It can be male or female. Sometimes, the main singers themselves sing in harmony. This is a pioneering area of Raja. This is a subject that needs to be detailed later on but we will touch the surface briefly. Raja’s work on vocal harmony deserves a special focus. He is a master in this craft with no distant second in the vicinity. Strangely, he uses not just Western harmony in its pure form, but also with Sanskrit slokams. With Sanskrit slokams, his work can be called Rajarmony!
Priyasakhi from Gopura Vaasalile (Tamil 1991). The pallavi has female chorus backing the main singer. The first interlude has some male chorus parts with the violins backing them. The second interlude has a beautiful combination of male and female choir in perfect vocal harmony. The female choir lines take care of the tenor singing while the male voices are arranged at the bass level. This is not something that most Indian composers carefully arrange. It is a lot of practice and slogging to perfect. Observe how Raja carefully places the violins between the male and the female ranges. That shows his mastery over harmony arrangement! This is why I rate him as the greatest Indian composer with the rock solid foundation in Western harmony! What beats us is Raja will use his violins and get to the landing chord after which it is a pure Indian melody for the charanam. There is no Indian composer who can do this with such ease that I have come across.
Let's hear the Priyasaki arrangement...
Eriyile Elantha Maram from Karayellam Shenbagapoo (Tamil 1981). This track will definitely rank among Raja’s top 10 choir arrangements. In short, a masterpiece. Based on writer Sujatha’s story, the requirement was only for folk tunes. Raja embellishes it with Carnatic and Western choir and creates a masterpiece. There is no such track I have heard in Indian film music. The prelude starts off with the traditional Carnatic swarams (Sa re ga ma pa da ne sa) one set of female voices overlapped with another set of voices singing western choir for a few bars. It changes over to conventional folk choir (than Na Na) by one set of voices. This is joined by exactly the same folk choir by another set of female voices at a different pitch. The first one in Alto and the second one in Soprano. Both the voices are singing folk but in perfect western harmony. You can even call this as true fusion that has never occurred to anyone before Raja. When Janaki sings ‘Yeriyile’ at least 5 times, observe what the choir does in the background. For the first two occasions, Janaki is doing the Soprano and the choir is touching almost the bass. The third occasion, the choir shifts to Alto and Janaki remains in Soprano and the choir does not repeat the last two ‘Yeriyile’. Why does Raja do that? As I mentioned before, he is THE EXPERT in vocal harmony and there are reasons for this. In a detailed post on Raja’s vocal harmony, we will explore more. The chorus do the traditional sing along in the pallavi. Let’s take the first interlude next. One set of voices sing ‘laa laa laa’ in soprano and another set of voices sing ‘la la la’ in sharper notes in alto creating further harmony. The last transition to the charanam uses some innovative choir arrangement – ‘than thana’ is sang in bass by one female choir and the other female choir uses the very high pitch ‘oooyee’ in soprano. This song requires a separate post where every bar is explained. The charanam has lines repeated by the choir in vocal harmony. The last but one bar has some neat western choir by the group backing Janaki. The second interlude uses phrases such as ‘Dum Dum Dum’, ‘Pee Pee Pee’, ‘thana tham’ all arranged very cleverly in harmony to imitate a nadaswaram and a thavil – the idea is Western, the implementation is pure folk. Take a bow before the genius.
Kottum Kuzhalvizhi from Kaala Paani (parts have traditional male choir too) (Malayalam 1996). This is one of the top choir arrangements of Raja. Being his first collaboration with BSO, he has used the talent of both the overseas as well as local artists brilliantly. Observe the first pallavi closely – there is no use of any choir techniques anywhere. However, Raja uses a placeholder synthesizer bell note which will be used later on with a brilliant replacement in the later pallavis. Towards the end of the pallavi, the Western female choir and the rushing violins raise the song to a crescendo that is typical of WCM. Control is truned over to the male choir who have lyrics to sing. The first interlude has one of the finest choir in Indian film music with some outstanding violin work only that can come from Raja. In the charanam, Raja uses the conventional male chorus backing Chitra and the female chorus backing Sree. The second pallavi again is worked with placeholder synth work instead of the chorus. The second interlude is a great match for the first one for the Western female choir – only Raja can beat the Raja! The final pallavi is another masterpiece – he replaces all those placeholders with Chitra singing in an opera style 4 notes. The single note is replaced with 4 notes, with the 3 additional notes overlapping with Sree. I cannot think of any song that can be compared with this in Indian film music.
Konji Pesu Kannamma from Kadhal Kavidhai (1998 Tamil) – the male choir arrangement is very unlike any other popular film song. The entire male choir operates at a baritone level (bass) humming in the background throughout the song. The pallavi, interludes all have this male choir supporting the main singers. The bass lines are intelligently written to confuse the listener very nicely. Raja takes his own harmony trip to the next level and clearly leaves us with invaluable lessons.
The clip below has the prelude, the pallavi, some initial harmony parts of the first interlude and the last pallavi where Raja shows us the harmony fundamentals again. The song is a duet sang by him with Sujatha and is a rare one.
- Listen to the first parts of the clip (the first 10 seconds) where Raja establishes his tenor singing and the male choir in bass. He shows them separately and they join him in harmony. Between 10 and 23 secs, Raja shows the male bass singing integrated with the synthesizer. Please notice that there is a bass guitar playing and Raja painfully separates the bass singing from the guitar throughout the song. You will hear the bass guitar very clearly, when Raja sings and there is no harmony singers accompanying him. When he sings ‘Nizhalappola Nizhalapola’, you can clearly observe everything falling into place, the bass guitar, the synthesizer, Raja’s voice and also the male bass voices. Only a master of the craft can do this!
- Between 1:07 and 1:25, I could not help wonder at how he extends the idea of bringing in a synthesizer, an electric guitar to play the Alto and the bass is taken care of by the male choir.
- Between 1:25 and 2:00, Raja brings everything together again and separates them – Sujatha in Alto with the bass voices, followed by Sujatha in Alto, Raja in tenor and the male choir in bass. Finally, the male choir sing ‘Kanamma Ho’ in bass.
All new composers must take a lesson from the master composer! Harmony does not get any better!
Let's hear Konji Pesu Kanamma...
Chinnathambi Chinnathambi from Pooncholai (Tamil 1997). This is a rare song of Raja where nobody expects any western male choir by a long shot. After the pallavi, there is a long humming followed by some nice male choir. In the charanam, the chorus sings the last two bars conventional way. The second and third pallavi has some neat vocal harmony followed by western male choir.
Devanin Kovil Moodiya Neram from Aruvadai Naal (Tamil 1986) This song’s prelude is executed very similar to the ‘Dhaas Dhaas’ track from Kadalora Kavidhaigal (Tamil 1984), with the male choir and Raja. Both are executed in perfect harmony. ‘Kootu Kuyilai’ from Manam Virumbudhe Unnai (Tamil 1999) is another song where Raja uses Sanskrit slokams in harmony with fellow male singers. Being a master of harmony, you can see that all the three songs that I am highlighting are sang by him. Walking the talk…
Here is a mix of all three…
I am sure there are several other examples. Readers can add their views on additional tracks. I wanted to highlight some of his spectacular harmony arrangements, in its pure form as well as Raja's Sanskritized versions!