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When going solo sounds hollow

Despite the best efforts of the music industry to promote private listening, music has worked best, socially and politically, when it is shared with other credulous listeners, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 14:31 IST

Earlier this week I visited Ashok Mitra, writer and former Union Finance Minister. After the recent passing of his wife Gouri, he lives alone in Kolkata. Old friends like Raymond Chandler and Rabindranath Tagore keep him company. Strange shelf-fellows, but he has always been a man of adventure. And music? He dismisses the question: “Music is not to be listened to alone.”

A dated sentiment in the iPod era, but Mitra is not alone in supporting it. Throughout its brief history, the music industry has promoted private listening. The parlour stereo gave way to the bedroom minidisc player and the totally personal iPod. And all the while, the listener has fought back doggedly, taking every opportunity to share (remember Napster?) and even to perform.

In participatory music, Asia has shown the way. The Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue invented karaoke in the 1970s and it spread worldwide like a hectic rash. Four years ago, he got the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for helping people tolerate each other better. Now, China’s built a karaoke sports car, the Geely Beauty Leopard. Last week, a personal karaoke machine hit the market in Tokyo — an iPod you can sing with.

But much of Asia has gone for the totally public option — television, cloning American Idol, whose most memorable contestant was a PIO, Sanjaya Malakar. Almost every channel in almost every language features a copy. About the time you’re sipping your morning cuppa tomorrow, talented bathroom singers will be congregating in Mangalore to compete for the titles of Rai and Rani Kogull of Namma TV — a channel in Konkani and Tulu, not the most widely sung languages.

Despite Daisuke’s Ig Nobel, participatory music is politically potent and does not guarantee peace. During the Korean rapprochement, aid ships from the South carried karaoke rigs North. A fortnight ago, North Korea banned karaoke bars “in order to crush enemy scheming and to squarely confront those who threaten the maintenance of the socialist system”. Meanwhile, there’s tension in Afghanistan because a woman is winning Afghan Star, their version of American Idol.

In India, Gorkhaland is suddenly a live and ticking issue after 20 years of peace largely because Prashant Tamang, a Gorkha policeman, won Indian Idol. It’s like this: while Gorkhas worldwide were mobilising to support Tamang and Gorkha pride was at its zenith, Subhas Ghising showed no interest, allowing a former aide to rush in, fill the political vacuum and raise the issue again. Suddenly, Ghising was history and Gorkhaland was reborn.

So Mitra is right: music lives when it is shared. Even the strictly personal iPod supports ‘bipodding’ — binary, bipedal iPodding. Lose a channel, gain a friend.

Pratik Kanjilal is Publisher, The Little Magazine.