Ilaiyaraaja: Project “Then, Now & Forever” 2013

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

ilaiyaraaja sp bala s janaki old photo

A very young Ilaiyaraaja with the very talented SP Bala and S. Janaki in the early 1980s during a recording session. Image source: The Federal

As long I could remember, I have been listening to Ilaiyaraaja 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 a music instrument?) to his latest flick in “Neethane En Ponvasantham” – thanks to my Dad who was a big fan of Ilaiyaraaja (Ilaiyaraaja means the “younger” Raja – that is because the Tamil music industry already had another music director named Raja – the famed A.M. Raja).

Music During Childhood

Back in the 1980s-1990s, I still remember following my Dad to the music store to get Ilaiyaraaja 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 Ilaiyaraaja cassette.

I 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 in Ilaiyaraaja music as well (as a baby, he often need his Ilaiyaraaja music to go to sleep) and he can sing some of the songs really well.

Quality of Music Recording

And over the years, Ilaiyaraaja 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 favourites. 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 have rather stuck to the same track over and over again for days when I went down with chickenpox 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, Ilaiyaraaja 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). Ilaiyaraaja’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 favoured AR Rahman style of composing and thus it becomes the obvious choice when we are at the music store. But in the end, Ilaiyaraaja 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, Ilaiyaraaja’s Yuvan Shankar Raja, etc) dominating the Tamil music scene in the new millennium, we still had space for Ilaiyaraaja 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 them, it is still a piece of good music to listen especially if you are on a long journey somewhere (it still do even now).

Initial Compilation Effort

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 workplace to the bus station) on the weekends and my target would be old Ilaiyaraaja collections – preferably his great works from the 1970s and 1980s.

Dolby NR TDK Cassette Tape Ilaiyaraaja

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. The number of cassettes mounted at home (some years later, I threw away 2 boxes full 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 breathe 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 Ilaiyaraaja ’s concert. The man is simply great!)

More Serious Compilation Effort

At the advent of songs being played on MP3s (and I have an 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 Ilaiyaraaja.

ilaiyaraaja project music collection 1980s

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

I had several collections of Ilaiyaraaja – some with overlapping songs and taking up valuable storage space in my HDD (some converted from an audio CD into mp3 format for ease of storage). And sometimes I get to listen on the radio to some of his better hits but one which is not in my collection.

So, I started project “Ilaiyaraaja” with 2 objectives.

Objective No 1 – Reorganise Current Collection

To consolidate all the various collections in my HDD and my old dusty CDs into one proper collection titled “Ilaiyaraaja – Then, Now & Forever” (inspired by MSV’s TV show title) with the complete movie name, the song title and the year of the movie (and then add 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 00001.mp3 which does not give any clue on the details). Obviously, there were plenty of duplicates – those had to be taken care of, so it was time to delete those and keep only the better-sounded ones in the main collection.

Objective No 2 – Add Missing Classic Songs

To add new and missed songs into the collection. Ilaiyaraaja composed almost 4,500 songs and I am sure that I have not heard the 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 Ilaiyaraaja ‘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 stores had the next best thing – CDs packed with hundreds of MP3 files. This made searching more comprehensive without the need to 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 Ilaiyaraaja ’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 ongoing 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.

Rediscovering The Maestro

As I am updating my main collection and take the opportunity to listen to 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 – Ilaiyaraaja’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.

The 1970s & 1980s was the age of the analogues – 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 of 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 beautiful and with the clear sound of a 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 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. The 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 Ilaiyaraaja’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. Ilaiyaraaja, whilst he still has the energy and the drive (he is 70 years now), should go back to the studio, pick a load-full 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 Ilaiyaraaja die-hard fans out there.

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

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