Kuttanadan Punchayile Kochu Penne Kuyilale … I was on the banks of the Punnamada Lake in Alleppey, enthralled by a boat race in progress. Hundreds of men were rowing ferociously across the water in their giant boats. As they rowed, they sang, “Kuttanadan Punchayile Kochu Penne Kuyilale”, and as they sang, they rowed, “oh…thithithra thithithey”
Probably one of the most famous boat songs of Kerala, I encountered Kuttanadan Punchayile, yesterday on Youtube, years after I had first heard the song in Alleppey. But with a twist. This was Kuttanadan Punchayile of 2016, a revamped, fusion of the original. Musicians Vidya Iyer and Shankar Tucker mixed the beats of the old folk song with their own, adding English lyrics to the original Malayalam ones.
“Interesting,” I thought to myself. Being a fan of Malayalam music myself, I thought of how the music scene in Kerala had changed, especially in the past one and a half decades. But more recently, in the past three years, there has been a fusion music revival of sorts in Kerala by a new generation which was born on Youtube. Take Vidya Iyer for one. On further investigation, I realised that she had more than 150,000 followers on Youtube channel where she had uploaded mashups of western and Indian artistes: Sam Smith’s ‘Lay Me Down’ with Ennodu Nee Irundhaal’ from the movie I, and Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love Me Like You Do’ with ‘Hosanna’ from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa.
But wait, any true blue Mallu-music aficionado will know that there can be no discussion on Kerala’s music scene without the mention of Avial. This band, which was formed in the early years of the new millennium, was definitely the real game changer in a hitherto dormant industry. Last year, at an Avial concert in Mumbai, I was surrounded by a crowd, who knew each song, word for word. You will be surprised that not all of them were Malayalee. Yes, that’s how popular Avial still is. This is the band which fused Kerala’s folk and temple music with rock, and gave the land a kind of music they had never heard before. Avial really arrived with “Nada Nada”, which was their first track — it stayed on top of the charts for months.
Avial’s success did something unprecedented to the Kerala music scene. It paved the way for new bands. Suddenly there is rap, there is rock and there is hip-hop. But the traditional sounds of Kerala remain. Along with the chenda and the nadaswaram, there are sounds of the guitar and the saxophone. It’s probably the internet that is responsible for the spread of rock in Kerala. But there are dedicated music channels (such as Kappa TV and Rosebowl channel) which have played a huge part in popularising the form across the state. Today, there are at least 25 new bands — The Down Troddence, Thaikkudam Bridge, Masala Coffee, Down To Earth, Pathayam, Vidwan, Vethaalam, Azazeel, Kolam, Thakara, Oorali, Nattupolima to name a few — which have big fan bases and shows sold out days before they perform. What probably resonates with the locals is the heavy use of Malayalam terms and phrases, the rustic tunes of the place they actually belong to. The new age rockers dress ethnic too. Most of the band members usually wear colourful lungis or the traditional mundus with gold borders while they perform.
But satire still finds a place in the Kerala music industry. A few years ago, a cover of the 1965 Eagles classic, Hotel California was uploaded on Youtube. But the mallu “Hotel Keralafornia” by the “Yeagles” was no ordinary cover — a parody on all hotels in Kerala, the song went viral becoming a common topic of conversation over dinner across families in the region. “On the road to Trivandrum, Coconut oil in my hair, Warm smell of avial, Rising up through the air” brought a smile to many a nostalgic Malayalee from around the world.
Many bands also sing about politics and social matters. Rap songs about burning issues in the state starting from women empowerment to felling of trees find a place in the discography of these bands. They sing with passion, they sing of hope, of dreams, and at times, of food, too. Fish rock by Thaikkudam Bridge, Puttu paattu by Thakara and Katta Chaya by Vethaalam became instant hits. The trick, it seems, is to talk about simple things in simple terms — the best way to strike the right chord.
It is apparent that the music revolution of Kerala is well underway.
chenda: A cylindrical percussion instrument from Kerala.
nadaswaram: A double reed wind instrument.
lungi: A traditional checkered garment worn by men around the waist in Kerala. Usually worn at home.
mundu: Similar to the lungi, the mundu is a white garment also worn around the waist in Kerala. Usually worn when going out.