Writer and Musician Sanford Allen on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”

A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Friends and heard an old familiar song playing in the background.  It was Cornershop’s toe tapper “Brimful of Asha.”  I first heard that song in college and I loved it from the very first listen, but of course, like most Westerners, I had only the vaguest idea of what the song is about.

Fortunately, I knew where to turn.  You see, one of my very good friends is Sanford Allen.  Sanford is a gifted writer and a musician, and happens to know just about everything there is to know about Bollywood.  (You can learn more about Sanford Allen here.) So I sent him the following email:

Hey Sanford,

I confess to being out of my depth on this song.  I like it, but I have no idea what it means.  I do get the impression that it’s about modern Indian movie-making, possibly even the whole Bollywood thing, but that’s as far as I can go with it.  Any words of wisdom?

Joe

I thought he’d send me a few lines of explanation, maybe even a link or two to some of his favorite Bollywood films.  I had no idea he would go all out and write me a full blown essay on the song.  (Really, it’s not even an essay; more like a loving tribute.) But I’m glad he did.  I was so impressed by his answer that I asked if he’d let me reprint here, on my website, and he agreed.

So with that I’m going to turn the reins over to my good friend and trusted authority on all things dealing with the Indian subcontinent and let him explain it all for you.

Enjoy!

Sanford Allen on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”

British alt-rock band Cornershop’s song “Brimful of Asha” is an earworm that’s wriggled across continents and decades.

The tune charted both in the U.S. and U.K. in the ‘90s. And, last October, Britain’s NME named a Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful” one of its “150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years.”

It’s easy to see why. With its insistent rhythm guitar and hooky chorus, the song is plenty catchy.

Beyond that, though, “Brimful of Asha” continues to resonate as a powerful testimonial to music’s ability to connect us to our roots.

The song is a loving tribute to the Indian film music that Cornershop singer Tjinder Singh and countless other Brits of South Asian descent grew up hearing. Spinning 45-rpm records of those songs provided an aural connection to their ancestral homeland.

Bollywood films typically feature a half dozen or more song-and-dance numbers, and even today, most popular music played on the radio in India originates from the movies. With a handful of exceptions, actors just lip-sync the songs. The actual singing is supplied by “playback singers,” of whom Asha Bhosle — “Brimful’s” namesake — is the reigning queen.

The legendary Asha’s voice has adorned hundreds of film soundtracks since the early ’60s. By some estimates, she’s recorded more than 12,000 songs, although it’s hard to know the exact count. When Cornershop’s Singh dashes off lines about “dancing behind the movie scenes” and “keeping the dream alive,” he’s doubtless referring to Asha’s significant place in Indian cinema even though she’s seldom physically appeared on the silver screen.

Unlike the Bollywood actors and actresses, who are mostly youthful, svelte and stylish, playback singers can be any age and physical appearance. Although moviegoers hear Asha’s high, lilting voice emanating from the mouth of the film industry’s sexiest leading ladies, she’s anything but a sultry temptress. In reality, she’s a matronly woman now in her 70s.

It’s likely that “Brimful’s” repeated line that “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” refers to Asha’s motherly appearance. Most likely, the line also refers to Mother India and the cultural comfort embodied by the spinning 45-rpm record of Asha’s songs.

Later, Singh namedrops two other Bollywood playback singers: Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar (the latter of which is Asha’s sister and quite famous in her own right). He also mentions several Western singers, including T-Rex’s glam rocking Marc Bolan, a reminder that the ears of many Indo-British music fans face both East and West.

“Brimful’s” lines about ignoring government warnings “about the simple life they’re promoting and new dams they are building” may seem out of place among its celebrations of both Eastern and Western music. But I believe Singh throws them in to remind us of music’s ability to help us escape from our hardships.

While some Indian filmmakers use the medium to make important social statements, the majority of moviegoers are looking to escape. Bollywood’s sweeping, colorful musicals are all about giving people a three-hour reprieve from their daily lives — which for a great number are hardscrabble beyond Western comprehension.

“Brimful of Asha” will continue to worm into our ears and psyches as long as South Asia’s far-flung diaspora seeks connections to its roots and Western music fans continue to explore the East for new sounds.

In the twilight of her career, Asha herself recently received her first Grammy nomination, collaborated with the Kronos Quartet and was sampled by the Blackeyed Peas.

One of the songs that best encompasses the singer’s straddling of exotic East and worldly West is “Dum Maro Dum,” a psychedelic rock-inspired ’60s tune which has been remade and remixed numerous times. Check out footage from the movie, where the indescribably gorgeous Zeenat Aman lip-syncs Asha’s song. This second clip is of Asha actually singing it live at a recent movie awards show. (Look for Zeenat in the audience, still a stunner after all these years.)

Brimful of Asha video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM7H0ooV_o8

Movie footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUqEPS6Mq8I&feature=fvsr

Asha live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spynZz_wMFI

Okay, Joe McKinney here again.

I should add that Sanford and I will be appearing together again sometime next year as part of the JournalStone Double Down Series. If you’re unfamiliar with that series, you can learn more about it here. In the meantime, you should check out Sanford’s website. This guy is a serious talent. I’m in a writer’s group with him called Drafthouse, and from the get go I knew that Sanford was a talent to watch. Just as my horror often touches upon police procedure, so does his upon music. In fact, he writes about music, and perhaps more importantly, the act of performing music, in such a way that his passion often transports the scene into something far more than horror. I urge you to check this guy out.

JournalStone Publishing Announces the “Double Down” Book Series

Do you remember the old Ace Doubles?  I had a ton of them growing up.  Their distinctive white and blue spines and tete-beche formatting were instantly recognizable, and the works themselves the very model of everything that was cool about classic space opera science fiction.

Well, JournalStone Publishing is bringing the concept back…and I get to be a part of it!

Today, JournalStone Publishing founder and Editor-in-Chief Christopher C. Payne made public the launch of JournalStone’s Double Down series.  These books will feature a short novel from an already established author paired with another short novel from a talented up and coming writer.  I’m going to be working with my good friend, Sanford Allen.  (You can learn more about Sanford here.)  Sanford and I belong to a writing group called Drafthouse, and over the years I have watched Sanford’s style develop and his voice become stronger and clearer.  Part rocker, part reporter, part poet of the weird, Sanford tells one hell of a good yarn, and he has a passion for music that rings through every word he writes.  When JournalStone approached me with the concept, and asked me if I had a talented undiscovered writer I’d be willing to work with, I immediately thought of Sanford.  I’m a huge fan of his stuff, and I think the rest of the world will be too after they see the novel he’s going to be publishing.

Our book will be coming out in the Summer of 2013, but there will be others in this ongoing series.  Right now, JournalStone has signed six teams, and more will follow in the next few months.  For now, here’s the lineup:

Gene O’Neill and Chris Mars

Gord Rollo and Rena Mason

Lisa Morton and Eric Guignard

Joe McKinney and Sanford Allen

Harry Shannon and Brett Talley

Jonathan Maberry and a writer yet to be determined

JournalStone Publishing is a small press company focusing on Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, but they are large on quality and have a high level of commitment to putting out the best fiction available.  President and Editor-in-Chief Christopher C. Payne has led JS on a rapid climb to public recognition and respect within the professional writing community.  In fact, they were recently featured on the April issue of Publishers Weekly.  I’m excited to be working with them, and even more excited to be working with Sanford on what I think is going to be one of the best series in last two decades.  You can learn more about JournalStone here.

Report from ArmadilloCon 2009

ArmadilloCon 2009 has come and gone…and what a time it was! The folks at ArmadilloCon have really figured out how to do it right. The hotel was great (love those DoubleTree chocolate chip cookies!), the guests were fantastic, and the panels were top notch. Plus, I got the added thrill of introducing my wife to her first convention and I think ArmadilloCon sold her on how much fun they are.

Here were some of the highlights:

The Meet the Pros party opening night. I got to hang out with John Picacio, Sanford Allen, Lee Thomas, Gabrielle Faust, Matt Cardin, Scott Cupp, Chris Roberson, Mario Acevedo, Jeanne Stein, A. Lee Martinez, and a host of others. We got a surprise visit from Michael Moorcock, who presented the Jack Trevor Prize to Howard Waldrop. Good times and good booze all around!

Later I went to hear Matt Cardin read his short story “The Devil and One Lump” and was blown away. I’m now a fan.

I closed out opening night with a panel called “What Happened to the Monsters?” Jeanne Stein did a great job moderating this one. And, as usual, Lee Thomas and Matt Cardin brought some intellectual heavy lumber to this one. The conversation ranged from Aztec snake demons to zombies and we had some great audience participation.

Saturday morning started with Lee Thomas reading his short story “I Am Your Violence.” If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading a Lee Thomas short story you need to stop reading this and get busy. The guy is absolutely brilliant! Go out and get a copy of Unspeakable Horrors or Inferno or, better yet, his upcoming collection Out of the Closet, Under the Bed.

After lunch I sat on a panel called “Zombies!” moderated by A. Lee Martinez. Lee Thomas was on that one as well. A. Lee Martinez and Lee Thomas basically had me bookended on the critical side, leaving me in the middle to defend my beloved walking dead. Luckily, I had some timely help from the audience in the form of Rhiannon Frater. This was probably the highlight of the convention events for me. A. Lee Martinez and Lee Thomas brought up some really great points and kept me on my toes. I think the audience enjoyed this one as well. For the rest of the convention people kept telling me how much they enjoyed it.

Later that night I made the rounds to all the parties up on the sixth floor. I got to hang out with Mario Acevedo and John Picacio and Sanford Allen. I have no idea what time I finally turned in, but I think the sun was coming up.

The next morning I got some breakfast and then headed over to hear Jeanne Stein read from her latest book. Damn, that woman can write. Great plotting, great characters, great all the way around.

After that, it was my turn to read. I did a selection from Quarantined and had a pretty good crowd. I don’t think I put anybody to sleep.

A. Lee Martinez got up to read next. He gave us a selection from his new book Monster, which caused me to laugh away my hangover. I know a lot of funny people, but A. Lee Martinez just takes the cake. I can’t recommend him enough.

I finished off the convention with a long stay in the dealer’s room, where I signed a bunch of books and bought even more. I picked up a copy of Terry Bisson’s Planet of Mystery, Joe Hill’s Gunpowder, and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Situation. But the real find was a hardback first edition of Joe R. Lansdale’s God of the Razor. And I even got him to sign it! Very cool!

Thanks ArmadilloCon for showing me a great time!

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