On music

The trip with my father to a building that still exists, but a business which does not, took place in the early 90s. I could sense the excitement, masked as only my father can in a language of dispassionate, factual conversation, around what we were to expect and going to purchase. The owner of the company he worked for at the time had discovered an importer of high-end audio equipment, a rare discovery in the early 90s. The proposed purchase was of a Carver vacuum amplifier and a set of speakers, by Infinity, that matched the quality of output. To demonstrate the quality of the output, the importer played us some classical music and jazz, one which showcased the dynamic range and the other, the deep bass of a throbbing cello. I remember Thaththa’s silent excitement at the purchase, which he must have saved up for years and meticulously planned around.

I was no stranger to music at home. I grew up listening to AM radio on my grandmother’s transistor radio, from SLBC’s news and pop hits to ‘Muwanpalassa’ at night. The radio had its idiosyncrasies. It had two black dials, one for tuning, one for volume. Both were so worn, their complete lack of precision had its own logic. The tuning dial was off by around two and a half kilohertz. The warm flickering glow of frequencies illuminated by a single bulb, the hiss of static and noise before signal was found, lost, regained and then found again, was its own dramatic prelude before any broadcast. The volume too was wonderfully mercurial and sometimes uncannily intelligent, mysteriously reducing volume at a crescendo or particularly dramatic line, and then as mysteriously, increasing volume whenever there was a softer movement, or quieter dialogue. Of course, the opposite was as frequently true, requiring constant guard duty near volume control for the duration of the programme.

Thaththa’s integrated Sony sound system, which I grew up around, had the LP player on top, amplifier with equaliser, radio with FM and presets, and a double-cassette player, offering high-speed rewind and non-stop play. In the analogue world, this meant that once the A-side of a cassette was over in around half an hour, the deck could switch to the B-side or the next cassette. All very sophisticated at the time, and I used to take endless pleasure in learning by listening to the various equaliser presets, what worked best with different types of music. Thaththa never fiddled with my settings, and was more interested in the careful dusting of LP’s before he played them, with music ranging from Boney M and Abba to Tower Hall and tabla. With LPs now making a comeback, a generation of listeners are discovering anew what I grew up with – that the sound of needle on groove, with all its attendant acoustic flaws, is more alive, richer and deeper than anything streaming off the Internet.

Thaththa’s influence on my music appreciation is profound. When as a student in Delhi, my house was broken into and the thieves stole all my cassettes (tellingly leaving all my books behind) I was devastated. I had at the time double-cassette albums, including from at the time a growing interest in Bollywood soundtracks, I didn’t have the spare money to re-purchase. A few years before I left for India was when WinAmp was first introduced. My friends and I exchanged rips of popular music CDs at the time through recursive ZIP compression over 3 ½” Verbatim floppy disks – a sentence which if you cannot comprehend, dates you. The revolt of the music industry to Napster, which followed soon thereafter, and what it is today, was unimaginable to us back then. We were interested in listening and sharing, bound by a lack of money and avenues to purchase legitimately, restricted by choices available in Sri Lanka, pursuing digital distribution as a way to escape our geographic isolation as fans.

Thaththa stood apart from all this. As a child, he forced me to listen to Indian classical music which at the time I thought was akin to mice being tortured. I didn’t understand, much less appreciate sitar or veena, but from that time, was attracted to bass – of initially the tabla and then to percussion in general. I later moved on to Talvin Singh, and his amazing fusion, followed by Asian Underground, Panjabi MCs, Badmarsh & Shri, Nitin Sawhney, State of Bengal and of course, during my undergraduate years in Delhi, the inimitable Trilok Gurtu. These were personal journey’s, leaving my father in what remains for him musical appreciation completely satiated by what he knows of the Western classical canon of Bach, Handel or Beethoven and Indian classical music. My father cannot speak to a critical appreciation of cadence, chord or movement. What was I suppose an emotive reaction to what pleased him, he passed on to me. The enduring lesson is that what I hated to listen to as a child, is what nevertheless crafted in me today an appreciation for music from a wide range of genres.

I am in a country with Spotify now, a music streaming service unavailable in Sri Lanka. Coupled with algorithmic intelligence anchored to what’s already on my phone (and growing up I never imagined my entire music collection would be on the same device I make calls on) the service recommends music I may enjoy. Last week, I rediscovered a sublime movement I vividly recall Thaththa and I listening together and marvelling at the beauty of. It’s from Ravi Shankar’s performance at the Kremlin in Russia, from the 80s, called Bahu-Rang. Shankar and his amazing accompanist Alla Rakha on the tabla, begin a conversation in raga about three minutes in to this movement, resulting in a solo exposition of the tabla for around three minutes. It is to date the best test of a pair of headphones or the fidelity of an amplifier I can recommended – the movement is breath-taking in its effortless fluidity and flawless execution, where the daya’s crisp, clear chatter is underwritten by the baya’s booming, grounded seriousness.

Today, I listen to everything from the American Top 40 to electronica, revelling in innovative free-style rap and chilled downtempo lounge as much as I enjoy the forays into Khemadasa, bringing back vivid memories of ‘Manasa Vila’ on stage or the glorious recordings of Tower Hall from the 60s, which my grandmother used to love. And now, with my son, these conversations continue. A family membership for Apple Music allows him on his iPod to listen to music of a taste and tempo I just cannot identify with. But the deal is that he listens to what I recommend as well. The hope and expectation, aided also by a mother who sings beautifully and with a penchant for musicals, is that he grows to appreciate compositions from a range of genres and contexts.

For music, like literature, flows, connects, gives life. My father and my childhood are always with me, whenever I hear Shankar or Dvořák. I hope that in some tangible way, I am with my son, even when geographic distance separates us, as he listens to his iPod. Even if that means sharing him with the rising stars of EDM today.


First published in The Sunday Island, 13 May 2018.

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