From Yugoslavia to South India

The Rise of Tamil Turbo-folk

by Kumuthan Maderya

25 January 2016

Like its Serbian counterpart, Tamil Turbo-folk masquerades as ethno-nationalist resistance against the dislocations brought to bear by nation building, liberalization, and globalization.
Vedalam - Aaluma Doluma Video 

With music, intercultural proximity cannot be mere coincidence. While in our polyglot world music functions as a kind of passé-partout for assimilation across linguistic boundaries, globalization has limits. The harmonization of musical genres thousands of miles apart, devoid of any direct internuncial conduit, is an unprecedented transnational phenomenon. Such hidden synchronicity intimates to analogous socio-political anxieties and affinities in cultures of expression in the ignored by mainstream writing. Attempted here is an auscultation for the transcendental cadences of culture via the Turbo-folk genre.

Indian cinema remains a thriving bastion of the musical in world cinema. Regardless of genre, the multifarious language-based film industries in India, with a market of tens of millions, preponderate the immutability of the filmi song and dance intrusion into the narrative. Marketable vaudeville is a key reason Indian films continue to stretch out to three hours.

However, with advancements in playback technology, the leading performers in India’s cinemas are now just faux vaudevillians. Unlike the truly minstrel heroes of early Indian cinema, by the ‘50s actors no longer needed to croon. The playback singer does the serenading but with few exceptions, someone else appears on the visual register. When it comes to the megastars, the actor lip-syncing the lyrics becomes synonymous with the song – elevating it to audio iconicity.

Film soundtracks have also effectively crowded-out India’s independent music market. Within this soundscape, score composers are sui generis. The finest have carved out a niche as co-auteur with the director. The term music director, especially in India’s Tamil cinema or Kollywood, emerged as an outcome of this inseparability of musicality from narrative.

The first three hits on a Google search for the term ‘music director’ throws out a kind of genealogy of Tamil film composers. Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, who has ruled the industry since the early ‘90s, is first on the list. Second is his predecessor, the legendary Ilaiyaraaja who since the late ‘70s amassed a discography in the thousands. Third is a relative wunderkind, the youngest music director in Kollywood, Anirudh Ravichander.

Since his first single Why This Kolaveri Di went viral on YouTube and became an Internet sensation four years ago, Anirudh has taken the airwaves by storm. In December 2015, his debut track became the first Indian video to cross 100 million views on YouTube. The biggest hits of 2014 and 2015 are also his to claim. Anirudh affirms his consanguinity to his illustrious predecessors by continuing the Tamil musical revolution they started.

Vox Pop

Both Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman were pivotal in dismantling the stratification between genres and listeners across social classes to create euphonies that were both eclectic and transcendental. Ilaiyaraaja spearheaded this attack on binaries in Tamil film music. Historian M.S.S. Pandian remarks that Ilaiyaraaja’s hybrid film music “synthesizes Indian classical, western classical, and folk music forms” (M S S Pandian, “Tamil Cultural Elites and Cinema: Outline of an Argument”, Economic and Political Weekly, (April 1996): 950-955). Likewise, Rahman furthered the process of cultural heteroginization with computer scored electronic music (Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Paul Willemen, Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Indian classical, western classical or even western pop music was no longer privileged access but audible even to the subaltern through this benign vulgarization. Unconventional texturization and inclusivity has accounted for the popularity enjoyed by Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman in different periods. By effacing dichotomies of highbrow-lowbrow, eastern-western, and traditional-modern, while mediating the global through the local, both composers established an inter-cultural accord.

Fans of Anirudh insist that his most prominent contributions to Tamil music induce tarantism on the dance floor. By interweaving the dappan kuththu, an informal folk rhythm, with techno-synthesizer enhancements, rendered in the rap-like gaana lyrics, he too strives for equilibrium between nativist authenticity and imported exoticism in this yet unnamed genre. The result is an amalgamated musical form that interrupts the filmic narrative as a dance number stylized into a music video-type sequence for semi-autonomous distribution on other mediums. Foregrounded in this music video is usually an inebriated heartbroken lover or a Don Quixote gyrating with a flash mob of unwashed subalterns in urban squalor.

However, Anirudh is neither the progenitor nor the sole proponent of this unspecified hyper-eclecticism. A younger generation of music directors also experimented with fusion tracks. Music directors such as Vijay Anthony, Harris Jeyaraj, Yuvan Shankar Raja, D.Imman, S.Thaman, and the duo known as Hip Hop Thamizha, to name a prominent few associated with this hyper-eclecticism. Yet, the recent hit parades lionize Anirudh as the most prolific in deploying the genre. 

Local music critics dismissed the genre as trashy cacophony devoid of aesthetic value or cultural significance as the replicas tassel out. Such insouciance has left these song and dance numbers devoid of any apposite classificatory system besides the most generic. To generalize it as just dappan kuththu or gaana ignores the assimilation of both with electronic dance, hip-hop, rap, and metal augmentations.

Borrowing from theories about Serbian music during the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, I propose a term that aims to capture the genre’s cultural politics and musical hybridity: Tamil Turbo-folk. While there is insufficient space to catalogue all the Tamil Turbo-folk songs in the market, offered here is a sampling of a new sound that musically unites two diverse cultures of the ‘global south’.

Tamil Turbo-folk masquerades as ethno-nationalist resistance against the dislocations brought to bear by nation building, liberalization, and globalization while taking advantage of its technological breakthroughs. Of course, aesthetic and ideological similarities aside, Tamil Turbo-folk songs are far less controversial than Serb Turbo-folk, which became the anthem for internecine civil war in Yugoslavia. Nevertheless there is the complaint that commercialization has turned folk into junk while sucking the soul out of Tamil songs that are now deemed all fury and no substance. For all the seemingly harmless euphoria that Tamil Turbo-folk invokes, it also has an obnoxious side that insidiously celebrates misogyny and crapulence as apt responses to postmodernity.

Tito in Madras

The intertwined tale of two multicultural states provides a starting point for Turbo-folk’s travel from southern Europe to South Asia. An industrialized middle power, socialist Yugoslavia enjoyed warm ties with India throughout the Cold War. In 1955, Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito joined India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian National Congress party leaders at a key conference in Madras state. At the meeting, Nehru sealed the friendship between the two states when he announced a “socialist pattern of society” for the incipient Indian republic. Key countries of the global south, their commitment to secular nation building to avoid the resurrection of ancient hatreds made them natural allies.

Later that same year, Tito would join hands with Nehru and other leaders of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa, to establish the Non-Aligned Movement. The Non-Aligned countries averred neutrality in the power struggle between the First World and the Communist Bloc, becoming the putative Third World. Like Yugoslavia and India, most of the members of the Non-Aligned Movement were multicultural secular polities, coming to terms with independent statehood against the backdrop of the Cold War. The superpowers had a penchant to exploit civil strife or regionalism for their own empire-building purposes, which these inchoate nation-states sought to avoid through solidarity.

While Tito strengthened relations with India and the rest of the Third World, Congress leaders in Madras state staved off fierce opposition from Tamil ethno-nationalist parties trying to secede from India. Among the most prominent in the Indian body politic, Tamil language zealots mobilized public support for self-determination through exaggerated fears of cultural genocide under North Indian hegemony.

Much to the chagrin of the Congress party, Tamil nationalists and language chauvinists used a variety of political strategies throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s to disrupt national unity: public demonstrations, iconoclasm, effigy burning, and that most horrifying antecedent of suicide bombing: self-immolation. After Tamil nationalists seized power in Madras state through the ballot box in 1967, rechristening the state Tamil Nadu, talk of separatism died down until the ‘70s.

The height of Indo-Yugoslav friendship came in the mid-‘70s. In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in India, suspending civil liberties and democracy against a tide of opposition across the political spectrum. The government incarcerated leaders of several ethno-nationalist parties such as those in Tamil Nadu. Himself a strongman holding a culturally heterogeneous federation together, Tito expressed support for the clampdown in India. 

Yugoslavia arose from the ruins of a multinational empire of southern Slavs. War hero Tito’s charismatic personality alongside communist centralism, socialist modernization, and intolerance for regionalism ensured the unity of the postwar state of Yugoslavia. National cohesion meant curtailing ethnic chauvinism, while socialist modernization curbed atavistic forms of cultural expression, even when it came to Yugoslav music. 

The state stripped Serbian folk music of its provincial heritage, ethnic markers, or rustic crassness to promote a Pan-Yugoslav identity. In its place was the dignified ‘newly composed folk music’ or NCFM endorsed by the communist party. This paternalistic micro-management of culture was a manifestation of a dictatorship anxious to avert the unspeakable horrors of Balkanization.

After the death of Tito in 1980, things fell apart. The lid came off when various sub-nationalist entities started clamoring for autonomy, releasing pent-up communal tensions worsened by crisis in international communism in the late ‘80s. When the communist center could no longer hold, convulsions grew into calls for independence, escalated into ethno-religious conflict, and full-blown civil wars eviscerated Yugoslavia.

Over the course of the ‘90s in some of the most terrifying wars in recent memory, Yugoslavia would violently crumble into multiple nation-states. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia now stand where Yugoslavia once was. The resurrection of ancient hatreds, religious extremism, genocidal ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and mass graves seemed to vindicate the worst fears of Pan-Yugoslav nationalists.

Profound cultural shifts in the Yugoslav music industry corresponded with Tito’s demise. Although NCFM “took the Balkans’ millennia-old tradition of folk music [and] cleaned out all the references to drinking and fucking in the bushes”, the repressed returned. Hitherto underground, there was a resurgence of the “racey [sic], old style of folk” antithetical to NCFM after the meteoric rise of popfolk sensation Lepa Brena [“Make a Dumbful Noise” Baby Balls and Iva Prolic, Vice, 29 November 2011].

With multiple Brena imitators sprouting over the course of the ‘80s, this revival of folk as popfolk grew into movement. With the sponsorship of druglords and the mafia in Serbia, as Vice puts it:

Overnight popfolk turned from funny songs about cheating husbands into “turbofolk”: a coked-up, synth-and-trumpet-laden celebration of sex, money, boob jobs, brand-name crap and startling levels of vapidity.

As the country disintegrated in the midst of an economic recession, the Serbian crime elites who were the biggest beneficiaries of the political crisis became Turbo-folk’s impresarios.

Art historian Uros Cvoro more cogently describes Turbo-folk as syncretic: “high-energy pop mixed with traditional folk music [borrowing] elements of Oriental and Mediterranean melodies channeled through electronic dance rhythms”. Serb ultra-nationalist and wanted war criminal Slobodan Milošević pioneered the trend of right wing parties using Turbo-folk as a platform for the promotion of Serb ultranationalism (Uros Cvoro. “Remember the Nineties? Turbo-Folk as the Vanishing Mediator of Nationalism”, Cultural Politics, (2012): 121-137).

According to Cvoro, Turbo-folk songs carried lyrics like: “No one can touch us / We are stronger than destiny”, “I am a proud Serb… we are all defending Kosovo, the heart of Serbia, and if necessary we will all die for it”, or “Brother Serbs, Gypsies are with you” to name a few affirming Serb ultranationalism. Or “Good Zagreb chicks / They were like toys to us” as well as “If you were wounded / I would give you my blood / If you were blind, I would give you my eyes” carrying overt and covert references to the conflict in the Balkans.
Turbo-folk queen Ceca or Svetlana Ražnatović symbolized the politics-crime-pop nexus behind the industry. She married criminal capitalist Željko ‘Arkan’ Ražnatović, leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard or Arkan’s Tigers, wanted by international courts for the Srebrenica Massacre amongst other cases of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars. Warlord Arkan and Pop-star Ceca became the poster couple for Serb ultra-nationalism. The dream union ended with the assassination of Arkan who apparently ran foul of the Milosevics. A contentious genre, Serb Turbo-folk is the union of trashy music with dirty politics.

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