Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thaalagathi Vendum (you need the right beat pattern)

We cannot imagine any film music without a rhythm pattern. The rhythm pattern in film music is set using Indian percussion instruments such as tabla, mridangam, ghatam (example, Nitham Nitham Nellu Soru from Mullum Malarum - 1978), dholak or western instruments such as drums – there are several variations to this – cymbal, bongos (70s and earlier) or congo drums (remember RD Burman’s tunes?), and more recently with synthetic drums (example Ennai Thaalata Varuvalo from Kadhalukku Mariyadhai – 1997). In order to set the pace of the song, it is important to set the rhythm pattern or thaalagathi as it is known in film circles.

CCM has several thaalam definitions and film music has been selectively following these as some suit film music more than the others. Roopaka Thaalam which follows a 6/8 beat pattern is very popular. Also popular is the Adhi Taalam which follows an 8 beat pattern. Most film music can be easily categorized into these two beat patterns.

How do the film musicians measure beats? – they use a device called a metronome which generates a clock tick like sound. This device is used to ensure that precise timing is in place when the percussionist is playing and the instrumentalists and singers coordinate the bars of music being played. Raja is creative and uses the metronome itself as his beat in some songs – observe the pallavi, and the charanam’s of the song Malare Malare Ullasam from Un Kannil Neer Vazhinthaal (1985) – the entire song has no percussion when Janaki sings. It is just backed by the metronome!

Waltz is a dance rhythm pattern from the 17th century Europe used in princely dances. This is a 3-beat rhythm and is used rarely by (also known as Teesram) Indian music composers. Raja has used the Waltz rhythm in several compositions. Vandhal Vandhal Rajakumari from Oru Oorile Oru Raajakumari (1995) is a great example of the Waltz rhythm adopted so well for Indian film music. Hear the track which is done beautifully with the chorus...

Pootukkal Pottalum from Chatriyan (1990) is another great usage of the waltz rhythm. Devan Koil Deepam Onru from Naan Paadum Padal (1984) is also set to this rhythm.

In CCM, Kanda Chapu is a 5-beat rhythm and is rarely used even in CCM. Raja has done several songs with this rare 5-beat cycle. Pon Vaanam Paneer Thoovuthu from Indru Nee Naalai Naan (1983) is another example for the usage of this rhythm pattern. If you closely observe the second interlude, the 5 beat cycle is almost demonstrated with the strings completely cut out. Hear the track...

CCM has other patterns such as Misra Chapu which follows an unusual 7 beat cycle. Most common MDs stay away from such experiments. Manasu Mayangum from Sippikkul Muthu (1985) is set to this 7-beat rhythm. Aayiram Malarkale from Niram Maratha Pookal (1979) also uses this rhythm (although it uses it only for the Pallavi). Another example is Meedum Meendum Vaa from Vikram (1986). Kaathirunthen Thaniye from Rasa Magan (1994) has the complete song in Misra Chapu.With the exception of a few seconds, the entire song follows this pattern. Hear the track...

There are several songs of Raja that have been set to unusual 12-beat cycles and some even higher. Everything is synchronized to a musical bar and Raja keeps improvising the nadai as part of his arrangement of songs. If you notice the postlude of the song Megham Kottatum from Enakkul Oruvan (1984) the way the drums are being synchronized with mridangam is amazing and is an extremely complex beat cycle. (I am yet to figure this one).

Another percussion experiment, I enjoyed is the song Ila Nenje Vaa from Vanna Vanna Pookal (1991). With the exception of a few guitar strings, both the interludes are carried out only by drums and tabla – no string section or brass. The dialog between the tabla and the drums in the interlude is so captivating. What appears like a 6-8 rhythm is hard to time and measure. Hear the track...

It must be mentioned that Raja has some excellent percussion support – his assistant for 3 decades, Purushothaman is an expert percussionist and Prasad has the reputation of being one of the finest tabla players in the film music world in India.

Folk revisited

I had mentioned in the introductory sections that most of Raja's folk is Westernized folk. To be exact, most of his folk tunes are harmonized folk. Tall claim, huh? Let’s take a crack at it. This is like peeling the onion skin. You have to follow this methodology to analyze his folk based tunes:

  1. Train your ears to skip the lyric. Often times, some folksy words are used to camouflage the western composition. Example, try to forget terms like ‘rasathi’, ‘rosapoo’, ‘raasaa’, ‘rosa’ etc., commonly used to deflect your attention.
  2. Try to forget the visual as the song could be picturised in the country side.
  3. Try to imagine that the percussion exists but not the tabla or the dholak.
  4. Focus on the timing and the interludes
  5. Voila, you can see all the harmonization that is cleverly devised to make you think that it is folk!
Don't get me wrong – I am not saying that Raja does not do folk; all I am claiming is that most of his folk based tunes receive the same WCM treatment that most of his light, CCM tunes receive.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. Consider the song ‘Rasathi Unnai Kaanatha Nenju’ from Vaidehi Kathirunthaal (1984). Pay attention to the prelude and the interludes. The lyric is fully folk and so do not focus on it. The prelude starts with a call and response type arrangement with a relaxed 4-6 rhythm pattern. It turns into a counterpoint between violins before the song begins. The first interlude is a wonderful conversation between the violins and the flute – if you ignore the beats, this is like any other WCM composition. The second interlude also uses a beautiful combination of violin, guitar, bells, cellos and flutes. Throughout the song, the base guitar pattern follows strictly the meter. Clever arrangement, delivered with a great melody and camouflaged with a folk lyric – that’s vintage Raja. Hear the track...

Another example, Muthu Mani Maalai from Chinna Kounder (1992) – this uses the same technique but with a different melody and different arrangement. The 1st interlude is a great call and response arrangement between the flutes, synthesizer and the violins – just imagine that the tabla is absent – it is like another WCM piece. The prelude uses bells and a violin section in conversation followed by the flutes. The second interlude also uses beautiful arrangement of violins and flutes. Another song in the same movie – Koondukulle Enna Vechu – uses a similar arrangement with a different melody. Observe the bass guitar pattern in both the songs. Again, this is clever usage of WCM techniques to sugar coat a beautiful folk melody! Hear the track...

  • Uchi Vagundeduthu from Rosapoo Ravikaikari (1979)
  • Samakozhi Koovuthamma from Ponnu Oorukku Pudhusu (1979)
  • Megam Karukuthu from Ananda Ragam (1982)
  • Megam Karukkaiyile from Vaidehi Kaathirunthaal (1984)
  • Adi Aathadi Ilam Manasu from Mudhal Mariyadhai (1985)
  • Kulaloothum Kannanukku from Mella Thiranthathu Kadhavu (1986)
  • Kodiyile Maligapoo from Kadalora kavidhaigal (1986)
  • Pachaimalai Poovu from Kizhakku Vaasal (1990)
  • Thendral Vandhu Theendumpodhu from Avatharam (1995)
  • Ilam Kaathu Veesuthe from Pithamagan (2004)

  • Nobody has done as many westernized folks as Raja has in recent memory. He effortlessly handles a folk melody, harmonizes, adds lilting interludes and preludes and delivers a hit with ease. Most of the B-grade movies that Raja turns our like a production shop has all the careful steps that I described. Folk melodies are no different from light melodies or heavy CCM based tunes for Raja. There are perhaps over a thousand songs that fit this category.

    Another dimension to Raja’s folk is the song Aayiram Thamarai Motukkale from the film Alaigal Oiyvadhillai (1982). This song was based on a traditional kummi type song that Raja wanted to introduce. Raja turns this kummi into a CCM raga subhapanthuvarali and also introduces chorus and Western orchestration on top! We now have a 4 flavored offering which has all the same techniques of a typical Raja folk composition.

    The unique Raja experience

    In his long career of 3 plus decades, one of the striking possibilities is repetition of earlier successful tunes – Raja has carefully avoided them for the most part. However, there are several occasions, where there have been lyrics that have been repetitive. No other composer in Indian music has faced so much repetitive lyrics and come out with different tunes for them every time. Let me provide 10 examples from Raja’s career that I am aware of. I am sure that there are a lot more that I am not aware.

    1. Kaatrinile Varum Geetham has been one of the yester years super hit song sang by MS Subhalakshmi. No other composer ever managed to unseat the glory of this song till Raja arrived. Raja has three songs which have these three words with minor grammatical differences in three different tunes – all of them super hits! The first one was from the film Kaatrinile Varum Geetham - Kandaen Engum (1978) where Raja had both Janaki and Vani Jayaram sing the song . The highlight of the song is the phrase Kaatrinile Varum Geetham. In the film Johny(1979), Raja had Janaki sing Kaatril Enthan Geetham in a completely different tune than his earlier one. Later in the 90s, Raja had Hari, Shreya, Bhava, Sadhana and himself sing to the song Kaatril Varum Geethame from the film Oru NaaL Oru Kanavu (2005). You have to hear the three songs in sequence to see how they are each great but different melodies.
    2. Kuyile Kuyile from Aan Pavam (1985) is set to a particular tune. The same phrases from Kadhal Oviyam (1982) is set to a completely different tune full of pathos. Both these are duets. For the third time, the same phrases are set to another very happy tune in the film En Bommukutty Ammuvukku
    3. Unnai Thedi from En Mana Vaanil (2002) is set to a tune (sang by Hari and Raja separately). The same phrases are set to a different tune when Sadhana sings it in the film Konji Pesalam (2003). The third variation of this is another tune in the film Housefull (1999).
    4. Manadhil Uridhi Vendum is set to a particular tune in the film Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) and the same words are set to another tune in the film Manadhil Utithi Vendum (1987). Both are sang by Yesudas.
    5. Vaarthai Thavari Vittai are words set to tune in the film Ilamai Oonjaladukirathu (1978) as part of the famous song Ennadi Meenachi. The same words are set to another tune in the film Sethu (1999).
    6. Kadhal Oviyam from Kavikuyil 1979) is set to a particular tune (solo) and Kadhal Oviyam from Alaigal Oiyvathillai (1981) is set to another completely different tune sang by Raja and Jensi. Both turned out to be hit songs.
    7. Thom Thom from Sindhu Bhairavi (1986) is set to a particular tune and the same phrases are set to a completely different tune from the film Oorellam Un Paatuthaan (1991). Both are tracks sang by Yesudas.
    8. The song Vaaranam Aayiram from Keladi Kanmani (1990) is set to a tune and the same phrases are set to a completely different tune in the song Vaishnav Janato in Hey Ram (2001).
    9. Vaa Vaa Anbe from Eeramana Rojave (1991) is set to a tune and the same phrases are set to completely different tune in Agni Natchathiram (1988). Both are tracks sang by Yesudas and Janaki.
    10. Vaigai Nadhi from Rickhaw Mama (1992) is a duet of SPB and Janaki set to a particular tune. The same phrases are to a different tune when Hari sings it in Nilave Mugam Kaatu (1999).
    These are 10 examples from the wide body of work that demonstrate the innovative way in which Raja comes out with new tunes for the same phrases over and over again. There is absolutely no influence of an earlier tune in the later tune (s). Such is the work of a genius!