Archive for January, 2011


Another old interview

This is an interview with Engelbert Humperdinck done when he toured India in 2005.

As he prepares for his first ever concert in India, evergreen singer Engelbert Humperdinck says he cherishes the memories of his childhood in Chennai, the city where he was born and lived for a decade.

“I”m looking forward to the concerts in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and wish I could have performed in Chennai as well. I have many memories of Chennai where I grew up,” the smooth-voiced Engelbert, now 69, said in an email interview.

“I remember our large bungalow, all those wonderful monsoon smells and the harbor with its ships and fishing boats. I almost drowned when I was six years old when I fell off a bunch of logs floating on an inlet near the harbour.

“My younger brother saved my life,” Engelbert said ahead of his tour of India next month for a series of concerts to raise funds for Bangalore-based NGO ACTS Trust that is working to rehabilitate victims of the Dec 26 tsunami.

And at an age when most people would be content to retire to a life of comfort, Engelbert — born Arnold George Dorsey on May 2, 1936 as the son of a British soldier posted in India — said he planned to do “more albums, more concerts, more television appearances, more travel”.

“More is the catch word,” he quipped, looking back at a chequered career that has included sales of 130 million copies of albums across the globe and earned him awards like a Golden Globe for entertainer of the year.

He attributed his long career of over four decades to “the grace of god and the fact that I still love to get up there on stage, looking my audience in the eye and give them my very best”.

Engelbert described his latest album “Let There Be Love” as “a bouquet of love songs with classics from Nat King Cole and more contemporary songs from Ronan Keating and Bryan Adams”.

“My executive producer Nick Battle and producer Simon Franglen spent many hours listening to my past albums to work out the feel of the new one. They all have a slight jazz feel and I am happy with the result,” he said.

At the same time, Engelbert was happy that his old hits like “Quando Quando Quando” and “Release Me” had been remixed to dance beats for a younger audience. “It makes me feel relevant and wanted. Most of all, it gives my big hits another dimension altogether,” he remarked.

When Engelbert was 10, his family moved from India to Leicester where he learnt to play the saxophone.
Young Arnold Dorsey discovered his vocal talent at a contest in a pub. He realized he could do impersonations, especially of the comedian Jerry Lewis, and these were so good that he became known as “Gerry Dorsey”.

It was as Gerry Dorsey that he became a hit on the British music circuit until he came down with a severe attack of tuberculosis. He recovered and his manager gave him the name Engelbert Humperdinck after the German composer who wrote the opera “Hansel and Gretel”.

The odd tongue twister of a name caught the people’s fancy and radio jockeys shortened it to “The Humper” when his songs began to climb the charts. Greats like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, Tom Jones and Dean Martin have accompanied Engelbert on stage and there was a time when The Carpenters were the opening act for his sell-out concerts.

Engelbert has many colorful tales about those and once quipped that Elvis had “stolen” the long sideburns and flashy jumpsuits from him.

“Those were the days, my friend. Elvis once wanted to steal some of my musicians. Actually he thought they were working for me part-time and since he liked their work, he wanted to take them on his tour.
“When he realized his mistake, he apologized,” said Engelbert, who has performed before Queen Elizabeth, several presidents and many heads of state.

“As for Tom Jones, it was his manager who gave me my stage name and signed me on. For many years people compared and contrasted our styles. But in the end I suppose we both did very well.

“And as for me, I am still kicking, still singing, still wanting to travel around the world. For singing is the only think I do well,” Engelbert said.

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Getting a pair of good speakers is often the key to completing a killer stereo system. But that isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Besides ensuring that they’re a good fit with your amplifier, you have to make sure they can handle different types of music.

There are some speakers which are great at handling the deep bass found in dance tracks and electronic but sound absolutely dull and lifeless when called on to cope with the dynamic range of other genres like jazz.

In this post, I decided to come up with a small list of tracks drawn from various styles of music that can help you check out just how good a pair of speakers is. It’s always a good idea to take your own music along with you to a store to audition speakers or the amplifier you intend you buy.

1. “Irish Boy” from “Cal” by Mark Knopfler: A great track to check the dynamic range of a pair of speakers – begins with the gentle sound of a synth and cymbals before the Uilleann pipes, the rhythm section and Knopfler’s steel guitar kick in. The entire album is beautifully recorded with pristine sound.

2. “The Day You Went Away” from “Lily” by Wendy Matthews: Not an easy album to track down but this song with sparse instrumentation has a killer backbeat that will reduce most speakers to jelly. Most speakers give up while trying to cope with the huge bass drum sound that opens the track; add to that Matthews’ pristine vocals and an acoustic piano. Any speakers that pass the test with this track will be able to handle most types of music.

3. “Mustt Mustt” (Massive Attack remix) from “Mustt Mustt” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: If you’re a dance music or hip hop enthusiast, this is the track to help you test speakers. Some amazing low frequencies as Nusrat’s qawwali meets the trip hop of Massive Attack. Also a great test for the speaker’s ability to handle vocals.

4.  “Mango” from “Breakfast In New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu” by Bruce Cockburn: This track from the Canadian folk-rock guitarist’s lovingly recorded 1999 album is another great test for dynamic range and a speaker’s ability to handle a complex mix of sounds. There’s subtle drums and percussion, harmony vocals by Cockburn and Margo Timmins and an acoustic bass that snakes its way through the mix.

5. “Ganges Delta Blues” from “A Meeting By The River” by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: A pure analog recording with absolutely uncompressed sound. Just the sound of Cooder’s acoustic slide and Bhatt’s Mohan Veena though things can get very lively when the tablas and the dumbek kick in.

6. Any track from “Who’s Next” by The Who: If you’re a rock fan auditioning speakers, this is the album for you. Not a single duff track here. Great vocals, one of the world’s best rhythm sections and Pete Townshend’s guitar work. The 2003 deluxe edition of the album has the best sound and favourites include “Baba O’Reilly”, “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Bargain”, which features some of Keith Moon’s most propulsive drumming.

7. “Fly Me To The Moon” from “The End Of The World” by Julie London: This jazz standard has been performed by many great vocalists, but for me, London’s take is the definitive one. A great string arrangement and truly sultry vocals.

This list will be a work in progress and I’ll come back and add other tracks. In the meantime, you’re welcome to add your suggestions with other test tracks.

 

One of my earliest memories from my childhood is of sitting beside my family’s turntable, listening to the wondrous sounds that emerged from it as someone put on a record for me. Even in those days, the turntable we had – a HMV Calypso which looked like a small travelling case when shut – was rather dated and hardly hi-fi.

HMV Calypso turntable

The Calypso was an idler-drive mono turntable (not that I knew that then), hooked up to some sort of home-made amplifier rigged by a family friend and feeding a single full-range speaker that was sometimes put inside a wooden box, and sometimes affixed to the mouth of a ‘matka’ or earthenware pot, which my uncle claimed produced a nice, rich bass.

I don’t remember whether the matka really did anything for the sound of that primitive system.

But I do remember that my mother and I spent many happy afternoons during my winter breaks from school, playing our favourite records on the Calypso. We had eclectic tastes, and so it was Engelbert Humperdinck followed by the Beatles or Elvis Presley or those LPs with what would today be best described as “elevator music” or the latest hits from Bollywood movies.

Fast forward to my college days, and tapes were in. This was before India’s economic liberalisation and none of the international music majors released their catalogues in the country. Thanks to friends and pirates, I soon built up a collection of hundreds of tapes using the cash I earned from part-time jobs.

My friends and I often swapped tapes or made copies of albums we liked. Soon we were branching out, our musical tastes expanding to include blues and jazz. Those were the days when a listening session lasting several hours would encompass albums by Dire Straits, Cream, The Robert Cray Band and Wayne Shorter.

A matka similar to the one my uncle claimed made a great natural speaker

The larger and eclectic your collection of tapes, the more “cool” and “hip” you became among your group of friends. As the market opened up in the 1980s and CDs came in, we began collecting our favourite music on those little shiny plastic discs that they said would always sound perfect and last forever.

LPs fell by the wayside as we turned up our noses at the humble turntable. It was the digital age and we all wanted our 1s and 0s. Over the years, I kept trying to strike a balance between my limited resources and the best music system I could put together.

I progressed from my first CD player – a truly horrible BPL-Sanyo with loud, tinny sound – to a Philips multi-disc changer (which I still have packed away somewhere) to  finally settling on the humble Playstation 1 (hey, if experts like the ones at 6moons.com think it’s as good as a $6,000 CD player, who am I to argue).

All the while, I kept reading about the resurgence of vinyl, and how musicians like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Metallica kept espousing vinyl. My reaction usually was: Yeah right, like who wants the pops and crackles, and the bother of changing belts and styluses and getting amplifiers with a phono stage?

Things changed when I began pottering around with audio-video gear and fixing things by myself, and came across a turntable in pretty good condition at a flea market. Paid the shop-owner Rs 900 (about $10) and brought the turntable home. Little bit of googling and I learnt how to adjust the weight on the tone-arm and set the stylus.

The turntable worked just fine and I dropped a Mario Lanza LP I’d bought the flea market on the platter, only to be greeted with a lot of pops and crackles. Next up was a Tony Bennett’s “Just One Of Those Things” LP, which was in very good condition and features tracks built around the singer and a bunch of top-notch drummers like Art Blakey and Chico Hamilton.

Tony Bennett's "Just One Of Those Things" LP

A few bars into the track “Let’s Begin” and boy, I knew I had never heard drums sound so good on any CD.

A few nights ago, I played an original pressing of Yes’ “Fragile” LP and the remastered CD of the same album for some friends, and they all agreed that the vinyl sounded better and richer despite the pops and crackles.

Thanks to the flea market, my record collection is already growing and I know where I’m headed next – a better turntable. Maybe I’ll get lucky one of these days and lay my hands on a Garrard or a Thorens somewhere!

I pay my bills by working as a journalist covering boring stuff like foreign affairs and security issues though I’ve always wanted to write about music more than anything else. So I figured I could use this blog to post some of the stuff I’ve written on music.

Here’s an old interview with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler when he toured India in 2005.

India is the Shangri-la of the mind: Mark Knopfler      

February 23, 2005

When you”re seeking Shangri-La in the mind, come to India, says legendary musician Mark Knopfler, best known as the voice and guitar of the band Dire Straits.

“India offers a broad spectrum of philosophy and spirituality to those seeking a Shangri-La state of mind,” Knopfler, whose latest album too is titled “Shangri-La”, said in an interview ahead of his first tour of the country.

“India has always fascinated me and I am looking forward to the concerts in Mumbai and Bangalore,” said Knopfler, who will play in Mumbai March 5 and in Bangalore March 7.

India, he said, was becoming a bigger market for music. “I believe there always was a market. What is happening now is that there is a greater openness. Asia, indeed India, can no longer be ignored,” said Knopfler.

The guitarist, whose nimble skills have graced albums by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Buddy Guy, Sting, and Steely Dan, said it was “really thrilling” for him to find out he had a huge fan base in India.

“(Concert promoter) Venkat Vardhan tells me that I have a huge fan following here which is really thrilling. I am looking forward to playing (in India) and connecting with people who have listened to me all these years.”

Though best known as the frontman of Dire Straits, the band he formed in 1977 with his brother David, Knopfler says the solo career he launched in the 1990s has steered clear of gimmickry while focusing on the music.

“I fronted Dire Straits. I wrote most of the songs and the tunes,” he said, referring to the band that sold millions of records and packed huge arenas.

“I continue doing so with new band members. Essentially nothing has changed. The difference is that Dire Straits was a rock act, we thought big, we played in huge arenas with lots of sound and light.

“In my solo career I cut out the gimmickry, sticking to the music…that’s how it is now.”

Referring to his current band that features stellar musicians like keyboardist Guy Fletcher, bassist Glenn Worf and drummer Chad Cromwell, Knopfler said: “I write a song and all the musicians contribute various facets of melody to it. It’s all very dynamic, cathartic…”

“Shangri-La”, Knopfler’s fourth solo album, features several songs based on real life characters like Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald’s chain, and boxer Sonny Liston — an offshoot of the musician’s fascination with history.

“Well, let’s take (the song) ‘Boom, Like That’. I read Ray Kroc’s book and then got fascinated with his character. There was a direct opposition in what he thinks he was doing and what we think he was doing.

“Some people think he wrote the model for American business and did all sorts of wonderful things including bringing affordable food to the masses and inventing a new business model. Now people call burgers junk food and view Kroc as something close to Satan. I write the song using most of his own words….”

The track “Song For Sonny Liston” centres round the great boxer who died of a heroin overdose. “His was a rags to riches to tragedy story that kinda touched me,” Knopfler said. “Moods, stories, they contribute to my creativity.”

Knopfler, who noted he has “lots of projects on the anvil”, said he also enjoyed his alternate career doing scores for movies like “The Princess Bride”, “Last Exit To Brooklyn”, “Wag The Dog”, “Local Hero” and “A Shot At Glory”.

“Oh yes, I enjoy scoring for the movies. I have liked all the directors I have worked with,” he said.

Growing up in Newcastle in Britain, Knopfler started out as a journalist covering music before picking up a guitar. Breaking into the charts worldwide with the anthem “Sultans of Swing”, Dire Straits had a long and successful run till Knopfler decided to go solo.

But Knopfler said there’s miles and miles to go before he sleeps.

“(There’s) plenty (left to achieve),” he said. “As a musician one always strives to reach for a higher plain, another level of perfection. I want to continue reaching out to people through my music.”

“We are all seekers aren’t we? We take different paths, but the goal is the same – meaning and happiness.”

A friend who liked the music system I’d put together using vintage components bought from a flea market decided to go down the same route, with a little help from me, of course.

So we hit the flea market one cold winter’s day and began scouring the shops that usually stock vintage audio equipment.

At the very first shop, we got lucky as I spotted a pair of speakers lying behind the counter. The speakers – a pair of Philips Type 22 RH 496 (a three-way model) made in Finland – looked fine except for a large chunk of wood missing from the top of one box.

The shop-owner had nothing to test the speakers with but we decided to take a chance anyway and picked them up for Rs 2,500 (about $29).

Sony TA-88 amplifier before being fixed up and polished

At another shop, I spotted an unusual looking amplifier lying beside a stack of VCRs. Turned out to be a Sony T-88. A perforated metal strip on top of the amplifier was badly dented but everything else looked fine. A little bit of haggling and we snagged it for Rs 1,800 ($21).

For CD playback, we picked up a Sony CDP-212 – a plain vanilla player which was in very good nick – for Rs 1,200 ($14). No remote or digital outputs but not a worry because my friend wanted to put together a very basic set-up.

My friend also wanted something to play back vinyl as her family had a large collection of records. I had earlier picked up a Aiwa PX-E855, a very basic fully automatic turntable with a built-in phono stage, for Rs 2,500 ($29). That would be used to complete the system.

Took the amplifier and speakers home and fired them up, using the Aiwa turntable as a source. Great sound right off but the volume controls of the amp sounded scratchy due to the built-up dirt.

Moreover, the speakers had plain white wires coming out of the box and there was no way to figure out the polarity. Luckily I had an Avia audio-video test DVD, and using the test to check whether speakers are in phase, I was able to figure out the polarity via my AV receiver.

The carpenter filling in the dents and cracks in the speakers

The next step was calling in my friendly neighbourhood carpenter to come in and fix the speakers and give them a fresh coat of polish. He filled in all the dents and scratches and soon had them looking gorgeous in a few hours. The wood panels of the amp got a fresh coat of polish too.

A few squirts of Philips contact cleaner got rid of the scratchy sounds of the volume control. The dented perforated metal strip (for ventilation) was straightened and glued back in.

Innards of the Philips speakers, check out the crossover

Next, I opened up the speakers and hooked up thicker wire to the crossover inside. (The original plan was to fit binding posts but that had to be ditched as the posts were not long enough to pass through the thick board on the back of the speaker.)

Hooked everything up and spun a CD. First impressions: a pretty good sounding system – nice warm mid-range, clean highs, adequate bass but definitely not the sort that’ll shake the room.

The system being tested at my work bench

System hooked up at my friend's place

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