Bombay The Hard Way

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Behind the unforgivably grubby Mexicans and noble-savage Indian characters of old westerns, there are hundreds of profoundly affecting movie soundtracks written by an Italian immigrant named Ennio Morricone. He's still on the playlist at college radio stations in my town, in between Cuban hardcore, gamelan, death metal, free jazz and Japanese trip hop.

Various Artists Remixed By Dan Nakamura

Reviewed by Amardeep Singh

Saturday, May 29 1999, 3:21 PM


Skulking at the corners of Hollywood genre films of the 60's and 70's are a number of virtuoso performers whose work has exhibited one hell of a cultural shelf-life. For instance, behind the unforgivably grubby Mexicans and noble-savage Indian characters of old westerns (many of them with anomalous Eastern European accents), there are hundreds of profoundly affecting movie soundtracks written by an Italian immigrant named Ennio Morricone. He's still on the playlist at college radio stations in my town, in between Cuban hardcore, gamelan, death metal, free jazz and Japanese trip hop.

In spite of overexposure and the domesticating tendencies of the 'world music' industry, the global currying of the world's musical cultures is far from over. Rather, we're simply entering a new, richer phase of exploitation: absolute fungibility, the totally rhizomatic global mush if you will. As you read this, some pimply kid at a radio station like Duke University's WXDU is injecting the 3AM shift with some freshly synthesized form of mutant ethno-bootyish drum 'n' bass for all tomorrow's parties.

Swarthy mustachioed Morricones were also hacking away at the corners of the Bombay film industry, which remains so bulk-oriented that it continues to make even the most derivative of Hollywood perennials seem like stuffy French auteurs. Having picked up on this, American record executives have now begun to send over chic DJ spies to crack open the vaults of old-school Bombay composers thought to be hoarding hidden treasures. The sleuths do a little re-mastering and beat enhancement, and presto! A new fad for cheap, advanced third world melodic technology (read: labor) is turned around and sold at first-world prices.

Dan the Automator, best known from his off the hook production work on Dr. Octagon's legendary 1996 similarly titled hip-hop records, is in many ways the only well-known American DJ sly enough to take this job. The fact that Josh Davis (AKA DJ Shadow) is in the studio doing beat enhancement should give some indication of the mood and pacing of the tunes: mellow trip-hop and extraterrestrial funk. The different 70s style leitmotifs running through the tracks on this record, are on that very slim and slippery threshold between funkily marketable and kitschily abject. The themes go something like this: 'spy', 'danger', 'cowboy', 'bachelor', 'surf', 'cool', 'tragic'. Given that all of these are buttons on a below-average beginner Casio, it's no surprise that the sound is always maudlin, and often smells strongly of 70's Hollywood movie music.

A reviewer for New York Press, sniffing for incense and tabla no doubt, didn't like the smell, and recently declared the record to be lacking the requisite "special exotic kick". But, like Morricone, the tunes tend to push beyond the limitations of their context. Cultural tourists will certainly find the 'exoticism' to be absent.Undoubtedly they'll move on to other esoteric cultural archives for the dip 'n' plunder. The music on this CD, in short, manages to be great in spite of nearly everything about its design, packaging, even its apparent intention as entertainment exotica.

With their use of glibly exploitative packaging, the executive producers at Motel Records seem bent on convincing us that this is record is a pukka, 100% novelty. Everything from the title of the CD, Bombay the Hard Way, to the cheeky names given to the individual tracks ('The Good, the Bad, and the Chutney'; 'Fists of Curry'; 'Punjabis, Pimps & Players'), to the absurd liner-notes essay, try to represent Bombay Cinema as 'Bollywood' in the worst, simplest sense. That is, for its 'B': as a tawdry and unthinkably extensive culture organized by imitation of Hollywood styles.

In an essay explaining the album, executive producers Rob Weisberg and Adrian Milan posit 1970's Masala films as the emergence of Indian 'Brownsploitation,' an unprecedented Americanization of Indian taste. 'Almost overnight, the predictable family drama formula gave way to movies filled with Kung-fu fighting, gunfights, car chases, loose women, badass hoods in smoke-filled opium dens, and of course, good guys.' While it's undeniable that Bombay has borrowed much from Hollywood, this adaptation certainly didn't begin with Shaft, and it never took the form Weisberg and Milan want to give it. The surest sign of this misrepresentation of Bombay cinema is that the names of the actual composers of the music on this CD - Anandji Shah and Kalyanji Shah - are barely legible anywhere in the album's packaging.

Bombay The Hard Way is a Motel Records release 

Copyright © 1999 by Amardeep Singh. All rights reserved.
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