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Cassette Culture

By Peter Manuel
University of Chicago Press

No one would guess from Peter Manuel's circumspect, jargon-ridden first chapter how fascinating his study of northern India's burgeoning music industry will turn out to be. So skim or skip to the fruits of research so tolerant, thorough, and enthusiastic that it transcends the standard-issue academese in which it is rendered. Mr. Manuel's secret, as he demonstrated in his miraculously succinct Popular Musics of the Non-Western World, is that he has no use for academia's other cardinal sin: overspecialization. His subject may seem small from the outside. But there's weight to spare in the galloping localism and unstaunchable syncretism of a vast society that has yet to be homogenized. Over the past decade, Mr. Manuel explains, the hegemony of the movie music that has defined Indian pop since independence has been undermined by audiocassette economics. Domestically manufactured players and recorders are so cheap that even the Indian masses can afford them, and once empowered as both consumers and producers, they go on to prove the concept of "masses" a canard. The variety and individualism Mr. Manuel describes seems limitless. Cassette songs can be genteel, ribald, devotional, ceremonial; folkloric, neofolkloric, hybrid, pop; sung in Hindi/Urdu lingua franca or regional languages or dialects understood by "only" a million or so people--even in English. They evince the vigorous autonomy and dangerous provinicialism of northern India's cultures. Their stories should interest and enlighten any American who doesn't wish the world would go away.

New York Times Book Review, ????