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Sleepy, rain-kissed Trivandrum stretches out lazily, anticipating a bandh in a day or two. On a slushy field, young men play cricket, another group kicks the football around. By way of entertainment, the city offers little; even the Lonely Planet mentions only an arts and craft museum and the Indian Coffee House. Which is why when Tony John drives us to his house in Palayam, we wonder where he gets his fix. It's homegrown, we realise, when he welcomes us to his studio. For the next hour, John and his band Avial play their self-titled album, brought out by Phat Phish records in February this year. It's a collection of eight Malayalam alternative rock songs. It's a language we don't understand. But it is the music that has pulled us here, that had us craning our necks from our window seats as we landed in Trivandrum.
In that crowded hour, in a cramped room in Chennai, an astonishing musical medley was playing out. Kartick Das Baul's khomok was stringing a duet with Donan Murray's guitar, while renowned percussionist K.V.Balakrishnan (fondly known as Tabla Balu) and Saravanan on thavil playfully argued on creating the perfect ending to a Baul song. Bonnie Chakraborty's voice rose to match Baul's, creating harmonies. Accompanying them was Paul Jacob, the big daddy of southern music. We were in the presence of Oikyotaan, a Baul music collective that works out of Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. And making such a long journey has never seemed more fruitful.
The sounds filtering out from these studios are telling us something. They are an affirmation that in the last five years, while north India has been gyrating to imported hip-hop beats, musicians in the south have been referencing their roots for an original, yet global sound. And as the indie music scene in India takes baby steps, its soundscape gets some southern spice. Some of the best rock outfits, such as Thermal and a Quarter, have emerged from Bangalore. And with new "jam-based" acts like Lounge Piranha, it's only getting better.
Last year, Raghu Dixit made waves with the Raghu Dixit Project, a band of musicians who belt out Hindi, Kannada and English original compositions. Dixit's band was also featured on MTV and today, boasts of fans all over the country as well as abroad. Bangalore-based poet Jeet Thayil has also jumped on the bandwagon with Suman Sridhar. Sridhar/Thayil are a lyrical jazz duo, who're stringing out melodies influenced by Monk and Madhuri (that's jazz great Thelonius Monk and the Madhuri Dixit beat for you). While you're hooked to their beat, there's no denying their brand of desi funk.
One look at Avial's MySpace page shows that their six-year-long wait for appreciation (Nada Nada was released as a single in 2002) has finally paid off. Their album has sold about 3,500 copies and their page is swamped by comments from fans and musicians alike. Oikyotaan has sold over 4,000 CDs so far and with more live performances, hope to hit the world music scene big time.
"I believe that the best musicians in the country are all in the south. That's why I moved here from Kolkata," says Chakraborty, who founded Oikyotaan in 2002. For the past six years, Chakraborty and his motley crew of Baul, Carnatic and jazz musicians have been working on creating the perfect musical synthesis between Baul lyrics and rhythms and Carnatic percussion and traditional folk instrumentation. "I could not have conceived the idea of one harmonious unit such as Oikyotaan anywhere else but Chennai. Also, the folk traditions of the south and east have a lot in common. Each can exist without eclipsing the other," he says.
So he met up with Jacob, who heads record label Bodhi Muzzik, a platform for experimental, contemporary and folk music. Their musical passions were a perfect fit.
Jacob, who is a legend among southern musicians, has seen the shift towards a more rooted sound. He was a member of Nemesis Avenue, one of Chennai's first rock outfits, but he moved away. "After the '80s, it was a matter of survival, everything fizzled out. But that era brought to focus a search for identity, one that is closer home," he says.
Today artistes like Jacob feel a pulse of excitement in the southern scene. He has just returned from a show in China where 40 folk musicians from all of south India performed and will soon be at the Malaysia World Music Festival performing with Oikyotaan. "It's very heartening to be in this part of the country now. Avial has set the ball rolling for more vernacular acts. In Andhra Pradesh, there are some rock outfits who're doing brilliant stuff in Telegu but because of the lack of proper marketing, nobody knows about them," says Jacob, who discovered some of this talent while he was associated with a reality TV show last year.
Avial is indeed the leader of the pack. Their music is born out of emerald fields of their home; they sing about the first rains that hit the coastal state, dream of a "tree house hidden from the world".
The folk element is shaped by a rock framework. You have excellent riffs by Vijayan, great drumming by the supremely talented Mithun Puthanveetil and John's soaring vocals. "Non-Mallu" Naresh Kamath comes down from Mumbai to play bass for the band for bigger shows. But what's got Kerala listening to them are their lyrics. "We don't speak the Malayalam that we sing in. We have lyricists from the interiors of Kerala (credited on the album) who write our songs for us," says John. They also use folk stories, as is evident in Chekele, a story about the plight of an agrarian couple Chathan and Neeli who find their crop ruined because of flooding. The songs have found a resonance with Malayalees living all across India and even outside. It will not be too far fetched to say that today, Avial's music and Kerala have become synonymous.
Authenticity is a double-edged sword. Experimental groups and musicians with a regional sound find it difficult to break through to the mainstream audience, because of the lack of support from established musicians of a particular genre and, consequentially, record labels. "They don't want to experiment, only established artists get shows. There's no sponsorship for a new artist, no matter how promising," says Girinandh Vidyashankar. He would know. As the founder member of one of Chennai's youngest instrumental fusion outfits Oxygen, Vidyashankar and his fellow band members have been lauded by A.R.Rahman for their music. The group was formed in 2003 and has released three albums in the past five years but find that only corporate shows and wedding receptions come their way.
The way out in this wired world—the Internet. ("Thank God, da!", says Vijayan). Most of these bands have a successful online presence and are consciously marketing themselves to an international audience. In the past year, the independent music industry in Trivandrum, Kochi and Chennai has received a boost thanks to an increasing interest from musicians across the world.
"We finished recording a track with the Italian band, a67, a month ago. They heard us on MySpace and we recorded our bit here and mailed it across and they mixed and mastered the track in Italy," says Rex Vijayan, Avial's guitarist. Wayne Beck, a DJ and music producer in Chennai, is a frequent flier to Colombo, a 50-minute flight away from Chennai. The Sri Lankan capital has a terrific night life and Becks's brand of electronica has many listeners.
Despite the euphoria over album sales and record deals, the fact remains that most contracts are skewed against the musicians' favour. The bands get more shows in the West than in their own country. Chakraborty is clear that only an international arena will appreciate Oikyotaan's band of experimental. "All the promos, the CDs, everything has to be done by us, with our money. The moment you sign on to a record label, you're bonded to a contract that stifles your creative energies," he says.
But those are the snags. And nothing can stop the music from playing. The bug's bitten a few others as well. Actor Job Kurien, a popular actor in Mollywood, has recently completed an album. The songs are based on folk tales from Panchatantra, sung in Malayalam and set to a wonderfully lilting swing beat. "It's important to set your music in a context and yet allow yourself to be influenced by all the music that you know and love," says John, who is mixing the album for Job. There's more and more music in God's little country and ain't that some southern comfort.
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