Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1934: Kanan Devi


This week I'm thinking about Bengali actress and singer Kanan Devi's Hindi recording "Aa Piya" (ca. 1934), one of a handful of records she made in the years before Indian pop was entirely consumed by the film industry, of which she was one of the brightest early stars.

How well Indian popular music fits in with my "Vernacular Pop" project is an open question. Serious thinkers have given the matter due consideration and decided that no real from-the-streets syncretic urban pop traditions ever developed in India, first because of the control that the British imperialists exercised over the recording and broadcast industries, and second because of the early and intense domination of the market by film music, so that all Indian pop traditions of the recording era have been imposed by high-status professional craftsmen from the top down — as if all American popular music had only ever been produced by Broadway and Hollywood, with no underclass blues, jazz, country, rock & roll (etc.) traditions emerging to disrupt, contest, and renovate the main stream.

And indeed, records as artifacts in themselves (rather than as souvenirs of film performances) are so undervalued in Indian nostalgia circuits that for the first time I've been unable to track down an image of the 78 label for the song I'm including here. But I have found it transcribed, so that at least I know that the record was released on the Megaphone label as JNG-877, that she was credited as "Miss Kananbala," the name she recorded under until Kanan Devi became a famous movie star, and that the composing credit goes to legendary "father of Indian cinema music" R. C. Boral.

Although perhaps he should receive an adaptation credit rather than a composing credit; because the song is highly reminiscent of a very famous Cuban record from 1930. The label of Megaphone JNG-877 even lists the song as "(Rumba Style)," which the studio musicians do their best to live up to, and the title is sung in imitation of Antonio Machín's immortal pregón. Which is not, I should note, meant as a derogation or diminution of Boral's or Devi's achievements here: in fact I'm thrilled to death to find that one of the most legendary Indian filmi stars recorded an Indianized version of "El Manisero," both because it's interesting in its own right (there are gamelan-like instrumental textures here that wouldn't enter Western music for another decade or more, and Devi's singing is lively, handling the tricky rhythms with aplomb) and because the popness of global pop is at least as important as its globalness.

My conception of Vernacular Pop is a protest against the geography-as-destiny essentialism so often applied by 78-r.p.m. junkies, for whom only "pure" local traditions, unmodified by Western or commercial influence, count: a tiresome valorization of folk or non-western classical traditions over the popular syncretic music which may well have actually meant more to local listeners in the moment. And it is also a protest against the mindset which only finds popular syncretic music from around the globe interesting once it takes place in the rock era — as if the global jazz generation was merely imitation, and it took rock to introduce variation. But steamships had made it a small world long before satellites, and the listening, dreaming and dancing done by urban moderns deserve as much of our attention and interest as that done by contemporary rural itinerants or traditional virtuosi.

I will keep rooting around in Indian music, and seeing what I can find.