Dhol Beats & City Sounds
I think it is time for a little celebration. Just about one year ago I published the first installment of Soundtrack Of A Photograph. It began with photographs I have taken over the years of the great ship Peking at the South Street Seaport paired together with a song written by Ralph McTell. The song told the story of Irving Johnson, who had actually sailed aboard her in the 1920’s. I had no idea what was going to happen when I started piecing it together. I had never written a blog before and there was a big learning curve in getting it all started. It was the first type of creative writing I have done since graduating college almost 25 years ago, and even then it was not my forte. I was not sure people would want to read it, sure that no one would enjoy the photographs I used in that first installment. I did not think about getting it out to a larger audience or creating Facebook, Twitter and other social media pages for it. I figured I would see what would happen after I wrote the first one and take it from there whether to continue or not. I genuinely believed that I had come up with a concept that might be appealing, but it is easy to fall into a trap of thinking that in your mind before the feedback actually comes in. So as I hit submit for the introduction and that first installment one year ago, I did so with a huge feeling of trepidation. Now one year later I can say that the reason you are reading this right now is that trepidation eased once I began seeing how much people enjoyed that first installment, and the subsequent ones which followed. It has been a pleasure seeing how many people have clicked on my little blog. At the time of writing this that has been thousands of you in over 40 countries. Surprise on my part at this reaction is an understatement. In any case,if this is your first time reading my blog, or if you have only read a few, or if you have read every single one, I thank you. It also has been a pleasure continuing to write them. Some have been easy and the words and ideas flowed out of my brain quite quickly while others have been a struggle to finish. Some have had logistical problems on the photography side of things, presenting me with challenges while at other times, I had great photos to utilize yet did not know how to piece them together in the end into a cohesive thought. Regardless of the difficulties, at this moment you are now reading the 14th installment of this blog, so pop that cork and let’s have a little fun this time around!
“Shrug your shoulders and twist your wrists, Move your body and shake those ships”
Being a celebration I thought we should have something really upbeat and happy sounding for the music. I also wanted it to be a different type of music than I have been writing about thus far. So far there has been lots of folk and country music, some soul and funk, singer songwriters and rock and roll as the soundtracks to the previous blogs. I have been wanting to do an installment based on some of the world music I listen to, but up to now I have not thought any of my photographs were appropriate matches. Most of my photographs have been taken in and around New York City, or in other locations in the U.S. So it did not feel right choosing music from Nigeria, Cuba or Italy for example. However, since I began writing the blog, I have started to carry a small notebook around with me. In between the jumbled notes and fleeting thoughts, there are sometimes solid ideas that developed. One night as I was walking home from work recently I jotted two such ideas down. The first was for actually being able to include some ‘world’ sounds here, but it would come from a band that is actually based here in New York City. I still did not know how I would showcase this band’s music with my photos, but figured inspiration might strike at the right time. I just knew that I wanted to showcase them as part of the celebration.
The second idea had been brewing for a while when I began to think a few months ago that I wanted to do a special anniversary edition of Soundtrack Of A Photograph. I wanted to return to the idea I used in that very first blog about the Peking. I wanted it to have a New York flair that fit with the music, yet also was about one tangible ‘object’ just like the Peking. I began thinking about what I could use. Maybe an iconic building like the Empire State Building, or Grand Central Terminal. Or instead of one object perhaps something as broad a subject as Central Park, or an entire neighborhood like Greenwich Village. Though I love all those places, truthfully they have all been written about and photographed so much I felt like I would not be able to add anything new. So I continued to think about what might work. The answer came that night when I realized what ‘object’ is inescapable here in the city. There are actually over 2000 of them scattered around in various shapes and sizes in fact. They are a key element in this city comprised of 2 large islands, several smaller ones, and a large harbor with various rivers and inlets scattered throughout the five boroughs. Some are relatively new, while others are well over a century old at this point. They range from beautiful stand-alone examples of architecture with impressive feats of engineering to more basic designs built in a more utilitarian sense with little to no creative element to them. In fact, one example of this object has played a key element to the layout of this blog since the very beginning and has sat at the top of every post.
I refer of course to bridges. There really are over 2000 of them throughout this city, and the photograph in the banner at the top of this page, as well as the cover photos for all my social media pages for the blog is of course one of them, the Manhattan Bridge. Some of you have asked why I chose that particular photo. To be honest, the reason I used it as the banner was not for any particular reason. I was not trying to make a statement with it. The truth is, I just liked the photo, and when it came time to select a template for the blog here on WordPress, the example that I liked and decided to use had a similar image. So presto! I decided that would be my banner for that initial blog, and if I continued on with other blogs I could always change it later. So in addition to being the banner, when I jotted those notes down and thought about an installment on one of the New York City bridges, I thought the Manhattan Bridge might actually make for an interesting subject matter for a variety of reasons.
Though it has been seen in movies and even in the art world (Edward Hopper’s Manhattan Bridge Loop has long been a favorite painting of mine-http://americanart.si.edu/hopper/p11-loop.html) it is nowhere near as famous or as well regarded as a New York City icon like its closest neighbor, the Brooklyn Bridge. It is not as plagued by traffic snarls as the dreaded Whitestone Bridge, two words no New York City driver ever wants to hear on the traffic reports. It does not have a name that serves as a reminder of the Dutch origins of the city like the Throgs Neck Bridge does. It does not carry as much traffic on a daily basis as the George Washington Bridge does. It does not represent a welcoming or departing view (depending on which way you see it from) the way the mighty Verrazano Narrows Bridge is. It is not as groovy as the 59th Street Bridge. About all I can really say about it on a personal level is that I travel over it twice a day on the subway to my job in Brooklyn. Looking out those subway windows as it comes out of the tunnel and crosses the East River it offers a great view but the bridge itself has never been special to me. To some older New Yorkers it is probably remembered best for a string of major infrastructure repairs and improvements dating back to the 1970’s which have only just ended in the last few years. A New York Times article once called it the Rodney Dangerfield of bridges-it gets no respect. Likewise for me and probably most people who live in New York City, the Manhattan Bridge is essentially just there, another backdrop in a city comprised of backdrops. Or so I thought until I took a little excursion recently in an effort to take some photos and learn more about it.
“Just feel the rhythm bubble under your skin, Drip, drop the sweat, Shruggy Ji, let’s begin”
The Manhattan Bridge opened in 1909, built in part to relieve traffic on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge. It connects Canal Street in Manhattan with Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. It is a mixed use bridge, with a pedestrian walkway, three lanes of vehicle traffic, four subway lines and a bike lane on the lower level, and four lanes of vehicle traffic on the upper level. For those looking for an in depth look at the history of the bridge I would suggest going here- http://www.nycroads.com/crossings/manhattan/ For my own excursion I decided to start at the beginning, on Canal Street in the heart of Chinatown. The thing you begin to realize as you walk around this city and inevitably walk on, underneath, or around bridges to get somewhere is how long the approach is before you actually get on to the bridge itself. In addition when you walk beneath such a large bridge you understand how much is involved in the construction. You see the concrete and steel. You see how they all somehow fit together. You see the height and feel the width. You realize how much material is used to construct them. I began exploring and photographing the Manhattan Bridge in much the same way. Starting off by walking under the long approach to the bridge from Canal Street, the roadway peeks through in between buildings and trees occasionally, gradually rising.
Continuing east towards the river and walking parallel with the approach I eventually came across the first of the massive concrete support bases of the roadway. Like the bridge itself these were still built in an era when public structures such as bridges were built with a sense of style to them. Crossing under that first support base I continued on, the approach roadway now more visible to the landscape, dominating the surrounding buildings. I was now getting closer to the East River, where after a few blocks I came across the second support base. From here I had a better and clearer view of the cathedral like arches rising overhead supporting the steel roadway.
At one point, near the corner of Monroe and Pike Streets you really get a clear sense of the enormity of the entire bridge. The approach to the Manhattan side behind you, the concrete arches of the road support to one side, and an unobstructed view of the two bridge towers, one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn. All of this hangs permanently over the neighborhood, suspended over small buildings and streets, schools and churches and even parks. One of the spaces directly under the supports was even made into a skateboard park. Walking beneath the bridge like this you are hit with a booming, rumbling sound of cars together with the metallic clank of the subway trains above your head.
After taking some photographs from this perspective, I turned back, heading towards Canal Street again to take the pedestrian walkway across to Brooklyn. Once back on Canal Street and looking straight ahead at the bridge you are confronted with a large arch and colonnades on either side, something which makes the Manhattan Bridge totally unique compared to all the other bridges in the city. Indeed I cannot recall any large bridge anywhere that has such a grand entrance as this. The arch and colonnades were added shortly after the bridges completion and I crossed over to get a better look at them. Even though I had seen this entrance before while walking around Chinatown many times, I have never seen it up close. I took some photos of the details of the artwork on the arch before moving on to the walkway.
Once there I had another sense of awe at seeing the scale of the bridge from this vantage point. Below me were the streets I had just walked, while ahead of me was the long pathway and the start of the actual bridge. The main cable wires and the suspender cables sloping gently upward to the first tower. When in a car or riding the subway, this view is not really able to be appreciated because you are going by so fast. On foot, the structure shines as you gaze around in all directions. Above you the cables and the upper roadway. To the left, the auto lanes and subway tracks. To the right, a close up view of buildings and water towers, rooftop gardens interspersed with graffiti before you reach a point where you are suddenly and directly high above the East River. After a few moments I was finally at the first tower, and could admire the details of the structure.
It was built with a narrower profile compared to most other bridges, but up close it still looks overwhelming. Up close you also get a better look at the four finials that sit atop each tower, and give the Manhattan Bridge a stated elegance. It was at this point that I started feeling a sense of admiration for this bridge, in part for the view it provides. The panorama before your eyes of downtown Manhattan to your right, Brooklyn to your left is truly special. Looking south from the pathway the Brooklyn Bridge lies directly in front of you, the South Street Seaport and the Peking in its shadow and the widening harbor beyond, revealing Governor’s Island off in the distance. A million dollar view as is often said, especially on a fine day such as I was experiencing.
I fired off several shots of this beautiful harbor view, of ships gliding by in the bright sunlight. Eventually I moved on and again I continued to admire the structure of the Manhattan Bridge. Years of commuting over it back and forth and having it be a mere checkpoint of the trip was starting to dissipate. Walking it in this way my opinion was definitely changing. It took a few more minutes to actually get to the midpoint of the bridge proper, the spot where the main cable slopes down briefly, before ascending to the Brooklyn tower. Whenever I see any suspension bridge, this is the area my eyes go to every time. This is where you feel the strength of the bridge. This is the spot that defines what suspension bridges are all about.
Again I took a moment to think about that as I continued taking photos. I was not just walking across the bridge, I was trying to understand it as well. Just like when I was walking under the bridge I became aware of the loud, percussive sound prevalent at that moment. Subways and cars whizzing by, the wind moving through, even faint sounds of the bridge itself, of metal clanging against metal. There was also a vibration caused by all the movement. So much so that I had to take measures while taking photos that the camera was not shaking too much. It was a strong feeling being immersed by sound like that. As I moved on, I eventually passed the Brooklyn tower, looking back now towards Manhattan, with Brooklyn below my feet and the road sloping down towards Flatbush Avenue that sound eventually took over my thoughts. I felt I had taken enough photos to showcase the bridge, but now all I could think about was the sound, and how mesmerizing it was in its own way. Once I reached the Brooklyn tower I stopped taking photos in fact. For some reason I became more interested in the sound.
The walkway descent to street level on the Brooklyn side is not as dramatic as the Manhattan side, and eventually it leaves you at a small plaza surrounded by traffic. I crossed the street and headed over towards the heart of the neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass). It is what it says, and like the area around Canal Street, that sound returned as I started taking photos of the bridge from the Brooklyn side. Walking down some of the narrow crisscrossing streets of DUMBO once again the bridge dominates life here. The road goes either over buildings (or comes very close to them) and every street corner seems to have a different vantage point of the Manhattan Bridge. But as I continued taking photos, once again it became the sound that I became focused on. That metallic jolt of the subway trains overhead, of wheels in motion driving over the same point creating a syncopated rattle to the streets below along with the incessant sounds of vehicle traffic and honking horns, motorcycles revving engines, and diesel trucks belching out fumes. Inescapable sounds, yet somewhat comforting in their own way. It is a glorious sort of noise in some ways because it feels like the pulse of the city, the frenetic energy that sustains life in this town. In New York City we learn to live with noise like that. It is something of an old joke how when you take a city person accustomed to sirens and construction noises out into the country the silence of nature becomes intolerable.
When I was finished taking my last photos of the day on the Brooklyn side of the bridge I eventually headed to the subway to go home and I started thinking about something I had noticed throughout the day. After seeing and thinking about the bridge in a different context, I came away with a greater admiration for it. It does not have to be as famous an icon like the Brooklyn Bridge to be admired. Having less traffic than the Whitestone Bridge is certainly a plus. Its name may not be a throwback to the Dutch like the Throgs Neck but instead goes back to a Native American word, the true original settlers. It may not carry as many cars as the George Washington Bridge, but unlike that bridge the ones the Manhattan Bridge does carry come over it via four different methods of transportation. Its location in the harbor is not meant to be a welcoming or departing view like the Verrazano Bridge is. If Simon and Garfunkel had come from Brooklyn instead of Queens, it could have easily been just as groovy as the 59th Street Bridge. Yet despite enjoying the beautiful views, and despite a little history and engineering lesson revealed by walking it, despite lots of photographs taken, in the end the day was defined for me by the sounds I heard. As I waited for the subway to take me back towards home, for the first time that afternoon I pulled out my Ipod. I knew it would be too noisy crossing the bridge to use it, and I wanted to concentrate on the photography. But as I pulled it out and started scrolling through, it suddenly dawned on me how to piece this all together, and I knew exactly how the band I had been wanting to feature here would fit in for this installment. The key word I realized at that moment was sound. I made my choice on the Ipod and hit play….
“Yeah…….uh huh….yeah, yeah”
Out came the sounds of Red Baraat, the 8 piece Percussion and Brass ensemble from Brooklyn, churning out a vibrant and driving sound. Starting with elements of North Indian Bhangra music, Red Baraat drive the music forward with everything from jazz to hip-hop. Led by the charismatic Sunny Jain on the dhol, a type of two headed drum leading the way, and the rest of the band on percussion and brass they drive crowds anywhere they go into a frenzy. Two years ago I saw them at a festival and was hooked after the very first number. If the sky can actually be raised, and if a field can actually shake, I believe Red Baraat is the band to do it. Their 2013 album Shruggy Ji is a tour de force of different sounds. It is high energy, it is infectious, it is BROOKLYN attitude, it is fun. They tour the world, playing festivals and shows bringing their unique sound, so do make sure to catch them if they are playing near you. Disappointment is not an option after hearing Red Baraat. As I listened to them on the subway that afternoon, relieved to be finally sitting down, when the title track of Shruggy Ji came through my headphones it brought the day in focus. Rather than resorting to the usual sort of cliches about bridges and music- about bridging east and west, bridging different genres of music, I realized the reason I wanted to pair Red Baraat with these photos of the Manhattan Bridge had nothing to do with the bridge itself, but with the SOUND of the bridge. That cacophony of unrelenting sounds. The steady hum of the cars going past day in and day out, the gradual rattle of a train becoming more incessant as it passes near you, the clanking of metal against metal echoing through the streets all reminded me of the music of Red Baraat. Trumpets and tubas, saxophones and trombones, drums and percussion, Indian and American, hip-hop and jazz, funk and Bhangra all making a controlled chaotic sound. Much like the Manhattan Bridge itself.
When I got home and started looking at the photos on my laptop, I started piecing together the ideas I had jotted down in the notebook. I decided the form of this installment would be just like the walk I took that day. There were more photos than I could use, so as part of this little celebration, I am including them in the gallery below, in the order they were experienced that day. I hope you enjoyed this installment, and I hope you take a walk across the Manhattan Bridge some day yourself. Let me know how you feel about the bridge when you do. As for me I can say with certainty now that the Manhattan Bridge is now one of my favorite bridges anywhere, not just in New York. It has a unique style. It has a breathtaking view of the harbor while you cross it. It also has a distinct sound, much like the music of Red Baraat, the Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this installment.
Shruggy Ji-written by Sunny Jain, Rap by Michael Robert Williams
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
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