The vastness and diversity of music from Indian film has a way of tempting even the scrappiest foreign fancier to throw in the towel when the going gets challenging. In a country that boasts a significant, if not major, film industry for many prominently spoken regional languages, the sheer volume of music that exists can alone be daunting. Though music from the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry (known as “Bollywood,” in case you haven’t been following the ascendancy of India in practically everything over the past decade) is undoubtedly the most accessible, fans of filmi sangeet’s radical hybridizations of western and homegrown idioms would do well to dig a little further south in the name of personal enrichment – you will be rewarded.
Kollywood – so named for the Tamil-language film capital Kodambakkam in the southern state of Tamil Nadu – churns out far fewer than Bollywood’s 800 films per year. But buoyed by the incendiary popularity of, for example, the legendary actor Rajnikanth (Youtube his latest hit film, “Enthiran,” for some surrealist CGI, kung fu-by-way-of-“Terminator” fun) and as the cradle for the careers of renowned composer A.R. Rahman and Hindi megastar Aishwarya Rai, Tamil film and the music that accompanies it represents a cultural asset that should be no less valued than its northern counterpart.
Long before Rahman emerged upon the scene, music director Ilaiyaraaja ruled the Tamil roost. To date, he has scored over 950 films not only for the Tamil market but also for Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu cinemas. Some of his most rollicking work between 1977 and 1983 is included on “Solla Solla.” On this collection, rock and hi-hat/conga-heavy funk rhythms augmented with horns and early synth flourishes take a more prominent role than the ostentatious string arrangements of Bollywood. But at the same time, the masterful nuances displayed in the performances of singers like S. Janaki and the legendary S.P. Balasubrahmanyum suggests a robust connection to southern Indian classical vocal music. What might seem like a typical 1970s dancefloor-bomber subtly reveals itself as treatise in traditional vocal raag – as is the case with Balasubrahmanyam’s extraordinary timbral control over the modal funk of the title track and the frenzied “Vaa! Naailukku Naall."
From the first listen, it’s evident at least among these tunes that Ilayaraaja was far more liberal in his assimilation of western instrumentation, kitchen-sink arrangements and structures than many of his Hindi film contemporaries. “Raja Rani Jaakki” starts with a proggy bit that might not sound too out of place in a Van Der Graaf Generator leftover, before a vaguely Motown bassline/flute figure takes over, giving way to a much more traditional tabla interlude. Despite its title, “Disco Sound,” crooned mostly in English, evokes Blood Sweat and Tears (albeit with a scandalously breathy female vocal intro and weird - but equally lascivious - spoken interlude). Zippy, fuzzed-out slide guitar and synth drum fills drive the bouncy “Naanthaan Ungappanda,” which finds Balasubrahmanyam dipping into a throaty Satchmo register. The shimmering synth intro of “Thithikkum” preludes a stomper driven by slashing wah-wah guitar and fuzzed-out organ swells. Sample English lyric (for which the Maestro gets an ‘A’ for effort): “Baby, shake it baby...I need you/I want to hold you tight/when you are in my arms I feel high...” “One and Two Chachacha” switches gears abruptly from, in fact, a sitar-seasoned midtempo cha-cha to a south-Indian bhajan-inflected interlude. “Kanavu Ondru” offers up a more introspective melody sung by S. Janaki over cyclical rhythms, space-age synths, piano, tabla and strings. The album closer, “Aadal Paadalil” pulls out any remaining stops, with a left-field take on big-band swing punctuated by thunderous percussion and rhythmic, basso profundo vocals.
You probably get the point about what makes this music so mesmerizing. The work of nonwestern artists suggests new perspectives on what’s familiar to us in a way that tends to capture the imagination with a real tenacity. Ilaiyaraaja’s output – and that of many of his contemporaries – from this period reached a high-water mark in our shared cultural heritage, when music directors were consumed with an anarchic spirit of bricolage, recontextualization, even outright plagiarism. But as a career musical polyglot, Ilaiyaraaja might be slow either to see the big deal here, or to concur that the melting pot is anywhere near dry. In 2005, he told India’s national newspaper “The Hindu” that there was no point in classifying music into folk, classical, or western forms – they are based all on the same seven notes, anyway. It’s all the more evidence that among countless innovations, India can legitimately lay claim as a leader in the development of world-fusion music as we know it.