I sometimes think we are fortunate to have film music in India: this allows talented musicians a potentially expansive breadth with the option of breaking rules, traditions, formats, and boundaries. Part of Rahman's success has been the willingness to push beyond existing playbooks, collaborate with a diverse range of creative people, and to use his influence to bring new voices and sounds to the fore. In my limited knowledge, I can only think of Pt. Ravi Shankar and R.D.Burman to have exhibited a similar creative diversity while being hugely successful at pulling it off. What they can also do is guide you, the listener, if you are so willing, to new places, gently and gracefully.
Take "Zariya" - a Tibetan nun, a Jordanian singer, a continuum, a set of talented backing vocalists, Hindi lyrics, Sivamani. Soaked in abstract thought. It took me a while to get used to all of this (individually and together), but it works together. Ineffably so. And that deep, haunting sound in your ears, that is a Rahman trademark.
"Naan Yen", set to the questioning words of the late Vaalee, asks questions and draws from rustic metaphors. This song clearly underlines the value of knowing the language of the lyrics: unlike someone like Vishal, Rahman has been more of a 'onomatopoeic' composer, by which I mean that often, the combination of the song's lyrics and its musical neighbours is because of how they sound together rather than to underscore the semantics of the lyrics (if this was hard for you to parse, it is harder for me to explain). This is more so with non-Tamil lyrics. In "Naan Yen" (and in the other Tamil song), the music is not just a guy-in-the-next-seat to the lyrics, but is in an intimate embrace - each fits in snugly with each other. Add to that, Rahman's much improved singing (with the gamakams), and his sister Rayhanah's opening and backing vocals.
"Naan Yen" is a potential top-10/top-20 contender on that hard-to-break-into list of "The Best of Rahman". That, for me, is saying something.
"Aao Balmaa", a multi-generational classic, has in it so many things to rave about that one needs to properly sit down, focus, and make a good fist of it.
There's Rahman's piano-playing. There's the spectacular 'Guitar' Prasanna, who is an absolute joy to listen to, solo or in jugalbandi mode. There's the bass guitarist, Mohini Dey, who, if you factor in her age (she's a teenager) seems almost unreasonably talented. The family of Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan, three generations of it, completely at home in this left-field take on something they've probably sung a hundred times in a traditional manner. I am completely bowled over the percussion (Sivamani can often be too gimmicky for me, but not here). But what hit me between the eyes was the jazz-like dance between the piano and the guitar.
That's when you realise this isn't mere Hindustani-meets-Carnatic-meets-Western-meets-jazz, but something that you don't take a scalpel to.
In "Ennile Maha Oliyo" (that is one heck of an opening line), Rahman decides to show that his other sister, Issrath, can sing too. It's feels like an abbreviated song (is there more that will be revealed in the album that the siblings are working on?), but powerful in its quietness. The swarams are crystal-clear, the percussion is muted, and the arrangement adds a dimension for which the word 'ethereal' will do nicely to describe. And there's Prasanna.
Suchismita Das - I've never heard a swara-motor-mouth such as her. What a singer! To steal the thunder in a gallery of stars, as she does in "Jagaao Mere Des Ko", is an achievement. Rahman's opening for the Bengali section uses Tagore's lyrics as a prose poem rather than setting it 'properly' to a tune, but when the Hindi lyrics (Prasoon Joshi) kick in, you are ready to forgive his diction because the melody and orchestration soars. The backing ladies, Mohini Dey, Prasanna, Sivamani give the song its wings (do you really need caffeine stimulants when you can listen to this?) and its terminal velocity. For once, just for once, Blaaze's rap is tolerable. Sivamani's kunnakol is somewhat forced on the scene, but the song recovers, takes off. Off the cliff. End of story!
"Soz-e-Salaam", not telecast in the first episode (it will be on the season-ending episode), but available on the Coke Studio website, is a soothing balm from the Mustafas. It ticks off many Rahman boxes: the spare orchestrations, the higher-pitch voices, the interesting sounds. It touches, ever so lightly, on many of his best works, reminiscent of the Bombay theme and his 90s songs of the 90s that so prominently featured woodwinds.
In summary, this tells you what some Indian film musicians, when let loose, can do even if they have the baggage and expectations of two decades of work. And when you hear Rahman ask "Naan Yen Piranden" ("why did I come into this world?"), you know the answer to that.
Also see Karthik's review on Milliblog.
(A note: if you've heard the songs on TV or from the internet via your PC speakers, do yourself a huge favour and listen to them through your head-phones. There's so much happening that you can risk permanent tinnitus if ony to have this ringing in your head.)