From Raga to Rock

My story on contemporary Malayalam film music scene written for the December issue of Sound Box magazine. Here is an unedited version. You can read the e-magazine from here (go to page # 36 to read).

Ask any Malayalee what genre of music he or she likes and the instant reply you would get is melody. Even though the word ‘melody’ has somewhat different meaning in music, the average Malayalee uses it to refer to the soft and soothing music. Malayalam film music has played a big role in developing this ‘taste of melody’ among the Malayali audience. Like many other film music industries in India, Malayalam also did not have much exposure to the various genres of music outside the Indian classical music system. As a result, it contained itself to be a simplified version of Karnatik and Hindustani music systems for the past several decades. The equations however are changing and fast.

The old school

The lighter version of the various Indian classical music schools went very well with the audience too, thanks to the lyricists like Vayalar Ramavarma and P Bhaskaran who used simple words to convey the ideas through songs. Their words and the lighter forms of classical music stayed with the audience. Composers like G Devarajan and M S Baburaj were a supreme influence of this era. Singer K J Yesudas was another big factor and his voice had set a benchmark to the singing aspirants of Malayali society. But there was little life for popular music outside the film music scene that got stuck to the style of Karnatik music. Then came music composer M G Radhakrishnan who popularized a music genre called “Light Music” in Kerala. Radhakrishnan who was working with All India Radio before he entered the film music had helped this genre to become mainstream. Parallely, Yesudas had also begun releasing light music albums under his own recording label Tharangini. Be it in popular music (that consisted of light music) or film music, Yesudas found a massive fan following.

“In an industry where a lot of music has become formulaic, often bcos the producer tells the music producer exactly which hit song to copy ;), I think filmmakers who are experimental enough to approach indie artists are looking for something different and thats what they are getting. I’m sure the audience can make out the difference and appreciate it. – Suraj Mani, singer and  ex-vocalist of Motherjane

Late 80s and early 90s saw the Malayalam film music going back to it’s classical roots with much vigor that was not seen even in the early days. Thanks to a new trend in film music called ‘semi-classical’ which was made popular by music director Raveendran. The trio of composer Raveendran, singer Yesudas and actor Mohan Lal made these films and genre extremely popular. This has in a way helped bridge the gap between the general public and Karnatik music but it did not change much for the Malayalam film music.

The pace hots up

Meanwhile, a younger generation of Malayalees was growing up, listening to the fast paced Hindi and Tamil film music. The ‘dappankuth’ genre of fast paced Tamil numbers had taken over the Malayali youngsters so much so that every orchestra or every single Malayali musical programmes had to have a few Tamil numbers to mark a grand closure of the show. TV channels were flocking with requests from Malayali youngsters to play fast-paced Tamil songs. Indi-pop singers like Daler Mehndi also had a huge fan following here in his heydays.

But the clutches of classical music stayed on in Malayalam film music and not many tried to break the barrier (agreed that there were one-off attempts at western music by music composers like Devarajan) until a new music director came into the scene. Jassie Gift became a household name among Malayalees with a single song called “Lajjavathiye”. The song was a massive hit not only in Kerala but in other south Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and heavily contributed to the success of the movie that featured the song (which was then remade into other south Indian languages). The song with it’s Rap intro, heavy beats and a different style of singing by Jassie himself had drawn much criticism from the purists of music but nevertheless enjoyed a huge success. Alternatively, another music director, Alphons, was also experimenting with different genres of music. One of his compositions in Malayalam film “Manju poloru penkutti” had an English number that featured one of the best voices in the contemporary Malayalam film music industry, Sayanora.

But still, a bigger change of genre was just waiting to happen. Musicians like Jassie or Alphons had to work with an older generation of movie makers, a fact which might have drawn limits to their experiments in music. This applies to almost all new entrants in the Malayalam film music industry. But a new era of young and vibrant film makers in the industry has dared to take the film music score to a new level of experiments. Parallely, the Malayali music bands like Avial and Motherjane were making waves across the country and abroad.

Leading the change

Director Aashiq Abu was probably the first among these new age movie directors to introduce the Malayali rock band Avial in his popular film ‘Salt N Pepper’. The song was used for the movie’s online promotions, but Aashiq Abu could not feature it full length in the film or let the band compose the score of the film. So while the movie and songs were scored by another young music director Bijibal, the Avial song was played at the end of the movie. Sameer Thahir, another young movie director, went a step further and roped in Avial’s lead guitarist Rex Vijayan to set score for his debut venture “Chappa Kurishu”. The change was clearly audible in the music of the movie. Rex’s second film music project was for Aashiq Abu’s third flick “22 Female Kottayam” and this also has made a mark in the industry. He has also composed for the film “Second Show” with his band Avial. It would be interesting to note that Rex Vijayan had said in an interview that he has no idea of raagas. This is in a music industry that has it’s roots gone deep in the classical music system and it clearly shows the sign of a transition phase.

As a band, Avial was already a popular up north , not so much so down here. But, with ‘aanakallan’ (the song from the movie ‘Salt N Pepper’) they became household names in Kerala and that year we did a lot of shows in Kerala for colleges and Govt. sponsored shows and corporate events. – Neha S Nair, playback singer and vocalist of Avial

The raaga to rock journey in the Malayalam film music industry couldn’t get more visible than the entry of internationally acclaimed rock band of Malayali origin, Motherjane. Motherjane sang the English theme song “Jehad” for director Amal Neerad’s “Anwar”. But it’s not just the local musicians alone. The X-Factor fame Piyush Kapur has sung an end title song in English for the movie “Asuravithu”, which is in a pure metal flavor.

This could well be the beginning of a new era of diverse experiments in Malayalam film music. With a new set of film makers, music composers and a changing audience, the scene is definitely bringing up multiple genres together in Malayalm film music. There couldn’t be a better time and audience for such a change in the indie-music scene nationally and Kerala also seems to be marching in that direction.

The state of music retailers

[This was first appeared in Soundbox, September issue, as part of the cover story by Anita Iyer on the future of physical music retail in India]

The music retailers in the south-Indian city of Thrissur are on the verge of losing their business to the greater threat of Internet piracy. Some of the small players in the business have already shut down their shops for good and the remaining retailers are struggling for business. Now there are only two large music stores in the city, if you ignore a couple of small stores, and the grapevine has it that one of them are planning to shut their business down soon. But how is it possible that a small south-Indian city music business is affected by Internet piracy? We are not living in a country like UK where 83% of the population are online. According to World Bank’s development indicators, we have only 5.3% of our population using Internet. So what could have lead to this situation?

Blame it on the mobile phones. Now everybody has one and they use it extensively to play music than making and receiving calls. Youth, regardless of the economic class they belong to, are addicted to playing music on their cell phones. From the school/college students to manual laborers working on a construction site, music plays in the background. But where do they get these MP3 files from? If you take a look at the students, they know how to access and download the latest film songs from websites. But even they are not willing to spend time browsing on Internet for MP3 songs. They know an easy way – bring their mobile phone to the nearest mobile phone selling and servicing shop, give them a phone memory card and get the latest songs copied after erasing the old ones. The mobile shop charges a small fee but you get the songs you want for a much cheaper price than buying an authentic CD from a music shop.

Mobile phone shops and Internet cafes run this as a side business. All you have to take with you is a phone memory card, USB thumb drive or a blank CD. CDs are fast disappearing and it is the memory card that the youth prefers and USB storage drives that businesses and vehicle owners prefer to go with.

Then what is left for the retailers? Gone are the days of music fans who would line up to buy an A R Rahman album on it’s release date. One of the music shops in Thrissur, Melody Corner, has introduced an ATM (ATM stands for ‘Any Time Music’ here) where people can choose from a collection of 1.5 lakh songs and copy the chosen songs to a CD. But they cannot compete with the price that the mobile/Internet shops offer because the latter gets songs off piracy websites for free.

A large portion of music stores is now dedicated to movies. The loyal buyers of music seem to be those who have a genuine interest in a wide variety of music – like western/eastern instrumental, classical music, ghazals, devotionals, world music and old Hindi/Malayalam song collections of a particular singer or composer. Can music retail business in small cities survive with this small group is the remaining question.

Kerala’s YouTube Stars!

Sound Box - August 2011

[This feature was first appeared on Sound Box, music industry magazine, in it’s special anniversary issue in August 2011]

To Hindi movie buffs, the word ‘Silsila’ would bring back memories of a popular Hindi film that featured Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Jaya in the lead roles. But for youth and netizens of the southern state of Kerala, “Silsila” currently refers to an album song that has become a YouTube sensation. The song video, shared by several users on the social networking website, supposedly has had more than twenty lakh hits thus far.

Nearly everyone and his uncle in Kerala is aware of this song, and in all probability, has it tucked away in his phone’s memory as well.

The song is an unlikely winner, however. A search in YouTube with ‘Silsila Hai Silsila‘ as the keywords will reap you results with the video, boasting taglines like “the worst album song ever” or “the worst song in Malayalam“. If you try one of those pages and decide to check out the comments section, you would realise that the song has probably set a record by receiving the most number of abusive comments. The song video has a set of people including two foreigners dancing as they please, without having to worry about choreography of any sort while the singer-cum-lyricist-cumcomposer-cum-director Harishankar’s face keeps popping up in between. Needless to say, there isn’t much sense to either the music or the vocals.

All publicity is good publicity

Silsila HarishankarBut that exactly is the selling point of the song. Even though the creator of the song was serious about his song, the audience has taken to it as an object of ridicule, something to laugh over with your friends.

The video has been shared through emails, social media and mobile phones. The song, that the producer-director-lyricist-singer-composer Harishankar had taken off YouTube when he received negative comments for his video when he first posted it, became an instant hit through the Net and the cell phone. Harishankar and the song went on to become the biggest YouTube sensation in Kerala.

The influence of Silsila in Malayali pop-culture is only growing. The song was featured in a Malayalam movie called “Seniors“, in a scene where students poke fun at their college principal. An upcoming Malayalam movie called “Three Kings” has its remake of the song sung by actor Jayasurya under the supervision of original singer Harishankar. In a recent stage show of AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), Malayali superstars Mammootty, Mohan Lal and Jayaram sang this song. Avial, the rock band, featured the song in one of their live shows, and that too is now becoming a hit on YouTube.

Though he continues being ridiculed, Harishankar is a winner at the end of the day. Now every Malayali youngster and techie knows about him and his song. He has appeared on television channels and given interviews to newspapers. Many articles are being written about him in mainstream and online news channels and blogs. And Harishankar is aware that it is the negative publicity that brought him the attention. In an interview, he said, “When people called it ‘the worst Malayalam album’, Keralites were curious to see it. Malayalis are more interested in negative things.” He has also admitted in a television interview that his song has its own drawbacks and that he is just a beginner.

Spawning a trend

Santhosh PanditThe negative publicity that Harishankar and his song ‘Silsila’ received has prompted several wannabes to post their own album songs to YouTube. Aspiring and small-budget album producers now know how to publicise their songs, thanks to Harishankar and his popularity. They do not wait for approval from TV channels; instead they post their songs straight to YouTube. Sometimes this PR work is taken care of by people who stumble upon these music videos accidentally and share it through their online spaces.

After Harishankar’s “Silsila”, another song is doing the rounds on YouTube, again for all the wrong reasons. “Raathri Shubharaathri” is a song that was written, composed and sung by Santhosh Pandit. Like “Silsila”, this music video too was posted under the ‘worst Malayalam album’ title. The video of the hero singing and dancing around a teenage girl attracted much criticism when it was posted with people linking it to the news of sex rackets that use the casting couch for flesh trade. But eventually, the focus shifted to Santhosh Pandit, the hero of the music video. Pandit has so far released eight music videos on YouTube and says these songs are from his upcoming movie project, “Krishnanum Radhayum”, which he claims to be a ‘violent love story’. Now there are several websites and blogs dedicated to Pandit and his movie that has the movie stills and songs. The ‘fans’, ironically, comprise people who make fun of him, call him the Alien Star (a spoof of Super Star or Mega Star).

Unlike Harishankar, Pandit does not admit that his work may have any drawbacks but claims that his movie and the songs will bring in a sea change in Malayalam movies and music. He lashes out at big budget mainstream Malayalam movies. The audio of the phone calls that his ‘fans’ made with him are now running on YouTube and those too have become the laughing stock of Malayali netizens. But one has to admit that the compositions of Santhosh Pandit are as good as any Malayalam film song that is being churned out these days. Two people did a cover version of Pandit’s song “Raathri Subharaathri” with just guitar chords in the background and it is being appreciated online.

All in the game

So, what do we learn from Harishankar and Santhosh Pandit? Sometimes negative publicity could help you become famous (or infamous, depending on how you view it) and to sell your product which otherwise would not have seen the light of the day. Also, perhaps both these adventurers show where they draw inspiration from. If you compare Pandit’s song with the song “Entadukkal Vannadukkum” (movie: Merikkundoru Kunjaadu, singer: Shankar Mahadevan, music: Berny-Ignatius), or “Othorumichoru Gaanam Paadaan” (movie: Makante Achan, singer: Vineeth Srinivasan, music: M Jayachandran), or “Moham Kondaal” (movie: Christian Brothers, music: Deepak Dev), it will make you think that Pandit’s song is anytime better than these movie songs in terms of lyrics and music and perhaps the only thing that it lacks is a good vocalist and an industry-standard orchestrator.

With Harishankar and Pandit both having become household names in Kerala, more such ‘internet sensations’ could very well be launched in the near future. For an audience that thrives on such entertainment, the fun is just beginning.

Group Activity

[This feature was first appeared in the July issue of Soundbox, India’s premier music trade magazine. Checkout the website here.]


Group Activity

It was late in the evening when a group of three techies walked into one of the residential colonies in Bengaluru. They were going to attend what their host called a musical get-together and they did not have the slightest idea of what to expect. They heard people singing when they entered the host’s house, some people even dancing to the music, all of which was followed by thunderous applause and appreciation. It felt weird to them that a group of people came together, many of them not even amateur singers, just to sing their hearts out. But as they sat through the event and heard the songs being belted out one after the other, they were totally moved. Here was a group of people encouraging and applauding each other to sing just for the love of music and not to scale their ability to sing as in a reality show. Here, it is music that rules.

People from several walks of life in the metro cities and small towns in the southern part of India are forming music appreciation groups where they also get to shape their raw talents. And they are not shy to sing their heart out before the others in their group meetings, because these groups are not primarily about showing off but appreciating a certain song, composer, lyricist or singer.

Inspired by Antakshari

Ant-Tak (meaning ‘till the end‘ ) is one such group based in Bengaluru. They begin the music sessions in the early evening and the music goes on until the wee hours of the morning. According to Rama Iyer, a lawyer and partner at Legal Solutions Bangalore, who is also one of the hosts and organising members of Ant-Tak, the idea of this group came about after a corporate antakshari contest in 2004. An Ant-Tak member’s company had planned to send teams to the contest after internally picking out people who were interested in music. It was then that they realised there were many people within the company who were passionate about music. The rehearsal sessions were filled with the participants’ family members who helped them with song information for the contest. And music being the bonding factor, they became friends in a short span of time. This made way for further get-togethers to sing with karaoke tracks and some music instruments (played by the members themselves) and many other friends joined them. Ant-Tak has held 31 music sessions and the event mostly takes place at members’ homes. If the number of people coming over to the meeting is larger than can be accommodated at home, the host family rents a hall for the purpose, even though it is not obligatory for each family to host an event.

Theme song

Priya and Venkat, a couple from Bengaluru were instrumental in bringing together like minded people and hosted many such music meets in the city. The last event they organised was this April, named Ek sham Bhoole Bisre Geet ke naam. The meet was firmed up through Bhoole Bisre Geet, a music group on Facebook. The success of the event has encouraged the group and they are now planning to arrange such meets in Mumbai and Delhi.

Bangalore groupThese musical meets sometimes have a central theme. If Ek sham Bhoole Bisre Geet ke naam was about celebrating retro Hindi film songs, they had two musical meets dedicated to the legendary composer M S Viswanathan. They talked about MSV’s music, exchanged tit-bits of his compositions, played his original tracks and their own instrumental versions and sang his songs together. And not just that – the group had M S Viswanathan, the man himself, for two days when the group interacted with him about his music. Priya notes that it was the happiest moment of her life. Another event of Ant-Tak was named Bollywood Hungama where the members came dressed as Bollywood characters and movie posters were plastered on the walls.

There are people from several walks of life who participate in these shows and what bring them together is their love and appreciation of music, irrespective of the language. The participating homes are suitably decorated, most of the times with a banner that has the event name on it. Songs in different languages are sung at these events. But it’s not just about singing one song after the other. The participants spend time in appreciating the lyrical and musical aspects of a song. Sometimes, karaoke tracks keep company or music instruments are played by some of the members.

Notes from the homeland

Roshni Chandran and Iyyappan Santhanam, a couple from Los Angeles formed a group DesiTunes with the primary goal to unite the Indian/desi musicians in Los Angeles. DesiTunes also welcomes musicians of other nationalities who are interested in performing Indian/desi music. Roshni says that though there were many musicans of Indian origin in Los Angeles, there is no common platform for all of them to meet or socialise and this is what DesiTunes is striving to provide.Los Angeles group They meet twice a month to jam with other musicians. “Usually they have to wait for once-ayear community events organised by Indian regional communities where they hardly get a chance to sing a song due to the time constraints. We thought it would be helpful to create a consistent opportunity to perform where it could benefit the existing and the new musicians who relocate to Los Angeles to get the exposure they deserve,” Roshni says.

Back in Thrissur, Kerala, another group of people organises a monthly music meet-up called paaTTarangu. The event takes place every month in Thrissur town, at any convenient location. The songs are mostly unplugged versions without any karaoke or instrumental tracks to support the vocals. They welcome everyone to join them and invite a celebrity guest singer for every meet-up. The response, they say, is heartening.

So what goals do these groups achieve with these meet-ups? Priya and Venkat say the aspirations of participants are on different levels. “What happens is, they better their own performances the next time. Each one takes time to select songs, learn them, procure karaokes somehow, practice well and when they render at the music meets, it is sheer happiness to see the contentment on their faces,” Priya notes. She says it has also helped people, especially the kids, to get over the stage fear and the fear of holding microphones and singing in front of a group of people. paaTTarangu also has a similar success story to tell about singers from the city of Thrissur in Kerala. For DesiTunes, it is all about meeting, socialising and jamming with fellow musicians. “And for others, it is a consistent opportunity to perform which in turn gives them a chance to display their talent. There are a few music bands which are part of DesiTunes and some of these bands have been able to select singers/musicians based on their performance during our past meet-ups.

In the early days, people were happy and content with singing along the karaoke tracks in their private spaces. They called themselves ‘bathroom singers’ and were hesitant to express their appreciation towards music by singing in public spaces. But with many of these groups encouraging people to sing before the others and help them get better and better with each new meetup, south India could witness a new trend of grooming musicians through impromptu music sessions and meetups. Not to mention allowing all those bathroom singers to be able to sing their heart out!

Music review: Mazhanritham

[This music review was first appeared in Soundbox music magazine in it’s April 2011 issue].

Album: Mazhanritham
Music: Pradip Somasundaran
Label: Tejas Music

Remember Pradip Somasundaran who won the Latha Mangeshkar national award for the best male singer in Meri Awaz Suno, the first reality music show in Indian Television? Pradip has turned out to be a composer with this music album in Malayalam. Director Sohan Lal (Orkkuka Vallappozhum fame) has penned the lyrics and actor Manoj K Jayan has sung a song in this album. The album’s center theme is rain and each of the nine songs depict the nava rasas of rain. Pradip proves himself to be a good composer himself and has produced some melodious numbers for this album.

Mazhayil Nin Mozhikal is the highlight of this album because it is the first complete song sung by cine actor Manoj K Jayan (son of veteran Karnatik musician Jayan who was a disciple of Chembai Bhagavathar). Manoj has done a good job on this beautiful song. Pichiyum Kudamullayum, sung by Gayatri, is a treat and the singer’s mellifluous voice has aptly supported the words.

Swayam Marannu Paadaam is sung by Pradip. The attention that this singer gives to every minute details of the pronunciation and feel of each song is commendable. What jars in this song though is the background vocals that come in between the verses which seems a bit overdone. Premamenna Kuyile is sung by Franco (chembakame fame) has a reggae-ish feel to it and Franco’s voice fits the song like a T. Aadyaanuraagam is a duet by Pradip and Gayatri. The beginning of the second stanza is so beautiful in this song.

Mizhi Poykayil sung by Shahbaz Aman is my personal favorite from this album. Shabaz’s delicate voice and soulful singing make this song the pick of the lot. Paadum Poovum is sung by Pradip and it’s composed in Mappila song style. The energy in Pradip’s voice has made this one a pleasure to listen to. Though it’s a bit odd to hear the word “Maula” in the background vocals because considering the lyrics of the song, it just doesn’t fit right. Iniyennu Kaanum is another soulful duet by Pradip and Bhavyalakshmi. Bhavya’s distinct voice is notable in this song. Mounam is the concluding track of the album sung by Pradip which is yet another soothingly beautiful song.

Interview: Neha S Nair

[An edited version of this interview was published in Soundbox music industry magazine, in it’s April 2011 issue, in the Watchtower column on Trivandrum]

Neha S Nair is a playback singer, VJ and blogger. Her TV shows are popular among the youth of Kerala and her songs form the show Outkast Vocals is a big hit on YouTube. Neha represents the youth of Trivandrum who listen to eastern music while keeping an open ear to western and experimental music.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your musical journey.

My dad wanted to fulfill his wish of learning music through me and since I showed a spark at a tender age, I was enrolled for dance and music classes. I loved both the art forms equally but as I got into high school the pressure of doing well in academics became a time constraint factor and I had to opt out of dance after 8 years of formal training. This was also the time where I ventured into learning Hindustani vocals from Ustad Khalid Anwar Jaan, a Pakistani. I was also learning Carnatic from Ramesh K from the age of 6. Childhood memories are of retro hindi numbers by Lata ji, Asha ji, Mohd. Rafi and compositions of S.D. , R.D. Burman and my favourite, Madan Mohan. But A.R.Rahman is the first musician to ever inspire me to think from a more creative perspective. I would go for various singing and dancing competitions like every other child but was the only one to take it seriously after 10th grade for which I have been scolded by my teachers several times at school. Back then I used to feel frustrated and angry because I was not allowed to go for round square conferences or join basketball team and go for birthday parties only because my father never wanted me to miss a single music lesson. Even if I was sick, I was asked to sit through. But now I realize the value of all those lessons. Totally worth it! As of now I am learning from Perumbavur sir (Carnatic) and Binu sir (western) and Keskarji (Hindustani).

How did film music, Avial and VJ-ing come through? How was the experience?

As I had done my schooling in Muscat, coming to India for music was because of my dreams of becoming a playback singer. I was so influenced by 80’s and early 90’s qualitative productions that all I ever wanted to do was sing for films. But when I joined for BA music and started to learn and take music a lot more seriously I realized that music is a lot more than just recordings. I was never a Rock music fan but became one when I was exposed towards it and were given opportunities to do something creative. All the credits go to Sumesh Lal sir, the creative head of a Malayalam TV channel called ‘Rosebowl’ . He discovered the artist in me and gave me an empty space to paint in with vibrant colors of music. He gave me a chance when I was new, inexperienced, totally believing in my intuitions and ideas. I got to work with Rex and Binny of Avial for a production by Rosebowl through which they invited me to perform with the band at the India Fashion Week, Delhi and ever since have been regular with the band. I have done very few films but recording in the silent space of the sound booth is immensely toxic!

Also, I came at a time when reality shows were on a boom. So to venture into playback, Rock and pure classical was a huge learning experience for me. Mass audience would still prefer commercial music anyday as it is more easier to comprehend than understanding the complexities of quality music by bands, etc. Coming to films, I have to thank Rahul Raj sir was trusting in me blindly by making me sing for Shyam sir’s Ritu. It was a fab experience. He is extremely positive and had been my mentor at that time. Also, working for Phani Kalyan for Telugu film ‘Pappu’ was another fun filled experience. Kalyan has always been a friend so it’s very informal when I work with him.

Trivandrum has a big audience for traditional eastern music but the young generation appreciates the western music and many new progressive bands are coming up from the city. Do you see any change of direction in the music scene of Trivandrum? If yes, how is it affecting the city? How do you see the future of the music scene here?

Trivandrum by far has the best musical audience. People are very open minded. We have all kinds of listeners ranging from Carnatic to Hindustani to Rock to Metal to Jazz and even Folk. The younger generation is extremely progressive because they are more into fusion and out-of-the-box kind of creativity. A huge thanks should go to Soorya Krishnamurthy, who has successfully promoted all kinds of arts forms all over the world, beginning in Trivandrum. And on the other hand we have Alliance Francaise and Rosebowl TV promoting contemporary music that is such a relief to listen to from the roaring of reality shows now a days. I just wish that the younger lot could listen to more of classical and the older lot could expose themselves to other experimental genres like alternative rock.

You are also a VJ and hosting some music shows. How has your singing career helped doing your TV shows?

I started off as a VJ and it did not help my singing career at all because I ended up getting more VJ-ing offers and also was called to act in films and advertisements. Eventually with Outcast Vocals and Piano sessions with Stephen Devassy, that were featured on Rosebowl, I got noticed as a singer more than a VJ. But I love doing both though I feel more confident as a musician. The ‘In conversation sessions’ I did was a very good experience as I got to interact with musicians of all kinds from Sivamani to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan to ‘Sam Smala’ to young budding talents. I learnt a lot from just listening to them! And another accomplishment in my VJ-ing career was my first ever show which happened to be first ever Telethon – ‘Thank You A.R.Rahman’ where Rosebowl played 100 best songs by the legend and I was hosting it. Thanks to Kadamba Rajesh, my producer for giving me that opportunity.

You blog about many issues in your personal blog, which is a rare thing among people in the music industry. How important it is for a musician (or an artist) to respond to socio-political issues? Do you think expressing yourself in a public space like blog would effect your career in music?

If I wasn’t a singer I would have been a journalist because I feel that is the best medium to project our views. So I decided to blog about whatever I felt about what’s happening around the world. I think it’s every human being’s duty to remain informed about what’s happening and to contribute to it in whatever small possible way. I wish I could do a lot more that is action oriented than just removing my frustration through the blog, inshallah! I hope to make an impact through my views someday. My western sir has always said that we can become a good artist only if we are a good, well informed human. There are people who have expressed their dislike towards my career just because I am open about my views but it doesn’t matter because it’s better to be honest than being a hypocrite. Nothing can effect your career if you are ethical towards the society and work. One should not live in the fear of losing work but in the adverse effects of being ignorant.

You sing for Avial, a rock band. There was a time when Rock music was considered evil or indecent among many in our society. Do you think it has changed?

I don’t know if Rock was considered evil, but was definitely not so popular as it is now. People have learnt to open their minds and we can see an increase in the Rock culture nowadays especially among youngsters. But there are many who live under the wrong impression of rock being all about head banging and walking around like a crazy person who parties and swears all the time. It’s an absolute cliche!! Rock can be just as subtle as eastern music and can at the same time give you an adrenalin pump. If you hang around with Avial band itself you will realize how less they talk and how more they speak through their music. The cliche about Rock musicians being high on drugs and having a rugged lifestyle is totally untrue. True (rock) musicians are very much ethical, who don’t believe in using inappropriate language on the stage and who work very hard in sounding extravagant every time.

Popular concepts of music still revolves around film music. Do you see any changes there? What hope do the independent music and musicians have in Kerala?

Popular music has always been filmi music but it hardly stays around for a long time. Sound programming is at it’s peak now and melody has been given less importance now. I don’t even know if the songs made today will be remembered in the next few years. But it’s more easy to understand, glamorous and more fast paced in terms of it’s release and promotions. Where as, bands take almost 2-3 years to come up with an album and another 2 years to popularize through live gigs. But the scene is changing. We have Amit Trivedi in Bollywood who has elevated bollywood music to another level through Dev D, NOKJ and Prashanth Pillai in Malayalam who has broken of the typical commercial line up with City Of God. At the same time, Motherjane did an OST for Malayalam movie “Anwar” and Avial has also done an OST for another Malayalam movie “Salt N’ Pepper”. So film music industry has also begun to ape towards greater heights in terms of qualitative music. Independent musicians don’t anyways work for commercial hype. They just want to be part of good music that will be etched in our hearts for a long long time. So whether they being commercially acclaimed or not doesn’t really matter to them.

You have also sung in Telugu. How was the experience in singing in a different language?

I have been exposed to other languages like Bhojpuri , Gujarati, Marathi and Arabic during my school life but singing Telugu for a film was super fun. Firstly, the composer, Phani Kalyan, is a very good friend of mine so I was comfortable working with him. Secondly, being a Malayalee, Telugu is very easy and cute to pronounce. With the help of Kalyan, it went on very smooth. I’m looking forward to singing in more languages!

What are your upcoming projects?

I have sung for Biji Bal in Aashiq Abu’s ‘Salt N’ Pepper’ which happens to be a duet with the legendary singer P. Jayachandran. Apart from that I have a few concerts lined up, both classical and with Avial, the band. I may even be getting back as a VJ with Rosebowl for another music based show.

Net Gain

[This is my first full feature for Sound Box that appeared in the March 2011 issue. Sound Box is creating ripples in the music industry with the recent at-length discussion on India Copyright Act. February issue had Javed Akhtar explaining his stand and the March issue features the opinion from country’s leading musical labels – Saregama, Tips and Universal music. Check out the mag to get you up-to-date with the music industry buzz.]


Roll back to pre-internet era in India. The chances of an aspiring musician getting noticed in the public were rare. You could try singing locally, in local bands or music troupes which would just be covering popular film songs. Your talent was scaled primarily on the basis of how close your version stood to the original or how much you succeeded in making yourself sound like the original singer. You just had to be a voice skeleton of someone else. And you would have a limited audience. Even if you had come up with an original set of songs, chances were still rare that you could reach your target audience. Until of course the Net arrived.

The arrival of the internet completely changed the lives of amateur and aspiring musicians. In the Web 1.0 era, it would let you register a website of your own and add your profile with music. People from around the world would then have access to your website and they would be able to download and listen to your songs. But the opportunity to interact with the audience was still lacking. Then came Web 2.0, with blogs and social networking sites, and this has led to some revolutionary changes in the field of amateur music.

The transformation

Music blogging was one major venture that drastically changed the face of music in the virtual world. It has helped many people who could not devote all their time to music but had great passion for music in their lives. So it was the amateurs or part-time musicians like Vidyu Appaiah who flourished.

Vidyu Appaiah
Vidyu Appaiah

Appaiah is a trained singer from Calicut, Kerala, and used to perform on stage from the age of 10. But she had completely given up on music after her marriage and moved to the US. In 2005, she put together a website that had her cover versions of popular film songs. Then in 2006, she started her own music blog. “Music blogging has given me the opportunity to share my music with friends and family. The desire to sing and be heard is there in every artist big or small, and this is perfect for me in terms of reaching out to a small, regular audience from the comfort of my home. Blogging also opened doors for me to get opportunities to sing on stage after moving to the US,” says Vidyu.


Murali Venkatraman

A heartening aspect of music blogging is that you do not need a promoter, a music label or even going to a studio to make yourself heard. All you need is a mic, a recording software and a free account on a blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress. You need not worry about the technical aspects of building a website. Murali Venkatraman, one of the earliest music bloggers from India, says, “I have been composing from 2001 and music blogging was a good platform to present some of my work without much of a website building fuss.”


It is not solely the amateur musicians that music blogging has helped to have a fan base. Pradip Somasundaran from Thrissur, Kerala, who was the winner of the Lata Mangeshkar award for Best Male Singer of India through Meri Awaz Suno (the first of its kind music reality show on Indian TV), got the opportunity to build a fan base across the globe through his music blog. Though he was offered a recording contract with Yash Raj as part the prize along with Sunidhi Chauhan who shared the title with him, it never materialised. He had been singing in a few Malayalam films and was doing stage shows but music blogging brought him many fans from different parts of the world.

Interact with your listeners

The comment box interaction with the listeners through the music blogs has given an opportunity for music bloggers to improve themselves. Based on listener comments, one can sing again and post a revised version of a song. Some listeners say “I feel the reverb was a bit too much”, or “in the second verse, you have sung too plainly”. This leads the music blogger to take notice of the details of singing, recording and mixing. Eventually this helps them become better singers or musicians. However there are a few setbacks to this, as some music bloggers have found out.

Sindhuja Bhaktavatsalam
Sindhuja Bhaktavatsalam

Sindhuja Bhaktavatsalam, a music blogger and a trained singer who has recently performed with Pt Ravi Shankar’s Ensemble at Hollywood Bowl, says, “Blogging (or any kind of performance for that matter) makes you more audience oriented and so you tend to focus less on your own growth as a singer. When blogging was new to me, I would crave for comments on my blog- I think that’s natural. It became more of “how will people like this and how many comments will I get?” rather than “how well have I actually sung this and how better can I get at this?”


Meera Manohar
Meera Manohar

Meera Manohar, a singer of the band Thillana and a music blogger, says that comments should help improve and not be detrimental or demoti-vating to artists. “Ideally, listeners should appreciate the effort that has gone into making a cover/original, whatever it might be. I do see some frivolous comments which in my opinion can be avoided,” Manohar says.

But since music bloggers have grown to become a large online community, honest comments are sometimes hard to come by. “The commitment, in my humble opinion, must be towards the art and not towards the person. In fact if you are a very good friend of an artist, it is only useful if you are honest about their performance and talent,” says Venkatraman.

Music collaboration, virtually

The primary phase of music blogging had the bloggers singing cover versions. A music blogger would usually record over an available karaoke track and post it on their music blog. This would be a solo track mostly. Later on, with the freedom that technology gave them, they have begun posting duets for which they have a singer from another part of the world. With the ease of recording vocals alone, one singer from Kerala can record his vocals at his place and have the other portion of the vocals recorded by a singer who might be residing in the US and give it to a third person in Mumbai to mix the tracks. All the file exchanges are done over email and when the listeners hear the final track, it is like the song was done in one place with everybody involved physically present.

The ease of such recording techniques has made some bloggers think about creating original songs rather than posting karaoke cover versions of film songs on their blog. Thus were born many original songs in the music blogs, with each of the involved person living in different parts of the world – lyricist, composer, singer, orchestrator, rhythm programmer and the sound engineer. This led to further ideas and Blogswara (, the first of its kind collaborative music project, was born. Even though Blogswara was formed to create an album that consists of original works from music bloggers, it has continued to be a permanent platform for all amateur and aspiring singers.

The music network

The vast popularity of music blogging particularly in the South-Indian diaspora has encouraged the birth of many new websites and music social networking sites. Among the notable ones is Muziboo. com, a networking website started by Prateek and Nithya Daya, a couple from Bengaluru. Today Muziboo hosts a large number of musicians from around the world, some of whom have been noticed by prominent musicians in the industry. Music blogger George Kuruvilla was invited to sing for Sonu Nigam’s musical tribute to Michael Jackson, MJ, this one’s for you. Another Muziboo member Nithya Bayya recently made her debut in the Telugu music industry. There are many such success stories.

Today there are 120 music blogs listed at Audio india (, an online directory of music bloggers. A majority of these music bloggers are from South India and most of them are non-resident Indians. Even though not all of them put up frequent posts and some have migrated to other music networking websites, bloggers like Sindhuja feel that a blog is where one can keep one’s own individual identity compared to social networking sites.

The enormous number and interest of music blogs and bloggers have been subjected to study in a university abroad. Jessica Dyck, a student in the Department of Music in University of Alberta in Canada wrote her graduate thesis in 2008 on the basis of music blogging in the Indian diaspora. Her paper was titled “Blogging Music: Indian Musicians and Online Musical Spaces”. In her 111 pages long thesis, she had mentioned why she chose the Indian music blogging scene for her thesis:

“Why focus on Indian music blogging? Within the entire blogging world, there are people from every place who post music blogs, and many have extremely high readership. However, after extensive searching, I was unable to find any music blogs other than these Indian ones used for posting recordings of the blogger’s own music in an amateur, noncommercial format. The vast majority of music blogs on the Internet are focused on introducing and reviewing indie bands or posting gossip, songs and videos by major label recording artists. The Indian music blogging community is one truly centered around making and sharing music for the pleasure of singing, listening, and growing musically.”

Music review – Payyans, Living Together

(This music review was first appeared in Sound Box – India’s Premier Music Trade Magazine. Do check out the magazine from the nearest news stand.)

Movie: Payyans
Music: Alphonse Joseph
Lyrics: Kaithapram, Anil Panachooraan
Rating: 3.5 stars

People outside Kerala would know Alphonse Joseph as the guy who sang the ballad “Aaromale” in Tamil movie Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, composed by A R Rahman. Alphonse’s plus point, be it in singing or composing, is his strong influence of western music and his ability to sing high-octave songs. Payyans, the new filmy album from Alphonse is also a satisfying album in that genre. The album consists of four original songs, an unplugged version of the opening track and three karaoke tracks.

The first song “Thennal Chirakundo” is sung by Karthik and Jyotsna. The song starts off with a beautiful guitar riff and bass. The good thing about this song is that it does not over kill the vocals with orchestration and each compliments the other beautifully. One thing that does stand out though is Karthik’s Malayalam pronunciation at parts. Other than that both the vocalists have done a good job on this song. The unplugged version of this song is also included in the album.

The music arrangement at the beginning of the second song, “Route maari nadakkaam” would remind you of the song “Oru koodai sunlight” from the Rajnikanth movie Sivaji. This is a trendy song and the vocals of Benny Dayal and Reshmi is a perfect choice. What irritates us with this song is its lyrics. Many of our lyricists seem to think that just throwing in some words like style, blue tooth, pizza, facebook, chat etc would make a trendy, peppy song. But in fact it is the lyrics that puts us down. If not for the vocals of Benny and Reshmi, you would have skipped to the next number right away.

Katha Parayaan” is a beautiful melodious number sung by the veteran singer P Jayachandran. This song would steal your heart in the first listen.  “Doore vazhi” is sung by Alphonse Joseph himself. The song fits his voice and range like a T. It’s mid to high octave singing is a perfect fit for Alphonse. The orchestral arrangement is also very interesting with a mix of eastern and western style.

I would go with 3.5 out of 5 for this album. This is certainly one good work from Alphonse Joseph, the music director.

Movie: Living Together
Music: M Jayachandran
Lyrics: Kaithapram
Rating: 3 stars

When it comes to M Jayachandran’s music, what you would primarily expect is some melodious numbers coupled with a semi-classical number. MJ does not disappoint his fans with this album. His choice of singers for this album is also notable. There are 8 tracks in this filmy album.

Paattinte Palkadavil is a melodious dance number sung by Shreya Ghoshal. Shreya has done an awesome job on the vocals of this song. It’s admirable to see this singer rendering her songs to perfection, no matter which language it is. There is a male version of this song, sung by Vijay Yesudas.

Raaga Chandranariyaathe is a beautiful duet by Karthik and Swetha. Karthik’s vocal in this song is quite good. Saamarasa Ranjani is a semi-classical number sung by M G Sreekumar. MGS has done this very well.

It looks like M Jayachandran cannot do an album without Yesudas. He has spared a beautiful melodious number called Mayangoo Nee Sakhi for Yesudas. Yesudas’ voice is straining with his age and it is obviously evident in the songs which he have been singing lately. But still it’s amazing to see this man singing quite well for his age.

Kuttikurumbaa Vaa is a fun song that opens with a children chorus. Anila has sung this song and she has put so much energy and fun into the song that it requires. Sudeep has sung the male version of this song which is also an energy-filled version. Ilaku Naage is sung by Sannidhaanandan and Janardhanan. Sannidhanandan is the perfect choice for this folk-ish song.

To sum it up, this album is a mixed bag of folk, dance, semi-classical, romantic melodies which you would definitely like if you have always liked M Jayachandran’s music, but do not expect any surprises here. I would go with 3 out of 5 stars for M Jayachandran’s music for Living Together.

(Images courtesy:,