Soft Spot for Old Songs


(One of many great songs from movies starring the legendary MGR. One that stands out is this lyric – “Milk is white, so is the toddy but the truth is only know once I had drink it. Women is the same and I am feeling drunken from her”)

(Kannadasan is brilliant as usual – only a poet like him can think of these words – “the cupid got cheated, thinking all girls are like flowers” which nails the situation in the movie)

No matter where you are right now, no matter how old you are, I am sure you always have your favorite songs that you don’t mind humming the whole day long.

Same goes for me. Despite “starting off” with the music of Illayaraja and later discovering the new age music of A R Rahman and then Yuvan Shankar Raja, Harris and all the new music directors, I always had soft spot for the music from the 1960s and 1970s in particular songs composed by MS Viswanathan – Ramamoorthy and penned by the great poet Kannadasan (I also liked songs composed by KV Mahadevan and AM Raja).

I like old songs for 3 reasons:-

1. It brings back memories from my childhood time. Songs from MGR and Sivaji movies composed by MS Viswanathan were still played as the mainstream songs when I am still an infant. The same songs played during weddings and family functions and it is something that triggers good memories whenever I hear the same songs.

2. The songs itself. Back those days and before the digital age, it is not easy to compose and record the songs and the songs must meet the high expectations of a very demanding directors, producers and audience.

No high tech gadgets to tune the music and composition and the only way to go would be to do things old school – proper orchestrate (instead of music software) and the singers getting the words and tunes just right. MS Viswanathan once told he once worked with a famous director who will drop by the recording studio just to make sure that the singers get the pronunciation of words just right.

3. The lyrics. In those days, every words has a beautiful meaning and it is something to look out for. Who can forget lyrics like “don’t sharpen your knife but sharpen your mind” or “From the neck of Lord Shiva, the snake asked the garuda if it is feeling good and the garuda who will fight & kill snakes replied that if everyone stays at their right place, all will end in an good ending”?

Very deep meaning indeed. Don’t get me wrong, it is not like the new songs has very bad lyrics – quite a number of the songs do have the same beautiful lyrics that one had heard back in the 1960s but sometimes some of it simply get lost within the music.

They say old is gold and the same goes to old songs. It is also ageless too. I just wish someone will compile again all the old songs and re-record them so that tunes that is lost by old technology and analog dust in the past is preserved in pristine condition and made available for the next generation of music lovers.

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Project “Then, Now & Forever”


Western classical music is perspective – look at the number of people involved in a symphony! Our traditional music is lonely – Ilaiyaraja

Ilayaraja-Wallpaper

(My collection cover image – the image of Maestro Ilaiyaraja. Image source: http://www.tamilkey.com)

As long I could remember, I have been listening to Ilaiyaraja music since I was still young and started to have an appreciation of his style of music – all the way from the 1970s (you are aware that Annakili was not his first movie and that he had to impress the producer Panchu Arunachalam by singing a song that his mother sang and using the table as an music instrument?) to his latest flick in “Neethane En Ponvasantham” – thanks to my Dad who was big fan of Ilaiyaraja (Ilaiyaraja means the “younger” Raja – that is because the Tamil music industry already had another music director named Raja – the famed A.M. Raja).

Back in the 1980s-1990s, I still remember following my Dad to the music store to get Ilaiyaraja latest songs (still remember Alai Osai brand back then?) and the number of cassettes at home started to pile up. Sometimes when he comes back home late and tired, he would ask us to check his pocket and we would find a cassette size package neatly wrapped and immediately we know it would be an Ilaiyaraja cassette. Me and my brother would be key testers – we would play the cassette as my Dad goes off to take his shower (he usually buys it without hearing the content of the soundtrack). After dinner, he would then sit down and listen to the songs without any disturbance and we would be hearing it again for the 2nd round. Now my son is picking up his interest on Ilaiyaraja music as well (as a baby, he often need his Ilaiyaraja music to go to sleep) and he can sing some of the songs really well.

And over the years, Ilaiyaraja has made a good impression on me with his music (especially when I had my Walk-man on and I was doing my revisions) and I have my personal favorites. But out of the many, I went rather crazy on the soundtrack of “Keladi Kanmani” and in particular on SP Bala’s “Mannil Intha”. And I was rather stuck to the same track over and over again for days when I went down with chicken pox and had to be confined to the bedroom. Somehow I felt my recovery was improved by the good music from the great Maestro. At the turn of the new millennium, Ilaiyaraja somehow took a back seat as most of us (including me) started to listen to the emerging new style music coming from South of India – in the form of AR Rahman (but not my Dad – he could not understand AR Rahman to this day). Ilaiyaraja’s style of putting a “break” before the chorus was somewhat tolerable until AR Rahman showed that the music was even better without the break in the middle. The use of CDs instead of cassettes and quality of music recording favored AR Rahman style of composing and thus it becomes the obvious choice when we are at the music store. But in the end Ilaiyaraja had the last laugh when he hit back with a bang in 2012 with Neethane En Ponvasantham and some people could not believe that it is from the same man.

But even with other new music directors (Deva, AR Rahman, Vidyasagar, Vijay Anthony, Harris Jayaraj, Ilaiyaraja’s Yuvan Shankar Raja, etc) dominating the Tamil music scene in the new millennium, we still had space for Ilaiyaraja music (he was humbled enough to join forces with the great MSV to compose for two movies) . Somehow there are situations in a day when an old school tabla sounds better than a loud modern drum. It sounds peaceful too. And of course, some of the older hits are gems – no matter when and where you hear then, it is still a good music to listen especially if you are on a long journey somewhere (it still do even now).

When I started to work after finishing school and had some money to spare, I often head to music store at Lebuh Ampang (which was on the way from work place to the bus station) on the weekends and my target would be old Ilaiyaraja collections – preferably his great works from the 1970s and 1980s. But unfortunately the music store has a dirty trick up their sleeve – they put a couple of good songs at the front but leaving the balance filled up with not-so-good songs (the cassette jacket lists the songs but unless you have heard of it and well aware of the quality, the list would not make any much difference). The idea was to sell more cassettes. As one would say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I will pick one and ask the shop assistant to “test” the cassette. In other words, I wanted him to play the cassette before I buy it, just to be sure. So when one is “testing” the cassette, you will only hear the good ones and you will think the rest would as good as the first song. You will know that it is not the case after you have paid for the cassette and listen to the complete cassette at home. What to do, I was young and easily trusted people. Number of cassettes mounted at home (some years later, I threw away 2 boxes of cassettes). There was a blessing in disguise though – I managed to consolidate a proper list (from all these cassettes) and got them recorded on a high quality TDK cassette (at the same music store).

(SP Bala in the movie Keladi Kanmani singing off lyrics “found on his food wrapper” without pausing to breath during the chorus – a feat he said he did not do in the actual recording at the studio but managed to do when singing the same song in front of a large crowd during one of Ilaiyaraja ’s concert. The man is simply great!)

At the advent of songs being played on MP3s (and I have a MP3 player in the car and I no longer use CDs), it was time to relook into my collections of songs and in particular one from Ilaiyaraja. I had several collections of Ilaiyaraja – some with overlapping songs and taking up valuable storage space in my HDD (some converted from audio CD into mp3 format for ease of storage). And sometimes I get to listen on the radio some of his better hits but one which is not in my collection. So, I started project “Ilaiyaraja” with 2 objectives.

One: To consolidate all the various collections in my HDD and my old dusty CDs into one proper collection titled “Ilaiyaraja – Then, Now & Forever” (inspired by MSV’s TV show title) with the complete movie name, the song title and the year of movie (couple that with a proper track cover image). For this, I used the mp3 tag editor, mp3tag (freeware) which does the trick rather beautifully. It took some time to do the “research” to get some of the movie names for some of the songs in my collection (some was previously titled as 00001.mp3 which does not give any clue on the details). Obviously there were plenty of duplicates – those had to be taken care, so it was time to delete those and keep only the better sounded ones in the main collection.

Two: To add new and missed songs into the collection. Ilaiyaraja composed almost 4,500 songs and I am sure that I have not heard whole of them especially from those movies that we have not heard of (one was this – Magudam where I found one of the best 1990s song – Chinna Kanna Punnagai Manna). Whenever I head to the music stores to check if they have come up with a proper Ilaiyaraja ‘evergreen’ collection, I was quite disappointed. Most “re-use” the usual famous songs (like Mouna Ragam’s Nilave Vaa). I already had them in my collections years ago. Some of the music store had the next best thing – CDs packed with hundreds MP3 files. This made searching more comprehensive without the need burn a big hole in the pocket. But at the end of the day, it was the Internet that made things easier to do “research” (especially at the various forums) on Ilaiyaraja ’s best songs and the background story behind the said song and then watch the songs on Youtube or listen & download the songs at the various Tamil entertainment websites. This would be an on-going process as I discover more songs that should be in everyone’s collection but one that does not get the right air-time on the radio or TV.

As I am updating my main collection and take the opportunity to listen all of the songs in my old collections (some I have not heard in years) and selecting them to be in the main collection, I realized one thing – Ilaiyaraja’s best songs did not come from the 1970s or 1980s. His best songs actually came in the 1990s and it was not because the older composition itself was bad. It was not – the problem was more on the quality of studio recording. 1970s & 1980s was the age of the analogs – cassettes and vinyl records and it was the same at the recording studios where it was done using magnetic tapes.

The sound quality degenerates even lower as the recording is done and then copied for the masses. One good example was the song Janani Janani from the movie Thai Mookaambigai in 1982. If you listen to the original track, it was bad (you can hardly hear the tabla & venna in the background) and you would discard it after a few seconds listening to them. But the same song was sung by the Maestro at the start of his comeback concerts in 2012, the song simply “melted” me away. It was a beautiful and with the clear sound of venna in the middle (I even thought it was an electric venna), it worth listening to it over and over again. His 2012 concert was also the event that made me to stop and take note that even his 1970s compositions once replayed with the latest instruments sounded better.

But fast forward to the 1990s when most things are done digitally – the quality of recording and to the masses did not see the same level of degeneration. Sounds of the tablas were clearer, vennas were crispier, the playback singers’ voice was soother and you can even hear the “silent” violins in the back. And that has been the focus of my collection of Ilaiyaraja’s songs – well composed songs and one that has been recorded digitally to be my permanent choice for my car on long journeys. His compositions on Neethane En Ponvasantham in 2012 (all done with help from a full orchestra from Budapest) were simply technically brilliant but here’s what I think the Maestro should do as his next big thing. Ilaiyaraja, whilst he still have the energy and the drive (he is 70 years now), should go back to the studio, pick a load-ful of his older 1970s and 1980s songs (all short-listed by his fans, of course) and re-record them in digital with special care given on the individual instruments (as how it was done on Neethane En Ponvasantham and perhaps roping in his famed music director son Yuvan Shankar Raja as his technical consultant). Once done, he should release them as his best works spanning over almost 4 decades. After all, there is no shortage of Ilaiyaraja die-hard fans out there.

Happy holidays and take some time off to enjoy the music during the long break…

Seeing Double


(Perhaps this is just the distraction that one needs from the National Feedlot screw-up by yet to be retired BN politicians)

Still remember when you were young and you used (and still) watch those old Tamil movies where the star actor acts in more than one role (usually playing the role of the father & son or the good & evil brothers)?

(Seeing Sivaji Ganesan in action is one thing but seeing the two of them could be a double whammy. Both interacted well on screen but still there are some limitations as to how both characters blended in on screen. Image source: Business Line)

When both roles is shown on the same scene, one character would be on one side of the frame whilst the other character on the other. The only time when these two characters overlapped each other is when one of the characters is played by someone else (it will be shown without showing the face). It was good and highlighted the difficulties that the actors, director and editor have to go through to ensure that that particular scene comes out just perfect.

Even so, seeing the same person on two different roles at the same time in a movie was a big thing back then and we knew that it was not easy to do. Just imagine the number of takes just to get the actor acting as if there was another of “him” standing next to him and the film editors cutting and stitching the film rolls at the right places.

But those were the years when technology has yet to catch up with the art of story telling.

It is a whole different ball game now and we have seen it in great deal in special effect laden Hollywood movies and they seems to be getting better at it year in, year out. Tamil movies have seen some improvement when it comes to CGIs as well. We saw a great deal in Dasavatharam (where Kamal Hassan played 10 different roles and interacting with each of them at some point of the movie), Enthiran (ya, the stupid climax) and recently Shah Rukh Khan‘s Ra.One (the storyline sucked big time but the CGI is top notch).

Now with computer animations, blue screens (green screens as the above) and well choreographed acting, the result is simply amazing. You can have more than one characters on the screen played by the same actor and they blend and interact with each other as if they are played by different actors.

Take for example this song scene from the movie Thillalangadi (2010) where the hero and the heroin is shown in different roles and interacting with each other in a very fluid manner (it makes it even better with Yuvan Shankar Raja‘s lovable music, very meaningful lyrics and well coordinated choreography).

Now that that is mind-blowing! Add that with a clean, logical story-telling, superb background music and fine acting and you will have a real winner.

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