Perhaps, it all started with Avial, but Kerala's rich pedigree of folk fusion bands is seamlessly weaving its lucid aura through Masala Coffee, a motley crew of young musicians.
A year ago, when Varun Sunil and his band, Masala Coffee, came up with a cover on A.R. Rahman's Munbe Va, music buffs who stumbled upon the ingenuity of the class act knew that the 'men in harem pants' were here to stay.
Those premonitions seem to have found flesh and blood now, as the Kerala-based folk fusion band is foraying into the film music with Tamil director Nalan Kumaraswamy's Uriyadi.
A cult band in its own right, Masala Coffee has coalesced the South Indian folk tradition with contemporary music. Culling their lyrics from Malayalam, Tamil, Sanskrit and Hindi, the music straddles social satires to progressive-folk fusion.
With Kantha, their most popular number, the artistes totted up a new-found energy to a somewhat moribund folk tradition of South India. Heralding a rebirth for progressive folk, the song emboldened aficionados to flaunt their regional music influences.
As the name suggests, the band boasts of a unique synergy of varied elements. While it predominantly blends contemporary, Latin, Carnatic, temple and world music along with elements of folk and psychedelia, it also incorporates exotic instruments such as esraj to infuse the traditional hue to percolating tunes.
The band grew steadily since its inception in 2014 into a full-blown success in just one year. Slow and steady, as Varun puts it. "We have never set ourselves an agenda. We just wanted to make good music. But yeah, even though we seem relaxed, we have been working really hard," says Varun, who seemed too down-to-earth for the producer of a band, which has jagged up scores of shows across the country.
But are they blindly following Avial's winning formula? No, says Varun. "We gingerly experiment with our style; taking elements from different genres and whisking them into something unique. But we keep it tasteful, to not feel like we are using a trend or taking a piece just because it is popular."
The band's line-up is often in flux as its members routinely perform with other artistes. Besides Varun, who is the band's percussionist and vocalist, the core unit currently has Sooraj Santhosh (vocals), Gokul Eknath (vocals), Vishnu Sunil (vocals), Joe Jacob (drums), Danniel Kenneth Rego (guitar), David Clifton Crimson (guitar), Sunil George (keyboard), Bassman Paul (bass), Arshad Khan (esraj), Nithin M. Menon (ethnic percussion), Ajay Shivraj (rapper), Preeth P.S. (guitar), Jayakrishnan Nalinkumar (sound engineer) and Deepu Sashidharan (rhythm guitarist and manager). The band is managed by Aum-i-Artistes, a production and design house, which specialises in artiste management and branding.
"We came together from entirely different backgrounds. And our music is the expression of distinct musical sensibilities that dissolve into each other," says Varun. The results are tangible; the music comes marinated in earthy traditions, seasoned liberally by the influence of contrasting backgrounds.
The MC guys are a familiar lot in the country's music circuit as most of them have been accompanying well-known singers and composers, apart from being regulars at Coke Studio. Moreover, the band's lead vocalist, Sooraj, is a professional playback singer who has sung in over five Indian languages.
Although its music is not necessarily for everyone's taste, MC has a loyal fan base in the state and across the country. "MC music isn’t anything like EDM (Electronic Dance Music), yet it gets you into a groove; no wonder people throw on their headphones and soak it all in the band's true-to-type music," says Kochi-based Sandheep R. Nath.
At their shows, an exuberant horde of youngsters cheer in approval and explode into screams; fists pumping and heads banging, as the band expertly feeds off the zeal, to the point where you know the rabble is going to erupt any time, which doesn't often happen for a new band.
Shunning the instrumentation employed by so-called progressive bands, which is fairly predictable, MC catches us by surprise, featuring an instrument on the wane – esraj. And playing it is Arshad Khan, a disciple of Ustad Allauddin Khan sahib. According to Varun, esraj's intrinsic playing style adds variety to their repertoire. The esraj, though similar to sarangi, has a raspier tone.
Currently, the band is working on its debut album, which will have eight to 10 songs. "We are collaborating with American composer Shankar Tucker (The Shruthibox fame), Raghu Dixit (of Raghu Dixit project) and certain other well-known musicians for the project. It will also feature some of our original compositions," says Varun, who is gearing up for their next show in Colombo. MC hopes to have the album ready for release by the end of April, but deadlines are not sacrosanct in this case.
The band has five original compositions to its credit, viz.: Tamas, Vadakkan Pattu, Once Upon a Time in Punjab, Odi Odi and Karikkinpattu.
"I guess we'll make some more music. Basically, we just play anything that we feel like singing," says Varun. Like him, MC seems to overwhelmingly relish the charms of the present, rather than dabbling with futuristic voyages.