One usually tends to joke about things that they only usually have strong feelings about - feelings of either adulation or aggression. Adulation is where Alexander Babu’s brilliant piece on SPB comes from. It’s a perceptive, thought through piece that is borne out of respect, joy, and unadulterated love. Like how you would make fun of a family member, while being unhesitant to jump in front of a bullet for them.
While giving us some good-hearted laughs, this piece also calls out one of the incredible things about SPB’s singing - the humanity within. Off the stupendously large list of accomplishments that SPB had, this is the one that strikes me the most - his ability to infuse unmistakeable emotion into his singing. When SPB sang, you could often tell that it was him singing. But you could also clearly tell what the song was trying to convey. And I don’t mean about the clarity of the vocals or the way the words are enunciated. I mean the way his singing lets us imagine the cinema a song could be part of and the stories it is telling, the psychology of its characters, and the complexity of their interactions. With lip-sync songs being the norm in Indian cinema, what better way to treat them than this!
Seldom did (and does) singing become emoting so elegantly. Artists with that rarefied ability are few and far apart. Other icons like Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, or Asha Bhosle come to mind. Yes, we have tremendous singers in the Indian music scene but none so irrefutably consistent when it comes to this particular feature.
Even a mere smattering of examples from my list of favorites proves this. The earnest-ness with which he starts off the “Vennilavum” line in “Mannil Indha Kadhalandri” (Keladi Kanmani). The jubilance of the first few lines or the calming reassurance of the stanzas from “Keeravani” (Anveshana). The tender flirtations of “Rakkamma” (Thalapathy) or “Azhagaana Ratchasiye” (Mudhalvan); the wanton drunken lust of “Thanga Thamarai Magale” (Minsara Kanavu); the devoted persuasion of “Ennai Kaanavillaye” (Kadhal Desam); the innocent indulgences of “Ayyayo” (Aadukalam)”; or the cunning banter of “Neetoh Cheppana” (Athadu).
If not for my limited musical knowledge, I could go on and on. Even recently, I bumped into a 2020 SPB song, Ennoda Baasha (Devadas Parvathi) and couldn’t help but notice this - with how he deliberately stretches the word “Heart” to describe the character’s predicament.
It may have been his voice and its benchmark-able quality that has remained unfazed over five decades. It may have been his experience - a confidence that comes with utmost mastery of one’s art, where one is less focused about meeting their pitches and more focused on making art a channel for a larger story to unfold. It may have been his understanding of humanity, our whims, fancies, and the resultant emotions - which, his endearing acting gigs do speak volumes of.
Now, how does one eulogize a cultural beacon. I’m sure his influence has pervaded into many lives, at one point or another. For me, it was discovering what the concept of music is all about as a very young kid in the 90s (also thanks to my parents’ and brother’s obsession with the works of A.R.Rahman from the time). SPB’s significance is so indelible that it ceases to become just a part of our culture; but more so, is a foundational element that then births this very culture. Like Carnatic music, or the Tabla. Or, for the want of broader analogies, cricket, or 3PM chai and snacks.
So I won’t try to eulogize him. I’ll redirect you to this beautiful tribute from ARR or this comprehensive delving by Baradwaj Rangan; while I work on discovering more of SPB’s music.
Starting with this mellifluous song that I discovered this morning.
"I hate people that feel entitled", goes Kendrick Lamar, the rapper extraordinaire in his Oscar nominated hit "All The Stars". "You the moral to the story, you endorsing?", he continues. The words have a curious duality in their message: on one hand, they're a war-cry resounding the sentiments of an oppressed community, and on the other, they seem to be calling out anyone who hasn't considered hip hop and rap as serious art forms. Musical academia seem to empathise, with Mr. Lamar becoming the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018. His album, "DAMN." was the recipient, with prize administrators acclaiming his work to contain both "vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that capture the complexity of modern African-American life".
To the uninitiated, such as myself, the only exposure to rap remains Eminem's "8 Mile", its striking track "Lose Yourself", or his collaborations with other pop artists, such as Rihanna ("Monster") or Dido ("Stan"). The occasional Top 40s song also sticks and cognizance of artists surely emerges, what with social media abound, but seldom would I tune into a spotify playlist designated to hip-hop/rap.
Even in terms of general awareness of what the genre entails, hip-hop, to me, was all about blinged out Lamborghinis, semi-clad women, and swagger. I think that is largely a consequence of growing up in an era when one's experience with music was limited to film music, whatever MP3s were accessible, and random videos caught on VH1/MTV/Channel V, when the local cable guy deemed you worthy enough to receive music programming.
While I have largely ignored international hip-hop, desi hip-hop that has been in emergence in Indian film music over the last few years through artists like Honey Singh or Badshah, only confounds my expectations from the genre. The less said about the sensibilities of it's content, the better. But if I peel these superficial layers off, there has been evidence of good content - words with championable intent, and talent that can deliver them with gusto - Blaaze and ADK come to mind, making occasional appearances in work for A.R.Rahman. Heck, even Divine and Naezy's "Mere gully main" made enough waves to spill into my bubble, yet arguably none of this was mainstream. They may have had impact - but none enough to uproot an average musicphile's attention from conventional genres.
The "Gully Boy" soundtrack chooses to change that. It wears that mission proudly on its sleeve. "Asli hip hop se milaye hindustan ko (let's introduce India to the real hip-hop)" says its opening track. It consists of 18 tracks (you read that right!) put together by an ecclectic selection of hip-hop artists, indie composers, and producers. The list of contributing names is quite noteworthy - I'd urge you to pour over the credits sheet (at the Youtube link below) than write a mere mention in a sentence and undermine their work.
The best way to contemplate this album is to consider the highs, the meat, and the mellows. The highs are PR-worthy anthems: "Asli hip-hop", "Mere gully main", "Apna time aayega" - tracks that throw obvious hints at the plot of the film, groovy to keep radios and youtube humming for a while. But then, at a stretch, one can imagine a mainstream Bollywood film commission a few tracks like these to be a part of its album, specially when it is portraying a hip hop artist. That's not to steal their thunder in any way; they're completely on point.
The meat of the album is where it really starts to convert the naysayer. Tracks like "Doori", "Azadi", "Jingostan", "Kab Se Kab Tak", "Kaam Bhaari", "Har Gam Me Khushi Hai", and "India 91" are grungy hip hop numbers, well constructed, sharp in their ambition, furious and angst-filled in their message, and apt in their rhythm.
Then, there are the mellows - conventional in this context, but far from that in the bigger scheme of things. Karsh Kale's "Train Song", is my current pick of the lot (owing to my affinity to Kale's vibrant body of work) but "Jahaan Tu Chala" and "Jeene Main Aye Maza" are also wonderful, if only intentionally low key and acoustic numbers that manage to create and sustain sincere moods. Then, there are "Doori (Poem)" and "Ek Hee Raasta", verses, I'm sure, add to moments worth embracing that are the forte of Zoya Akhtar's films.
Irrespective of which spectrum you look at within this album, you find eloquency, words perfect in their linguistics, and biting in their honesty. They are words, but they leave the listener speechless. They adorn able compositions, crafted with deliberation. And then, there's the bass, enough to wake your neighbors, literally, and hopefully in metaphor.
But what makes this album unique is the fact that all of this gets packed into a mainstream film, a Hindi one, nonetheless. After hearing glimpses of it in the promos, I took the long way home from work recently, to be able to blast the album completely, at full chat in my car, and ponder it's sigificance. It reminded me of the time when I found a silent nook at work to experience the "Black Panther" soundtrack put together by Kendrick Lamar without interruption, with a newfound respect for hip-hop. The parallels with Lamar's work don't end there, for me. The Gully Boy soundtrack, is a war-cry too, a gripping message whirled at the mainstream. It is, in one word, groundbreaking.
Bringing Down Broadway!
Thoughts on the A.R.Rahman Intimate Concert in New York City.
Note: Originally written in May 2015
As we raced up the stairs at a non-descript Newark train station to catch the train that was audibly screeching to a halt on the platform above us, I was almost cursing myself and more so, my friend for being late. As we rushed our way through multiple subway stations and cluttered Manhattan streets, I told my friend jocularly that I'd push him in front of a car if I missed the first few performances. But then, that was the excitement for me, an A.R.Rahman music fanatic for life, for my first ARR concert, that too in an impressionable setting no less on one of the theaters on New York City's famed Broadway. Lining up outside the theater, it almost felt like we were at a temple on a pilgrimage. Only there were enough Pradas and Guccis to match the Sarees I guess.
So we get in, settle down and in a few minutes, the lights go off. Over the next couple of hours, 'bringing the house down' felt like a contest between the performers on the stage and the audience. But I've felt that over the years, that has become the essence of ARR's work. Packing so much into one little album, soundtrack, venture; And that is precisely what we saw as the lights went off and the stage lights came on. There he sat to the left, surrounded by a grand piano, a Roli seaboard, an ipad, a Macbook and a few other programming thingamajigs. He started off by a subtle Raaga invocation on the seaboard, followed by a prayer to the almighty in the form of a few lines of 'Maula' from Delhi 6. Haricharan joined in for the vocals only to stay back and remain a powerhouse for the rest of the evening.
But before that, I had to register the band; folks that I'd seen performing in stunning youtube videos and have been wanting to witness live. There was Keba on the guitars, the prodigal Mohini Dey on the bass, the jubilant Ranjit Barot on the drums, the sublime Anne Marie on the violin, lined up in the second row by a three folks on the keyboards for rhythms - Annette Philip, Karthikeya and Shiraz Uppal; flutist Naveen Kumar and a superb percussion guy whose name I was too busy to note when the credits rolled up.
You know there is going to be something special when you see three rhythm players! And yes there was! The set-list started by paying homage to where it all started - 'Chinni Chinni Asai', followed by 'Tu Hi Re' and another Mani Ratnam track I can't recollect now, given my miniscule memory for details. What I can remember was Haricharan and Jonita Gandhi's powerful vocals leading us from track to track effervescently. These two folks should seriously consider insuring their voices. But what else could I expect from two singers that Rahman has obsessed over for his soundtracks successively over the past few years. Concerts on every evening through different cities and their voices remained unfazed, the energy thousandfold, the pitching perfect. Even ARR struggled through his tracks, self admitting to his voice giving up after successive concerts.
But it didn't matter; what with so much else sublime going on, just like in a typical ARR track. There was ARR juggling between everything from an accordion to vocals to the Roli to a funkily tuned note on the piano. There was Keba juggling between leading guitar notes on the acoustic to very touching backing notes on electric guitars. Then there was Mohini awing everyone as her fingers slithered through the lenghty fretboard on the bass guitar.
And there were the best surprises of the evening, in no particular order, detailed here under: A filler piece from one of his OSTs ('Warriors of Heaven and Earth', I presume) that had an amazing crescendo with the drums, percussions, bass, violin and Annette Philip on the vocals doing a stand-off. Talk of Annette Philip (cue: Berklee College of Music) brings fond memories of the 'J' club element from the night - when Annette Philip caught unmitigated attention with her smooth vocals for the jazz number 'Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na'. I can't quite pinpoint on what grabbed me more - the Annette - piano - bass - violin standoff in the song's interlude or the ARR - Annette duet where Annette went 'full jazz diva' on us as she leaned on ARR's piano and looked him in the eye. (Yes, finally a saree clad Jazz diva - oh you wickedly beautiful almighty!) Then there was the subtle duet between Annette and ARR in an ode to my all time inspiration anthem, 'If I Rise'. Somewhere down the line, ARR and Ranjit went into 'Sheldon' mode by wearing wrist bands and ankle straps and playing music by waving arms and stomping their feet. And then into Rock-Jazz stratosphere as ARR extended 'Oh humdum/Endrendrum Punnagai' into a svelte afterlude standoff between the bass-drums-piano. But my moment of the night belonged to the time when Solange Merdinian guest appeared (the benefits of a concert in NYC meant terrific artists can descend down on you, unannounced) for the sublime 'My mind is a stranger without you'. As Solange and ARR played mellow with the vocals, the bass-drum-percussion arrangement left the theater spellbound.
Then there were the usual moments one expects from ARR's music. Arrangements in tracks that deserve album releases, but, sigh, wont get any. Just like the countless cues from the background scores he's composed. Then there was the extensive list of artist/programmer credits projected in the backdrop, set to 'Vandemataram', during the break before the encore. And the list of many euphoric moments goes on.
This diary-entry can go on, but before I start spoiling the wonder for further concert goers in this series, I'll stop here, go sit in a corner and reminisce last night. And ponder my options before I buy the JBL 'ARR' Raaga series headphones that Harman threw a discount coupon to, stuck to a few lucky seats in the theater! So long...
Hide and Seek
Thoughts on "Luka Chuppi" from the Rang De Basanti OST.
Note: Originally written in March 2016
Listening to the album of Rang De Basanti at work, I couldn't help but admire the beauty of the thought that led to the conception of the track 'Luka Chuppi'. Here is a scenario where a mother grieves her son's death; the song assays a subtextual reference in the form of maybe one last conversation between the mother and son, him at the pearly gates, herself unable to let him go. It plays out like a little game of hide and seek, the mother begging him to come back whilst the noble son struggling to explain that he is better off in another world. He utters lines like 'Yahaan udne ko mere khula aasmaan hai', imploring her to let go. How can someone explain grief and moving on in such a fragile yet elegant way! Rakesh Mehra is such an underrated genius. Tracks like these are the primary reason why Indian cinema should never give up lyrical music....