Old Man’s River: Genghis Blues

Richard Feynman was a genius. He did many amazing things. One of the more unusual things he did in his life was to make gargantuan efforts to visit the Soviet republic of Tuva. Even more unusually, he failed to do this, held up by the politics and bureaucracy of the Cold War; papers permitting him to visit Tuva arrived the day after he died.

His attempts to visit Tuva are chronicled in the book Tuva or Bust. But that’s not all.

Recommendation 7: (film)

Genghis Blues. A film that won the Sundance Audience Award, was even nominated for an Oscar. The story of blind blues musician Paul Pena’s travels and travails en route Tuva, seeking to discover and sustain the mysterious art of “throat-singing”, otherwise called overtone singing or Khoomei. Done as a documentary, with real footage of Pena. And Feynman. And B.B.King.


Old Man’s River: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N

One of the principles I’m trying to stay with in this series is to ensure that whatever I recommend is generally available; while I want to share “long tail” choices rather than “hit culture” ones, there is no point my doing so unless you can borrow it or buy it.

Recommendation 5: (Book)

The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. The first of a pair of books by Leo Rosten, published during the late 1930s as a compendium of articles in the New Yorker. I was fourteen when I read them, and I was fascinated by the sheer talent of the then 24-year-old Rosten. He was able to make me “hear” the accents of European immigrants wrestling with the complexities of English (albeit the American kind) while adjusting to their new and exciting world.

At that point, I’d never left India myself, and my “knowledge” of the world beyond India’s borders was marginal: largely influenced by film and magazine and book, with the occasional smattering of real-live tourists. What Leo Rosten did was to conjure up the atmosphere in the English language class in a remarkable way, somehow giving me a vicarious feel for the different cultures in that classroom, the personalities, the battles, the joys and despairs.

It is rare enough for a book to be able to do this. Rarer still for one firmly placed in the “Humour” category (I cannot bring myself to spell it Humor). And even rarer for one originally written as a series of articles.

The book is easy to read, you can choose to read it stand-alone chapter by chapter, you don’t even need to read them in sequence. But if you wanted to, you could read it cover to cover in one sitting. There is some overlap with the content and style of George Mikes, another humorist I rate highly. I cannot recommend it highly enough for someone who wants to delve into the nuances of immigrant cultures in newly-adopted lands.

Old Man’s River: Electra Glide in Blue

Okay, time to move slightly further afield than is usual, even for me.

Recommendation 4: (film)

Electra Glide in Blue. Great movie, great soundtrack, great style. Every now and then, a movie comes along, and the critics say “that one’s going straight to video”. Well, when I saw this film, my immediate reaction was ‘this one’s going straight to cult classic”.

Music fans shouldn’t be surprised. The firm was produced and directed by James William Guercio. Now why does that name appear familiar? Because it was he who produced Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago. That will give you an idea of what the music is like, and what the pace of the film is, its atmosphere and ambience. Oh, and by the way, Pete Cetera and Terry Kath have roles in the film, as also Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane. What’s that make, 25% of Chicago, they were such a large band….

Electra Glide in Blue. A must-see if you like Chicago or even BS&T; if you like motorcycles; if you like good-cop-befriends-hippie plots; if you like your suspense seventies-style. Oddly enough, you should think about seeing it if you were a Hill Street Blues fan: Frank Furillo has the movie poster adorning his office wall.

Old Man’s River: On The Road To Freedom

One of the things I’ve been trying to do with Old Man’s River is to stay away from the big hits, try and introduce people to stuff they wouldn’t have come across easily.

So, today:

Recommendation 3: (Album)

On The Road to Freedom. Alvin Lee and Mylon Lefevre and some very interesting sessions men.

When I was in my mid-to-late teens, one of my favourite pastimes was to take a gentle wander down Free School St, stopping at the second-hand shops, loitering with intent and going through each shop’s stock of used books, comics and, occasionally, vinyl.

An aside. For people like me, “Western” music was limited in supply those days: there were only four ways of getting it. One, you waited for the then local monopoly, Gramophone Company of India, to issue it. Because they believed in traditional forms of marketing and distribution, they were driven towards a hit culture, which meant I could buy Boney M but not Blind Faith. So if you waited for them you could be waiting a long time. A second route was to go to the Kidderpore Docks, where there was an active and open smuggler’s market straight out of Dickens. Dark and dank, ill-lit and illicit. There, amongst the t-shirts and the watches and colognes, you would occasionally come across a “Japanese” or “Singapore” copy: these had covers which were obvious photocopies of the originals, with a poor cut-and-paste of the vernacular titles over the English original, laminated in thin polythene. A third way was “taping”, when you made a copy of someone else’s album (something I didn’t like doing even then). And the fourth was the most productive: you waited for some passing hippie to sell his stash of records for drugs, and, if you were lucky, you had first dibs on his erstwhile possessions….. the Calcutta 1970s variant of the pawnshop.

Actually there was a fifth way: you had someone go abroad and bring something back for you. But in those days this was so rare it wasn’t worth counting: the number of people you knew who were going abroad roughly equalled the number of divorced people you knew. Counted on the fingers of one hand.

I digress. On the Road to Freedom. An album I bought in a second-hand store, probably as a result of hippie bartering. Absolutely fantastic. A soft and gentle album, one that grows on you the first time you listen to it. Guest musicians include Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Jim Capaldi, “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, Mick Fleetwood, Ron Wood and Boz Burrell.

By the time I heard the first four tracks I was toast. This is such a one-off album; it’s not a supergroup, it’s not cult, it’s not anything I can describe easily. Alvin Love-Like-A-Man Ten Years After Lee meets Mylon Holy Smoke Doo Dah Lefevre; friends join in, and some wonderful music was made.

It’s only recently been released on CD, four or five years ago. One of my favourite albums.

Old Man’s River: Dersu Uzala

Following on from yesterday’s post, carrying on with the experiment:

Recommendation 2: (Film)

Dersu Uzala. I could pretend to be a high-falutin’ film critic and tell you all the reasons why Akira Kurosawa is such a fantastic film-maker, why Dersu is such a fantastic film, how many Oscars and Globes and Bears and Roses the film won, and so on. But I’m not going to, because I don’t know how. What I do know how to do is to point you at imdb in case that helps you.

I was around 19 when I saw the film. Normally, wild horses would not have dragged me into a film made by a Japanese director, in Russian, with stilted English subtitles, and only available for viewing at the local Soviet Cultural Centre (if memory serves me right, this was on Lower Circular Road, maybe 10 minutes walk from where we lived in Moira St in Calcutta). When I found out that it was over two hours long, and that I couldn’t smoke in there either, wild elephants could not have dragged me in there to see it.

Yet I went. Dragged there by my girlfriend. Amazing, the wild-horse-power of the fairer sex. And sat there, rebellious, mute, uncomfortable, nicotine-withdrawn, trying my best not to show any of this.

As you can imagine from the above, I was not predisposed to like the film. Anything but. Yet, after sitting quietly for 140 minutes, I could not forget it. The acting, the photography, the starkness of the landscape, the raw yet deeply moving relationship between the two main characters.

And I love the quote for which the film became famous amongst its small but select cult following:

Why man live in box?

Yes, why indeed?

So if you get the chance, rent or buy the film. It’s powerful, it’s moving, and it teaches you something.