Your weekly dose of Himalayan monsoon clouds

Five more reviews, still for the price of one

I think I have to do this occasionally: review five mixtapes at once just to clear out a backlog of opinion that builds up while I work on critiquing one single album in a review that has pretensions towards being an essay. So if you want to listen to a ton of awesome hip-hop this week, start with these.

To kick us off, let me point you to the record I’ve been kicking at every opportunity over the last couple weeks: XV’s “best of” mixtape V for Vizzy, presented by Evil Empire (who added annoying DJ tags aplenty). XV gives us a collection of just…really catchy tracks. Beats to bounce too, hooks that worm into your brain. And yet the polished production isn’t a way to help us swallow lyrics that are shallow and materialistic. There is real intelligence here, in a mix of storytelling and touchingly honest autobiography related in a shocking variety of surprisingly original narrative forms. I really can’t say enough about this album, or about XV’s prodigious skills as a rapper and writer. Just get it. You can find it at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/08/04/xv-v-is-for-vizzy-mixtape/.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here: I’m mostly including Aleon Craft’s new mixtape, The Stargazing Soundtrack, because I want to comment on the the bubbling of space-themed hip-hop songs that is turning into a positive trend. B.o.B., Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and even Eminem have had “spacey” tracks in their most recent outings, with more looking to show up as the twenteens wear on. Is there something in the zeitgeist, some yearning for science-fictional escape and exaltation? In a way, though, it worries me, because the tone of these tracks usually suggest that outer space, rocket ships, other planets, et al are dream states more than graspable reality. I want civilization to make space development a real priority. I don’t want to see it slip into some cultural neverwhere of fantastical alternative future divorced from serious politics. But that doesn’t have much to do with this mixtape, really, and this mixtape is quite good. So just check it out at http://aleoncraft.com/2010/08/the-stargazing-soundtrack-aleon-craft-smka/. And vote for space.

Probably the most significant mixtape to drop recently is the G.O.O.D. Ass Mixtape, presented by Perajok. What we have here is a collection of recently released new tracks by artists on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label, plus a few associated acts. (In case you were wondering, G.O.O.D. stands for “get out our dreams.”) The whole thing comes as excitement is building about the release of Ye’s fifth studio album, which was originally going to be called Good Ass Job (completing the quartet of albums begun by College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation). We’ve got, among others, Big Sean, Consequence, GLC, Tony Williams, John Legend, Kid Cudi and of course Yeezy. To be perfectly honest, I mostly copped this to get the new Kid Cudi tracks, plus Kanye’s new “See Me Now” single and a live version of the stunning “Power.” But the whole thing is seriously good. Great even. Grab it at http://www.2dopeboyz.com/2010/08/16/perajok-presents-g-o-o-d-ass-mixtape-mixape/.

We have established by now that I have a deep, unshakeable love for the delightful novelty of mashups — music that artfully combines parts of two often very different musical works into a new, mutant whole. So of course I was pleased to find the recently dropped Dub Kweli by Max Tannone, which puts Talib Kweli’s vocals over dub reggae. I wish I knew more about the reggae source material used here, to better appreciate everything going on with this album — it is one of those, so good that it demands more from the listener. The reggae is a good match to Kweli’s particular vocal patterns, and his lyrics are fascinating as ever. There are a few unexpected gems here, including yet another attempt at remixing Kanye West’s “Get Em’ High” — an impossible feat, of course, since the original track is so perfectly produced, but an enjoyable attempt nonetheless. Snag it at http://www.dubkweli.com.

While on the mashup ride, I found a similar project from last year by the same guy: Jaydiohead, Jay-Z over Radiohead. I have started saying lately that Jay-Z mashups are more fun to listen to than in his original songs. Maybe this is because Hov’s unique and, of course, compelling rap style always has a certain dissonance with the beat that stands out on studio albums but is par for the course — preferable even — when mashed up with something unintended. This is kind of a “have my cake and eat it too” situation for me, as I have, on occasion, been forced to defend hip-hop’s artistic worth against comparisons with the paragon of moody and “deep” alternative rock, Radiohead. Give it a download at http://www.jaydiohead.com/.

The Drizzle and Daydreams of Pang Lhabsol

Rabong means “wet goat,” and few names would be more appropriate. The jeep ride from Gangtok took us through hill mists and showers, in and out of low hanging clouds. When we arrived the whole town was dripping, globbed by watery mud, run by rivulets flowing through the cracks in the streets, enshrouded by a thick white fog that gives everything within thirty meters a delicate and blurry glow — and obscures completely everything else. As we picked our way down the slick hill to the press seats, I was entranced by the ghostly spectacle of a radio tower, which faded into nothingness at its peak like some djinn-built babel ladder to heaven.

It was the first day of Pang Lhabsol, the annual Bhutia festival worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga and for little Rabong one of the biggest events of the year. The three days are packed with sports competitions, cultural programmes, religious ceremonies, development exhibitions and general merriment. The inaugural programme featured an address by the Chief Minister and a series of traditional tribal dances, to be performed on Rabong’s famous and now rain-slick volleyball court.

Coming from a society that has boiled away anything resembling traditional dances or tribal garb in the melting pot of history, and that probably wouldn’t be very interested in that kind of group identity even if we had any left, I must admit that I find these sorts of cultural demonstrations a little odd and not particularly exciting. With the overpowering dampness that had descended on Rabong that day, the whole endeavour seemed especially sad and banal. I didn’t realise the extent of it, however, until the first group of dancers shuffled out onto the court, shivering in their bare feet and colourful but sleeveless garments. You couldn’t see them. The fog was too thick. Barely thirty feet away, the dancers were pale will-o-wisps, bobbing in and out of the overtaking grey. Here dozens of residents and visitors had turned out in the rain to watch these dances, and all the detail of their clothes, all the precision of their hand movements and the coyness of their narrative smiles — all of it was lost in the dull depths of the cloud.

But as I looked around, expecting the audience to be filled with faces of disappointment, or at least resigned boredom, I saw none of that. Certainly the crowd was less than comfortable in the chill and the damp, but still they stared loyally into the fog, watching the dancers move and occasionally adding some sharp shout to the twangy, upbeat music. We went amongst the audience to ask how they were feeling, getting positive and carefree replies. And when we departed mid-programme to explore the other Pang Lhabsol festivities, we passed more coming to join the audience — young children and bent elders incredibly climbing up the many, many steeps steps from the bazaar to the Mane Choekerling Complex.

We found a similar enthusiasm in town. Though the moisture had turned into drizzle, and the drizzle into rain, residents and visitors still crowded the streets, eating or shopping or making their way to the programme above or just generally milling about. Festive little lights were strung overhead, and through they remained unlit the coloured wire still brightened the muddy scene considerably.

The Pang Lhabsol celebration in Rabong this year was marketed in part as a great event for monsoon tourism, so we were quite excited to spot what appeared to be two genuine monsoon tourists coming up the main road. Ruth and Yussef Habibi, a British couple, were visiting Rabong after spending several weeks volunteering at a school in East Sikkim. The two hadn’t known about the festival before arriving but considered the timing fortuitous and were keen to check it out. We asked how they were liking their “monsoon tourism experience,” and the couple replied that they were enjoying it, appreciating it for what it was — but weren’t likely to want to come back for a second go next year.

At the covered exhibition compound many stalls were still empty on the first day of the celebrations, but there were plenty of poorly lit displays of crafts both traditional and contemporary: seeds, shawls, handbags made from denim jeans and cheap good from Thailand. These last had been brought by a Bangkok resident named Yocshai, who, after previous visits to the the North Eastern hills, was contacted to bring his wares by a member of the celebration’s organising committee. Yocshai, more than anyone else we talked to, was dissatisfied with how things were going — not so much because of the rain but because of how slow business was going. Still, he hoped things would pick up over the next two days and said he wouldn’t rule out further trips to Sikkim in the future (if not to Rabong, then to Gangtok).

Wet and tired but somehow vaguely impressed with how the little festival was turning out, we took a taxi back to the Mane Choekerling Complex to catch the end of the cultural programme, not wishing to trudge up those endless stairs. And as we pulled into the muddy parking area, our driver, Anmol, told us how he felt about the whole event. According to Anmol, the celebration this year was actually better than it has been in past years — in fact because of the rain. More rain meant more people like us, willing to skip the stairs and spend Rs. 100 on a cab. The weather had to be working for someone, I suppose.

Mountains, perhaps more than any other entity or object worshipped by the myriad religions of the world, are things you can see. They are huge and imposing in their sheer size and physicality, and of course that’s what makes them worthy of reverence. I don’t know whether one could normally see Mount Kanchenjunga from Rabong, but that cloud-cloaked day of still and bulbous mists nothing was visible. The idea of worshipping a mountain that one cannot see seems to me both ironic and profound. It takes a certain perseverance, and maybe that’s what kept the residents of Rabong so chipper. Maybe that’s what made them willing to walk up a hundred stairs to watch a dance show they couldn’t even properly see. Maybe we’ll just call it faith.

I have been told I tie my shoes like a child

Pictured above is, according to Anupa, the correct and adult way to tie one’s shoes, and more comfortable besides. Okay.

Visibility

The Drab Mysticism of Ravangla

Blurry things are beautiful

I seriously never get tired of taking pictures of monks. Never.