes this bit in English that you can hum along:

It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful
Good luck my baby
It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful
I dream of you
Chips Chips
To do do do do…
Il N’est Jamais Trop Tard: Cheikh Lô

Spotify | Youtube
Beautiful, effortless singing. I felt compelled to look up the lyrics and their English translation:

Il Ñ’est jamais trop tard - It’s never too late.
Mes mots tes lèvres douces: Laurie Darmon

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Tezeta: Mulatu Astatke

Spotify | Youtube
Ethiopean Jazz. Another track that made me nostalgic about my childhood. Redolent of lazy, sunny, sundays in front of the big family radio
La Vita Com’è: Max Gazzé

Spotify | Youtube
Discovered Max Gazzé while browsing for artists similar to Jovanotti. The music video is hilarious.
SAT: Boban Markovic Orkestar

Spotify | Youtube
For me, this song was a reminder that big brass band can create some unsual melodies and harmonies.
Colonel chagrin: Camélia Jordana

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
The Ocean: Richard Hawley

Spotify | Youtube
Hypnotic. Every time I hear Richard Hawley’s deep, rich voice and the song’s orchesterisation I can close my eyes and feel like I am standing alone at a beach at night and that the tide would sweep me away.
Last Good Day Of The Year: Cousteau

Spotify | Youtube
The song I rang 2017 in with.
My Dear Friend: Julie Delpy

Spotify | Youtube
A song of friendship, lonliness and longing
That’s All: Clare & The Reasons

Spotify | Youtube
Spotify describes the band’s output perfectly as quirky, jazzy, indipop”. This song is as fine a specimen as any.
Baile De Mascaras: Márcio Faraco

Spotify | Youtube
Another song that puts me in a sunny disposition.
Peepers: Polar Bear

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Pica Do 7: António Zambujo

Spotify | Youtube
I love António Zambujo take on contemporary fado. The use of a wind instruments by his ensemble adds a new dimension to the music. We heard him live this year in Amsterdam, which makes this track extra special.
Waltz: Balanescu Quartet

Spotify | Youtube
This is contemporary classical music but composed in a period” style as this was composed for a film set in Victorian England. Reminds me of Josef Lenner’s waltzes - just a tad more melancholic.
Formidable: La Bronze

Spotify | Youtube
A very unique cover of Stromae’s Formidable that alters between Maghrebi Arabic and French.
Com A Cabeça Nas Nuvens: Ana Moura

Spotify | Youtube
This is fado performed in a more traditional mold and yet sounds very contemporary.
I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do) - Remastered: Daryl Hall & John Oates

Spotify | Youtube
I had only heard the cover version of this song by The Bird and The Bee. In fact, I didn’t even know that the version I had heard was a cover of an original till I stumbled upon a reference to it in Murakami’s After Dark. I much prefer the original with its energetic saxophone solo.
Older and Taller: Regina Spektor

Spotify | Youtube
I had discovered Regina Spektor because Microsoft used her number Us” on the lunch website for Zune. Zune is long gone but Regina Spektor has been getting better with each album. I love her whimsical and often poignant ballads. This one is from latest album Remember Us To Life. While I’ll highly recommend listening to the entire album, this song tugged at the chords of my heart the hardest.
Yaaro Petha Pillai: K, Anthony Daasan

Spotify | Youtube
The composer of the music for this Tamil film goes just by the initial K. Rustic folksy voices, beats remniscent of the 70s and playful violin come together surprisingly well in this song.
Castiçais: Ive Mendes

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Imsai Rani: K, Karthik

Spotify | Youtube
Another one from the South Indian composer K. This one features here because I love the song’s deep orchestration.
Senza fare sul serio: Malika Ayane

Spotify | Youtube
Somewhere towards the end of 2016, I found myself listening to a lot of contemporary Italian electronic/dance music. This one stood out.
Game Over: Marianne Mirage

Spotify | Youtube
Intentionally left blank as an exercise for the listener.
Nel blu dipinto di blu: Malika Ayane

Spotify | Youtube
Another cover of another very popular classic. Done surprisingly well.
I Saved The World Today: Eurythmics

Spotify | Youtube
My go to song for a tough day at work
Rasaali: A.R.Rahman, Sathya Prakash, Shashaa Tirupati

Spotify | Youtube
I consider this and the next track, two of the finest works A. R. Rahman has ever produced. Rahman’s strength is taking elements from Carnatic and Western Classical and weaving them seamlessly with modern electronic music into a song. The carnatic violin solo in the first interlude around 1:31 and the vocal solo around the 3:28 mark are excellent examples of this.
Avalum Naanum: A.R.Rahman, Vijay Yesudas

Spotify | Youtube
In this song elements from western classical dominate. The violin solo around the 1:18 mark, reminds me of Rondo from Beethoven’s violin concerto.
Joy, Joy: Bob Gibson

Spotify | Youtube
Just play it :)

  1. Yes, I get the for each dollar you spend the musician sees only a fraction of it” argument. For all the concern for the artist implicit in that argument, ripping music for free felt like an odd way to restore the balance of payment to the artist.

  2. Once DRM free music became the norm, I’d also occasionally ask friends to buy the music for me digitally and share it. But back then, transferring money to them was such a hassle that I stuck to CDs and paying in cash when we’d meet.

  3. I wasn’t sure if snooping into other people’s libraries exposed on the internal network would seen as the musical equivalent of voyeurism, so I wrote an email asking everyone if they were with me rifling through their collections. Everyone was very welcoming and on my part, I promised not to judge.

  4. I was aware of the argument that napster and torrenting might’ve actually helped increase music sales. I could finally see how it would’ve worked.

December 26, 2016

My Dangal Review

These days, I am blissfully ignorant of the latest movies coming out of Bollywood. The wife still keeps a tab on them and it was she who told me about Dangal.

Once I learned about the movie’s sporting theme I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it. You see, movies about sports tend to be a predictable fare - a prodigy is discovered, training for a big event starts, setbacks are encountered but they are eventually overcome and the story culminates in the protagonist’s ultimate triumph (despite unfavourable odds) in a big international tournament. If the movie is about a team sport, then the setbacks include episodes of friction between members of the team. Eventually, the team comes together as one with help from a long, inspirational speech from the coach in the final moments of the movie. Inadvertantly, such movies tend to be peppered with generous doses of jingoism.

When we were in Singapore a few days ago, I somehow managed to convince the wife to watch Rogue One with me. When Dangal released in Amsterdam, that too in a theatre close to our house, there is no way I was going to be able to wiggle out of watching it with her.

For once, I am glad I went.

The movie does loosely follow your typical sporting movie template but it never gets dull - helped in some measure by its unusual theme of women’s wrestling in India. It chronicles the journey of Phogat sistes from their birth in a small village in Haryana to their success in the women’s wrestling event in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Now wrestling is a sport your casual sport fan probably knows nothing about. Thankfully, the narrative includes a scene where you are educated about the rudiments of modern international wrestling so that you can follow the protagonist’s guaranteed triumph better.

Spoilers Ahead

Since this is a movie and not a documentary, some creative liberties have naturally been taken (in fact we are told as much in the opening credits of the movie). The rivalry between the protagonist’s father (a former national wrestling champion and her mentor) and her national coach came across as exaggerated. That this rivalry should end with the national coach conspiring to get the father locked into a storage room in the stadium during the final match of the tournament, felt a little ridiculous. Truth, especially in India, is often stranger than fiction. Perhaps such an episode really did occur, but the sense I got was that the movie tried a little too hard to manufacture a clear villain out of the national coach. Also, the final match, judging by the scorecard I found on Wikipedia, was probably not much of a cinematic thriller in real life (at 0-3/0-8 it didn’t even go into the 3rd round).

I thoroughly enjoyed myself despite the unnecessary histrionics in the end. The pacing was perfect, the dialogs were crisp and the songs were carefully employed to move the story forward. Given the general neglect sports - especially women’s sports - suffer in India, the achievements of Phogat sisters are very significant. I am glad their story is being told.


The Dutch subtitles that accompany foreign language movies released in Amsterdam, always make for an interesting study of things that get lost in translation.

A simple utterance of शाबाश (shabash) from a father to a child sometimes doesn’t have a direct translation in another language. In Dutch it got translated as Ik ben trots op je”, which in English would translate to I am proud of you”. I guess they could’ve gone with goed zo” (roughly well done” in English) - but that’s something I hear used by parents offering encouragement to a toddler learning to walk and perhaps would be misplaced in context of a father congratulating his gold-medalist daughter.

The subtitles here not only convert quantities uttered on screen in imperial units to metric units, but also change the emergency numbers to local ones (e.g. 911 is translated to 112). This time I noticed a couple of other interesting phenomena.

In one scene, a girl is heard in the background reading from her English schoolbook:

B-O-Y boy

which in subtitles became

J-O-N-G-E-N jongen

Jongen being the Dutch word for boy. That they would translate something being read aloud letter by letter was surprising for me.

In yet another scene, the protagonist’s father is having a little altercation with the national coach about his daughter’s poor performance in past wrestling matches owing to the coach forcing a defensive strategy. He uses an analogy about a player’s natural game” from Cricket - a sport you apparently cannot escape from in India even in a film about women’s wrestling. He says that what the coach was instructing his daughter to do, was the equivalent of telling Virender Sehwag to play like Rahul Dravid.

How does one translate something like this to another language for an audience that knows nothing about cricket, let alone the batting styles of Indian cricketers? Well, they chose not to use cricket in the subtitles at all. While the exact Dutch used here escapes me, the translation said something to the effect of telling a tiger to behave like an elephant1.

The songs often get a very literal translation and don’t make any sense at all.

As you can probably tell, I no longer find Dutch subtitles in theatres here distracting. I almost look forward to them!

p.s.

  • The movies shown in theatres in Amsterdam don’t have a notion of intermission. Indian movies are no exception. Despite their length and the explicit inclusion of an intermission frame, you don’t get a break. Which means one must remember to go in on an empty bladder and then go easy on the fizzy drinks.

  1. good’ol India - the land of snake charmers, tigers and elephants. You can’t blame them if Virender and Rahul sound like names of dieties from the mystical Indian pantheon. Actually, given that cricket in India borders on being a religion, they actually are.

October 30, 2016

Autumn colours in Amsterdam

The tree at the intersection of Brouwersgracht and Keizersgracht was one of the first trees in Amsterdam to start developing fall colours. Within no time it sported leaves in every possible shade you would associate with autumn.

Other trees along the canals followed suit shortly. The last three weeks have been an abolute riot of colours in Amsterdam:

October 18, 2016

Bergen’s Funicular

The wife is addicted enough to Pokémon Go to seek out new Pokémon when we are traveling but still not addicted enough to pay for a roaming data plan for it. Her strategy when traveling abroad is to seek out free WiFi access points, start Pokémon Go and hope that a new Pokémon spawns near her. Sometimes it works. It was during one such attempt in a bogey of Bergen’s funicular train that an asian lady standing next to her asked her what level she was on. I guess the social convention amongst Pokémon Go players dictates that you answer the question with your level and then ask the other person theirs. Which is exactly what the wife went on do. We had barely processed the answer from the asian lady when a middle aged American man sitting opposite her looked at the Asian lady’s sneakers and asked her if those were Onitsukas. When she said yes, the man exclaimed that he couldn’t believe they still made them! He then went on to regale all of us about a comfortable Onitsuka pair he owned when he was living in Tokyo many years ago.

Soon a group of excited kindergarten kids on a field trip boarded the funicular with their teachers. I lost this thread of conversation amidst their chitter-chatter and used the opportunity to scribble the brand name of the sneakers into my diary.1 As far as Funicular smalltalk goes, this had been few notches above surreal.

Our ride barely lasted 5-7 minutes but in that time we gained considerable elevation. The view from the viewing gallery just outside the Funicular station on the mountain was beautiful. There was a little hut just below the lookout point and two white goats were living there.

There was a playschool just off the funicular station. Around here, we came acorss stumps of trees that had been carved into trolls complete with signs telling us not to feed them.

We took a random marked trail that got us a little deeper into the woods - amidst tall pine trees and close to small, placid lakes.

Animals carved out of wood were placed throughout. This made our walk feel like real-life Pokémon Go - A wild vulpus had just appeared:

After a few hours, instead of taking the funicular back, we simply walked all the way to the city center.

The next day, we had some time to kill before our afternoon flight back to Amsterdam. We wanted to spend our time walking through nature and decided to take the funicular to the mountain again. At the ticket counter, they warned us about there being poor visibility from the top owing to fog. Since we weren’t going there for the view, we took the funicular anyway.

When we reached there, the view wasn’t actually all that bad. This time, we also noticed signs forbidding witches on flying brooms from entering the forest.

A few minutes later the whole area was blanketed in a thick fog. We could see why they’d warn you about it when getting tickets - if we were here for the view of the city from top, we’d be pretty dejected.

However the sort of views that we had come for, had actually been enhanced by the fog:

p.s. Had we heard Come Wander With Me by Bonnie Beecher playing here, we would’ve been very spooked.


  1. I hadn’t heard about Onitsuka before and wanted to look them up online later. I am at an age when memory is beginning to be an increasingly dubious ally. At that moment I would be certain beyond any doubt that a name like Onitsuka would stick in my mind forever. However just a few days later, as I would sit down to write a blog post, all manners of details would pour out but the name of the brand would elude me.

October 5, 2016

Winter’s footsteps

Summer this year in Amsterdam has been so warm and so long, that the cooler autumn temperatures of the past three days, quite normal for this time of the year, seem too sudden too soon. The temperature outside in the morning is around 8-9°C, while inside the house, the thermostat is beginning to read below 24°C after many days. The days of blankets are still far, but a thick throw is a must for a good night’s sleep. The pedestal fan will definitely need to be disassembled and stowed away one of these weekends.

Autumn here makes me nostalgic about my childhood in Delhi because the autumn temperatures in Amsterdam are in the same range as winter temperatures in Delhi. Once it gets colder though, I lose that frame of reference and the only memories that come back are the ones I formed here.

The days are getting shorter and soon my 35 min walk to and from work will be in the dark. For now, the light both in the morning as well as in the evening is gorgeous. I especially look forward to my walk in the evening. Even if I miss the golden dusk light or a dramatic sunset, lights getting switched on inside old, historic buildings of Amsterdam create opportunities for pictures that, when processed by programs like Prisma, look like a cross between works of Vermeer and night-time impressionist paintings of European cities.

October 2, 2016

A musical street in Istanbul

While walking through a popular street in Istanbul my pace slackened as my ears caught strains of music and singing. There were a lot of restaurants and bars in that street that were getting ready to open for the evening. Pretty much every one offered live music. The singers were strumming their guitars and rehearsing in their full, energetic voices. The singing was in all likelihood in Turkish. Even if it were in a language I understood, it would’ve been hard to make out individual words in the general hubbub. As I would move past each restaurant, the melody and the voice would change. It was like turning the knob of a radio and tuning into a new station momentarily. Mesmerised by the effect, I took out my phone and paced up and down the street to make these two recordings:

p.s. From a trip to Istanbul early last year.