Go ahead… break the language barrier with music!

I speak 3 languages fluently – Tamil, English, and Hindi. I can understand bits of Kannada and Malayalam reasonably well, and understand Telugu even lesser. But, if you put me in an autorickshaw in Hyderabad, Bengaluru or Kochi, I can assure you that I can discuss (in English or another broken language) with the driver about the hottest songs in the language of the state.

I have stunned many Uber drivers with my discussion on the Kannada songs they have played while not speaking a word of Kannada with them (discussion in English, Hindi and sometimes Tamil). I have also recommended songs they should listen to if they liked a certain song!

Thanks to Milliblog… yeah, my own music blog that I have been running since 2005.

I have always been fascinated with languages – not the learning a new language part, but the pop culture of those languages. My interest has always been around the ethos and expressions of the language more than the grammar or basic knowledge of those languages.

I found a way to indulge in this esoteric interest via music. In a way, the music website that I used to manage that predates Milliblog – ItwoFS – was an expression of that interest too. I used to love the world music sources that our Indian composers lifted from and loved listening to all those alien (to me) language music.

With Milliblog, I decided to sink myself into Indian languages, via film music.
The idea was simple – I love music.
I have a voracious appetite for new music.
I wanted to be on top of music from all states in India.
I was looking for curators who can help me with that without language as a barrier.
But there was not a single language-agnostic music curator in India.
So, I became one myself.

Through language-agnostic music reviews, I started taking that role seriously because it primarily helped me find what to listen to. On average, there are about 5-10 new soundtracks released across India, across languages. That’s easily 35-40 songs per week, including non-film ‘pop’ music. So, it sure needs a curator to help me with ‘what do I listen to?’.

After 12 years of using music reviews as an expression to curate, I pivoted to playlists as a way to curate (though I was doing it with my monthly lists earlier, they didn’t translate into single playlists for a long time) starting 2018. I do this mainly for myself. This is how I find what to listen to. And I use it in a very normal, everyman way – I would like to listen to something 2-3 days of the week during my drives and in the background at work.

Considering I do not understand what they are singing in about 70% of a weekly playlist, it gets even more interesting. I have heard people balk at me for listening to music in a language I do not understand. People have argued with me extensively (and angrily) that I’m ignoring an integral part of the music – meaning – while consuming such music. And that it’s massively unfair to lyricists. I do not deny any of that, but what can I do if (a) I do not know those languages or have time/inclination to learn them and (b) I relate to music and other languages at a ‘sound’ level, more than the meaning level?

There it is! Sound-level is my way to define my interest in music and languages. To me, music is beyond boundaries – music has no language. I have believed that I was either a Spaniard or a Telugu speaking person in my previous birth, given my massive interest and love for both languages (besides Tamil and English, of course), though I have heard more Tamilians make fun of Telugu than appreciate it (despite Bharathiyar offering, ‘Sundhara Telunginil paatisaippom’ in his famous ‘Sindhu nadhiyin misai’ poem).

Almost every mainstream music curation effort in India is language-specific, across TV, digital medium, radio etc. It’s almost like we shut ourselves to one language consciously and refuse to explore unknown languages however enjoyable they may be, at a sound-level! Very few songs break the language barrier and go places – ‘Lajjavathiye’ was one, in the last decade. Gilli’s Appadi podu was a good example too. Then, ‘Jimikki kammal’ in 2017. But the recent Oru Adaar Love’s Malayalam song ‘Maanikya Malaraya Poovi’ crossed borders because of Priya Varrier’s wink, more than the song or the sound. But many Hindi songs have crossed into the South and have become songs that people sung in their heads by not understanding a single word – mainly because Hindi films enjoyed better exposure across the country.

So, if you are reading this, give other (than your own) Indian languages a chance. Start with their film music. At least in the ones that have a reasonably well-established film industry, there are many songs that are so worth your time and span an incredible range of genres. At present, I track new film music in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, primarily. A bit of Punjabi and Marathi too, at times. I haven’t found myself actively tracking Bengali film music yet (more because whatever I sampled didn’t appeal to me at one point and I lost interest ever since).

You can start with my weekly new music playlists. I create them on Saavn and Apple Music because those are the 2 services I pay for and have subscribed to. Plus, they are, in my opinion, truly exhaustive when it comes to pan-Indian music. I added YouTube recently for playlist-creation because not everybody has a paid subscription to either Saavn or Apple Music, and many new songs are first uploaded on YouTube by record labels anyway.

To help you appreciate the songs a little more, I also write a small (tweet-sized) note on each song in the playlist. The weekly playlists are updated every Sunday and it’s already been 15 weeks since I started curating them.

Take this week’s playlist for instance. This the 15th weekly playlist and has 18 songs. I love the range and this is a great example of a language-agnostic new music playlist that spans so many varieties of music.

  • Heer, by debutant Ved Sharma, from Madhya Pradesh, is a nice Punjabi/Hindi pop ditty.
    Sofi Tukker and Meghan Trainor’s singles are fantastic dance songs that can lift your mood anytime!
  • Edhuvarayo is a superb showcase of what Tamil composer Anirudh is capable of – highly engaging melodies with several intricate layers.
  • Composer Achu’s Tamil song Pondattee is a highly rhythmic ode to the ‘wife’ (Pondattee meaning wife in Tamil – one of the perks of knowing Tamil!), while composer Santhosh Narayanan’s Karuppi is a mighty intriguing R&B ode to a dead black dog – it’s almost an elegy of sorts; Tamil culture’s musical elegy form is called ‘Oppaari’ (the old lady’s voice lamenting the dead dog, towards the end, is real oppaari, by the way).
  • Rangamma Mangamma, Kala Kala Kalamandhir and Pedda Puli are true-blue Telugu masala kuthu songs – the first one is more authentic Telugu folk, while the last 2 are incredibly catchy masala songs.
  • Vanolam is the Malayalam equivalent – punchy and catchy Malayalam folk’ish music, while Naadotukku literally starts with the sounds of a bus travel in Kerala and brings to mind the lush green interiors of the state in Job Kurian’s (one of my favorite Malayalam composer/singer) excellent vocals.
  • Then there are 2 songs from the new Kannada film Trunk – it has music by a trio (debutants) and the music sounds very promising.
  • I close the week’s playlist with 4 songs from Moby’s brand new album – my favorite 4 from the 12-song album that released on March 2nd.

How to follow my language-agnostic weekly new music playlists?

The best way to do it is,

  1. Subscribe to Milliblog’s weekly email – you get just one email, every Sunday, with the per-song notes and the 3-platform playlist links. No spam *at all*.
  2. Visit this website on Sunday evening.

This week’s playlist is here, for your listening pleasure!