Music beyond language: Can a song be truly loved without understanding the lyrics?
What does Rakita Rakita Rakita mean? Every time I hear this song from Karthik Subbaraj’s upcoming Jagame Thandhiram, Rakita sounds like racket-a, as if Santhosh Narayanan is egging everyone on to cause a racket. The folksy percussion, the horns, and the wry cheerfulness of the tune makes me want to enter the song and start dancing. And the bassline is quintessential Santhosh Narayanan.
But I don’t understand the lyrics. Can I racket-a or rock-it-a as well as Tamilian listeners? My first language is Bengali. I read and write English for a living. I understand Hindi because I couldn’t escape the language as a film lover living north of the Vindhyas. I understand snatches of Urdu because I follow Rekhta.org.
I don’t understand Tamil beyond onnu-rendu-moonu-naalu, vanakkam, akka, amma, and illai – all words I came to learn while living in Chennai some years ago. I know the difference between kadal and kaadhal, and often wonder if a lyricist has already rhymed “cuddle” with either word. Once I left Chennai, my awkward relationship with Tamil ended. But my fascination with Tamil pop bloomed into a love affair that’s still going strong.
Santhosh Narayanan, whom I discovered and listened to the most in Chennai, signifies “class” for me. I find his tunes offbeat, his arrangement and production sparse and meticulous. Anirudh Ravichander, just as fun but less musically courageous, is “mass”.
I love Yuvan Shankar Raja’s soundtrack for Taramani. For a year, it was the background score for my heartbreak, which had its origins in the pocket of the same name in South Chennai. I love The Casteless Collective. I don’t understand what they are saying, but in my mind, they are no different from Rage Against The Machine or Public Enemy.
When I see people point-blank refusing to listen to music because the words are not in a language they understand, I am disappointed. Music is not poetry. If the lyrics are poetry, that’s a bonus. Sure, you won’t be able to appreciate Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan without “getting” the words, but that’s not true for most pop music.
AR Rahman proved this with Roja, released the year after I was born. For the first 18 years of my life, I lived in railway colonies across Howrah. Many neighbours and neighbours of neighbours were Tamil and Telugu migrants. As a kid, I got to hear all versions of the early Rahman soundtracks, and was perplexed by the same song sounding different at different hours. I am told that I would dance every time I heard “Mukkala Muqabla Laila O Laila”, regardless of the version being Hindi, Tamil, or Telugu.It wasn’t until I heard The Ketchup Song in the early 2000s that I made the effort to procure a recording of a song whose meaning I did not understand.
Wikipedia informs us that the song “tells the story of a pimp-like gypsy (afrogitano) with mystical qualities”. My sixth standard classmates who made a ritual of performing to this track at birthday parties didn’t care. Nor did they care about the meaning of the Arabic parts in Kaho Na Kaho, which they memorised and broke into between classes to impress the first-bench girls.
This was also when Web 2.0 freed the Indian music listener from the dominance of Top 40 charts on radio and television. Everyone was suddenly competing to see who could murder Eminem’s lyrics the fastest. Everyone knew the name “Mike Shinoda”. Could Indians rap? Someone called Blaaze could, Rahman assured us. Betwen Tunak Tunak Tun and Mundian To Bach Ke, we never noticed when a khichdi of musical cultures entered our lives.
My engagement with music of foreign languages broadened in college. The Icelandic band Sigur Ros had the same appeal among urban young adults then as Cigarettes After Sex has today. I wasn’t immune. Rammstein’s Du Hast Mich made me imagine Germans as tough and brutal fellows.
Arabic pop-rocker Rachid Taha’s Kelma Kelma and Barra Barra taught me that the entire world and not just the white man rock-and-rolled. Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime moi non plus and Air’s sunkissed electropop made me picture France as a happy, naughty place.
During this time, I was consuming music (and films) of languages and cultures that were not mine without considering the historical context in which they had been produced. That’s not the same thing as understanding, say, why grunge developed in Seattle and not New York, why trip-hop came from Bristol and not London, why East Coast hip-hop is different from West Coast hip-hop.
So Sigur Ros, Rammstein, or Serge Gainsbourg had become islands of exotic music to me, and not artists existing in a continuum of musical traditions.
Such ignorance is dangerous, and it has often played out on a wide scale in the global music industry.
An example is the French duo Deep Forest, and later Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, wrongly presenting a lullaby of the Baegu peoples of Solomon Islands as pygmy music to the entire world. Another is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, distressed on hearing his songs recorded in a religious context used for violent scenes in the Hollywood movie Natural Born Killers.
Only after I moved to Chennai did I engage with flesh-and-blood artists making foreign-sounding music, perhaps because now there was no local supervision between me and the “other”. Bored as I was with Bollywood music mauled and massacred by whatever’s hip in Delhi NCR, it was easy to get seduced by Tamil film music’s strong melodies, impeccable production, and fearless attitude.
I realised how fun item songs could be because of a place called Hi-Tech bar. Located between two similar watering holes in Adyar, this one stood out for having a giant screen on which the latest Tamil and Telugu item song videos would be projected. This is how I discovered Devi Sri Prasad and S Thaman’s bangers, too awesome for me to ever want to Google what the lyrics meant.