MS Viswanathan passed away last week. As much as the internet is flooded with tributes, as a fan of Raaja, I am keen to discuss a few songs to see how Raaja not only took over MSV’s musical baton but also enriched it with his own brilliance.
One of Tamil cinema’s earliest instances of jazz music in songs to my memory is Aadavar Ellaam Aada Varalaam in ‘Karuppu Panam’ (Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy), 1964. If you do note in this song, the chorus singing is unique. They do a chagumchagumchagum refrain that contrapunts with the lead melody and another chorus layer sings a melodic line in harmony with the melody. It is pretty richly layered and the gibberish refrain is a sub-genre by itself in western music. When such gibberish words are fit to a jazz format and rhythm, the resulting sub-genre of vocal jazz is called scat, which is characterized by improvising with such wordless syllables to rhythms and using the voice as an instrument. Aadavar Ellaam is a remarkable example of scat singing in Tamil film music more than 50 years back. Even otherwise, the lead singer’s humming and the melody itself is so foot tapping and enjoyably accessible.
Other noteworthy examples of scat singing in modern Tamil film music include the thigirithigirithaavoo’esque refrain in Hello Mr. Edhirkatchi, ‘Iruvar’ and the shuboobumthaatha gibberish as a part of the main melody in Jillendru Oru Kadhal, ‘Sillunu Oru Kadhal’ from AR Rahman. Like I mentioned, the aforementioned songs, including Aadavar Ellaam, have wordless syllables loyal to the rhythms and grooves of jazz.
Looking at Raaja’s use of scat throws up some very popular songs. Pudhu Maapillaikki from ‘Aboorva Sagodharargal’ starts with a bababa babbabare gibberish refrain which soon joins the trumpet in harmony. As SPB begins the pallavi, the gibberish continues interspersing the lead melody. But as he ends the pallavi, the chorus enters a conventional Heyyy hum which contrapunts with the melody. This continues throughout the charanam, effectively for the entire song, even becoming part of the lead melody when SPB goes raba baappapa rababba. However, the rhythm this song follows is not quite jazz but broadly falls under rock’n’roll. When vocal harmony with gibberish phrases is used in a pop, rock’n’roll, rhythm & blues, disco set up, it becomes another sub-genre by itself called doo-wop. It owes its origins to the music of the 1940s among African-Americans in USA. Pudhu Maapillaikki is quintessentially doo-wop but this melody’s origins are wonderfully hidden in a popular MSV song.
Raaja explains it in an interview to SPB around 1996 for DD (full interview is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsEyAvsoJeI):
The beauty is two-fold. One, unless Raaja told us the origin, we wouldn’t know though it stares us in the face when Raaja tells us. Two, the most beautiful evolution of Naan Paarthadhile from anecdotal evidence is Pudhu Maapillaikki that they’re musically so far away yet so near. Pop art in all its magical beauty!
Another very popular example of doo-wop in Raaja’s music can be Pudhucheri Kacheri, again for Kamal, in ‘Singaravelan’. The kakakaa kikeekookoo gibberish stands apart from the main song giving only its lead melody but the bamchikku bamchikku refrain comes throughout the song. The melody is however couched in an accessible Shankarabharanam and SPB’s pyrotechniques while rendering; mimicking a cuckoo, parrot, crow, singing jadhis, all the while the chorus making its presence felt; there’s a lot happening musically in a casual sense.
MSV often used to say that even the best of melodies, however peppy they are, would do well to have a sense of pathos. The kAlam ennOda kAlam portion in the charanam in this song in my opinion carries a subtle change in tone emotionally, which Raaja uses to make effective the pathos version (importantly starting from the charanam to leverage the hidden sorrow sooner and ending with the pallavi). It is totally different in tone and character to the peppy version with its beautiful use of the solo violin. This again is an MSV trope with respect to Tamil film music (recall classics like Andru Vandhadhum Idhe Nila in its peppy, the tcha tcha tcha motifs again borrowing from scat, and sad variants, which to be fair was Viswanathan and Ramamoorthy and the ideas in the orchestration owe their fair share to the latter. But the idea finds resonance in MSV’s solo works too if we are to recall the peppy and sad versions of an Ammadi Ponnukku Thanga Manasu, to quote one example). Again, the beautiful extensions of MSV’s ideas with Raaja’s own originality and signature are striking here.
However, the most outrageously brilliant use of Raaja’s doo-wop in my opinion is Ooru Vittu Ooru Vandhu, ‘Karagaattakaaran’. Superficially, this is a folk song with elements of fusion prominent in the imitative dialog between folk (Nadhaswaram and Thavil) and disco (trumpet and drums) in the second interlude. But there is a lot more happening. The lead melody is loyal to Shanmugapriya, the 56th Melakartha raga. Starting the song with Gandharam (Ga in SaRiGaMaPaDhaNi) and placing the Madhyamam (Ma) in உச்சஸ்தாய் at kaadhal eedera at the end of the charanam are bold musical strokes that would please a Carnatic purist. The conversation and response between the vocals and flute in the charanam, evoking a silent affirmative response from the flute as the hero answers his friends, is another Indian element.
But the papappaa refrain in the pallavi are vocal harmonies from the chorus that scat to a rhythm set to 6/8 Tamil folk! This is an effortless subversion of doo-wop, in essence bending it to reveal a new facet of the genre. The papappaa scat, is a vocal counterpoint to the lead melody rendered by Malaysia Vasudevan. Even better, the chorus that continues scatting even in the charanam suddenly sings words at ille ille and aamaa aamaa and it doesn’t seem out of place. But what baffles me more is how the entire song, apart from the prominently disco portions, including doo-wop, sounds authentically folk to us!
Doo-wop’s key use is in evoking a sense of humor. All the 3 songs discussed service the emotion of humor. This again is a great legacy of MSV’s, changing the tone of film songs from servicing ragas to servicing the emotion required for the medium of cinema. How Raaja stamps his music with raga virtuosity without imposing the raga on the emotion but with his own freak signature is brilliant. To paraphrase from a twitter friend, பிரபஞ்சக் கூத்தாடும் மஹாகலைஞன்.