Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Friday, March 04, 2016

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto         Author: Mitch Albom     Sphere      Rs.499/-          Pp 489

This is a turbulent yet soulful love story of a talented musician and the love of his life, who nurtures his inspiration to create life-changing music.  Frankie Presto’s unique talent in singing as well as guitar playing takes him through the universe of Western music. Frankie earns dazzling mastery over classical music as well as contemporary jazz and rock and roll. Music leads him from friendless penury to a place among stars like Duke Ellington to Hank Williams, Carole King and even KISS.  As a member of Elvis Presley’s troupe, Frankie becomes the first successful Elvis impersonator.  Frankie is blessed with dashing looks and a magnetic stage presence, as well as a sonorous voice and mastery of the guitar. He becomes a pop star himself, with runaway hits and adoring fans.  He gives a brilliant performance at Woodstock, but incognito. He meets and impresses The Beatles, Rolling Stones and more. Contemporary western music buffs will love these threads woven into the story. Readers unfamiliar with western music will also enjoy being carried along by the Frankie Presto wave. Number one New York Times bestselling author Mitch Albom has deftly woven music into a fast-paced plot, enriching an exciting story that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
Orphaned at birth, Frankie spends his early childhood in revolution-churned Spain. His mother dies immediately after his birth, in a church attacked by revolutionaries. A nun promises the dying mother to look after the orphaned newborn.  Cruelly abandoned by this first guardian, the infant Frankie is rescued by Baffa, the middle aged bachelor owner of a sardine factory.  Baffa and his hairless pet dog give Frankie affection and a stable home. Baffa takes him for music lessons to El Maestro, a talented but moody and alcoholic blind musician.
This peaceful life of home, school and music lessons is short-lived. Nine-year-old Frankie meets, and instantly falls in love with, Aurora York, a British girl, who is drawn to his guitar playing. Their innocent first meeting is violently interrupted. They watch horror-struck as Spanish soldiers execute civilian prisoners and bury them in a mass grave.  Aurora urges Frankie to play “something that says we won’t forget them.”  That defining moment “was the first time Frankie Presto attempted to give his music to someone else.”  This enduring passion for music defines Frankie’s character and endears him to readers.
On that same fateful day, Frankie learns that Baffa has been arrested by the soldiers, and that he himself is being hunted down. With Baffa’s instructions and the help of El Maestro, Frankie is sent to America hidden in the bottom of a boat, with the hope that he will find shelter in the home of Baffa’s sister in Detroit. Betrayed and robbed by those in whose care he was entrusted, all Frankie has left are his guitar, and six strings gifted by El Maestro.  He soon realises that these precious strings have magical powers. Frankie’s music can change people’s lives.  It doesn’t happen because Frankie wills it that way. And when a life is altered, one of the magical strings turns bright blue.
In America at last, little Frankie accompanies musician Django, and learns the gypsy guitar technique. From the wings of the stage in Cleveland Music Hall, he experiences the first blasts from an orchestra. “The elegant twirling of clarinets and saxophones... even the look of the band... handsomely dressed in dark tuxedos... And the crowd! Nearly two thousand people!”  Frankie realises that he wants this applause for himself. His struggles slowly bear fruit, and Frankie progresses from the sidelines to centre-stage.
Stardom, name and fame come, yet Frankie remains unfulfilled. He seeks Aurora, for she alone can give him soul-satisfying inspiration.  An inner restlessness grips this “most purely musical guitarist”, who rebels against the commerce driven music business.  At the height of fame and popularity, Frankie vanishes far from the intrusive eyes of the world. Encouraged by Aurora, he plays freely again: “better, richer, because his music now was passionate, more thoughtful... the way a great painter chooses not just a color but the perfect shade.”  He reappears decades later to give one last life-changing performance.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable read with never a dull moment. The passionate rapport between Frankie and Aurora is convincing. But the strings of coincidences holding the story together seem far-fetched. True, an explanation is given at the end, but it fails to satisfy. The device of using the muse Music to narrate Frankie’s story and linking tributes from musical celebrities, enriches the story with insights. However, the shifting timelines can be confusing at times, as the narrators speak of different times and stages in Frankie’s life.  Overall, this is a first-class entertainer, which could make a great movie someday.
This review was published in Deccan Herald. 

Turn up the Radio

For over a century, radio has played tunes to the march of human history, setting the background music for our lives.  As we listen to news and traffic reports punctuated with the latest hits while driving, how many of us reflect upon the invention that revolutionised communication? There’s more to radio than songs presented by vivacious RJs.  Did you know, for instance, that radio signals played a vital role in the rescue of over 700 passengers of the ill-fated Titanic, enabling quick communication with nearby ships? In those days, carrier pigeons were the prevalent mode of communicating at sea. Without radio, it would have taken days for distress messages to reach, and there would have been no survivors of the Titanic.
Those of us who grew up when TV was just a single Doordarshan channel with limited transmission timings, will remember how radio brightened up our days.  Latest news bulletins, talk shows, quizzes, radio plays and of course music to cater to varied tastes; radio constantly regaled us with never a dull moment.  Providing infotainment may still be the most obvious function of radio today.  But radio technology also supports many other marvels of modern life. The story of how radio evolved, a product of research often independently conducted over many years by generations of brilliant minds, is fascinating in itself.  
First, let’s see how good old radio still scores over its arch rival, TV. Indeed, once the whole world thought radio would die a natural death with the expansion of TV. But radio reinvented itself by offering FM stations, which are very popular and offer spunky competition to TV. In its heyday before TV stole the limelight, we relied upon radio to make the dullest things sparkle with life and excitement. The sound broadcasts drew our interest, and excited the imagination of individual listeners to form their own special mental images. In my schooldays, classmates with their own pocket ‘transies’ were the cynosure of all ears. Come winter and test cricket season, work slowed down all over town. In school, we would slump upon our desks and perpetually pretend to tie shoelaces, or search for lost erasers or pencils. Ingenious ploys to catch the running cricket commentary from transies smuggled in schoolbags. Ace commentators’ electrifying voices infused excitement into every wave of the bat and each toss of the ball. During a particularly sizzling international test match, our teacher must have sensed how her best speeches were assailing deaf ears. Choosing pragmatism over authoritarianism, she asked, “What’s the score?” Our terror at the prospect of impending doom in the Principal’s office, made way for smiles. Our teacher joined us to hear the commentary for five full minutes, before turning off all transies and resuming the day’s lesson. After subsequently watching cricket on the field and on TV, I now realise that radio commentaries played a major role in creating excitement and hype over test cricket.  Urged by the vibrant commentary without visuals to bring home drab reality, we actively imagined an action-packed game. Minus commentary, traditional cricket is a visually dull affair with players’ languid movements drawn over five long drawn days. No wonder limited over one-dayers, and IPL with its cheerleaders and hoopla are more popular versions of the game today.
The famous War of the Worlds broadcast directed by Orson Welles shows how radio, with sound alone, could excite the imaginations of multitudes.  Broadcast in the USA as a Halloween special on October 30th, 1938, this series of fictitious news bulletins was based upon H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, War of the Worlds. This radio broadcast sent many American people into a tizzy because they were convinced that Martians were really invading Earth. TV broadcasts on the other hand, show everything while leaving little to the imagination. Thus TV, which encourages passivity in the audience, dulls our imagination instead of challenging it like radio.
News reports of war and violence are clear enough on the radio, without the support of graphic visual images of violence. This is a gentler way of making young children aware that death, war and violence exist, without compromising their natural sensitivity. As little children living in New Delhi during the Indo-Pak War of 1971, we listened intently with our parents to war updates on the radio. Lights stayed dimmed and windows were pasted over with newspapers because of the blackout.  We children would crawl under the bed whenever we heard anything remotely resembling an air-raid siren. We felt concerned and sad for brave soldiers who were fighting and laying down their lives. If we were also constantly seeing visual images of this death and destruction on TV, it is likely we would have grown more insensitive to violence.  Our fear and concern must seem silly to today’s children, who are habituated to a steady barrage of gory images on TV.
Compared to radio, TV with explicit visuals would definitely be a greater culprit in accustoming people to violence by making it a part of our daily routine. Scholarly studies worldwide have made strong statements linking media violence and violence in society. A continuous deluge of sensational TRP-grabbing images in the media (print, TV, movies, video games etc.) can desensitize us by distorting death and disaster which doesn't affect us directly, into prime-time entertainment. When violence and bloodshed is thus presented to be the everyday norm, it is less likely to move us.  This raises deeper and ominous questions. Is the overwhelming graphic violence in print and TV influencing increased aggression on our own city streets? If we are impressionable victims of such subtle brainwashing, then TV would make a stronger impact compared to radio.
Since radio engages only our sense of hearing, it leaves us free to focus our sight and more of our attention on driving, knitting, gardening, jogging and various other things we like to do while listening to broadcasts. TV on the other hand, demands ALL our attention, and turns us into passive couch potatoes.
Music is more enjoyable on the radio, where the focus is on the melody alone. Glitzy visuals do not vie to distract us, or compensate for mediocre lyrics, vocals or instrumental effects. Recently a friend shared a video of a song sung by the inimitable Mukesh.  The visuals were unremarkable, with Mukeshji standing before a mike, while the staid orchestra played behind him. Everyone wore straightforward everyday clothes, and there was no fancy lighting, dancing or histrionics. Mukeshji sang with pure, undiluted passion, and what a song it was!  No special effects distracted attention from the soulful lyrics sung by a timeless, mellifluous voice. Radio supports pure, good music, which doesn’t need to hide behind distracting gimmickry.
Radio has revolutionised mass communication, and is useful in many other ways. Before radio, telegraph was the best way to rapidly transmit information over long distances. But telegraph used a system of codes, while radio carried speech. Telegraph required wires, and could not work across vast areas without wiring. Around 1891, radios began to be used on ships at sea, preventing accidents and helping in rescue operations.  In 1899 the R.F. Matthews became the first ship to use a wireless device based on Marconi’s system, to request emergency assistance at sea. 
Radio spectrum and technology has many applications; from baby monitors and broadcasting to radar and radio beacons. In 1910, Frederick Baldwin and John McCurdy first connected an aerial to their bi-plane, to demonstrate radio’s use for navigating planes. In 1921, the Detroit police first used radio equipped vehicles. Today’s ambulances use radio to monitor and relay the patient’s condition to the hospital.
 In 1902, ‘ham’ or amateur radio was first introduced to the U.S. through a Scientific American article on “How to Construct an Efficient Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus at Small Cost.” Today, there are many ham radio enthusiasts all over the world, connected through ham clubs. Apart from enjoying an interesting hobby, ham operators have been helpful in rescue operations after natural disasters such as earthquakes, when major communications centres have been damaged or destroyed. Their broadcasts have guided search parties and located victims in remote areas.
Radio telescopes pick up radio waves naturally emitted from stars, quasars, black holes and other objects in deep outer space.  This helps scientists to get a better understanding of our vast universe.  Given the infinite expanse of space, it’s possible that other intelligent life exists far away. Radio will play a major role if humanity successfully connects with intelligent extraterrestrial life.
The world has many scientific minds to thank for this wonderful invention. In the early 1800s, Hans Christian Orsted began experimental work on the connection between electricity and magnetism. Further experimental work was continued by Andre-Marie Ampere, Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday. Subsequently James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory of electromagnetism, predicting the existence of electromagnetic waves. Heinrich Hertz proved that electricity can be transmitted in electromagnetic waves. Nikola Tesla wirelessly transmitted electromagnetic energy in 1893.
Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose was a pioneer in the field of microwave devices. He invented the Mercury Coherer and the receiver which Marconi used to receive the first radio communication across the Atlantic over a distance of 2000 miles, in 1901. Guglielmo Marconi is widely credited to have developed the first instrument for radio communication over large distances. He was awarded the official patent by the British Government. Marconi established the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in 1897. The work of each of these scientists and several others was of vital importance. Ultimately it all led to the system of wireless sound broadcasting known today as radio.
In India, radio went commercial in 1965 with the introduction of ads in Vivdh Bharati broadcasts. Catchy radio jingles won the public’s hearts. Tunes like Tandurusti ki raksha karta hai Lifebouy, Doodh ki safedi Nirma se aaye, and  sona sona naya Rexona stayed on every Indian’s lips. Ameen Sayani, with his rich, sonorous voice, was India’s pioneering all-time number one RJ. He first appeared on radio in 1953-54 to change forever the relatively staid tone of AIR broadcasts. Sayani made broadcasting history by hosting the Binaca-cibaca Geetmala film songs programme for 39 years. At the height of his career, he did over 35 radio programmes every week. My personal favourites among the golden radio voices of yesteryear were Gitanjali Iyer hosting A Date With You, and Melville De Mello’s reading of the English news. Yuva Vani programmes and Bournvita Quiz had us kids hooked.
Today’s profusion of FM channels has produced many talented and magnetic radio presenters or RJs, each with their distinctive brand of delivery. Deadpan humour, talent for sarcasm or spoofs, rich and electrifying voices, the ability to talk non-stop with oodles of confidence even when they make a slip of the tongue, the most popular RJs are celebrities with fan followings. Teaming up with copywriters and producers, they make up the most visible, oops audible, face of an exciting profession.
Radio thrives on, reinventing itself and offering new ways to support technological advances. On World Radio Day, and every other day, let’s celebrate this invention which brings music to our ears.
 This was first published in Sunday Herald
****    ****
Landmarks in Indian radio history
June, 1923: Programmes aired by the Radio Club of Bombay.
November, 1923 : First broadcasts by Calcutta Radio Club.
July 31,1924 : The Madras Presidency Radio Club begins broadcasts.
July 23,1927 : Indian Broadcast Company (IBC), Bombay Station inaugurated by Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India.
August 26,1927 : Inauguration of Calcutta Station of IBC.
September 10,1935 : Akashvani Mysore, a private radio station, set up.
January 19,1936 : First news bulletin broadcast.
June 8, 1936 : Indian State Broadcasting Service became All
India Radio.
October 1,1939 : External Service started with Pushtu broadcast.
January 1,1942 : Akashvani Mysore was taken over by Maharaja of Mysore.
1947 (at the time of partition): Six Radio Stations in India (Delhi,Bombay,Calcutta,Madras, Tiruchirapalli
and Lucknow) and three Radio Stations in Pakistan (Peshawar, Lahore and Dacca)
July 20,1952 : First National Programme of Music broadcast from AIR.
July 29,1953 : National Programme of Talks (English) launched from AIR.
1954 : First Radio Sangeet Sammelan held.
August 15,1956 : National Programme of Play commenced.
October 3,1957 : Vividh Bharati Services inaugurated.
November 1, 1959 : First TV Station in Delhi started as part of AIR.
November 1,1967 : Commercials on Vividh Bharati introduced
July 21, 1969 : Yuv-Vani service started from Delhi.
July 23, 1977 : First ever FM Service was inaugurated from Madras

Bangladesh recognized Akashvani for its contribution in Bangladesh Liberation War. On 27th March, 2012, Sh. L. D. Mandloi, DG, AIR received the award at a ceremony in Dhaka.