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Song Story #2: Kaithola
by Melody Walker
While attending college in 2007, I wrote a grant which allowed me to travel to Kerala, India to study music for one month. I wanted to learn the South Indian or "Carnatic" style of classical singing, as well as the centuries-old rhythms and scales that were so different from the Western theory I was learning at music school. I was also determined to find out what their traditional "folk" songs sounded like, as it was almost impossible to learn or even hear that music here in the States.
Kerala is on the west coast of India's deep south. It is a verdant jungle and quite swampy in the monsoon season. Outside the big cities, the people are old-fashioned and the men mostly go shirtless wearing nothing but the towel-like "mundu" wrapped around their waists. While the state of Kerala has the largest Christian population in India, there are Hindus and also echoes of an even older animistic tradition which includes snake worship.
The famous "snakeboat races" feature rowing songs that everyone seems to know their own version of. Here is one version sung by the staff of the cultural center I was staying at in Aranmula village:
After 40+ hours of air travel, my first exposure to South Indian folk music came over the airwaves in my barefoot chauffer's car on the three hour drive from the airport in Cochi to the Vijnana Kala Vedi cultural center Aranmula village. Though he spoke very little English and drove like a veritable maniac, I considered him my first interview subject in India and started quizzing him about the music that was playing on the radio.
It sounded like Bollywood pop to my ears, so I asked him: "Bollywood?"
"No," he replied, "nadan pattu...ah (searches for English words)... folk music."
I was stunned, and intrigued. I thought that I was going to have to find old folks in the village to ever hear these songs, but there they were, right on the radio, presented with all the dignity of Britney Spears. From the rest of our conversation I gathered that old Indian folk songs had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, but had sort of gone the way of pop country music in America; ultra-cheesy production, twangy singers and dance videos were all now remixed with these very old songs in a combo that appealed widely to the rural poor and working class of Kerala. Part of this also has to do with the state's pride in it's own unique (and dwindling) language: Malayalam. Most of my musical studies at the cultural center would be sung in sanskrit (the language of the Vedas), but I decided I would like to learn a Malayalam folk song before my trip was through.
Luckily, an opportunity came to go see a folk band sing at a local community hall (pictured right). I was happy to find a more traditional treatment of the old songs. Deafening festival-style percussion accompanied a lead singer and chorus of about seven guys. All the songs featured call and response and were in simple 4/4 or 6/8 meter that usually sped up to the finish.
I was just about the only person in the audience, in the middle of the day in a huge booming hall, so I threw in some earplugs, turned on my mini-disc recorder and started scrawling notes. Sadly, my field recordings from that day were lost, but I managed to talk to the band after their concert and got them to teach me a song. I took that song, "Kaithola", to my Indian classical voice teacher at the cultural center, and he helped me with translation and pronunciation.
A while after I returned from India, I recorded "Kaithola" into my webcam so I would remember it. Then I decided to throw it up on YouTube to share with a few friends and maybe find out more about the song from people searching for it. The next time I logged into YouTube it came up as my most watched video, with a few thousand views and 30 or 40 positive comments. In the summer of 2010 someone left a comment that my clip had been used in a Malayalam political satire show and that I was "famous all over Kerala". Here is my original video (though there are copied versions now floating around on YouTube):
The song is a story about an anxious young girl who is putting off her ear-piercing ceremony. Here is the translation of the whole song, as told to me by my Indian voice teacher:
Here is the political satire show "Politrics" that my clip was used in. I was a little scared at first that perhaps i would be made fun of for my horrible pronunciation, but it turned out to be quite the opposite: the segment cuts between my song and video of their health minister's horrible english, basically saying that Americans are learning Malayalam to try to understand her (clip starts at 3:30):
Because they saw this clip, a folk-fusion prog-rock band out of Trivandrum, Kerala decided to arrange the song and use my original video's audio in their recording. They are called Vidwan, and they are a group of 20-something musicians trying to preserve their native language and folk music in a more modern medium. We have talked quite a bit on facebook, and they say that hard rock is what is popular with the youth and it's what they love to play, but they also take great pride in their state's rich cultural heritage and want to participate in it. The end result is beautiful. You can check out their "Kaithola" remix track here: Kaithola.mp3
As the above recording uses only my original audio, we've been collaborating on a re-recording of this beautiful song and it will be included on their upcoming first full length album. They are great musicians and I cannot wait to see what other collaborations we can cook up. Thanks internet!
Check out Vidwan here: http://www.reverbnation.com/vidwan
and "Like" their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/vidwanfolk