Friday, September 26, 2008

Drum Circle - IV: The last of us

Drum Circle I, Drum Circle II, Drum Circle III

I'm not sure how I want to dazzle this crowd. Should I do my version of the Tandav, yknow, to microcosm the duality of creation and destruction? Or perhaps the cliched rhythm evolution, from morse code to music.....Or maybe I should just say something first.

I'm at the front of the stage now, crouched down so that the stage mics on the floor can pick up my voice. I've got sweaty palms, but something tells me I can do little wrong tonight.

"When You and i
see eye-to-eye, there's a third murmur
that escapes the heart"

A soft bass begins on the kpanlogos - 3rd beat in a bar of 4

"And when we dance,
we immerse ourselves, into all that's bliss
all that's bliss"

The cajons join in, a snare-like 4/4

grace our dance,
drink and sing,
become one with us"

Nora's seen the grin on my face, and I'm not sure how but I can tell she knows where I'm going with this. She'd left me halfway through the second verse but is back now with a mic in hand.

Nora: "So we're dancing now?"
Me: "I hope so. Do you want to start us off?"

The drums all stop. One count, two counts, three counts, four.

Nora taps her naked left foot on the stage. The bells on her ankles and the hollowed woody sound of the stage twist together in my head. It feels like a distant, cosmic sound dopplering past me, each tap lasting an age, each tap still so transient.

"We're lucky if we dream
while we sleep, we're luckier
if we sleep without a dream" *1*

"That's when you lose the 'I'
become king and pauper, all at once
That's when you peek into every life,
every mind your own, every song, every dance" *2*

I suspect I've lost the crowd by now, but I can't help myself. Nora and the drummers have been down this road with me before, and they don't have trouble slamming along.


"Last night, I died again,
woke up this a.m.,
older, wiser and

hungry as heck. " *3*

By now, we've gotten a groove going with the toms and djembes pitching in solos. The crowd doesn't care what's said as long as the groove holds. A couple of people are on the floor, doing some exotic snake dance (solidarity with the brown guy on stage).


"It feels like I've been fighting,
fighting maya all my life,
so why do I care now
if maya says goodbye?" *4*

And he follows it up with a fast ditty on the crash. Crash, silence, crash, silence, crash.

It's not smooth... The loudness there creates a silence in my head. The lights seem to dim two shades. That isn't where I wanted to go. It'll take some doing to bring back the sunshine now, keeping the meter and the we don't bother. Nora remains at the front of the stage, dancing with the crowd, and the rest of us build the beat, rising and falling, in tempo and volume, like the sea over many nights.

Eventually, the jam grinds down to a low background patter, and there's a brief round of applause. The crowd slowly makes their way to the door, and we begin to collect our instruments. Our jam wasn't a sizzler but we're content with the awkward set we've played. I'm just hoping the lounge will let us in again next week.

*1* The upanishads describe dreamless sleep as that state where our consciousness withdraws itself from the mind, and the entity that comprises each person can retreat into what's best described as a Jung-ian collective subconscious.

*2* This state, of ego withdrawn from the unique ID called the mind, leaves us equal in all respects, and every thought in this subconscious state is a shared one.

*3* In fact, the very concept of sleep is thought of as similar to death, where our seven-sheathed personality temporarily strips itself down to the core. This frees us of the trappings of the illusory world. Possibly the all-time best segue in any situation - "Broke eh? Ah well, everything is maya anyways.." The next morning though, the hangover arrives, or worse, it's a Monday, and we have to deal with life as this outermost sheath of our personality perceives it.

*4* Maya straight up, is illusion. And reality as our senses perceive it, is not different from illusion. When even little electrodes hooked up to the brain can confuse our senses, it's conceivable that our perceived reality is illusory, whether solipsistic or perhaps just part of a giant computer program where 'destiny' is a state machine input. So why worry when the soul exits the sheath?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Drum Circle - III

None of that's helping right now though. Why don't we just play a canned set and end this? Why this pressure to bring down the house? Where did it begin?

Nobody's backing down on intention, I can see that. We're all leaning forward in our chairs. I'm beginning to understand the problem, and oh, how I'd love to get away from here right now so I can light up and deconstruct how we need to tackle this. Break the problem into emotion, history and anticipation...or skill, need and conflict...

But I have no such relief. It feels like we're sitting around a fire, a really hot fire. And I can sense something's about to give.

I get off my chair and walk towards Nora. The crowd's eyes follow me. Nora and I are now in the center of our stage and I take her hand. She's inordinately pretty, and I feel like I must let her know but that isn't why I took her hand. I actually need someone to hold onto as I begin tonight's last jam.

Drum Circle - II

All six of us come from different schools of drumming, and when we aren't playing for crowds, we like to talk about these systems of percussion. It help us understand the cultures we represent, and how those cultures permeate into our soundplay. For instance, Latin American percussion, while parts of it can be subtle and layered, is mostly loud in its impact on the listener. Loud in colour, performance and presentation, and loud in the way it dominates a musical performance. Extremely enjoyable. You could re-read this paragraph pretending I was talking about the region and the people, and not much would be amiss.

And a good Indian percussionist can make love to a crowd. The parallels begin with the foreplay of an alaap, and extend to that shocked silence at the end of a rela, before the crowd unwinds itself with applause, like a Gold Flake in bed. But there's the other idea that Indian percussion can create a sense of harmony. It sets things right and the mechanics are simply explained. The basis of any beat in the indian system is circular. At the completion of the pre-defined notes that make up the taal, the beat returns to the sam, the initial note that started off the taal. The sphericality of this return to the origin lets us know all is well with the world.

We discuss these and other systems not just in the contexts of culture, but also in terms of the underlying math, the techniques, the allowed improvisation and the boundaries of where the sound can go before it breaks the rhythm system and becomes part of some other system, new or not.
But the discussions have a shallower purpose. We want to know where each of us is coming from so that we can tell where each of us is going to go, and in no metaphorical sense :) If Chris is the one soloing, with his clean-cut rock background, there's going to be no syncopation surprises when he ends his solo, and I know easily at what point in time I'll need to pick up when he leaves off.

Drum circle - I

Six of us are hunched around our individual drums. There are djembes, kpanlogos and an assortment of toms and cajons. Nora is in the centre of the circle, wearing a loose blouse, tied in a knot below her chest, her midriff encircled by a thin gold ringlet. It's a bellydancing essential she tells us. She has ghungrus on both feet, and they look heavy, they look like she's about to dance up a storm.

She caught me smiling at her as she was putting them on a few minutes ago. She finished lacing them up and walked up to me slowly, and asked if it was just the ghungrus that caught my eye. Nora..ah Nora.. :)

All of us drummers want to make this next jam a spectacular one. We feel the electricity of intention as we look at each other, but nobody wants to start a beat we can build on. I think we're all scared we might play something we've played before. Nora can always be counted on to start us off, a few vigorous shakes of the bells on her feet and she gets a rhythm going, but she's quiet too. Like the rest of us, she feels the sizzle in the air, and she's worried she might douse it.

Rob begins to take off his shirt. I think we all saw that coming. He has this idea that his salon-waxed chest, his machine-sculpted arms and that manufactured tan will bring out a tribal fervour in all of us. He gets the collective glare. Shirt remains on.

The silence since our last piece has been long enough that we're beginning to worry. Though the crowd hasn't had to pay to hear us, they're still expecting something. The electricity we felt a couple of minutes ago is threatening to fizzle out.

We've had false starts in the past. Like everytime Rob's disrobed, or the time I decided this drum circle needed vocals. This time's not like that. We're looking at each other, and I can see the anxiety in each eye. Nora's eyes linger on my fingers and I want to say that's when the rapture struck, but it wasn't.

There's a whistle from the crowd. It's followed by some muted applause. I know how this sort of thing goes down, and I can feel my face flush. It begins. Somebody at the back shouts "it's easy! A wimba weppa wimba weppa" People laugh. But we've just played a good set, so the respect hangover stifles what would have become a good heckle from the crowd.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Every so often, I have the urge to buy a yo-yo, but then it goes away.

I remember the first time I got on an elevator. After it dropped me off on the 32nd floor, I wondered what they'd call it on my way down.

I've painted bars on the top left corner of my cell-phone. Now I'm reachable wherever I go.

I bought 32 toothbrushes yesterday.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Grandmaster Ki

The great Wing-Chun Sifu, Loo Yung Ki, is distraught that his latest movie has failed to create ripples at the box-office."I sweated blood for the stunts in 'Omelette without Eggs'. I cannot believe how empty the halls are!"

We are sitting in his monastery in LA, where Ki's students, a hundred eager monks, shuffle in and out silently as they go about their training exercises and daily chores. Ki's been a recognized kung-fu Grandmaster for over twenty years now, ever since he won the '88 kung-fu monkathon in the city. He recalls the competition vividly. He was going neck-to-neck with Xao Woo up until the 'Show me your qi' round.

Woo was hooked up to an voltmeter, and he delivered some off-the-scale electric shocks that impressed the judges. That didn't deter Ki, who, sitting off to the corner knew this round was going to be his. He walked up to an area that had bells strung up. After a few moments of intense concentration, the bells began to ring. The judges had never before heard a qi-bell version of 'when the saints come marching in'. Ki took the lead right there, later sailing through the 'Fly stiffly through air' and 'Zen me to sleep' rounds.

Ki still regrets how he rubbed it in to Woo, as he recounted telling Woo off at the end of the event - "My Zen crescent-kicks your Zen's ass! Who da man now??". He shakes his head "I brought shame upon my dojo....but it felt so good!".

I hear a stifled cough and turn to find a gaggle of monks sidled up beside me. They're carrying trays of steaming hot food - soup, dumplings, shrimp sticks and what have you. They move silently, these monks. In a moment, they've laid out the food and disappeared, leaving me to fumble with a pair of chopsticks. I wonder how we're ever going to finish all they've brought. It's then that I notice, even under the billowing robes, the traces of an ample paunch on Grandmaster Ki.

'Omelette without Eggs' is not a revolutionary movie. Grandmaster Ki admits sheepishly that they used wires. "Old Dojo dictum, do not use Kung-fu for profit. Even so, you know that scene where I break the egg and a chick appears? No special effects, I used finger kata to transport the yolk to a future state. They do not appreciate these things anymore."

Perhaps that's a sign of the times. Intricate art forms like these are fast being lost, because we, the audience, can no longer tell what's real and what's not. I leave there wistfully. I'm not worried about Grandmaster Ki, he has his own Dojo and is doing well for himself. I just feel sorry for the movies he won't get to make. It's you Grandmaster Ki, you da man..

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Through every awful joke I've shared with baba and every mile that's separated us, there's been a force that's cocooned us together, loathe it or love it as we will. This force is definitely the dna we share, that great pre-programmed life-chalker, but I've learnt now that the dna's less than half the story.

Baba's always been a writer. I'd heard this earlier, and I see it now, as he's writing and publishing more often. I'd done some writing myself as a kid, but it was from within so many confines that I'll be the first to discount it. I was caged by my age, by my schooling and by the compulsion to write instead of being freed by actual moments of inspiration.

Baba's latest work, a novella, creates a pause when you're done reading. I've only heard an excerpt myself, but I'm told that the work is significant. In this excerpt, he'd drawn parallels between his days as a kid and mine. I suspect it's the interesting vs. the not-so-much :) but that there's this minor unification between our lives, dissimilar as they are, makes me sit up and take note. I'm stunned that two lives, separated in time, can share the noosphere while accounting for their wholly different settings. If these were two unconnected lives we were discussing, we 'd call it coincidence. When it's father and son, my vocabulary fails me.

And this biophysics was only a small aspect of the novella. The work, I hear, is balls-to-the-wall witty, and at the end, pregnantly poignant. Plus, that it's me plugging his work, despite the flak this will draw, distinguishes the effort.

I'm going to exploit this to the fullest. I've asked him to write, write till his keyboard crumbles, so that genetics and legacy combine and, using the same wormhole that governs the parallelism of our lives, infuse me with writing prowess beyond my blinkers.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


I'm always going to have some distance to go before I'm comfortable with my intellectual capacity, like that bunny/frog problem where it can only hop half the distance to its goal each time. To nevertheless hurry the process, one of my favourite exercises is to pick a system that's on the fringes of said intellect, and to then chip away at it, hopefully coaxing it into some form of submission where I can unravel every last thread of this system just as easily as I can roll it back into its original tangled-mess form.

'System' here refers to any object, physical or non, that requires a level of analysis before it's understood. It could be an emotion, perhaps a piece of prose that has an nth degree of meaning between its lines, or just something wholly new (i.e. limited a priori baseline in our consciousness to compare this 'new' with).

Thankfully, the successful conquering of a system leaves just as many systems to choose from for my next assignment, because I've conquered so little. At the same time it does aid the process of sharpening thought and of understanding how to apply dimensions of intellect to deconstruct these systems.

My approach to this exercise involves picking the system, and then analysing the challenge presented by it. I choose between the following paths (because there's only so much time I'm going to give a particular system):

(i) This system I've picked - what type of understanding should I gun for, so that it benefits me?

For instance, let the system be the complex emotion when someone close dies. I have little to gain by detached high-level observation, analysis, rationalization, painting a snapshot, etc. These would be good academic understandings. Thesis-worthy even, but really, the type of understanding I'm looking for is one that'll help ease the pain.

(ii) What the challenges that the system poses are, and so, what the methods of analysis should be -

The answers to this question always annoy me. The methods I settle upon take me wandering into some narrow, unlit entrail in the underbelly of the system. Once there, I've understood the entrail well, but am never sure if this understanding's important. And so I backtrack, and head into a new nether region, same odds of meeting the same end.

At other times, these methods will lead me into the big-picture dilemma, where I'm outside the system, holding it up to the light, looking at it from various angles. I'll realise then that I'm not seeing all of the picture, and that I perhaps need to hold the system a little further away, and then a lot further, until 'big-picture' becomes 'bird's eye-view' accompanied also by a bird-like understanding of the system. From way up here, the term 'big-picture' becomes an oxymoron.

Over time though, I'm hoping I'll learn which methods are best applied when, and that it'll become instinct. The gain then isn't just understanding these systems, but doing so efficiently.

Like when Bruce Lee's surrounded by ten thugs :)

Did you see the kung-fu angle coming?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


There's a lot of talk about quantum entanglement these days, where a particle influences its 'entangled' counterpart when any sort of measurement is attempted on it. The particles are entangled in a way that their spatial separation doesn't matter when it comes to one particle influencing the other.

[My references to 'particles' favour the omnipresent, multi-purpose photon of course :-) - Two entangled photons can be created by a process called 'parametic down conversion', where a photon spends a romantic evening with an atom from a beta-borium-borate crystal, and nine picoseconds later, said atom decays and pops out twins, or rather two entangled photons].

Einstein and two of his students, Podolsky and Rosen - in that order (E.P.R), if you want the best google results - conceived a famous argument to question the completeness of quantum theory. A salient component of this argument had Einstein considering the hypothetical example of gunpowder that was intrinsically unstable (i.e. could explode as a result of forces/reactions from within the gunpowder system). He applied Schrödinger's equation to it to determine the state of the gunpowder after a year and determined that the equation would give him garbage (of course, Einstein put this result across very politely to Schrödinger).

The culture of physics in these quantum echelons is such that Schrödinger could respond to Einstein with his cat experiment (strikingly similar to Einstein's gunpowder) and though the result gave us little concrete understanding, we still applaud the response.

In these rarefied clouds of opinions and philosophies on the nature of particles, it's refreshing to see these theories actually put to use in real-life:

One such application of quantum entanglement is in cryptography. The parties involved are Alice and Bob. Each of them have two distinct bit-measuring machines. Alice sends Bob the entangled dual of a piece of information and both of them proceed to measure the bits comprising the information. The trick here is that they each choose a random machine to measure individual bits.

The key to this encryption: Alice and Bob then share with each other information about which machine they used to measure which bit. This information can be shared across a public channel and it won't help an eavesdropper. Instances where different machines were used are dropped, because the results, even if identical, do not confirm entanglement. The remaining bits are condensed and of these, Bob and Alice again compare, publicly, a random sample to ensure that the information they have is identical bit-for-bit. If yes, keep, if no, discard.

Simplistically, the probability is high that an eavesdropper would alter the information while trying to spy on the communication. The more information that the eavesdropper gathers about the key, the higher the likelihood that Alice and Bob will realise they're being snooped upon and will try the communication anew.

Possibly the most foolproof cipher :)