Catch the carnatic hip hop wave, fueled by the rise of virtual spaces, and tune in to mridangam, ghatam and kanjira
In the musical world, Scarborough conjures up images of Simon, Garfunkel and these four most melodious herbs. Across the Atlantic Ocean, its lesser-known namesake, a Toronto neighborhood known for its confluence of Asian cultures, inspires a serenade in Tamil music producer Yanchan’s new EP, Scarborough Beat Band.
With 10 instrumental tracks, Yanchan immerses the hyperlocal details of his Canadian hometown into a decidedly Tamil flavor – through the soundscape of mridangam and freestyle ghatam.
Considered a traditionally Carnatic instrument, the mridangam has a point in hip hop and rap. What we see then is an alchemy between a genre that has historically sought to rebel against the establishment and one that is truly the establishment.
Carnatic hip hop has found an audience in the Indian diaspora in the United States, Canada, Singapore, and Malaysia. Yanchan’s work in this genre is best demonstrated in the Mrithangam Raps series, in collaboration with Canadian Tamil rapper Shan Vincent De Paul.
âI grew up with a foundation in Carnatic music. Until high school, that was all I listened to. When I was 13, I lived in Chennai for three months to learn mridangam from my guru, Neyveli B Venkatesh, âYanchan explains.
He grew up listening to Drake. âI played hip hop in my car and analyzed the rhythms and rhythms. I started to notice similarities between these rhythms and the ones I played on the mridangam. They sounded like the grooves of Adi talam, Rupaka talamâ¦ â, explains the 21 year old young man, who calls his sound a combination of Carnatic music, Tamil film music and hip hop.
Mridangam in the spotlight
âThe instrument never tells you what genre it is,â says Viveick Rajagopalan, a mridangam representative based in Mumbai. As the founder of the Ta Dhom Project, Viveick collaborates with vernacular rappers in the city to create a sub-genre of Indian hip hop – as seen in Ravine boy‘s’ India 91′.
Viveick wanted to take the mridangam out of the percussion layers it is hidden in and make it the main sound, shifting it from the supporting role to the lead role. âI took those drum rhythms heard in western music and played them on the mridangam, which gave birth to the collective sound of the Ta Dhom project,â he says.
Since 2015, he meets young rappers and shares the basics of konnakol and talam with them, to found the rhythmic poetry of urban rap. âI didn’t want to go into the traditional approach to Carnatic music (with its rituals),â explains Viveick.
âWhat interested me was that instead of ape the West, these guys were rapping in their mother tongue. I wanted to push (this Indianness) even more. For example, a lot of rappers still have a typical Western scat and phrasing, âhe says.
As a rapper, your flow and your intonation are what sets you apart. And according to Viveick, an understanding of konnakol gives you a better understanding of rhythmic structures and helps you write sentences in more interesting ways. âIt’s like this: for a layman, a chair is a chair. But when a carpenter sees it, he sees its parts: its height when you’re sitting, when you’re standing.
Rappers Swadesi, MC Tod Fod, MC Mawali were part of this project. The second EP of the project is due out and will feature MC Dehat’s rap in Bhojpuri.
âIf you can count the beats, count the gap, you can write with more intention,â says Tamil rapper Kalaivanan Kannan, who is called MC Kalai. “I’m not learning raag, just taal and konnakol, temporal structures, counters, gati (flow). âThe additional knowledge also makes it easier for him to collaborate with other independent groups.
The universality of it
Classical music has spilled over into other genres before. Pandit Ravi Shankar, and now his daughter, Anoushka, brought Hindustani to raga rock. Some hip hop songs by Missy Elliot and Kid Cudi used classic Indian undercurrents. Tamil film music regularly draws on Carnatic; as the icons of Ilaiyaraaja prove to AR Rahman.
“We want to show how versatile Carnatic music is,” said Mahesh Raghvan, of Carnatic 2.0, the group that mixes Carnatic music with “anything fresh, anything that has to do with pop culture, the electronic music and hip hop “. Their experiences led them to write “Mylapore Rap” last year.
Over the past year, however, the rise of virtual spaces brought on by blockages has also increased accessibility to Carnatic music, causing it to emerge from kutcheris and sabhas. âLearning Carnatic music for four to five years also gives you a good foundation for the genre you want to try next,â Mahesh explains.
In Washington DC, singer-songwriter Hrishi Balaji had a similar achievement in high school. In June, the 25-year-old rose to internet fame with his remixes of Carnatic pop songs. Hrishi’s freestyle swaras on BTS’s âButterâ and The Weeknd’s âBlinding Lightsâ, among others, have gone viral on TikTok and Instagram. âI want to create a sense of familiarity and a sense of shock to the western ear, while being true to both sensibilities,â Hrishi explains.
It’s the subversive nature of hip hop that leaves room for experimentation, Viveick says. âAll of rap culture is raw and maverick, so there’s no blueprint for how you should play, or how it should sound,â he says.
This subversion must also be reflected in his lyrics for a song to be true to the hip hop story of standing up to power. When Shan and Yanchan rap, they talk about their families who had to flee Jaffna during the civil war in Sri Lanka. MC Mawali and Swadesi, while rapping in the style of konnakol, talk about overcoming systemic barriers.
âEmotions are universal,â says Yanchan. “With any song, your goal should be to tell your truth, talk about your experience, and hope it connects with your audience.”