Genre: Folk/ fusion
OML Entertainment/ Rs 150
WHEN the members of Bangalore band Swarathma stepped on to the stage of Mumbai’s Blue Frog on May 16, the audience would have instantly noticed their get-up. With colourful designer clothes specially tailored to blend Indian and western, traditional and contemporary, they were making a statement. And like their costumes, their music was a distinct amalgam too, fusing Indian folk and semi-classical elements with rock, funk and reggae.
Swarathma was releasing its second album ’Topiwalleh’, and for the next couple of hours, the packed house was treated to a scintillating, foot-stomping live performance. Though the songs were new to most listeners, they had the kind of tunes that appealed instantly. With his brilliant and versatile vocal delivery, Vasu Dixit was accompanied by an outstanding group of musicians — guitarist Varun Murali, violinist Sanjeev Nayak, bassist Jishnu Dasgupta, drummer Montry Manuel and percussionist Pavan Kumar KJ. Everybody was spot-on.
For the past few days, the Swarathma CD has been playing on his blogger’s music system at regular intervals, alternating with Indus Creed’s marvellous ‘Evolve’ and Richard Hawley’s sensational psychedelic space rock set ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’. What’s most impressive about ‘Topiwalleh’ is its variety, the marvellous instrumentation and lyrics that talk of subjects like corruption, consumerism, child abuse, communalism and media sensationalism.
Stylistically, one finds some very obvious influences here and there, ranging from Indian Ocean, Jal, The Edge and Led Zeppelin to Silk Route, RD Burman, AR Rahman and L Subramaniam. But what clearly works in the album’s favour is the sheer consistency maintained throughout. Moreover, besides the intelligence of the lyrics, what distinguishes these songs is the way Nayak’s outstanding violin has been used to give a special flavour.
The title track has a strong bass-driven reggae beat, and Dixit’s dig at politicians “Sar pe haath daale, khali pet maare, topiwalleh” is followed by a catchy chorus and smart guitar solo. The hard-rocking ‘Kooraane’, which is about people’s tendency to go in for free things and discounts, begins with the sound of howling wild dogs, and has a spectacular guitar wah-wah solo and a sizzling violin stretch straight out of the L Subramaniam songbook.
‘Rishton Ka Raasta’ is a pleasant slowdown of tempo, with a dream-like folksy pizzicato and bowed violin intro, smooth backing vocals, a crisp guitar stretch, and shades of Rahman and Silk Route. ‘Khul ja’ starts with a folksy percussion, and the catchy vocals ‘Khul ja re, khul ja re sim-sim, khul ja re, jab koi rasta ho bandh’ are accompanied by a U2-like guitar backdrop.
‘Ghum’ is a hard-hitting number on child abuse —haunting acoustic guitar lines, hard-rocking interludes, jungle-like effects and a sudden falsetto back-up vocal stretch enhance it musically. Next comes the peppy youth-friendly Kannada number ‘Naane Daari’, which effortlessly blends rock and funk. ‘Aaj Ki Taaza Fikar’ is a witty look at how the media hypes trivial things, and features some amazing guitaring, and a collage of random sound bytes to symbolise channel-surfing.
‘Mukhote’, which talks of hypocrisy and falsehoods, has an extra-catchy hook and sing-along vibe. Singer Shubha Mudgal makes a guest appearance on the stylishly-composed ‘Duur Kinara’, which intersperses an Amir Khusrau verse and a traditional Kumaoni tune with Kannada lyrics and a subtly-thrown English backdrop. And finally, ‘Yeshu Allah Aur Krishna’ has a extremely catchy groove, a narrative semi-spoken style, neat voice modulation and wonderful lines which use the character of Sant Kabir as a motif.
Cynics may argue that the Swarathma formula isn’t new. True. From the Colonial Cousins and Indian Ocean in the 90s, Indian musicians have been doing vocal numbers mixing Indian elements with western rock and pop. Even in Pakistan, Junoon, Mekaal Hassan Band and Fuzon have blended Sufiana and classical influences with rock and jazz.
Over the past few years, more and more Indian groups have been producing some excellent music in this category. Besides Swarathma, we have Delhi band Advaita, Bangalore’s Raghu Dixit, Avial from Kerala and Yodhakaa from Chennai, who add a contemporary sound to Sanskrit devotional chants.
Various marketing terms have been used to describe this genre. Some call it indie, some alternative, some underground and some fusion (which some bands dislike). However, such names tend to limit a band’s appeal and reach. What’s important, primarily, is the quality of the music.
Musically, ‘Topiwalleh’ has that charm. A lot of effort and plenty of grey cells have obviously gone into the creation of each song, as is obvious from the way words are used, structures changed and newer elements introduced. Yet, there is something about the tunes which could appeal to mainstream audiences too, and not just to the elitist and underground. They have that singular quality that attracts any listener — a wonderful hook. In short, Swarathma rocks.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic