I upped my hip quotient last night by going for a Mallu rock concert. Kerala, home to the Malayali people whom we lovingly call Mallus, is known for many things – the backwaters, massages, communism, fluffy appams, moustachioed men, rum and damn good toddy, among other things. Rock music isn’t one of them which is why the band Avial (a vegetarian curry traditional to Kerala) is highly cool. In theory.
Avial’s music isn’t half bad and they have the fans to prove it. The amphitheatre in Bandra was packed and not just with coconutty Mallus but other Indians and even some white folk. The band has a few catchy tunes, full of pounding drums and strong guitar play. Their tunes are original and their lyrics are folk songs and poems written by leading Malayali poets. It’s all very “pawliddycull”, as the lead singer informed us in one of his brief English-speaking moments. I’ve heard them described as “alternative Malayali rock” but I’m not sure what they’re an alternative to since native Mallu music doesn’t rely much on electric guitars as far as I’m aware. They sound loud and angry like any rock act from anywhere in the world. They had flashy lights, a smoke machine and the lead singer has dance moves that blend Kathakali with Hawaiian hula dancing however, this is not a band to watch live.
It isn’t just that the band’s lead singer – who looks like a strange combination of the front men of Right Said Fred and Midnight Oil by way of Kottayam – chose to speak almost exclusively in Malayalam, thus leaving all of us who don’t understand the native tongue of Kerala totally in the dark. Neither was it the fact that one of the guitarists looked like he was a gnome from an Enid Blyton story (very cute but think Slash and then think of Puff the Gnome). The band’s limited repertoire (they’ve got all of 8 songs and consequently for their encore, they literally encored: they sang three songs they’d already performed) makes it difficult for them to sustain for more than 45 minutes but even that wasn’t the major issue for me. What bugged me tremendously was the elaborate backing track that the band played. I could have been watching a Mallu karaoke show rather than a live concert. The guitar solos were from the backing track as was the complicated synthesizer bits and even some of crucial backing vocals. Avial’s idea of performing live is to play their cd, minus the lead vocals.
The most dynamic thing on that stage was a furry, yellow ducky hand puppet that the band had perched on the lead singer’s microphone stand. It was strategically positioned so that, at least from where I was sitting, it looked like the duck was popping out of the lead singer’s crotch. There’s sex appeal for you. For most of the concert, the duck hung limply and looked vaguely shrunk. I guess it and its owner were nervous.
To be fair to them, the band is really unused to performing (this is apparently their second gig; maybe the duck is their lucky mascot) and the front man isn’t actually the front man at all. He’s the synthesizer player who has taken the mic since the original front man got married and whooshed off to the US of A. The inexperience showed. The lead singer paced around the stage like an invigilator at an exam. When repeating the first of their two-song encore, they goofed up twice; the guitarist had to keep retuning his guitar (considering how little he actually seemed to be playing, given the backing track, I wonder why he bothered). It all felt deeply amateur. The band has also lost two more members, so they had to rope in a local bassist, which explains the backing track. It doesn’t justify it to my mind because I’d expect a band that is serious about playing live to figure out how they’re going to play their tunes in concerts with their existing members rather than rely on recordings.
Not that their groupies minded. The problem, of course, is that for a Mallu rock band, groupies are short, oily men with jiggling bellies whose coolest move is to play the air guitar. They are perhaps more loyal than traditional groupies. One woman not only brought her toddler son to the concert but seemed entirely unperturbed when her neighbour yanked the kid from her arms and, roaring incoherently, dangled the kid in mid-air, as though offering the child up to the band in exchange for an encore. I shudder to think what would have happened if the band hadn’t come back to perform.
For those interested, the band’s best-known tracks seemed to be “Chekkele” and “Nada Nada“, which they performed twice. The entry pass for the concert had a little box which told you which number you need to punch in to get one of Avial’s tunes as a ringtone. When she sent her request, she got back a message asking her which of the following “nada” tunes she wanted – one of them was Avial’s number; the other three were Bhojpuri lyrics elaborating all you can do to loosen pyjama strings (also known as “nada”). You gotta love multicultural India.