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Chennai Band La Pongal Is A Hit At M.A.D. Fest

Band conquer audience with a feisty blend of Tamil folk and contemporary rock

Lalitha Suhasini May 17, 2012
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La Pongal's Vijay (left) and Siva (Photo: Priyadarshini Ravichandran)

For a mid-afternoon set when the sun was at its harshest, the adrenaline levels on the open stage were incredible. A man dressed in flaming orange with the scruffy demeanor of a street performer began calling out to the audience in Tamil in a booming, nasal voice that would have been an invaluable addition to an Indian political rally. The audience that would much rather sprawl around inside the pine alcove nearby moved close to the stage.

The riot of color on stage – besides orange, there was peacock blue and sunny yellow all around – was also hard to ignore. A nadaswaram (a South Indian horn) player, a row of percussionists, a drummer, a bassist, a lead guitarist and two vocalists that made up Chennai band La Pongal had the daunting responsibility of being the opening act on day two of the M.A.D. festival held in Ooty last month.

When the band launched into traditional Tamil folk songs that had been turned into a thoroughly entertaining hybrid of folk rock, the crowd cheered with wolf whistles and broke into street dance moves that furiously picked up pace. One of the reasons why La Pongal’s sound wasn’t remotely insular was its rhythm – stomping, marching and sometimes even drifting gently by way of a rhythm guitar lead or cowbells keeping beat, but always driving the song. Darbuka Siva (who was terribly secretive about his real name), a multi percussionist and La Pongal’s founder has crafted the sound such that virtually any instrument including the nadaswaram would fit right into the rhythm section.

On stage, Siva discreetly directed the sound and performance besides introducing the songs. When 36-year-old Anthony Daasan, the gun throated-vocalist in orange, had little to do during a frenzied instrumental interlude, Siva suggested that he headbang. The effect was instant and the crowd was in splits. Between songs, Daasan, the star of the show, cracked a series of self-deprecatory jokes in Tamil that were also a hit with the audience and his vocals perfectly offset co-singer Pradeep Vijay’s.“Will I sing the female’s lines in the next song too?” joked Vijay as the two sang a duet “Koopitadhu Kuthamila”, where the man is wooing his woman to marry him.

“I think guys in the South have nothing else to do – we keep writing these songs about falling in love and having fun,” said Siva before introducing “Naan Dhaan Veeran”, a traditional song that is usually sung during a kabbadi competition. After making the crowd do its bidding, La Pongal could have easily stretched their set from an hour to two and the audience would have remained rooted to spot.

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Backstage, Siva turned production manager ensuring that the band’s food and travel arrangements were taken care of and copies of La Pongal’s debut album were available at a stall at the fest before settling down for an interview. An eager polymath, Siva, who set up La Pongal in 2009, has contributed to every aspect of the band right from album artwork to sound production to artist management.

South Indian Park: Chennai's La Pongal at M.A.D fest (Photo: Lalitha Suhasini)

In 2007, ahead of forming La Pongal, Siva also set up Yodhakaa, a Carnatic fusion band with vocalist Vijay. “I met Siva in 2005 when I was working on a solo album. The idea of folk music came up and Siva asked me if I could play the guitar on one song and produce a couple of songs. I ended up becoming a part of La Pongal,” remembered Vijay. Said Siva of Vijay, “He’s a very fluid musician. He’s a proper, traditional kutcheri (classical) musician, but understands the folk form well.” This is entirely accurate because there’s no hint of Vijay’s classical training when he performs with La Pongal – it’s the raw, open-chested vocal style of folk singers that he brings to the band.

Siva has had plenty of experience balancing more than one band. The percussionist’s artistic ambitions had led to him being part of several bands including The Raghu Dixit Project when it was formed in 2007 and Dixit has been an unabashed fan of Siva and La Pongal since. “At one point, I was freelancing for 12-15 bands,” said Siva, who first began playing with the experimental Baul music band Oikyotaan, “With Oikyotaan, I learnt how to handle traditional music without distorting the whole aesthetic of it. I learnt how you can keep your format com- pletely open allowing completely different musicians and styles to come together.” Siva also had the scope to expand his musical skills, picking up instruments such as the darbuka, the Middle Eastern hand drum that earned him his moniker, and the cajon, the Peruvian percussion box, for the first time. “I had a drum set that was 40 percent drum kit and 60 percent percussion instruments. I don’t think I would have been able to do that with any other band – no one else was ready for that kind of sound then,” added Siva.

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A self-taught musician with “no access to pop or rock,” Siva was drawn to Tamil folk music early. “I could always relate to folk music more than classical. I believe that folk is the root of all other music. I feel at home when I perform folk music,” said Siva who, like most South Indian kids, was first exposed to folk through the film music scores of composer Illayaraja. “In my head, I was a musician since the start. I spent more time at sound checks and music stores than in college,” said Siva, who regards world musicians such as Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, Cheb Mami and Khaled among others as influences. “I like to derive musical expressions from other forms of art such as painting and film too,” said Siva, who eventually dropped out of college for a career in music when he was in his twenties.

Siva met several folk musicians including Daasan at a folk music festival called Chennai Sangamam in 2007. “Anthony trusted me blindly and was willing to come on board for La Pongal even though he didn’t really know which direction the band would take,” recalled Siva, who began making trips to villages in Tamil Nadu to research folk music. Siva and Vijay put together the songs, often referring to a collection of folk songs compiled by N. Vanamamalai, a folklorist from Tamil Nadu. While some songs were freshly composed, songs such as the traditional harvest song “Vandiyila Nellu Varum” were adapted to fit the La Pongal mould. While Siva and Vijay are constants in La Pongal, Daasan joins them when he isn’t touring with his own folk music troupe, and Siva invites folk percussionists from various parts of Tamil Nadu when budgets permit.

Some new fans of the band who passed us by, interrupted the interview with praise for La Pongal. “I’m always nervous before a show,” Siva said. The show at M.A.D. festival, he said, was no different from La Pongal’s first show in 2009 where the band brought the roof down at Chennai’s YMCA. “Eventually, I want to tour interior Tamil Nadu. It’s like giving something back to my people,” said Siva, unafraid of the idea of purists not taking too well to La Pongal. “Maybe they will accept it 50 years later, but this had to happen,” he said.

Check out this video of La Pongal’s performance at the M.A.D festival:

Video: Lalitha Suhasini

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