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Other Worlds, Other Sounds 

Korla Pandit and the secret museum of mankind

Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
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It's 1951, and housewives across California are plopping the meatloaf in the oven and racing to their television sets. The screen snaps from snow into a fuzzy black-and-white picture of a chalice of burning incense. His wisdom is better than rubies and things to be desired are not to be compared unto it, a narrator announces in a patrician baritone. We bring you musical gems from near and far, blended into a pattern of glorious harmony. The camera pans to a sultry young man clad in a bejeweled turban and gilded sultan's suit. Costumed dancers gyrate as he plays a glossy pipe organ. Ladies and gentlemen, Korla Pandit, the most soothing man on television. His smoldering gaze burns like a cathode ray, but he never utters a word.

"If you were looking at me on TV or in photos," Pandit says, "my eyes followed you all around the room, like one of those trick paintings. In 900 live shows, I never said a single thing."

Pandit's television and radio programs "based on the universal language of music" introduced listeners to other worlds and other sounds from 1949 through the mid-'50s, the self-proclaimed Indian mystic interpreting pop hits, ethnic classics, and self-penned compositions like "The Theme of the Underwater Worshippers." With over a dozen records released on the Fantasy label alone, Pandit was a global star and a sex symbol with a female following to rival the cult of Rudolph Valentino. Every day, Pandit says, women "seduced by [his] magnetic glance" would shower him with love letters and gifts; one fan even sent him a grand piano. What matter we don't speak when the jealous eyes have spoken?

Today, at age 75 (really 2,029, he claims, past lives and all), Pandit is the cocktail nation's latest rediscovery and still the charmer. "My senses tell me you are very beautiful," he drawls over the phone. He insists on driving in all the way from a friend's house in Millbrae to continue our interview, even though he "doesn't get around like he used to." As his friend and sometime artistic partner Joe Seehee (aka Cheezhee) of the Wonderful World of Joey warns, "Korla never passes up an opportunity to meet the ladies."

Pandit arrives looking extremely frail, but nattily attired in a navy-blue Nehru suit, white turtleneck, and sky-blue turban. Within five minutes he is reading my palm and measuring my wrist as we sit on a couch. "Even if you live to be 200 years old, you will never be fat," he promises. He compares me to Helen of Troy, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Veronica Lake. "Do you know what the connection is?" he whispers, riveting me with his now-rheumy eyes. "You are all from the planet Venus. You suffer because you are envied. I know because I, too, am Venusian." He presses my hand to his chest.

To his credit, Pandit seems less a dirty old man than an eternal optimist. A walking anachronism, he peaked before the age of pubic hairs on Coke cans, when men fine-tuned their pickup lines and women dreamed of succumbing to mysterious lotharios. If "chronological time is a mirage," as Pandit maintains, why bend to the winds of trend? There are standards to keep, legends to maintain. Pandit's monologue is uninterruptable, skipping through every era but the present. He tells of hypnotizing hat-girls in Vegas, subduing Siberian tigers, smelling yellow roses that kiss him on the lips. The names he drops are Chandhu the Magnificent, Richard Nixon, Criswell, and Mel Torme. Pandit has repeated the same stories so many times that truth and illusion have become irrevocably conflated. It doesn't matter at this point if Pandit is really the son of a New Delhi Brahmin and a French opera singer. What is history, he might say, but a series of half-truths and wishful thinking?

This is what we know: that with his virtuoso technique of marrying melody and percussion, evocative of an entire orchestra at times, Pandit instituted the formerly disdained pipe organ as an instrument of respect. That Pandit has nearly perfect tonal memory ("If I hear a song, I can play it a year from now, 100 years from now, even when I'm on a different planet," he claims). That Pandit eroticized the "exotic" for a culture that had just discovered "over there." That while Martin Denny took the music of faraway shores and sanitized it for suburban swingers, Pandit flung open the doors to the unknown. We take you on a magic carpet trip to happy lands.

"I am interested in transcendence, capturing the true feeling of every song I play," Pandit explains. "England, China, Japan, France -- every country felt I was playing just for them. It was the meaning and expression that counts, and love, yes, love. I promoted understanding to people throughout the world through sound and vibration."

"Look at my arm," Pandit orders, pushing up his sleeves. His skin is smooth as a child's. "Where I'm not tan I am as white as you, but I am brown, too. I had to change my name to Juan Rolando to get in the Latin union in the '40s. There was no place for someone like me. But we are all one people, you see." A golden wedding of East and West.

At this point, people keep walking by the office to stare through the window at the elderly man in the turban. I'm utterly ashamed, as if I've put him on exhibit. I recall the recent The Secret Museum of Mankind (Shanachie), a remastered collection of turn-of-the-century 78s from around the world; it's titled ironically, a commentary on our propensity to fetishize the "other," compartmentalize it, keep it distant, let it bemuse us. This Museum offers clues that seem impossible to read. All that is clear is the musty smell of history and a sense of utter, irrevocable loss. These folk musicians weren't playing for us; their bones are now dust. But Pandit and Esquivel and other heroes of the tiki revivalists are still living and breathing, trapped in a parallel universe.

Pandit has no idea what's beneath all the talk of his "historically underappreciated talent," that when Combustible Edison and its legions exploit him and his kind as role models, it's considered a gesture of self-immolation more punk than punk itself. Even his relationship with Joey Cheezhee, however friendly, is parasitic, their association adding cachet and authenticity to Cheezhee's own neolounge act. Meanwhile, Pandit keeps plugging away at drive-ins and Polynesian-themed bars. "There has not been a businesslike consistency," Pandit grumbles. "Where's my contracts!? My guarantees?!"

Pandit is evasive about the past 30 years, which have been a scramble for lectures, healing seminars, and cameos in films like Ed Wood. Why not? There's the future to behold. "I have untrammeled property in Sonoma," he claims as we walk to his car. "I will open up a church, a temple, a place where people can go and relax and release tension, based on the Eskimo model -- a center place with channels going into other rooms for meditation, acting, and studying the stars and planets." He giggles and grabs my hand. "There will be rooms for couples, too."

Pandit hops into his beige '89 Mustang and waves jauntily as he drives away. His vanity plates read "I AM KP." Once again, Korla Pandit has transcended time and space.

Korla Pandit plays Sat, Jan. 20, at Bimbo's 365 Club in S.F.; call 474-0365.

About The Author

Sia Michel

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