Sunday, May 15, 2022

SJ – the Raja orchestral vocal instrument

Most Indian film composers exploit the voices of talented female artists very well. Given the range of the female voice, many of them have done one thing consistently in the last 70 years – humming. Lataji, Ashaji, Susheela, or Janaki have been used by several composers for their fantastic ability to hum and carry the song with aplomb. The current crop of composers have used Chithra and Shreya continuing with the tradition. One thing you will notice is the way Raja composes music involving Lata or Asha. He will somehow bring in a humming element into it as that is language independent.

 Let’s begin with some beautifully haunting humming by female vocalists: In the 60s, the Lata solo of ‘Naina Barse Rim Jhim’ in ‘Woh Kaun Thi’ by Madan Mohan was a rage.




During the same time, the Susheela humming of ‘Nenjam Marapathillai’ for MSV-TKR from the movie with the same name was equally a big rage. 




 In the 70s, RD Burman exploited Lata’s humming capabilities with his famous Sivaranjani based song, ‘Maire Naina Saawan’ from Mehbooba. 




Raja did use Lata in his 80s work, but never had a song which began with the haunting humming, his predecessors had taken advantage of. He did use Janaki’s (will be called SJ going forward) voice for its haunting humming capability in several compositions. Some top of mind examples:

  1. Annakili Unnai Thedudhe from Annnakili (1976) 
  2. Kandaen Engum from Kaatrinile Varum Geetham (1978) 
  3. Kaatril Endhan Geetham from Johnny (1980) 
  4. Dhoorathil Naan Kanda from Nizhalgal (1980) 
  5. Mouna Ragam manaveenai from Kolangal (1995) 
  6. Paadavaa Un Paadalai from Naan Paadum Paadal (1984) 
  7. Ponnil Vaanam Thoovuthu from Villu Paatukaraen (1992) 
  8. Puththam Pudhu Kaalai from Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) 
  9. Raasaave Unnai from Aranmanai Kili (1992) 
  10. Vaa Vennila from Mella thirandhadhu Kadhavu (1986) 

Having said that, few composers before Raja have also attempted to blend musical instruments with female voices as they come close with some instruments such as flute. The 60s song of SJ, ‘Singara Velane Deva’ exploited her voice being on a very close timbre match with the nadaswaram instrument. That will not be our focus in this series of posts. We will focus on Raja’s use of SJ’s voice as an orchestral instrument. In this situation, it does not matter, if it is an electric guitar, or a bamboo flute, a synthesizer or even a saxophone. She was his debut singer in 1976 and sang for Raja for 23 years till 1999. In my view, there is no parallel to the way Raja exploited SJ’s voice as an orchestral instrument in Indian film music. 

It will be a delight to explore how the composer exploited her instrument timbre voice and how she performed as a vocal artist, in ways unknown, before their collaboration.

What exactly is the difference between humming and the female voice being used as an orchestral element? Most humming are great fillers and composers have always kept it separate from the orchestral elements. The only orchestral element that plays along the humming, at times, are rhythms. The rest of the orchestra takes a back seat. 

When a female voice is used as an integral orchestral element, it must actively engage with the orchestra and also do its part when called for, by the composer. It is surrounded by the orchestral instruments that dominate the section – the female voice just adds color to the otherwise instrument composition.

No wonder, Raja always mentioned SJ as the most intelligent singer he worked with. To sing a composer's composition is one thing; to become part of a composer's orchestra is another. She was able to effortlessly blend with Raja's intricate Western compositions though she had no formal training with Western music.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Nearest Neighbor – conclusion

 In this analysis journey of nearest neighbors, we explored several instrument pairs and how Raja has been quite path breaking and innovative with instrumentation in his orchestration work. Several instrument pairs were not even thinkable to most composers till Raja showed them the possibility. Even with synthesizer dominated tones, very few composers are experimenting the same way today. Part of the reason for Raja’s music’s longevity is this exploratory instrumentation and wonderful melodic structures behind each such instrumentation that has been carefully chosen by the master of orchestration. 

I am sure there are other examples that I may have missed. Feel free to add them as your comments to the posts.


Nearest Neighbor - Trumpet and electric guitar

 Placing an electric guitar next to a trumpet is rare, though these two instruments have been used independent of each other in several music phrases by composers prior to Raja.  It never occurred to composers that these two instrument parts next to each other can be very captivating. This is the last of the Nearest neighbor parts post and we will explore several Raja examples in this category as he has used this combination a lot.

The clip below has four tracks. The first track (29 secs)  is from the interlude of the song, ‘Ennodu Paatu Padungal’ from ‘Udhaya Geetham’ (Tamil 1985). This is a nice call and response arrangement between the trumpet and the electric guitar  The second track (31 to 47 secs) is from the interlude of the song, ‘Sorgam Madhuvile’ from the film, ‘Sattam En Kailyil’ (Tamil 1979). This is a very early on experiment with these two instruments, when Raja was a young composer. The third track (49 to 1:09 secs) is the interlude of the song, ‘Vaanam Keezhe Ponalenna’ from’ Thoongathe Thambi Thoongathe’ (Tamil 1983). This is part of the magnum opus in orchestration by Raja and he places both these instruments in counter to each other, with the violins playing the harmonic parts. There is a lot going on in these 20 seconds. The fourth clip (1:11 to 1:34) is from the interlude of the song, ‘Vaazha Vaikum Kadhalukku Jai’ from 'Aboorva Sagodharargal' (Tamil 1989) with a slow paced trumpet and the electric guitar playing its parts in C&R. 

Let’s hear the nearest neighbors – Trumpet and Electric guitar…


Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Nearest Neighbor - Veena and sitar

 In most situations, we are left to choose either the North Indian sitar or the South Indian Veena. Why should we be limited? Raja places them next to each other – this is a suicidal mission from traditional thinking. They are beautiful cousins as Raja demonstrates them with his work!

The clip below has two tracks, both from Telugu films. The first track is from the interlude of the song ‘EE Chaitra veena’ from the film 'Preminchu Pelladu' (Telugu 1985). It begins with a simple veena melody which is responded by the sitar. The flute joins the arrangement and it is a beautiful Carnatic harmony of these three instruments. The unlikely neighbors veena and sitar are indeed great neighbors as Raja demonstrates here. The second clip is from the song, 'Rangulalo Kalavo' from the film 'Abhinandana' (Telugu 1989). The arrangement is a call and response between these two unlikely string instruments of the North and the South. 


Let’s hear the nearest neighbors – Sitar and Veena…


Nearest Neighbor - Veena and Synthesizer

 A synthesizer tone that is close to a veena is placed next to the veena itself and the melodic arrangement is just bewitching, Raja style. This style of near neighbor placement shows the musical rebel that Raja is. The veena plays its Sriranjani notes and the synthesizer plays its western notes and it is hard to separate one from the other. 

The clip of 18 seconds is pure bliss in the Near neighbor world. It is the interlude from the song, ‘Vasanthe Nilavin’ from 'Sooriyan' (Malayalam 2007). The synthesizer and violin are in a C&R dialog as though they were just designed for this.  I wish the other composers take this lesson and provide more interludes such as this. Real killer!

Let’s hear the nearest neighbors – Veena and synthesizer…


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Nearest Neighbor -Pizzicato strings and Bass guitar

 Many of Raja’s compositions use the strings in pizzicato mode (plucked violin strokes).  Pizzicato strings are high in bass and so are the notes of bass guitar. Placing the bass guitar next to the pizzicato strings requires some serious music vision as it is very easy to backfire.

The clip of 14 seconds is pure NN gold with the whole arrangement designed as a PolyCaRe arrangement. This is the interlude of the song, ‘Neelakuyile Unnodudhan’ from 'Magudi' (Tamil 1985). The first 4 seconds is the NN alone with the Pizzicatto strings and the bass guitar in a dialog in a C&R arrangement. Even during these 4 seconds, the violins play short strokes along. This is the well established background arrangement. Let’s look at the foreground next. The solo violin plays a melody with a response from the synthesizer. Remember that the background arrangement continues to make this a PolyCare all along. Following this is the second solo violin melody for which the synthesizer responds. This is a masterstroke of an arrangement and one longs that it lasted for a little more time.

Let’s hear the nearest neighbors – Pizzicatto Strings and bass guitar….


Nearest Neighbor – Sitar and bass guitar

 As we all know, Sitar is a North Indian instrument that was used widely in Hindi film music till the late 70s. RD Burman used it extensively in the 70s. Unfortunately, it went out of use in the HFI. Bass guitar is another instrument that was used off and on in the Indian film music for predominantly club songs and fast numbers. Raja made it as a staple part of his music. While all this is just evolution, Raja placing the North Indian Sitar next to the Western Bass guitar was unthinkable for anyone before his time.  He comes out with flying colors with his nearest neighbor placement.

The clip is from the interlude of the song, ‘Laali Laali’ from 'Swathimudhyam' (Telugu 1985) or 'Sippikkul Muthu' (Tamil 1985) and you will hear the Sitar and bass guitar in a beautiful C&R mode.

Let’s hear these Nearest neighbors – Sitar and bass guitar…