Something Good #40: Disco Mom
This month, while I shoot a film, I’ve asked some friends to take the reins of Something Good.
My first guest was author Sheila Heti; then film writer Ariel Esteban Cayer, and, this week, filmmaker, editor and writer Omar Majeed, who, years ago, wrote for me as a movie critic for the defunct Montreal Mirror. During the summer, I wrote about a music compilation that featured an absolutely ripping disco track recorded by Omar’s mother in the early ‘80s, and I’ve asked him to expand on the story of how it came to be here.
Back in 1999, music nerds across Toronto lost their collective shit when they heard Tom Waits would be playing two consecutive shows at the end of the summer.
My brother, my wife and I hastily met up a couple of hours before the downtown Ticketmaster opened, not wanting to miss out on getting decent seats. Miraculously, we found ourselves among the first dozen in line.
As we began to move, the guy behind us began loudly conversing on his cellphone. “Yeah, there’s about ten or so people in front of me, babe.”
Babe said something back.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “The people right in front of me look like scalpers, so I guess we’ll see.” He snorted, adding “They’ll probably buy 20 tickets a piece.”
At this, we turned around and glared. Our accuser was tall and skinny, wearing a dark cap, mirror shades, tight leather pants and a torn jacket—Ric Ocasek meets Mad Max.
How my wife, in a spring dress, beaming with excitement over getting good seats could strike anyone as a scalper was baffling. My brother and I, more likely, were the intended targets of these comments. And who were we? Well, our clothes didn’t convey us as punks, hipsters or the kind of dudes who hang out at head shops. We were just two heavy-set guys in casual clothes. And we were brown.
Unfazed, Mad Rick looked back at us, turned the phone away from his mouth and asked, cockily: “So are you guys scalpers, or what?”
My brother stared him down. “Why? Are you saying I look like a scalper?”
Mad Rick broke into a smirk. “Yes, frankly.”
“Fuck you, you look like a scalper.” It wasn't the best retort, but I loved him for telling this asshole off.
Mad Rick shrugged, and turned around to the guy behind him to complain. The older white guy behind him was a well-known local music writer and historian of some note. Shockingly, the two of them struck up an instant rapport and carried on about us, chuckling that every ticket buyer should be issued a test to prove if they are real fans or not.
We muttered angrily and bought our three tickets. See, assholes? We weren’t scalpers. Don't you feel stupid? In truth, it made no difference. As far as they were concerned, brown folks didn’t fit the demographic; we just didn’t look like Tom Waits fans. And nothing we’d ever do or say would actually make them check their assumptions. We were simply imposters until we could prove otherwise.
I never quite shook this encounter. Even years later, when I found myself interviewing Tom Waits himself in a Northern California diner, talking about word jazz pioneer Ken Nordine, I felt like part of me was still screaming at Mad Rick. And that memory found a way to tarnish what was otherwise a big moment for me.
And all this was when I started to realize that even music, sweet sweet music, which I’d always imagined as the most transcendental, visceral and universal of all arts, was not immune from racism.
What took me much longer to confront was my own internalized racism. The hidden Orientalism that had me willingly mock South Asian songs, treating them as less serious than western music. I’d play clips of Mithun Chakraborty singing “I Am a Disco Dancer” to my non-desi friends pointing and laughing at the sheer audacity and tackiness of my own culture. I posted and shared around the clip of S.P. Balu’s cover of “Thriller” just like the rest of us, ensuring I too was in on the joke (and not the butt).
I wouldn’t be the first person to have pushed away their cultural background in order to fit in, but what makes it even stranger in my case was that the kind of Desi-Pop hybrid I was mocking was very close to home. In fact, it was under the same roof.
My mother (pictured above) is a famous Pakistani movie star and musician. If you are Pakistani, all I have to say is Musarrat Nazir, or “Laung Gawacha,” and your eyes will likely widen. Like the Tom Waits song “Big in Japan,” she’s a legend over there and virtually unknown over here. No joke, she's a glamorous star, I'm her son and I have the therapy bills to prove it.
Before marriage and children, she was a well-known Lollywood star (Pakistan’s own Bollywood knock-off), but that all seemed in the distant past when I was a little. It was something people remarked about her, or part of dinner table lore. And like all little children, I was only ever half-listening. Suddenly, when I was around seven years old, she had a sudden urge to book time in a small recording studio in Toronto (run by Canuck rock royalty Richard Dodson of The Stampeders). She cut her first album, realizing that her true passion was singing, not acting.
I was proud of her for realizing her dreams, but somewhat shocked when she was suddenly courted by all sorts of big name labels. While I was simply trying to make sense of grade three, my mother was off in England recording under contract for Polydor records. They had a stable of South Asian pop stars and in the early ‘80s, the most popular trend was South Asian disco crossovers. Under their guidance, she was soon recording split LPs with other famed Bollywood playback singers, covering songs by Boney M and releasing albums with glorious names like Chal Disco Chal!
My siblings and I were horrified. My older brother and sister (nearly a decade older than I) seemed like characters out of Hanif Kureshi script dropped into the setting of Dazed and Confused. They were of the generation where one disavowed being South Asian at all costs or risk being marginalized, or seriously bullied. And as a young boy, I wanted to be just like them. So we lay around listening to Pink Floyd, Bowie and The Clash. We were firmly entrenched in the “disco sucks” camp (well, my sister did have that one Barry White/Barbra Streisand album, but we never let her forget it). So how could we not watch our mother, dressed in a fancy sari, bedecked in jewels and singing a Hindi version of “Sunny” by Boney M and not turn red with embarrassment?
This was a time where people laughed if we had any trace of an accent, as that alone was a sufficient punchline across all media. We made sure not to smell like curry, to not to have embarrassing facial hair and neck chains like our uncles (or aunts for that matter). Anything not to stand out.
Worst of all, we justified our derision by labelling these records “inauthentic.” As if there was only one kind of Pakistani music. But it was a mere pretext, a disguise for chiding my mother for not staying in her lane. You want to sing some nice old-fashioned Punjabi ghazals? Go right ahead! You want to cover rock songs? Cringe!
For us, Bollywood was a tacky imitation of Hollywood musicals, simple as that. Our traditional clothes were backwards and garish. Desi culture may have been “colourful” but it sure wasn’t cool. And even worse, the particular nightmare of a second generation immigrant kid—parents trying too hard at being “western” and failing miserably, like some creepy uncle playing rock covers in a wedding hall.
My mother hated these albums too, but for different reasons. She was being molded into a pop starlet, a beautiful face devalued for actual talent. So she broke her contract with Polydor and decided that if she was going to do crossover fusion, it would be on her own terms. And so it was in 1983 that my siblings proposed that she should record her own album (again produced by Richard Dodson in Toronto) and that this time, we'd help her pick songs she'd like to cover.
The resulting album, called Kar Lo Pyar: Rock and Reggae, was an odd bird—a product of our various contradictions. For many years, every time I came across this album it was like finding a mixtape you made twenty years ago, scratching your head and going “Da fuck?”
Here are some of the songs she covered: “Magic Man” by Heart, “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project, “Lola” by The Kinks, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (Evita was the big musical at the time), and strangest of all, “State of Independence” by Jon & Vangelis. You read that correctly, Jon Anderson of the group Yes and Vangelis of Chariots of Fire fame. All the songs had new Urdu lyrics to boot, often completely different from the originals.
We pressed 1000 copies and sent it out into the world. Cue the sound of crickets. No one bought it. It failed to make any kind of dent, both here or back in Pakistan. After all, Pakistan had their own teen pop idols and my mom’s entry was much weirder by comparison. It only took about a year before my siblings and I began to poke fun at my mother’s attempts. Good-natured ribbing, of course, but we teased her mercilessly, recalling her Pakistani accent as she cooed “Love me, L-O-V-E, love me” instead of “Lola, L-O-L-A, Lola.” She laughed along, vowing never to do that kind of music again.
A few years later, I was living in Lahore, Pakistan. My mother’s career was on fire, having released a string of albums by EMI. These were traditionals, wedding songs, Punjabi folk and semi-classical ghazals. Soon, she was one of the most popular singers in the country. Staying in her lane had its rewards. All the crossover disco and new wave experiments were long forgotten.
And as for me, I went to an American school in Pakistan, listening to Prince, Guns N’ Roses and Peter Gabriel (among my highbrow taste). Despite being in Pakistan, It was through Gabriel that I discovered the legendary Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan was featured on Gabriel’s soundtrack to the film The Last Temptation of Christ, and soon he was turning up all over the place (even, unfortunately, a duet with Eddie Vedder). My parents were fans, but I never took their music recommendations seriously. I couldn’t believe I’d missed what was right beneath my eyes, and so started to open my ears more to music from my actual surroundings.
When Cornershop dominated that late ‘90s summer with their anthem “Brimful of Asha,” I listened to all of their name checks and reconsidered my dismissive stance towards Bollywood. Still I relied on the Western seal of approval before giving Pakistani music its due. And I still treated it like music plucked from the “world music” section like I was Tim Robbins in High Fidelity with his patchouli stink.
In 2009, I found myself on a Muslim Punk school bus (another documentary project) surrounded by younger, hipper desis. I realized that they simply saw and heard music differently than I did. The key difference was that they were aware of how pop culture dealt them a poor hand, and they were not interested anymore. They unabashedly loved Nazia Hasan, Bollywood playback and other east/west hybrids. I was the dinosaur, like one of those old dudes at a party trying to convince young people that the best music was classic rock from the ‘70s.
At 48 years old, I can finally, as George Michael eloquently asked of us all, listen without prejudice. Having outgrown the absurdity of guilty pleasures, or fitting music in ridiculously tight labels, I now embrace South Asian disco and electronica as its own genre, with its share of gems and misses, same as any other. Authenticity is no longer part of the equation. Simply put, I was wrong.
It all came full circle for me this year when two wonderful guys from California, one a prominent DJ and the other an avid record collector, put together a fantastic compilation of South Asian electronic and dance music from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (Naya Beat, check it out on Bandcamp or Spotify). They got in touch because they wanted to include a track by mom. As it turns out, they wanted to include her cover of the Jon & Vangelis song “State of Independence.”
Listening to it again after 30 years, I couldn't get over how fucking cool it all was. How unique and genuinely inspired a choice of track, especially for a South Asian singer. It’s not only dated really well, it feels as though time has finally caught up to it. I would even go so far as to say it's one of those rare covers that surpasses the original. How did I ever feel otherwise?
My son, Sufi, eight years old, listened to my mother’s Rock and Reggae album recently as he just discovered the band Heart—he loves “Barracuda,” and is getting me back into them. He was amazed his grandmother covered “Magic Man.” No irony, no shame. And I envy him for knowing and never doubting how great that truly is.
— Omar Majeed
I plucked this week’s #nojacketsrequired from a friend’s library. But I still want to see yours! Send your un-dust-jacketed finds to my email at email@example.com directly—I know your shelves are full of hidden treasures.
Every Wednesday I will send you Something Good. Thanks so much to Omar Majeed. His new short doc, Stitched Glass, plays at the Forest City Film Festival on October 20; you can read more about it here.
If you liked this newsletter, please tell a friend or subscribe below: