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Heady music, literally!

Rs 55

Taal is a celebration of acoustic
percussion over the electronic drum kit

Subhash Ghai loves to make extravaganzas. He has now made a musical, starring Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai and Akshaye Khanna. A R Rahman is the music composer, and expectations naturally run high.

All music is made up of raag and taal. Raag, broadly speaking, is melody. Taal is rhythm. Raag means colour; it also means love. If raag is feeling, taal is intelligence, logic. Raag is the heart, and taal the head.

Rahman is stronger on taal than on raag. In many songs, like his wildly successful Mukkala Muqabla, he builds up his interludes with just percussion and no instrumental melody. His inventive sense of rhythm carries his songs through even when his melodies are weak. No composer but Rahman would have suited better a film called Taal

Side A opens with Ishq bina by Anuradha Sriram, who has been singing a lot in the south. She has trained in India and the US, in genres as varied as Karnatak music and opera. Here she sounds a little high-pitched; the recordist has emphasised the higher frequencies and makes her sound very sibilant too. A stylish bass guitar, played with bhajan-style cymbals, keeps time, and is supplemented by clapping hands when the qawwali-style phrases begin. Rahman's voice fades in and out with a bare melody:

Ishq bina kya jeena yaaron,
ishq bina kya marna yaaron

(What's life without love,
what's death without love!)

Qawwalis in our films are usually ornate, rendered by trained and flexible voices, but Rahman takes away all the filigree from this genre and makes it appear sparse. Of course he can't, like a Rafi or a Manna Dey, negotiate very subtle inflexions with his voice. If you remember, he made a similar qawwali-style song in Bombay: Kehna hai kya. Sujatha opens the faster, Side B version of Ishq bina, accompanied by a tabla. Soon it acquires a techno-orientation. A male chorus enters. Arabian-style violin flourishes, heard so much in Humma humma, play on pounding drums. After noisy excursions, it ends in a chant-like climax.

Taal se taal mila is an old-fashioned melody, sitting on an attractive, jiggling pattern which gets its accents from the sounds of the earthen pot and other folk instruments. It's the song we liked best.

Alka Yagnik sounds a bit strained in the higher reaches. Side B features what is called its Western version. A loud bass guitar makes it sound like a dance remix, somewhat like what Babla used to do. Also reminds you of those dreadful disco dandia tunes. Rahman's got there before the remixers, and he's not half as bad!

Nahin saamne tu is a soft tune, sung by Hariharan and Sukhwindara. It relies on a heavy chorus-backed melody, a style made popular by Hollywood blockbusters, most recently by Titanic. The violins race upwards on the sustained voices, and the drums and brass ensemble break in, building up a sense of tremendous anticipation.

Kahin aag lage is as unsatisfactory and monotonous as Hulla gulla from Bombay, with voices going off every which way they please, and Asha Bhosle comes in as if to salvage it. With little success, though.

Sukhwindara and Richa shine in Ni main samajh gaya. The orchestra again sticks to folk rhythms and the sound of cart bells. But why does it sound so much like Chaiyya chaiyya?

Ramta Jogi, like Ni main samajh gaya, draws on a folk dialect, and adds to Hindi cinema's repertoire of drunkard songs. With temple bells and cymbals, it tries to approach the music of the mendicants. Sophisticated trumpets and ryhthm patterns enrich the texture of the orchestra. Funky stuff. Sukhwindara and Alka Yagnik are excellent. Russian folk-style voices and a banjo form the second interlude. Shades of Chaiyya chaiyya again.

Beat of Passion is a short African-style drum passage. Kariye na, sung by Sukhwindara and Alka, starts off like a mountain air. Deep, authentic drum sounds add to the decidedly village-fair atmosphere. Sukhwindara sings Nusrat-style sargams on the last refrain, with shades of raga Bhinna Shadaj.

Raga dance opens with a flourish of symphonic violins, then quietens down to Puriya Dhanasri, a raga he used in Rangeela too (Yeh rama yeh kya hua). Again the orchestra hit, and the brass ensemble return. Stylish work.

The catchiness of Gulzar's Chaiyya chaiyya perhaps prompted Anand Bakshi to experiment with non-textbook Hindi.

Rahman is more flamboyantly imaginative than most Hindi film music composers. He brashly puts together the most disparate styles: no other recent Hindi film has used such a vast variety of drums and beats: we hear the tabla, cymbals, temple bells, earthen pots, wooden blocks, dholaks, tambourines, and scores of other instruments drawn from India's diverse folk wealth. Inder and Ashraf Shaukat, who play Indian percussion, deserve full praise. Shivamani, the drum wizard, has contributed what the inlay card calls "creative percussion input".

Taal is a celebration of acoustic percussion over the electronic drum kit. Thanks, Rahman, for that. Wish you'd make more natural music, with acoustic instruments rather than synthesized ones. You've given us a lot of taal, now give us some raag.

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