Ladies and gentlemen, it’s official now. No longer is it considered uncool for an Indian rock band to sing songs in Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and other assorted regional languages. Last year saw a couple of fantastic albums in that vein: Avial blew everyone away with what they call “Malayali alternative rock”. Then there was Raghu Dixit who won hearts within the country and beyond its borders with his debut album of songs in Hindi, English and Kannada. 2009 started off with another great release – the debut album by Swarathma, which is fronted by Raghu Dixit’s younger brother, Vasu.
The Bengaluru-based sextet (with Dixit on vocals and rhythm guitars, Pavan Kumar on percussions and backing vocals, Jishnu Dasgupta on bass and backing vocals, Varun on guitars and backing vocals, Montry Manuel on drums and Sanjeev Nayak on violins) had, earlier in 2008, won Radio City Live, a competition for Hindi-singing rock bands in the country. And it was this very win that got them a record deal with music major EMI/Virgin. The result is Swarathma, a collection of eight tracks that will have you moving in no time at all. Produced by Indian Ocean drummer Amit Kilam, this has to be one of the best albums by any Indian band. (Swarathma, as a band, look up to Indian Ocean, almost to the point of worship. “Whoaaa! Indian Ocean!! They’re out there; they’re our gods,” says Dasgupta.)
The album-opener, “Jaana Kahan Hai Mujhe”, kicks off with an acoustic guitar strumming a crisp rhythm that will have you tapping your foot. Then suddenly Vasu Dixit’s earthy voice comes in, followed by a bottom-heavy bassline. And you are hooked! While it’s a difficult proposition, if I had to pick one song that would be the essential Swarathma song, it would have to be “Jaana Kahan Hai Mujhe”, with each of the six guys really shining through on their duties, both individual and collective. Incidentally, this song has just won them a Best Song nomination at the annual Jack Daniel’s Indian Rock Awards.
From there on, it’s one sparkling song after another in quick succession. “Pyaar Ke Rang”, is a faux-Bhojpuri track that features Nayak doing ektara lines on his electric violin and one that morphs into a swaying reggae jam intermittently. It also happens to be the track that, during live performances, sees Dixit coming onto stage wearing one of those colourful horses often seen in traditional stageshows.
The rest of the album is peppered with gems like “Patte Saare” (with guitarist Varun displaying his rock/metal influences), “Sur Mera” (with the chorus seeing all vocalists coming together for some great harmonising), and “Bolo Kya Hai” (a out-and-out rocker).
Swarathma is solid proof that Indian rock is truly coming of age, with bands not shying away from showcasing their roots, in a template that will appeal globally. When the year kicks off with an album of such quality, it can only be a happy new year.
© Bobin James/Rolling Stone India, 2009