Monday, 9 May 2016

Digital anxieties and miseries

We hosted round 3 of a potluck party on our rooftop terrace yesterday afternoon. The e-mail thread going around the group members of this group was aptly named Gluttony and Talk 3.0. 

As usual, a day before, I created a playlist on my iTunes on my laptop to play for this occasion. I have created playlists easily on iTunes before. I was trying to create a new playlist from a crashed iTunes library. I was able to get back about 1200 tracks which could could play up to 4 days, more than enough music for a few hours of background score for a rooftop party. But not all of my favourite albums were there. 

My iTunes library of almost 8,000 tracks crashed last year on my 2010 Macbook Pro. I had painstakingly added music to this library over time, usually through directly copying music from my CD collection. I even bought some music on iTunes and very rarely downloaded music from the Internet. I played my playlist in my office and had my laptop connected to speakers mounted all over the office. It was a great way to enjoy my music - all genres, all languages, all regions, all moods, all philosophies - while I worked. I played my music for various functions we had in our office (that is how being able to create an eclectic playlist on iTunes can be fun and easy). 

I have not tried very hard to get my iTunes library back. The only effort I made was to see if I could restore it by going into my Time Machine (you can do it by going back into the backups you should be making every week). I hardly got any of my music back. Does this mean I need to manually copy music again from my CD collection? What a daunting task! 

My anxiety is further compounded by the fact that I upgraded to a newer Macbook Pro last year, 2015. This one doesn't have a DVD drive. I will have to use an extendable DVD drive using the one lousy USB drive to start building an iTunes library from scratch. 

It is a daunting task but I did it before, back in 2010, after I replaced a Macbook Pro, which was stolen by an oily thief from my apartment in 2009. It was a lot of work but I did it.

What bothers me now is where I will store this music. My new Macbook Pro is apparently out of storage. A prompt screen keeps popping up telling me that my start up disk is full. I couldn't believe my 3 month old brand new and very expensive laptop kept informing me that I had no space to store more photographs or videos which I keep transferring to my laptop from my brick-heavy Samsung smart phone. 

I haven't been able to enjoy music lately from my laptop in months now. On occasion I pop CDs into our DVD player at home in the evenings and, we have all danced together in our living room, enjoying puraney puraney ganey instead of watching TV. It's a little strange because our Sony TV is on with a blue screen while we listen to music.  I sometimes listen to something on YouTube at the office. 

I actually feel disconnected from my music because I depended on my iTunes library. Now because my library crashed and also that my laptop storage is almost full, I don't know how to rebuild it. Should I put all my data on my laptop on a hard drive and then just keep my music on my laptop? Should I migrate to a cloud? Would that help? 

It's hard to believe I sound so confused despite being the CEO of an IT company. But in all honesty, I do not know what to do. 

I miss the days of the CD player and sticking in a CD and listening to the whole album, whether it was a Bollywood soundtrack, an English album or a compilation album. The iPod revolutionised music and I, like almost everyone else, quickly jumped on Apple's bandwagon and, started to enjoy music on a small hand held device that could hold hundreds and hundreds of tracks. One could walk while listening to one's music with one's earphones. One could show off one's eclectic variety of music, blaring in one's house while guests were over playing a competitive game of Settlers of Catan. 

You can, in a single hour, go from Mehdi Hassan to Queen to Mika to Led Zeppelin to AR Rahman to Vital Signs to Junoon to Alamgir to Noor Jehan to Lata Mangeshkar to Hemant Kumar to some alternative random Angrezi gana

But what happens if your iTunes library crashes? How do you rebuild it? What happens to your playlists? What happens to the song count, that wonderful number that you obsessively notice and now then, of how many times you played that particular song? 

I recently declared in a dinner party - rather self righteously - that I was going to get a very expensive camera and ditch my smart phone. I just want to have my laptop and a big camera with which I can play with. 

I think I need to make another grand announcement about ditching digital music libraries and, go back to CD players. Why don't I just get a CD player and play my CDs (which thankfully I never ditched) as and when my mood strikes me? 

I remember during my teenage years when my audio cassettes were some of my most prized possessions. Extended periods of time were spent with only a couple of them, playing over and over again.

For a road trip from Romania to Austria and back in the late 90s, we only had 2 cassettes to entertain us and my aunt and little cousin visiting from Karachi. One cassette had Qayamat se Qayamat Tak songs on one side and the other had Tezab songs. The other cassette was the first Vital Signs album. We would sing along and never tire of these songs. Even if I have not heard these songs in a while, the words automatically come back to my lips. I was hardly a teenager but spent hours watching black and white puraney puraney Bollywood songs on video cassettes that we had in our collection.

Standing proudly beside my collection
of audio cassettes in my
bedroom in our house
 in Athens, Greece.
This must be 1997 or 1996.
In Greece, during various road trips we made to visit historical sites like Adelphi or Marathon, we would play Pakistani folk songs and ghazals and old Bollywood songs. I can still remember the image in my mind, a winding road in the green countryside, when I heard Hamid Ali Bela's soulful and pain-filled mae ni maen kino akhan dard vichoray da haal. I can also remember being struck so deeply by Mukesh's beautiful singing of Ye Mera Deewana Pan Hai during one of these very road trips. We also incessantly played 2 cassettes we had of PTV's Golden or Silver Jubilee concerts that Anwar Maqsood had hosted and Benjamin Sister's sweet voices still echo in my memories.  

CDs had started to over take our audio cassette collections and I can remember the time when we had both. Music was one's companion in teenage years, while doing one's homework. Music was one's companion in these lonely teenage times. It played in our living room on weekends, most times signalling my parents' childhoods and desires, their nostalgia, their bonds with their memories. They would often close their eyes, sway their heads, while enjoying their favourite songs.

On Saturday mornings, I would often wake up to music blaring from the CD player, one of Ami's favourite. She would play this music while cleaning or cooking.

It's now in hindsight I can separate their favourite songs from different eras. Ami was definitely more fond of Pakistani filmi music, Pakistani ghazals, and Kishore Kumar hits. Aboo was somehow very attached to Saigal, SD Burman compositions and songs from the 50s. Ami and Aboo would often delve into songs, how they would croon it in their youth, how this particular song had been such a hit, which song an elder sibling was fond of, and which film star a certain song was filmed on. I'll never forget the common notion we all had that Hawa Mein Udta Jaye was one of the oldest film songs but one of the sweetest. 

One of the first CDs we got from Pakistan was a collection of Pakistani ghazals. It had a white cover with a single rose on it. One of the most breathtakingly beautiful tracks was Nayyara Noor's Khabhi Hum Khoobsoorat. We were in Athens, Greece at this time and, our house was perched on top of a hill in the suburb of Politia. Whenever we would play this ghazal in our living room, I would stare out at the magnificent view we had of hills and plains. I felt Nayyara's golden voice was booming and spreading all over the scenery, lifting and then settling over it, echoing forever over this landscape. 

Music has always bewitched me. I mainly grew up listening to desi music and had hardly any sense of English music. Our parents' tastes were mine. I fell in love with Aamir Khan and would listen to music from his films over and over again, imagining fantasies. I would of course listen to all the fantastic Pakistani pop music, too, on cassettes sent to me by my favourite cousin, everything from Junoon to Awaz to Sajjid Ali to Haider Ali. I became obsessed with AR Rahman's mind-blowing music and dance secretly in my room. I always loved old Bollywood songs and, would love to croon my favourite ones. I was especially bewitched by Hemant Kumar's Ye Raat Ye Chandni Phir Kahan. I thought Hemant was directly singing to me. While I was at Dakar Academy, I was so dumb founded at having to choose a song for its lyrical qualities for English class. I hardly knew any English songs, save for Michael Jackson or ABBA. 

Although I would enjoy radio at university in London, there was a station in Athens that played old English songs. The DJ was always speaking in Greek which I didn't understand but the songs were beautiful and, I would love tuning in now and then. I had no sense of where these songs came from, which era, which genre but they were beautiful and full of a nostalgia. There was also a French song that the DJ would play now and then and I used to try to record it on a cassette. I realised it sounded a lot like a 90s Bollywood hit, Jab Koyee Baat Bigar Jaye. To this day I don't know what this French song is. 

It was at university in London where I first listened to jazz and that completely changed my idea of music. I am forever grateful to Jazz FM which I would listen to at late hours of the night. I also became hooked to an oldies station and drive time hour. This was when I first really started listening to non-desi music and getting an ear for it. Before it I used to make fun of my brother listening to Western classical music. 

If you haven't listened to jazz before and do so for the first time, it really changes your sense of music. It is not melodic. Needless to say, it doesn't sound desi. I suppose it is its rhythm and mood that hits you. You feel transported to a completely different sound, sensibility, and mood. Jazz can be blue and happy, just like any purana filmi gana or soulful folk song, but it is a different sad, as if in a different language. Most of the things I heard on the radio were more contemporary jazz but also some classical jazz tracks by Ella Fitzgerald. One of the songs played on Jazz FM that really hit me were Angie Stone's I can't sleep, I can't eat. I was bowled over by this song. 

I bought my first Frank Sinatra CD from a market in Almaty, Kazakhstan (this was the last posting my father had before retirement) and I fell in love with Sinatra's velvety voice. I was astounded. His songs were a nice sound track to my sad university love story. I would sit on the window sill in our house in Almaty and gaze at the moon and mountains. 

Music really has been companion of all these years. During my trips to Afghanistan while I was at UNJLC, I would play Santana's Supernatural album over and over on my laptop.

I have tried to build my repertoire of music over the years by visiting CD shops in Islamabad and maybe picking up CDs from stop overs at Airports. 

 iTunes of course changed a lot and I started buying music on recommendation by the software which suggested certain songs. I bought an album by the Bombay Cycle Club and tried to listen to the album over and over again but all I could hear was a bunch of people trying to sing as if they had sat on a cactus. I would also hear some music on TV or on a movie sound track and try to buy it or get a pirated CD on my trips to Pakistan. 

I know that streaming has taken over in Europe and US. I don't even know if CDs are even sold any more there. I know there is something called Spotify. I frankly don't care. 

It was already such a leap to ditch cassettes for CDs and then for digital music libraries. But when your library crashes what do you do? Do you just stream music? Do you move to the cloud? 

Like my love for books, I don't know whether I can ditch my CD collection. I would never get a Kindle and throw out my books. CDs and cassettes are not like books but they are real and can fill up shelves and boxes. 

I want to listen and enjoy music. I want to be comforted by music. I want to delve into my childhood, my bond with my country and language, and pass hours of wonder and reverie  in the golden voices of nightingales and singers, whose voices have sung to us all these years and even after they are gone, can always be replayed over and over on our devices.

It's hard to let go of the way we have always done things and embrace new technology. Especially if that technology breaks down and we lose what we held on to before. Is my longing for cassettes and CDs symbolic of my desire to own material possessions or for the past? 


  1. I love this . I associate memories and feelings with sounds/music. This brought back some memories. The trip was in the late 80s, by the way.89 to be precise. Music is everything<3

  2. Dear Shawar, thank you. I should have written about you dancing and singing "Papa Kehtay Hain" when you were just a few years old. :-)