Category Archives: Music

Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”



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Book launch: The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India

This Marghazi season, the Oxford University Press has something special to offer connoisseurs of music in the city – a massive three-volume encyclopaedia on 2000 years of music in the Indian sub-continent.

The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Music of India, a remarkably comprehensive work covering classical, folk, film and other forms and genres of music from across India and its neighbouring countries, was launched in the city recently by renowned Carnatic exponent M. Balamuralikrishna and noted playwright and actor Girish Karnad.

“This is a wonderful work – there are books on certain Indian musical traditions, but nothing like this has been done before,” said Balamuralikrishna, speaking at the launch event at ‘Town Hall’ in The Residency Towers. “It’s very important for present and future generations, and to artistes such as myself who will live on forever thanks to books like this.”

Manzar Khan, managing director of Oxford University Press noted that this project, with its 5000 entries and 200 rare photographs, had been in the works for over a decade. “This is the result of a successful collaboration between Sangit Mahabharati, Mumbai, and us over a period of 12 years,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest projects the Oxford University Press has ever published.”

The putting together of this book showed just how much the Indian branch of the Press had grown in the last few decades, said Karnad, who worked for OUP (right here in Chennai, as a matter of fact) back in the 1960s. “When I was there, we produced books such as ‘Treasure Island Simplified’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe Abridged’,” he joked. “I’m struck dumb by the sheer size of this work – not just physically, but by the remarkable range of its entries.”

In a lively speech, he discussed just how integral music was to the Indian way of life, and how it remained a living force in spite of its ancient roots. “The ability of Indian music to imbibe different influences and continue to grow and flourish is its strength and glory,” he said. “Today, Indian music is, I believe, better than ever, with barriers of caste, religion, and patronage collapsing. It’s great to be here to celebrate that moment.”

The encyclopaedia is now available in major bookstores and is priced at Rs. 10,000 /-. It will also soon be available to users across the world online through Oxford University Press, U.S.A.

“We’ve already signed an agreement with them,” said Khan. “India is a growing economic power and there’s an increased interest in its art and culture worldwide today. This work has come at the right time.”

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Enthiran music review

It’s finally here — the music of the much-awaited Rajinikanth-Aishwarya Rai starrer “Enthiran — The Robot”. Chennai may have lost out on hosting the formal music launch event (it was held in Malaysia), but the album has hit the stands in stores across the city, and it’s time to check out what the maestro A.R. Rahman has to offer the Superstar this time, after their super-successful last outing in “Sivaji — The Boss”.

The first track of the album, Pudhiya Manidha, truly sets the mood. A futuristic trance number, the song is all robotic voices and hypnotic rhythms, and captures your imagination right away. In typical Rahman style, it’s more than just another trance track — it also has a haunting, invocatory tone, both in the lyrics by Vairamuthu (the recurring refrain is “Pudhiya manidha boomiku vaa”) and in the music itself, which can be goose-bump inducing. A terrific opening for an otherworldly sci-fic epic’s soundtrack, for sure.

Kadhal Anukkal, the second number, is the perfect contrast to the first, and opens with a gorgeous guitar intro. A lilting romantic duet, sung with style by Vijay Prakash (and ably supported by the sweet-voiced Shreya Ghosal), this song comes as a breath of fresh air, infused as it is with pretty harmonies and dreamy musical interludes. In an album filled with thumping beats and futuristic robotic voices, it provides welcome respite (even if its lyrics are liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘neutron’ and ‘electron’ and ‘Newton’). An instantly appealing number, with Rahman at his melodic best.

And then, it’s back to future with Irumbile Oru Irudhaiyam (featuring Rahman and Kash n’ Krissy), a purely techno track with pounding breakbeats, a mix of English and Tamil lyrics, and more of the computerised voices and sound effects and such. It’s almost certain to become all the rage at clubs around the city, along with the next track, Chitti Dance Showcase, which, as the name suggests, is a hardcore dance number, with virtually no lyrics. Chitti…has such an eclectic mix of rhythms and styles that only Rahman could have carried it off — some hip-hop, some heavy metal guitar riffs, and even some symphony orchestra and konnakol mixed in for good measure, all set to frenetic beats. It’s a short piece, but boy, does it pack a punch.

There are some things you expect from every album of a Superstar movie, and one of them is His Song. You know, that wonderfully celebratory number to which Rajini will fill the screen in his inimitable style. For “Enthiran” , Arima Arima is that song. It has the triumphant trumpet calls and the majestic drums, the chorus singing praises; just a dramatic piece overall to which you can picture Rajini striding forward, jacket flying regally behind him.

Kilimanjaro, the penultimate number in the album, is quintessentially Rahman. A playful and quirky song with an infectious refrain and a thumping beat, it features some lively vocals by Javed Ali and Chinmayi. It has tribal-sounding interludes, but manages to be super-modern at the same time, and grows on you with every listen. Quite likely to become one of the immediately popular numbers from the album. The final number, Boom Boom Robo Da with a rap track by Yogi B, is one of the slightly more forgettable songs in the album, though has its moments too, with its multiple elements, including a softly Latin interlude, and a title refrain that’s likely to keep looping your head.

The album is classic Rajnikanth in parts, classic Rahman in others, with a heavy-duty dash of the futuristic thrown in.The emphasis on techno and dance might mean it isn’t to everyone‘s tastes, but overall, it’s unlikely to disappoint fans of either the Superstar or the Mozart of Madras.

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Article: Grigoryan Brothers interview and concert review (uncut version)

Photo: R. Ravindran

Brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan hardly spent time together growing up. Slava, older by nine years, left for London when he was just 18 to make his mark as a solo guitarist, and Leonard stayed behind in Australia, practicing hard so he could one day play with his big brother.

That day came a few years later when Slava returned home and found that his brother, then 14, had turned into a ‘fantastic musician’. “At the same time, I’d gotten quite tired of always being on the road by myself – being a solo guitarist is a very lonely existence,” says Slava. “We started developing a repertoire for both of us, and we’ve never really looked back.”

In the eight years since, the Grigoryan Brothers, as they’re known, have made a name for themselves as the finest guitar duo in Australia, and have toured across the world, from Russia to Japan, Austria to South Africa, to universal acclaim.

And along the way, they’ve more than made up for all those years spent apart. “We’re kind of discovering each other now, later in life, without all the baggage other siblings carry with them,” says Slava. “We’re brothers, of course, but we feel more like friends,” says Leonard.

Playing together has also opened up a whole new world to them musically. “We arrange a lot of music, we commission a lot of composers to write for us – the solo guitar repertoire, in comparison, is much more traditional,” says Slava.  “What you can do as a soloist is more limited as well – when you add a guitar, the range and the possibilities are endless,” says Leonard.

That range, with these two immensely talented guitarists, is quite mind-boggling. Trained in the Western classical style by their father (both their parents are violinists), the brothers were encouraged to explore a variety of influences from early on, whether it was contemporary jazz, flamenco, rock or even Indian fusion. “One of the very first concerts we were ever taken to – I was 12 and Len must have been three! – featured John Mclaughlin, Kai Eckhardt and Trilok Gurtu,” recalls Slava. “And my first band in school played Jimi Hendrix.”

Today, their music is such an eclectic mix of styles – classical, jazz, Latin guitars and more – that the brothers don’t even try to categorise it. “For us, there has to be a showcase of all the different possibilities on the guitar,” says Slava. “Playing beautiful, lyrical ballads is just as meaningful as playing technically demanding classical pieces.”

And they revel in its international flavour. “As a guitarist, you feel like you have a very international ownership – we’re from a Russian background [their parents emigrated from Kazakhstan], we grew up in Australia learning classical guitar, and yet we feel very close to Spanish and Brazilian music!” says Slava.

Plus, they’ve done an album on French Impressionistic music, are planning one on Russian piano music, and every now and again, they take a break from being the ‘Grigoryan Brothers ‘ to team up with another pair of musical siblings from Egypt (who play the Oud and the Req) and perform as the ‘Band of Brothers.’

“We bring contemporary guitar influences into their world, and see what happens,” he says with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun – we were recently in China with them for the World Expo, and our album will be out next year.”

When they’re not travelling around the world or extensively touring across Australia (their last tour had 45 concerts), Slava and Leonard are… well, they’re hanging out with each other. “We have the same non-musical interests – we play golf together, we love food and wine and cooking…” says Slava. “So even when we’re not playing, we end up seeing each several times a week,” says Leonard.

“And after all these years, we’re not sick of each other at all!” says Slava, laughing.


A standing ovation and two encores later, the packed audience at the Taj Coromandel Ballroom were still loath to let the Grigoryan Brothers leave the stage. That’s the sort of impact the guitar duo had in their first-ever performance in the city.

The music was gorgeous right from the get-go. They opened the concert (presented by the Australian high Commission, Delhi) with the incredibly soulful ‘Distance’ from their 2009 album of the same name, a melodic piece (full of delicate strumming and harmonies) that defied categorisation. This was followed by two movements from the more traditionally classical ‘Suite Bergmasque’ by the French composer Debussy (adapted for guitar by their father) – first the lively, playful “Minuet”, and then the sweetly evocative “Clair de lune”.

The variety in their repertoire was on ample display as they performed two whimsical and quirky contemporary compositions by Ralph Towner, and then the infectiously high-energy ‘Jongo’ by Brazilian composer Paolo Bellinati. Every note was perfect, their synchronisation impeccable even in the most frenetic interludes, and when they stopped to beat out a complex rhythm on their guitars during ‘Jongo’, it was, of course, to perfect time.

By the time they played their own version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, it was no longer a surprise that they’d added so many unique flourishes and variations that the original seemed almost staid by comparison. Really, can you blame the crowd for bringing them back not once, but twice?

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Article: Voices for all Seasons (profile of the Madras Musical Association choir)

They’ve sung before the Pope and at the Pantheon in Rome; they’ve sung at the Coventry Cathedral in England and on the BBC Radio; they sang at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the 2000 Olympics, and come 2012, they’ll be part of the pre-Olympics cultural celebrations once again, this time at the Alexandra Palace on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames.

We’re talking, of course, about Chennai’s own choir-that-could, the 117-year-old, 80-voice Madras Musical Association choir. Formed in 1893 by a group of Europeans who came together often to sing, the choir has never been disbanded or defunct during the entire period of its existence, though there was a brief lull in the late 80s, says Dr. Ravi Santosham, president of MMA for the last 20 years.

“From about 1985 to 1990, the support we had from the consulates fell away, there was hardly any activity, and we lost a lot of voices – we thought there wouldn’t be an MMA choir anymore,” he says. “But a handful of us continued to meet once a week, we started having membership drives, and we’ve just gone from strength to strength since then.”

That would be an understatement. Composed of 80 Chennai-ites from various walks of life (high school and college students, IT professionals and engineers, doctors and nurses, playback singers and homemakers… the list is endless), the choir today is the largest it has ever been, in terms of size, and perhaps the most accomplished, holding its own with choirs across the world.

“At least 75 per cent of our repertoire today is international standard – these are not simple compositions,” says MMA’s current conductor, Augustine Paul. “We are an amateur choir, yet we do pieces performed by paid, professional choirs at the Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall.”

No wonder then that the choir received an invitation from the International Church Music Festival to perform in England in 1998 – its first such international invitation. “I got an email asking if the MMA would be interested in performing at the Coventry Cathedral for a massed music concert,” recalls Santosham. “I couldn’t believe it and neither could the choir!”

But perform they did – the only choir from Asia to do so – and they impressed acclaimed conductor Sir David Wilcox so much that they were invited back in 2000, and again for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the festival in Rome in 2009 (where they did a one-minute performance before the Pope).

Along the way, they were invited by World Voices Australia (“maybe they heard us performing on BBC Radio,” says Santosham) to be part of the cultural activities ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, the men of MMA are gearing up to be part of a 1000-voice all-male choir that will perform at the Alexandra Palace six days before the 2012 Olympics open in London.

“We’ll be taking the ladies along too, because there will be a concert tour all over England for the participating choirs after the event,” says the president.

The choir, of course, also does two or three full concerts in Chennai every year, in addition to its well-known annual Christmas show, ‘Carols by Candlelight.’ The remarkable thing is that all of this is accomplished with the choir meeting just once a week (on Monday evenings), for a two-hour rehearsal.

“We’re now geared to do a concert with just three months preparation, with up to 80 per cent new music, which is very good by Indian standards,” comments Paul. “We have a blend of youngsters who bring tremendous energy, and seniors who have a thorough knowledge of the music.”

The practices are intense – each constitutes one-twelfth the preparation for a concert, after all – but they’re also a space for fun and friendship.

Husband and wife pair Revi and Lalitha Thomas, for instance, never miss a practice session and have missed just one concert in the two decades they’ve been part of MMA. “We love the music, of course, but also our fellowship with the other members – some of our closest friends are from the choir,” says Lalitha.

And Roshin Abraham, a 27-year-old psychologist, loves the fact that rehearsals are on a Monday: “It’s the perfect way to beat the Monday Blues,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of variety in the music we sing.”

Today, the choir’s repertoire includes everything from Broadway musical numbers and jazz to ABBA and Michael Jackson, enabling the MMA to reach out to a wider audience. But the oratorios that were a staple of the past remain – both in its music library (“The MMA has one of the best Western classical music libraries in India, left behind by the British,” says Paul), and in its repertoire (the choir recently performed the immensely challenging ‘Israel in Egypt’ for the first time in nearly a century).

An amalgam of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classical and the modern – that’s MMA for you, a unique and integral part of Chennai’s rich cultural tapestry.


You can catch the Madras Musical Association choir’s next performance in Chennai on August 27 and 28, 2010. The classical music concert will be held at the Museum Theatre, in aid of the Hindustan Bible Institute’s social service activities. For details on passes call 98400-85531 / 98844-99456.

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Interview with… William Barton

William Barton doesn’t just play the didgeridoo; he makes it sing like the kookaburra, he makes it hop like a kangaroo, he makes it dance like a hip-hop artiste, he makes it scratch like it was a DJ’s turntable.

The talented young didgeridoo player — considered one of Australia’s finest — was in Chennai recently for a special concert, ‘Songlines of Australia’, as part of his tour of India (including a performance at the Hockey World Cup in Delhi), organised by the Australia-India Council.

The concert might have been in the plush environs of the Asiana Hotel, but for an all-too-brief half-an-hour, Barton transported the audience to the rugged Australian bush, conjuring a vivid soundscape of its bird songs and of the wind rustling through its trees.

“The didgeridoo captures the raw resonance of the Australian outback through its deep tones,” he said during an interview earlier in the evening (there was plenty of time to spare since the concert started nearly two hours late). “It’s the branch of a tree that comes alive when you put your breath into it.”

The instrument has been an integral part of ceremonies of the native tribes of Australia for centuries, accompanying the ‘song man’ as he sang the ‘dream-time story’, the Aboriginal legends of the seasons and rituals. Barton carried on this storytelling tradition of the instrument during the performance, telling tales through the didgeridoo, and of the didgeridoo.

He told old-world stories by recreating the sounds of dingo dogs and kookaburras and of ‘papa, mama and baby joey kangaroos’ hopping (his free hand ‘animating’ the sounds with lively finger actions). And then, he segued seamlessly into very contemporary stories of hip-hop dancers (his fingers doing a little dance on the side) and an amazingly-creative piece on a ‘Hitchhiker’s Nightmare’, where the didgeridoo mimics the sound of vehicles whizzing by the hapless hitchhiker as he walks on and on and on…

“Songlines (the song-style of a particular family group) interconnected the different tribes in the old days; in the modern context, these songlines can connect us to the Western world,” said Barton, who has collaborated with jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, rock ‘n roll artistes as well as a number of the world’s leading philharmonic orchestras, and performed at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “I’m passionate about connecting the world through the universal language of music.”

His own musical influences growing up in Mount Isa, Queensland, included everything from opera (his mother was a self-taught singer) to AC/DC (like any other head-banging teenage Aussie boy). But the greatest influence was his uncle, an elder of the Waanyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga tribes, who taught him to play the didgeridoo at the age of seven. He died when Barton was just 11, but his legacy lives on with the young man in his music, and in the 60-year-old didgeridoo that he keeps with him.

“In traditional law, when an elder passes away, his didgeridoo is broken up, but they let me keep it as a special case,” Barton said. “I don’t usually travel with it because it’s getting old, but I take it to special gigs — out on the Australian bush, to Carnegie Hall, the London Philharmonic, and now to India — so the history is captured in it.”

He told other traditional stories too — of how he learnt to make his own didgeridoo from his father, for instance: “The didgeridoo is hollowed out naturally by termites, so you go out into the bush, find the tree you need, cut it, remove the bark, then make a mouthpiece from beeswax — after tapping out the termites first, of course!”

And his music said the rest, as he played on the electric guitar (his ‘second musical voice’) and the didgeridoo simultaneously, heavy metal riffs and soulful intros somehow merging perfectly with the deep-throated percussive notes of the didgeridoo. Fusion with Indian music is up next on his to-do list, but we’ll have to wait until next time to hear him tell those stories.

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