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Rocking the squeeze box
When Anurag Basu sits down to write a film he works with a playlist clamped to his ears. The music he picks defines the story's theme. For Barfi, set in Kolkata of the '70s, he picked accordion music. To his mind, nothing works better than the accordion when the storytelling is nostalgic and somewhat fantastical (think Amelie).
So when he sat down to discuss the film's score with music director Pritam, he suggested the use of the accordion, an instrument that Mark Twain described as a "Steinway on your lap". "I was worried he would think that it is an old-fashioned instrument but he agreed and it sat wonderfully with the theme of the film, " says Basu. The accordion did more than create music for the film, it actually moved the story along.
Interestingly enough, Bollywood composers are rediscovering the joys of the squeezebox. It has become the instrument of choice for films with homegrown stories that combine comedy, a certain dreamlike quality, everyday romances with a certain provincial air: consider how well Amit Trivedi uses it in Aiyya to convey the alternate kitschy world Rani lives in. He again puts the accordion to great effect in English Vinglish, underlining the air of cute optimism.
AR Rahman is a great champion of the accordion. Masakkali probably did a lot to put the rather humble folksy instrument back in recording studios. Almost all the songs of Guru featured the box. His other recent blockbuster song Nenjukulle from Mani Ratnam's forthcoming Kadal was minimally framed with just the accordion and violin (he is himself a deft player of the instrument: watch him play a snatch of Aye hairate ishq from Guru on YouTube or his recent appearance on MTV Unplugged).
"Any time you revive an old instrument that has been in disuse for a long time, it sounds wonderful and fresh. This is happening to the accordion as well, " says Pritam. Except Ala Barfi (where Boddu Daniel contributed), all other accordion tracks in the film were recorded in London by the famous Serbian musician Milos Milivojevic. The music was recorded on Skype as per the score sent to Milivojevic.
Musical instruments tend to have an instant visual and emotional connect. "With the accordion it is Raj Kapoor and nostalgia !" says Pritam. Through the '50s and up until the early '70s, the accordion was a very integral part of Hindi and even Tamil film music. There were few songs composed by Shankar Jaikishen that did not feature the versatile instrument. Their songs for Raj Kapoor, often shown playing the instrument, are seared in our minds with their accordion notes - Mera joota hai japani, Pyaar hua ikrar hua, Kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisar, Jeena yahan to name very few.
The list of accordion chartbusters in those decades is endless because other music directors like OP Nayar, Usha Khanna, SD Burman, RD Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Hemant Kumar used it extensively (see box). Contrary to what many believe, it works for fluffy romance as well as melancholia, party scenes as well as folk dances, languor as well as energy. There were few contexts in Bollywood films where accordion notes did not fit in as ideal background music. The legendary Kersi Lord recalls using two notes of the accordion to work up suspense for a horror movie, Bees Saal Baad, produced by Hemant Kumar.
"It is a complete instrument. You need immense practice to perfect your playing because you don't get to look at the chords, and you have to play them by feeling them. The music that emerges just flows, no jerks and awkward patches, " says Ulhas Bapat, a santoor player and an integral part of the film musicians' association in Bollywood.
A lot of songs were defined by their accordion passages. Take, for instance, the seductive power of the accordion in Roop Tera Mastana in the film Aradhana. Take that away and you would be left with is a snappy but colourless song. Lord, who played the accordion for the song, says that he improvised when he created the accordion sounds for the song.
"( SD) Burman, Manohari Singh (the arranger) and I changed that because we had perfect understanding of each others' needs. Burman said think of a woman, bheegi hui, she is around this fire with the man and you imagine the rest. There were lots of rehearsals and I kept adding stuff on my own. Once in a while I would look up for Manohari's approval and he would give me the thumbs up. That was how the accordion track developed on its own in the song, " says Lord.
Meet na mila re man ka from Abhimaan was another song heavy with accordion use. Lord and Goody Seervai remained the giants of accordion music for a long time in Mumbai.
But like a whole lot of other instruments, the accordion went off the radar once the synthesiser arrived on the scene. Musicians like Lord and Enoch Daniels mourn the slow decline of their instrument in Hindi film music. Anyway, a whole host of composers who stuck to the classical format - Roshan, Madan Mohan and Khayyam for instance - did not touch the accordion since it had a 'Western' image.
"The shehnai for grief, the sarangi for mourning and accordion for romance - these instruments remained stuck with stereotypes for a long time, " says Lord.
The fact that instruments like the sarangi, harmonium and accordion are making a comeback shows the creative courage of Bollywood's new breed of composers. Pritam believes that the accordion suffered overuse and composers simply got tired of it. But he adds that it did get used in its varied forms like the bandonen, concertina and garmon. He is now using the accordion for a dance track in Race2 along the lines of East European dance melodies.
Shankar Jaikishen became almost synonymous with accordion music but other composers made it the soul of their songs too
'Hum aur tum aur yeh sama' | '
Dil Deke Dekho', Usha Khanna
'Meet na mila'
'Abhimaan', SD Burman
'Zehreela Insaan', RD Burman
'Baabuji dheere chalna'
'Aar Paar', OP Nayyar
'Bekarar karke hamein'
'Bees Baal Baad', Hemant Kumar
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