Monday, May 20, 2019

Strange days: ‘Achhe Din Blues’

On 14 March, a 29-year-old actor named Aamir Aziz uploaded a track he’d written and performed to his YouTube channel. A week later, 'Achhe Din Blues' had over 80,000 views—not an astronomical number, but creditable for someone with no label backing and only one other music video.

Aziz, who’s from Patna, started writing 'Achhe Din Blues' years ago in Delhi. The impetus was the hanging of two men in March 2016 in Jharkhand, on the suspicion that they were transporting cattle. The lynching of teenager Junaid Khan on a train in June 2017 made him further “afraid of his identity (as a Muslim)". Though most of the song is in metaphors, Aziz uses direct language for the hangings. “Do lashein latak rahi thi (two bodies were hanging)," he says, 80 years after Billie Holiday sang “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root".

'Achhe Din Blues' is a protest song with a deceptively calm surface. The half-song, half-speech vocal—in Urdu—is in the talking blues style of American folk artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Guthrie, says Aziz, was a particular inspiration, along with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Like many of their songs, Aziz’s is a meditation on the state of the nation, touching upon the murders committed in the name of cattle, caste-driven abuse, inflammatory TV punditry and aggressive nationalism.

The accompanying video, directed by Amit Mishr and shot by Girish Kant, intercuts shots of Aziz playing and people at a fairground with clips from news channels and documentaries. It provides literal examples where the lyrics are elusive: when Aziz sings “mare taalab mein ek zinda machhli tair rahi thi (a live fish was swimming in a dead pond), we see a manual scavenger in a sewer. And when Aziz dryly intones “Bharat mata ki jai", the image is of Dalit men being flogged in 2016.

It’s been a good few months for protest music. 'Azadi' and 'Jingostan' from the Gully Boy soundtrack alluded to an atmosphere of fear and discontent, even if the film failed to provide a narrative context for the songs. 'The Warli Revolt', by Swadesi and Prakash Bhoir, was a stunning rap number in support of Mumbai’s Aarey forest and its residents. Aziz has another song ready; he’s hoping to record and shoot it soon, and possibly release it before or midway through the general election. “Obviously I’m getting some comments saying you’re taking one side," he says about the reaction to 'Achhe Din Blues'. “Others are saying you’re a renegade...."

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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