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Author Archives: Leena Prasad

About Leena Prasad

I'm a poet and a scientist. By "poet", I mean literally and figuratively in that I write poetry and practice others forms of word craft. I make a living as a computer scientist and am fascinated with neuroscience.

there is jazz…


…and, then there is jazz.

Walking up Bourbon Street this past October, I’m surprised by the loud sounds. It’s jazz. But it’s too pumped up for pleasure. Having grown up in a suburb of New Orleans, I’m not a newbie to the surroundings. My memories of Bourbon Streets contain sounds of people talking, music filing out from the clubs in various tones and color but never too loudly, sales people standing by the door of their business and trying to get passer bus to stop in for a hurricane, a t-shirt, a daiquiri, a gawdy paraphernalia…

The too-loud-for-my-ears brass sounds drown out all the other noise… and along with it, my interest in soaking up the “no culture” culture of Bourbon Street.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2011 in jazz, memory, New Orleans, sound

 

we got sold out


Banks got bought out / We got sold out!
Banks got bought out / We got sold out!
Banks got bought out / We got sold out!

This chant reverberated through the streets of downtown San Francisco on October 15 as Occupy SF gathered force. An occasional drumbeat or the sound of a trombone or another instrument contributed to the chants. The power, however, resonated solely from the vocal chords of the hundreds gathered on a Saturday afternoon, the 99% of Americans asking the 1% who own most of America, to share the wealth.

This was not exactly “music” but it had rhythm and soul.

Show me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like.
Show me what democracy looks like / This is what democracy looks like.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2011 in politics, sound, voice

 

bluegrass blues


It’s Monday night, October 3, 2011. The bluegrass band at Amnesia, Random Canyon Growlers, opens with a song about feeling sad and lonely. The lead singer looks right at me. I have had two Amnesiac cosmos at this point so I can’t be sure and I am probably not the only one here connecting to the song.

Welcome to the lounge culture of The Mission, a tradition that can pull you out of you’re misery without your permission.

The narrative structure of the lyrics is compelling. I hear the words clearly and watch the band members from a vantage point of a few feet. I hear the waving in and out of the stand up base, the mandolin, the guitar, and the banjo. The music lulls me out of my slightly sad mood as I easily devote myself to the bluegrass sounds.

Later, the music changes tempo. Some people dance on the small floor in front of the musicians. I move in place in my corner of the “dance” floor.

After a while, the sound becomes too repetitive. I have an early meeting on Tuesday morning. I walk away with a tiny smile curling around my lips.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in bluegrass, listening, lyrics, song

 

while the Sitar gently sings


A Sitar conjures up childhood memories of living-room soirées in India where someone would play to an entranced audience of family and friends. At the time I did not know that this ancient Indian instrument had already been introduced by George Harrison of The Beatles to a huge rock-n-roll fan base in the West.

My family moved to the US in the late 70s. I’ve heard the solemn riffs of The Sitar in many popular Western songs and attended classical Indian concerts where the Sitar played a key role. Last Friday, however, when Rob Myers of the Thievery Corporation plucked the strings at a live concert in Oakland, I felt an unanticipated resonance. Listening to the sounds at a rock concert connected me back to the childhood memories and to the distance I have traveled literally and figuratively.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in 60s music, classical, listening, memory, Sitar, sound

 

listen and dance


A man slouches in a wheelchair. His body is still except for his hand which covers some switches on the right side of the wheelchair. Not far from him, directly in front of the stage, two young girls are jumping up and down, their hip-length hair making wide arcs around their back.

I recall seeing the women three hours earlier and they were doing the same exact dance. I wonder about their experience of the music and that of the man in the wheelchair. I consider my own night.

The headliners now playing, Forrest Day, bring a range of jazz/pop/rap/rock sound to the club. Sometimes I just listen to their lyrics and sound and sometime I move if the music powers my body. I’m impressed enough to consider looking them up later on YouTube.

The previous band, Oona, was more about danceabilityand and connecting to the audience than the lyrics. The lead singer had stylish bottled blonde hair, an off the shoulder shimmery shirt and sexy shorts that focused the attention on her. She connected to the audience by talking in-between sets and by going off stage into the audience. I don’t remember any of their songs or music but I had a great time dancing and enjoyed the show.

The opening act, Lavish Green, was more about sound than about lyrics as I couldn’t decipher the lyrics despite the club being somewhat empty when they came on. I sipped my gin-and-tonic and danced but I also wished that the volume was lower so that I wouldn’t feel so overpowered by the sound and need to yell so that my friend could hear what I was saying.

I look over to the man in the wheelchair, the women jumping around, the rest of the audience listening or dancing or doing both. Everyone is transported, somehow. And that’s all that matters.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2011 in sound

 

Violin Revolution


A man with gray hair looks at me as I walk by. Near him a group of young men stand around talking-nodding-smiling. The air is brisk and cold. It’s 10:30pm on a Monday, August in San Francisco. I plan to turn around soon and walk home.

As I pass by Revolution Cafe, I encounter the crowd spilling out on the sidewalk and the usual smell of cannabis. But there’s also a sharp and haunting sound which pierces through and rouses my curiosity. I walk up to the open door of the cafe where a packed room of people are concentrating on a group of musicians who are seated in the middle of the crowd: three men on violin, one man playing a base guitar and a fifth on clarinet.

Tempted by the music, I squeeze past the crowd to buy a sangria and find my way back again near the door. After playing musical chairs for about ten minutes, I find myself seated a foot away from one of the violin players. His hands move horizontally in a a wide arc. He’s half seated and half standing and moves his legs up and down as he plays. I keep an eye on his movements to make sure that I stay out of his way.

I can see the music sheets and the complex arrangement of music makes my head swim. I don’t recognize the music. It could be something by Beethoven. The adagio, a style of playing music slowly, soothes and relaxes.

I had decided to go on a walk to relax my agitated mind. The walk was good but the music adds a touch of enchantment that I carry with me as I leave after 3-4 more sets. I fall asleep easily when I come home to my bed.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in adagio, classical, listening, sound, violin

 

jazz everywhere


I type in “jazz” in the books section of amazon.com and the results range from works of fiction, history and theory of jazz, how to play jazz, books about jazz albums, photographs of jazz musicians, and more. I brows “Jazz” by Toni Morrison, a story of crimes of passion, and consider developing a blog based on the book. But will it really be about jazz and besides, it’s set in Harlem in New York city and I want to explore New Orleans’ jazz.

I decide that history of jazz is perhaps more appropriate and find a book that has several good reviews. It is named, appropriately enough, The History of Jazz. A quick look shows that the history starts in New Orleans.

So near and yet so far… all those years of growing up less than ten miles away from New Orleans and choosing to ignore jazz. Now that I’m living many miles away in San Francisco, I start my journey into the story of jazz, starting in New Orleans.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in jazz, New Orleans, sound

 

Up close with the punk/pop sounds of NoBunny


Elbows bent onto the stage, the soft cushion of my belly against the hard edge, I’m moving to the music, along with everyone else who has been quick enough to have secured a space this close. Occasionally, someone slides up, past me and onto the stage to dive into the mass of people to crowd surf. There’s also the random wave that rushes into me from the mosh pit next to us. I’m too close to the speakers to hear the lyrics of the song but it doesn’t matter. The sound and the energy is riveting.

My mind and body are lit up. I’m young again.

I consider crowd surfing or joining the mosh pit. Either inertia or fear of injury keep me from both activities. Or, maybe it’s just that I’m content where I am.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2011 in crowd surfing, mosh pit, punk, sound

 

Where is the jazz?


A lone man stands against the wall, one foot up on the wall, knees supporting the saxophone in his arms. The next instant, a haunting sound floats out of the instrument.

The scene is so common in New Orleans that it has become one of the cliche images that represents New Orleans jazz in illustrations, paintings, and movies. It was a new experience, however, when I first encountered the sound as a 16-yr-old. I lived less than ten miles away in a suburb but New Orleans was a different world. The sax, the man, and the sound pervaded my senses and became my first memory of this city.

Jazz was also a different world. I filed away the man and his music until college where I briefly dated a trombone player who played in a jazz band, I went to all the touristy jazz places in the city with my fellow students at Tulane University in New Orleans, and attended sporadic live jazz and blues concerts. Yet, the spirit of jazz did not enter my music consciousness. I was obsessed with the poetry and angst of The Smiths, the danceability of New Order, the artistry of Laurie Anderson, the craziness of the Talking Heads, the other-worldliness of Cocteau Twins…

Over the years, I continued to participate in jazz but only as a social activity, never with any authentic passion. Recently, I was listening to a jazz orchestra at Yerba Buena Park in San Francisco. The music reminded me of New Orleans and brought back memories that I had not realized I had collected. I find myself intrigued, finally, by the sounds that blossomed only ten miles away from my childhood home but did not find a place in my heart.

Thus, I’m exploring jazz here for the next few weeks and approaching it with a beginner’s mind…

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2011 in jazz, listening, memory, New Orleans, sound

 

Writing to rap, out loud


When I write poetry, I don’t need to consider the power of my vocal chords. For rap, however, this is a key element. I need to be able to use my voice as an instrument. I don’t have to be an accomplished singer but I do need to breathe properly and enunciate my words concisely. I need to consider these factors even as I write the song.

For the rap that’s due on July 10th for my poetry group, I have an idea for a song. I have written the chorus and about four lines. I read the words out loud. Then, I write one of sentences in the chorus twice because it sounds better that way. In a poem, however, I rarely repeat a sentence. I haven’t moved beyond the chorus and the four lines yet because I’m still getting accustomed to rhyming and rapping.

Another option that I’m considering is to convert an existing poem into a rap song. This is even more challenging. My poem is in free verse and the first two words of my poem are translating to two sentences of hip-hop and the sentences don’t even rhyme!

This is turning out to be more difficult than I had anticipated. It’s my first time. So, I’m not sweating it too much… instead I’m listening to some experts for inspiration.