The Groovebox Jukebox: From Kiara Chettri's 4AM to Maahi by Rahi, new Indian indie music to check out
Here are eight of the most interesting Indian independent music releases of November and December — two albums, two EPs, two singles and two music video
This is supposed to be a monthly series but I slacked off in November so this time around, I’m recommending not four but eight recent Indian independent music releases: two singles, two music videos, two EPs and two albums, each pair of which has some sort of a connection. The series, as you may know, is accompanied by a Spotify playlist that you can stream below.
The connection: Two teenage female singer-songwriters with very bright futures.
From the opening electric guitar riff of “Procrastination”, her album’s first track, you know right away that Tanya Shanker is not your average teenage act. In fact, we can foresee the 15-year-old from Bengaluru commanding the stage at the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai someday. Produced by mentor and music teacher Richard “Andrew” Dudley, her debut Battlefield is a blues-rock record with a strong pop sensibility, something that’s highlighted thanks to her Alessia Cara-meets-Joss Stone voice. It may be as powerful as those of singers triple her age but when she sings about having “four chapters left to learn” and how “80 percent is not enough” on “Pressure 3.0”, you learn that Shanker’s concerns are of the more youthful kind. Unsurprisingly, there are also a couple of piano power ballads; while “Love Hasn’t Found Me” is a touch cheesy, the title track is a vocal showcase where she hits the right (high) notes. Shanker has the pipes to pull off a composition as melodramatic as album closer “Prisoner” but we prefer it when she lets loose as on the funky “Puppet”, a standout track even if it could have done without the rap verse.
Seventeen-year-old Kiara Chettri cites such international pop superstars as Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran among her core influences and just like those artists, the Gurgaon resident displays a proclivity for acoustic guitar-led, pop-leaning R&B. Named after her favourite hour to write, 4AM is collection of love songs that covers familiar themes such as infatuation and infidelity. She might be a more understated singer than Shanker but has as charming a voice and is also among the ever-increasing number of upcoming singer-songwriters who release music in both English and Hindi. Here, she offers the same composition in both languages — the flute-flecked “Kinara Tu” is turned into the rockier “Home” — and throws in a Hindi verse on the finger-snapping “Some Hope”. They’re the kind of tunes likely to appeal to fans of her fellow female artists from the capital, Kamakshi Khanna and Hanita Bhambri. Like Shanker, she’s also given to the odd piano ballad, like optimistic album closer “Hopefully Not Too Far”, but the crying-on-the-dance-floor vibe of “Never”, on which she sings helplessly “Why did you have to love her more than me?”, could be an indication of how her sound will evolve.
The connection: None, apart from that they’re both by trios whose names start with the letter K.
Agartala-based folk-fusion band Koloma’s songs are in the Tripuri language of Kokborok so I didn’t understand a word of the lyrics when I heard their new EP Chapmanliya, the name of which means “state of confusion”. But there’s something soothing about both lead singer Rumio Debbarma’s vocals and guitarist Bhaskar Debbarma and drummer Shimul Debbarma’s playing, which includes the use of traditional instruments such as the chong preng, kham and sarinda. Yearning, for one’s partner or one’s past, is a theme that runs through the tunes, which could be the reason why they sound so comforting, and thus resonate in the times we are in right now.
There’s very little information available online about New Delhi-residing rock group Keede; all I know so far is that it was started by high school friends in Lucknow. Their subversively titled (and tagged) debut EP Hindu Rashtra is somewhat clutter breaking because the kind of music they make is so rarely performed in Hindi. Over the course of the set’s 10-minute playing time, they move from punchy punk (“Aadhi Car”) to psychedelic rock (“Naqabs”) to groovy funk (“Dard-E-Funk”). We were expecting more politically strident lyrical content but the music is piquant enough for us to want to watch them in full force at a gig, whenever that might be.
The connection: Two tunes about broken relationships that are self-reflective rather than recriminatory.
Songs about recently ended relationships tend to be either full of regret or reproach. A rare subset are those that take the it’s-not-you-it’s-me route and do so with sincerity, two examples of which were released these past few weeks. Los Angeles-based Indian-American singer-songwriter Zoya’s “The Pattern” is an electro-pop earworm in which she sings about her tendency to get cold feet when things get serious. Zoya was prompted to write it after using a new app called The Pattern, which claims to analyse personality traits and behaviours. Her team is now in touch with the developers for a potential association. “The Pattern” is among her strongest tracks yet so we think it might just work out.
In contrast to Zoya’s very modern inspiration, electronic music producer Oaff aka Kabeer Kathpalia and dream-pop composer-vocalist Landslands aka Sohrab Nicholson’s collaboration “Youth” resulted from their discoveries of their grandparents’ handwritten love letters. The ethereal ballad is rendered from the perspective of someone who’s done wrong and can only offer his immaturity by way of explanation and apology. From releases such as “Cold Water”, we know that Nicholson is adept at building narratives around matters of the heart. Given Kathpalia and his shared penchant for layered, atmospheric compositions, the evocative “Youth” makes us wonder why they took so long to work together.
The connection: Two visual spectacles that remind us of the magnificence of Kashmir
Kashmiri singer-songwriter Rahi Syed’s “Maahi” is an immediately accessible soaring serenade that would have very possibly been inappropriately and inaccurately marketed as “Sufi” back in the mid-aughties. That’s because the track, which expresses a euphoric kind of love, could be interpreted to be about either romantic or spiritual devotion. Its video, filmed at various locations in Srinagar and Pahalgam, depicts the sense of liberation associated with these emotions and features the vocalist traveling through vast expenses of green, moving among forests and fields and against mountains and meadows. Consequently, the viewer too witnesses the literal and metaphorical highs he peaks.
Mumbai-based singer, composer and producer Nuka aka Anushka Manchanda’s “Kashmir”, on the other hand, is a much more sombre ode. Manchanda fell in love with Kashmir when she travelled there in 2015, and she wrote “Kashmir” to pay tribute to the land. On the experimental electronic, almost new age-y English-Kashmiri song, her stark spoken word poetry and Parvaaz vocalist Khalid Ahamed’s impassioned verses indicate the harsh reality that the valley is home to both incomparable natural beauty and incessant man-made strife. Their words are perfectly complemented by the visuals in Manchanda’s self-directed music video, which like “Maahi” was shot in Srinagar and Pahalgam and also in Gulmarg. Unlike “Maahi”, which was made in the sun-kissed month of September, “Kashmir” was captured during Chillai Kalaan, a 40-day period of the coldest days of winter that occur in December and January. The same spots we see in “Maahi” look very different: the lake is frozen, the trees are bare, ice hangs in place of leaves, blankets of snow cover the terrain.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebo
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