“ NOBODY KNEW MALAYALAM COULD BE SUNG THIS WAY’’

Avial (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Avial is a traditional Kerala dish. It is central to Malayali cuisine, has a recipe and at Malayali feasts, served on plantain leaves, occupies pride of place. In as much as it is recipe-based, avial is not a stickler for the same. It is seen as prepared from whatever vegetables you have in the kitchen. In colloquial Malayalam, something resembling avial also alludes to an element of disarray and absence of perfection. Arguably therefore, avial is life as it is. A night in Kolkata, sometime in 2009 or immediately thereafter, I realized that a rock band had transformed forever the link between music and my mother tongue. Almost a decade later, while visiting Kerala, I managed to meet the members of Avial. This article written from a fan’s point of view, attempts to explore the context which birthed Avial, the early years leading to their debut album, what their sound meant and what stands between them and a second album.

Avial / Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

With annual festivals dedicated to classical music, Thiruvananthapuram is unlikely home for rock. Cold shouldered locally and living as they did in a corner of India, removed from the musical scene of the metros – fans of alternative genres of music in Thiruvananthapuram had to stretch to access their fix. While many stayed content with rock acquired for the heck of being branded hip, some plunged into it seriously. A handful of rock’s followers thought of music as potential career. Bands mushroomed. High point was becoming regular, paid act at the five star-luxury hotel in Kovalam. Those not making it so settled for a hotel in town. Life wasn’t easy. “ I was lucky to come from a well to do family. Still my mother would sometimes jokingly say that while others worked and brought money home I was borrowing from her to keep my career alive,’’ Tony John said laughing.

Compared to this Kochi was more happening place for western music. In the days of Tony’s school and college education, Kochi even had a famous band that cut an album – 13AD (the city would follow that up with another talented act – Motherjane). In retrospect, what everyone may have underestimated was the value of stretch. Who would have thought for instance, that one day, there would be a recording studio at Tony’s house in Thiruvananthapuram? The band Tony initially played with was called Karizma. They sang in English and performed covers of songs originally sung by well-known bands overseas. By 1996, it was disbanded. Soon after Karizma wound up, John P. Varkey who was the band’s guitarist, moved to Bengaluru. He played classical guitar there as part of a trio. In 2000-2001 some of the band members reunited under different circumstances.

Avial / Tony John / live at Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

Now squeezed by the city and portions of it threatened by pollution, Vellayani, is a picturesque freshwater lake in Thiruvananthapuram. It is the sort of environment creative minds craving an element of solitude away from city, would drift to. Among those choosing the area around Vellayani for base, was the Daksha Sheth Dance Company. According to the group’s website, its mission is to create international quality performances by integrating contemporary dance with traditional movement art; theatrical design, innovative design, innovative sound and state of the art visuals. The dance company wanted a drum and guitar ensemble for one of its productions. In 2000-2001, this brought Tony and John to Vellayani. When John left for Sweden, Rex Vijayan stepped in. Sometime later, when John returned, Tony introduced Rex to him. Looking back, this coming together of the three musicians was the seed of Avial. Working with Daksha Sheth Dance Company, they got opportunity to travel abroad. “ The overseas trip was an eye opener. We realized that people were appreciative of original music, sung in one’s own language,’’ Tony said. It was reason to reflect on the tradition of rock bands from Kerala singing in English.

If you meditate on it, you will realize that a lot more goes into language than meets the eye. That’s why languages are different as are the styles in which they were originally shaped into song. “ Doing rock in Malayalam is not easy. You have to find the right word and sentence length,’’ Tony said. One of the bands John had been part of earlier was Jigsaw Puzzle. They brought out an album but it didn’t click. Among the songs Jigsaw Puzzle performed was Nada Nada. It was in Malayalam and felt like folk music. “ The use of local folk music in rock was John’s vision,’’ Rex said. Both Tony and Rex had heard Nada Nada before. They had been impressed by it. Pradeep Kallipurayath – according to Tony, he worked for SS Music (a TV channel) then – wished to feature the song on video. John tuned the song. As important as tune, is overall sound. For discerning bands, their sound is aural signature. “ Rex is an amazing music producer,’’ Tony said. Rex did the music arrangement for Nada Nada and Tony worked the turntable. The track was produced at the recording studio Tony had built at his house. The video accompanying the song was shot in Irinjalakkuda.  It was subsequently released on SS Music. “ The response was amazing. Nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way,’’ Tony said. Pradeep suggested that the band have a name. Rex came up with Avial. The name stuck. At this point Avial had all of one song.

Avial / Rex Vijayan (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Rex was born and brought up in Kollam, 64 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father Albert Vijayan worked as a music composer and arranger for the Malayalam film industry. His mother liked to sing. Born into a family given to music, Rex started off playing the piano. “ But I got bored,’’ he said an early evening at a cafe in Kochi. It was late September, less than ten days since I met Tony in Thiruvananthapuram. Bored of the piano, Rex taught himself how to play the guitar. He initially played in “ random hotel bands.’’ Then he joined Motherjane. Unknown to him, where he was heading for – the place that would spawn his best creativity yet – was a room in Tony’s house, that recording studio. Growing up in an environment filled with music, Rex was familiar with studios and recording technology. “ I started recording when I was in eighth standard,’’ he said. Rex is credited with creating the signature sound of Avial. It is a sound that is rich, wholesome and quirky. In times of bands choosing utterly polished aural signature and sometimes sounding flat as a result, Avial dared to go with a pulsating bass reminiscent of the psychedelia of the 1960s. “ We knew that as a generation born and alive in the period we belonged to, we had this ability to bridge a variety of aural signatures in music,’’ Tony said. While bass made the band’s music feel like a flow, the quirkiness was courtesy unconventional aural inputs providing a graffiti-like visual quality to Nada Nada. Once as band members and friends sat together, one of them – Reeba Paul – happened to make a phone call. Upon not getting through she spoke frustrated about the recorded message from the telephone exchange: you are in queue; please wait. It struck a chord. The sentence uttered by Reeba and textured to sound like the voice from the exchange, made it into Nada Nada; as did the call of a rooster. It is hard to intellectualize relevance for such audio inputs. The right word seems – quirky or as George Mallory is said to have quipped when asked why he wished to climb Everest: because it is there. Notwithstanding all these audio inputs, for Malayali listening to Nada Nada, the trigger to sit up and take notice was something else.

Avial / live in Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Avial)

For a year after the Nada Nada video appeared on SS Music and began making waves, Avial didn’t do much. Asked if there was any live performance of the song, Tony said, “ Maybe there was one. I recall a show in Kannur, where we sang one or two songs.’’ Then one of Tony’s friends gave money for the band to start work on an album. Encouraged, Rex who was then based in Kochi shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. For the next three and a half years, the band worked diligently on its album. Except for the final mastering, the rest of the recording work was done at Tony’s home. Rex had a room to stay there. “ When we stumbled on to something interesting, we went to the adjacent studio to record,’’ Rex said. The total number of songs worked upon across the three and a half years, was just eight. It betrays the amount of attention and work that went in as combination of music by band and further fiddling in the studio. “ I see the computer as another band member,’’ Rex said. They wished for sound signature capable of long shelf life. One of the interesting outcomes of this period was the creation of multiple versions of some of Avial’s songs. From them, the best versions were chosen. “ Throughout this work, our focus was not on the market. It was not on selling the music. It was to get the sound right,’’ Tony said. Among those who had provided music for the dance productions by Daksha Sheth Dance Company was Mumbai-based bass guitarist Naresh Kamath. When Avial needed a good bass guitarist to play for the album, the band contacted Naresh. “ We sent him samples of what we had created and he was immediately interested,’’ Rex said. Naresh introduced the band to Phat Phish Records, a music company operating from Mumbai. The final mastering of the eight songs was done in Mumbai. Phat Phish also brought out a video of Nada Nada; the song as featured in that video is probably its most popular version.

Avial / live at Blue Frog (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In 2009, music label EMI brought out a compilation of rock songs by Indian bands. The CD was called India Rocks. The first volume was released in 2009; the playlist included Nada Nada. Around this time, freelance journalist was at Music World in Kolkata, looking for CDs of Bengali rock, when the salesman recommended India Rocks as well. That night before sleeping I listened to the album on my portable CD player and was stunned by Nada Nada. For Malayalis fond of rock and other genres of western music like blues and folk (freelance journalist among them), there had always been a major gap in the local style of singing. Popular Malayalam music was trapped in compulsion to endorse social order. Melody was important and melody in turn, was usually based on Indian classical and devotional music. Either way, the songs got lauded for their structure, lyrics and delivery but stayed limited in their capacity to convey variety in human emotion especially when juxtaposed on vastly changed times. Visceral connection was absent. On the other hand in blues for instance, the rawness of human emotion – sorrow, anger – all these are captured in an idiom that is definitely the stuff of music but is content not to be classical or distanced from singer / listener. It links directly. In western music, blues has lent itself well to rock, as did folk. Both Tony and Rex said that discussion on what Avial’s idiom means is beyond them. They navigated their way through the band’s first album with music and sound signature as compass. They hadn’t imagined any of what people (freelance journalist included) read into their work. I could not find a clear response from them describing the band’s sound; it appeared the stuff of exploring and discovering using sounds already heard as reference points. Among external influences, both Tony and Rex said that band members had been fans of Linkin Park. Having mentioned Linkin Park, Rex thought some more and added Incubus and Pearl Jam. Back in time, motive if any appeared confined to finding a solution for the limited audience English rock music fetched in Kerala. As musicians loving the genre, they wanted to break out of such restricted appeal. Singing in Malayalam had seemed potential answer. What made Malayalam click in rock was folk.

Avial / live in Kuwait (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Resonant of bygone times and rich in its interplay with nature, Malayalam folk music can be soulful. Yet in hindsight, one would argue that even Malayalam folk songs – so capable of conveying sorrow, sense of loss and angst – fall short of the total bandwidth of emotions contemporary urban lifestyle, consumerism, globalization et al unleash. But what if, folk and rock joined hands? That was the brilliance in John P. Varkey’s vision. He was based in Thrissur, a little over 80 kilometers north of Kochi and some 280 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. For folk song, John got in touch with an upcoming lyricist. Engandiyur is a village in the Chavakkad taluk of Thrissur. Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan is a writer and lyricist hailing from this place. According to a 2012 article on him in The Hindu newspaper, his studies discontinued after class 10, Chandrasekharan went into his family business of making furniture and wooden sculptures. What fascinated him however was literature and acting. In the article, he says of his writing style, “ I use ordinary language. I write what I understand. That’s why people like them.’’ John asked Chandrasekharan to write some songs in Malayalam, which Jigsaw Puzzle could sing. “ He told me to write as I wished. There was no brief in terms of subject,’’ Chandrasekharan told this blog, mid-October 2018. Nada Nada was one of the songs Chandrasekharan penned so. “ I imagined it as a journey; you walk seeing many things,’’ he said. Tuned by John and powered by Avial’s rock music the song exploded to being an anthem. “ I didn’t expect such popular affection for that song. What happened just amazed me,’’ Chandrasekharan said. Nada Nada and Avial changed his life. Once a writer of lyrics for small films, he is now an established lyricist in the Malayalam film industry. What we haven’t mentioned yet in Avial’s brew, is the significance of voice.

According to Rex, Anandraj Benjamin Paul grew up overseas. The two met when Rex joined a band called Overdrive. “ In real life I don’t think Anandraj can read and write Malayalam,’’ Rex said. It offers insight into not just Avial’s unique predicament in Malayalam rock but also what the idea of being Keralite means these days of globalization and diaspora. Anandraj’s raspy rendition of Chandrasekharan’s folksy lyrics was the blues connection long missed in Malayalam songs. It confidently, almost defiantly took on popular perceptions of vocalization in Malayalam music and inspired the imagery of anyone singing their heart out. It removed intermediary inhabiting space between feeling and singing. That night in Kolkata, I felt exactly what Tony would tell me almost a decade later: nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way. Adding to overall impression was freight train of a band in the background. Interestingly, despite one of Avial’s strengths seeming the skilled craftsmanship of its musicians, Rex said, “ we are not a band of exceptional musicians.’’ Posted on YouTube, viewers from across the world have sometimes commented below their videos that they don’t understand a word of what is being sung but the music is excellent.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Like all genres of music, rock too is an interpretation. The late G Aravindan was one of Kerala’s most respected film makers. In 1979, he made a film for children called Kummatty. It won that year’s state award for best children’s film. The music for the film was composed by M.G. Radhakrishnan. Kavalam Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics; he also sang them. A memorable song from the film was Karukare Kaarmukil. Aravindan wasn’t a maker of mainstream, commercial films. His films were realistic and belonged more to the parallel movement in Indian cinema. The song in question was meant to accompany scenes of dark monsoon clouds and approaching rain. According to Kavalam Sreekumar, Narayana Panicker’s son and a well-known singer in his own right, the song was based on Samantha Malahari raga, which in turn finds prominence in Kerala’s tradition of classical music called Sopana Sangeetham. This tradition which developed in the state’s temples has distinct ragas and also ragas commonly used in South Indian Carnatic music. Sopanam – Wikipedia describes it as “ a happy blending of Vedic, folk and tribal music’’ – shares a similarity with Hindustani classical music in that both traditions have ragas meant for singing at particular times of the day. Malahari is a Carnatic morning raga capable of providing a sense of calm. It is associated with the rainy season. Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics of Karukare Karmukil with Samantha Malahari in mind; M G Radhakrishnan tuned it. Tony had a friend from Kottayam with whom he used to jam. The friend had a habit of singing Karukare Karmukil from Kummatty. Its haunting melody and folk flavor caught the band’s interest. Rex was hearing the song for the first time. “ I remember waking up next morning with that melody still in mind,’’ he said.

Avial / Benjamin (Binny) Isaac (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Intrigued, the band proceeded to work on a version. The friend who sang the song had sung it slow. The slow pace remained tempo for Avial’s interpretation of the work by Kavalam Narayana Panicker and M. G. Radhakrishnan, both acknowledged masters in their space. “ Played slow and with rock elements added, the song acquired the feel of grunge rock. Had it been played faster at its original pace, I suspect that within rock, it may have sounded clichéd. It may have ended up just another rock and roll song,’’ Rex said. Crucially, aside from slowing the tempo, the band maintained the song’s melody. “ I don’t think I have heard another melody like that,’’ Rex said. The resultant Karukare has stayed a fine example of Avial’s creativity. Even as the music arrangement is powerfully alternate rock and electronic, it retains the tenderness and mischievous tenor of the original. It broadly retains the original tune, uses rock music in a measured way (it is a song with moments of high decibel music and fade to quietness) and also manages to create the atmospherics of gathering rain, a vignette of existence that is typical Kerala. For purists, it probably remains debatable whether rock is apt format to showcase the devotion and melody associated with Sopanam. Sreekumar said that his father always welcomed creativity and considered Avial’s interpretation as another version. “ I think the underlying reality is that it is a simple, beautiful song. As long as you stay loyal to the melody, it remains beautiful no matter what the style you sing it in,’’ Sreekumar said. Indeed one of the significant aspects of Karukare is sense of unchanged melody – like a slice of timeless old – with rock building a brooding, contemporary envelope around it. Any which way you look at it, it is fantastic recipe. In 2008, Avial’s first album – named after the band – was released to critical acclaim. “ Even though we started off with Nada Nada, the main element was the album. Songs like Chekele, Aadu Pambe, Ettam Pattu – they played a huge role. We started performing because of the album,’’ Rex said. As with all bands, behind the scenes, there were losses. John left quite early in the production process. Then just ahead of the album’s launch, Anandraj moved to the US. Tony, who had until then sung back-up, took over the lead vocals for the band’s live performances that followed. But he knew Anandraj set the bar pretty high. The band’s first live performance post album-launch was at Eastwind music festival in Delhi. It was also drummer, Mithun Puthanveetil’s first show with the band.

Avial / Mithun Puthanveetil (Photo: courtesy Avial)

At Vazhuthacaud in Thiruvananthapuram are two bungalows long familiar to the public as official residence of ministers. In one of them, on the first floor, was an old, weather beaten bass drum, which had followed its owner around, a reminder of his early days in music. Rooms nearby represented the other end of the journey – they had fully kitted out drum sets, equipment for programming and old cymbals, cracked and broken, retained by artiste to add variety in sound. At the time of writing, Mithun’s father, Kadannappalli Ramachandran, was a minister in Kerala’s government. Mithun’s mother liked to sing; the family loved music. The old drum had been acquired years ago, when a young Mithun became obsessed with a drum set he saw at a shop in Kottayam. At his father’s request, the shopkeeper sold Mithun a cheap drum he had in stock. It had no pedals, hi-hat or cymbals; Mithun had to improvise all that.  “ I like seeing an array of drums before me,’’ he said. Mostly self-taught, he however had one teacher he met at Kochi and owes much to – Mathew Joy. By around the time Avial was readying their first album, Mithun had become drummer for the Thiruvananthapuram based-metal band, Rage. Although drumming for a metal band, Mithun’s natural inclination was towards genres like funk and jazz.  Nithin Vijayanath – then guitarist for Rage – was Rex’s friend; Rex used to help the band with music arrangement and mixing. Rage kept a practice room near Keshavadasapuram in the city. Mithun fondly remembered a jam session with Rex (he was on bass) there as first hint of potential chemistry. Among those leaving Avial after work on the first album concluded, was their drummer – C.I. Joffy. Mithun stepped in to fill the gap. The jam session in the practice room was arguably the second turning point in Mithun’s journey in music. The first had been his introduction to western pop music as a kid; he recalls touching the speakers of his National Panasonic audio player and feeling the pulsating rhythm. During his childhood at Iringal near Vatakara and later years in Kannur (including his earliest bands), Mithun’s intake of music had been eclectic – there was Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English. Avial’s rock – sung in Malayalam – resembled best of both worlds. There was the rhythm from those speakers and the language he was born to.

Avial / live in Kozhikode (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Naresh also left Avial; he has since been replaced by Benjamin (Binny) Isaac. An accomplished bass player who has played with several bands and musicians / singers from the film industry, Binny is Avial’s oldest band member in terms of age. He spent his early years in Thiruvananthapuram, where working with his church choir introduced him to classical guitar and piano. His two brothers were award winning classical guitarists in their college days. Guitar and keyboard available at home, meant ability to train diligently. For lay music listeners like this writer, bass would seem challenging because its trajectory runs distinctly apart from progression of melody. “ For me transition to bass was relatively easy because classical guitar entails playing melody and bass at once. I was already used to the technique required,’’ Binny said. In 1986, around the same time he started playing bass, Binny’s family shifted to Kochi. Ten years later – in 1997 – he joined his first rock band called Nine Hours. They sang at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. According to Binny, these years saw quite a few musicians and singers from Thrissur play with bands elsewhere in Kerala, including in Thiruvananthapuram. There were also youngsters who had picked up western music in the Middle East, shifting to Kerala. It was a period of churn. From Nine Hours, Binny moved to Overdrive, a classic rock band which had in its fold Anandraj and Joffi (as mentioned earlier, Rex too had a stint with them). They played at the luxury resort in Kovalam. Binny was thus known pretty early to the talent that would converge as Avial. When Nada Nada made its debut as a single, Binny was still with Overdrive. Having known John, Tony, Rex, Anandraj and others, he had an inkling of what musical idiom lay in store. He liked what he heard. “ It was an experiment. I don’t think anyone did it as well as Avial did. The song was distinctly rock. It was also distinctly Malayalam. Anandraj’s style of singing played a role in ensuring that,” Binny said.  When Naresh got busy with his own work in Mumbai, the band asked if Binny would step in as replacement. His first live performance with Avial was in 2008-2009 in Mauritius and Reunion Island.

Although critically acclaimed, Avial enjoyed a mixed bag of commercial success. The band’s debut album produced by Phat Phish was to be distributed by Sony BMG. According to Tony, the album sold some 50,000 copies. But following disagreement between Phat Phish and Song BMG, distribution too was done by Phat Phish; that may have limited the album’s reach. Aside from initial signing amount received, the band got no royalties. “ Phat Phish folded up later,’’ he said. The main source of revenue for the band has been live performances. In that market, they remain among the better paid acts. But given to singing original songs, their repertoire of work is limited – about 14 songs. It is enough to perform on stage but probably not enough when imagined as band’s lifetime work. What is remarkable is how some of these songs continue to be heard by fans. By 2018, Nada Nada for instance, was almost 15 years old. The song remains Malayalam rock’s ambassador to the world. About three years ago, Avial was featured on BBC. Ettam Pattu and Aadu Pambe were played on BBC Radio, Tony said.

Avial / live in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In Kerala there are still those who refer to Avial’s music as `fusion.’ That is cavalier. The best approach is to call them a rock band and their work as rock or plain, music. One reason I pitch description so is that from vocals to their sound in rock, the Avial package has been more wholesome and committed to genre than later entrants into the same space. There isn’t any pleasing the market, in Avial’s work. The studio may have played a big role in shaping Avial’s sound but the band made no effort to sound sweet. Neither Tony nor Rex could describe accurately how the band’s sound or that creative drive behind the first album evolved. The indescribability of those times is one of the concerns playing in their minds as they contemplate a second album. They may have succeeded in recreating the atmospherics of rain for Karukare but can they recreate the madness which made them a band in the first place and fueled them to one hell of a debut album? The period preceding Nada Nada and their debut album had been a very unsure stage in the careers of band members. Avial was a cathartic release born from that. “ What keeps us going is our passion. You can’t force creativity,’’ Tony said thoughtfully. Both lead vocalist and guitarist concurred that the band’s preferred idiom would continue to be rock and folk. “ Going ahead, the only thing to worry about our music is whether we like it or not. We are that sort of people who get bored of our own music,’’ Rex said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was written in October 2018, long after Avial became an established rock band.)      

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