Malayali rock bands sing songs of the soil, stringing folk songs, poems and earthy lyrics, writes Athira M.

Circa 2003. Avial became the flavour of the rock scene. The band’s debut number ‘Nada nada…’ conquered music charts with its rustic Malayalam lyrics and rhythms. That was just an inkling of the taste of things to come. Nowadays just about every home-grown rock band, from Kaliyikakkavila to Kanhangad, resonate with verses of the soil.

Indeed, never has the Malayalam rock scene been so vibrant as it is now. Bands Pathayam, Vidwan, Vethaalam, Azazeel, Kolam, Thakara, Oorali, Thaikkudam Bridge, Nattupolima and the likes, play on the rhythm of Malayalam and imagery of Malayali culture. These songs come garnished with Malayalam words, proverbs, and tunes; even traditional folk songs such as ‘Chekele’ and poems have been given a makeover in different genres such as rock, reggae, hip-hop, metal and soft rock.

The man behind the lyrics of ‘Nada nada’ is Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan. “I was taking baby steps in the industry when Avial came into the scene. They actually created a new language in music, much to my surprise,” says Chandrasekharan. He also wrote ‘Arikuruka’ for Avial’s eponymous album and two of their numbers for the film Second Show. Chappa Kurishu, English, Neelakasham Pacha Kadal Chuvanna Bhoomi and North 24 Kaatham also had Chandrasekharan’s earthy lyrics for band member and guitarist Rex Vijayan’s music.

“The Malayalam lyrics make the music our own,” says Tony John, lead vocalist, Avial. “Also, folk songs have a certain rawness that complements rock music. We came up with the blend after a lot of experimentation. In fact, after ‘Nada Nada’ was released we waited for almost a year before releasing the other songs, as we were apprehensive about rocking in Malayalam,” he says.

The transition was not easy for the lyricists. Sudhi Velamanoor admits he is not a fan of Malayalam rock.

“I was used to writing lyrics for melodious songs. But writing ‘Aadu Pambe’ changed my perception of rock music. It is a song with a message, one about the forest and of forest dwellers and their culture,” says Sudhi. He also wrote the songs ‘Aadu pambe’ and ‘Ettam pattu’ for Avial and ‘Mele manathoodano’ for Vidwan’s promo song for the movie Romans.

Politics and protests are an abiding feature of rock music and Malayalam rock is no different. Bands have struck a chord with social issues by tuning in to croon and rap about dying forests, drying rivers, vanishing girl child and so on. Even golden oldies from films are making the guitars weep, ever so soulfully. These days, the rockers have struck a Dylanesque 5chord with social issues by sing about sing about everything from saving the environment, conserving water, women empowerment and everything in between.

Sometimes even a few rhythmic Malayalam words strung together can immediately set the mood of a song. just even about anything Malayali. “Singers often come to me saying they want lyrics with a rustic accent. Malayalathanima [the flavour of being Malayali] that was being relegated in many areas is making a comeback, at least on the music front,” says Chandrasekharan.

Diverse platter

Perhaps it has something to do with Avial’s successful climb on the charts. But since then lyrics that included food have always satiated the young and restless music lover. Thaikkudam Bridge’s ‘Fish rock’, Thakara’s ‘Puttu paattu’, Vethaalam’s ‘Kattan Chaya’ are just a few pieces that prove that food is the best way to floor the charts. “The logic is to keep the lyrics as simple as possible so as to connect with the people,” says Govind Menon of Thaikkudam Bridge. His elder sister Dhanya Suresh wrote the ‘Fish rock’ song.

“I gave her the chorus ‘Ayala mathi…’ and she came up with the rest. Such songs easily reach out to people when compared to songs with intense lyrics. However, now that we’ve made an impact, we’re also experimenting with songs that talk of profound thoughts,” explains Govind.

Saju Srinivas, lead vocalist and lyricist of Pathayam band, adds: “When we play the song, it is important that people understand what we are trying to convey.”

Thrissur-based band Azazeel, who call themselves ‘poetic metal band’, proves their mettle by jazzing up Malayalam poems. Verses of Ayyappa Paniker, ONV Kurup, Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan and many other stalwarts have been performed by the band.

Poetic ventures

“Poetry has the power to bring about change and that inspired us to focus on poems. We believe that we are taking poetry to the masses,” says Vishnu Dev. He began the band along with Thoufique Rahiman. “We have got more bouquets than brickbats. In fact, Kerala Sahitya Akademi regularly gives us a stage,” says Vishnu.

Beginnings

Jigsaw Puzzle was one of the first bands in the pre-Avial era that chose to think different. John P. Varkey, Riyaz Mohammed and Anandraj Benjamin Paul (one of the founders of Avial) were the members of the band. The song 'Nada nada' was written by Engandiyoor for the band and John had composed it. “Till then we used to play only English songs. Later when we realised that the big names of rock music drew inspiration from the songs of the soil, we turned to Malayalam lyrics. 'Nada nada' was actually written for an English song in our album. But we failed to market the album well. When Rex heard ‘Nada nada’, he loved it. Later, when Avial was born, the song became a part of their album, incorporating new instrumentation and orchestration,” says John, the music composer of films such as Unnam and Olipporu.