“This album is my attempt to remind myself how far away I am from being a singer. How hard I had to work to achieve this level of perfection, only I know. Singing in commercial songs in films and so called Indi Pop, and reaching out to people’s hearts, can be very misleading and more than that, deleterious for our own craft.” – Sonu Niigaam
Sonu Niigaam (previously known as Sonu Nigam) makes it quite clear in the liner notes for his new private album, “Classically Mild” that he is tired of being for lack of a better word, commercial. He’s striving for more than simply singing a dozen Bhangra dance songs that celebrate the joy of dancing every week or two dozen standard romantic numbers that profess a man’s love towards a woman or even the latest techno dance/trance number that a music director has stolen from another artist.
You might have noticed that in recent months, Sonu, has all but disappeared from the Hindi film music scene singing only the occasional song like the beautifully haunting “In Lamhon Ke Daman Mein” from “Jodhaa Akbar” or the achingly romantic, “'Main agar kahoon' from “Om Shanti Om”. From different reports it would seem that he has been busy putting back together his personal life. A few years ago, he had separated from his wife to apparently devote himself completely to music. Now he’s gotten back together with her and they have recently had a son, Nevaan to whom he has dedicated this new album.
Though many people will probably talk about the buff Niigaam appearing half naked in the first video from the album, it’s important to see beyond the obvious marketing strategies that have been developed by Niigaam and the record company Sa Re Ga Ma. Let’s face it, in today’s musical scene, a classical album has an uphill battle in order to become a crossover hit…. or even a mildly successful one at that. When discussing the album with a local music storeowner, he commented that a lot of people seem interested in the album at first, before actually reading the title, “Classically Mild”. The prospective buyer’s first question seems to be, “Is it classical music?” The answer is yes and no (which will become clearer by the end of this review).
The ads for the album are even more entertaining as the aforementioned Sonu appears half naked and compares Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan’s (among others) pinnacle performances and claims that this new album is his own best. But is it really? Will it fill the vacuum that Sonu has left in the Hindi film soundtrack world? Will he find satisfaction in trying to achieve more with his music, or will he find himself returning back to the more common world of showbiz Bollywood? Only time will answer those questions, but I will tell you this, the album is something old, something new and is worth your hard earned money.
So, let’s dim the lights a bit, strike a match to light those gently flickering candles in the wind, and pour yourself a glass of wine as we begin listening to, “Classically Mild”.
Sonu is joined on this album by two stellar talents: music director Deepak Pandit (one of the most renowned violinists in India) and lyricist Ajay Jhingran (award winning lyricist for the Sonu Niigaam album “Sanskar”).
The first track on the album is arguably the best, “Sochta Hoon Main”. This thoughtful and melodious song starts out with a faintly Arabic sounding intro, which quickly segues into some funky guitar playing and staccato percussion. Surprise of surprises! Authentic tabla playing (instead of synth) adds a sweet layer to the percussion track. Watch out for the piano/tabla interlude, as it deserves to be noticed. Sonu’s voice is perfect as he vocalizes the at times confusing paths that we follow in life. It’s far from hardcore classical (the song is based on Raag Sindh Bhairavi), and this song would be perfectly at home on any Bollywood soundtrack with an almost A.R. Rahmanesque flavor to it. How do we get up when we fall? How do we live truthfully? What is this game of life, I wonder? The answers seem hidden, but the listeners along with Sonu begin the path to enlightenment with this wonderful track. Add this one to your playlist right away and swoon over delight of the end of ignorance.
The second track, “Bheege Bheege” notches up the classical ambience and take it to another level as the track begins with Sonu’s vocals against the strumming of a mystically sounding sitar. The song is about the ultimate joining of two lover’s soul. In this world of darkness, sadness and unhappiness, true love shines a light on all of us and carries us forward to the fulfillment of our dreams. The song is a combination of the Raags: Lalit, Ahir Bhairav, and Puriya Dhanashri,and it’s a testament to the deft use of guitar and harmonium with light percussion that makes this track seem eternally youthful. Sonu seems like he is on the verge of going into a trance with his vocals as he plays an interesting jugalbandi with the harmonium throughout the tune. Another track that would be perfectly at home on an A.R. Rahman soundtrack, in fact in some places it reminds me of the track, “Satrangi Re” from “Dil Se” in the way that Sonu wraps his vocals around repeated words for an added trance like effect. The lights just got dimmer, and your loved one just got closer to you with this track!
The third track, “Soona Soona” is the one featured in the television promos for the album. More classical than the previous two tracks, it looks like Sonu is finally delving into the hardcore classical style of vocal modulation. While it doesn’t have the romantically mystical feel of the first two tracks, it’s got this funky percussive rhythm and jazzy use of instruments that blends well with the classical vocals (which could be off-putting to some listeners). Kudos to Music director Deepak Pandit for combining Jazz, Carnatic and the Raags Des, Jaijaivanti, and Mishr Pardeep into a smoothly sounding whole. What could have been a mess of a song instead becomes a wildly entertaining one as it conveys the wonderful feelings one gets when returning to their homeland. Your loved will move even closer for some loving smiles with this lively track.
A beautiful piano and flute solo begins the fourth track, “Suratiya” which is truly transcendental as Sonu sings as if he is in a conversation with the celestial being asking how he can rise above the banality of life to achieve inner peace. The music is kept to a bare minimum with soft percussion that weaves a beautiful tapestry throughout the song. The violin interlude is played in that lilting way that makes the heart swoon. The lyrics by Puriya Dhanashri truly shine with this track. It’s Sonu’s vocals that truly drive this Raag Holy Kaafi based song. Pull your lover close to you and hold her/him tightly as you both ponder the mysteries of life.
The fifth track “Chalki Chalki” starts off with a solo piano as deft fingers sweep across the keys. This unconventional song sounds like something from a Broadway play. Grand violins and the softly inspiring vocals by Sonu can make the listener long for the touch of a loved one. The Raags Mishr Saarang, Mishr Khamaj, and Bihag are blended together with expert music and lyrics that give these age-old melodies a modern romantic feel. Take your lover outside on the terrace as the wind blows in their hair and the moonlight sparkles in their eyes while feeling the music gently caressing the two of you.
The sixth track, “Dhanya Dhanya” has a bit of a Rajasthani folk feel to it especially with the primary percussion being the Ghatam (clay pot). This one takes a bit longer to get into than the other tracks, but it’s worth a listen to for the message that Sonu is trying to convey about women and their courage in being a sister, wife and mother. I do think that this particular song is close to Sonu’s heart as it may be an ode to his wife who has stood by his side regardless of the decisions he has made. It’s a sweet song, and one to take to heart. Perhaps it can make a man understand that a woman is to be respected, admired, and loved tenderly in all her avatars.
The seventh track, “Lamha Lamha” has a violin virtuoso that makes me feel like I am listening to a chamber orchestra. Sonu Niigaam’s voice fills the listener with hope, with this song that celebrates life. It’s almost a very spiritual song, and the addition of the Mridangam really adds to the rustically spiritual feel of the melody that is based on Raag Bilawwal. Throw in an electric guitar during one of the interludes, and you have the modern with the classic. Remember that feeling you get when your lover looks into your eyes with hope and smiles at you? That’s the feeling you’ll get after listening to this song.
The album ends with the melancholy eighth track, “Aai Dil Mat Ro”. The feeling of loneliness that one feels throughout their life is beautifully conveyed by the lyrics as sung by Sonu. Soft flute and percussion ably supports the melody based on Raag Jog Kauns. This song sounds like something that would be perfectly at home in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie. Does your heart long for the gentle touch of the one you love? As they disappear into the dark fog of loneliness, you’ll miss them all the more after listening to this track.
Sonu Niigaam does with this album what any artist strives to do, to somehow convey the joys, love, and heartbreak that he has faced in his life. “Classically Mild” is just that, mild enough to serve as a bridge to understand how classical music has always been based on the most primal of human emotions. You don’t have to be a classical music lover to enjoy this album, nor should the classical enthusiast turn their nose down at the mixing of modern elements to the music.
I think that music director Deepak Pandit, lyricist Ajay Jhingran, vocalist Sonu Niigaam and all the musicians who played on this album should take a bow and be admired in having the courage to make such beautiful music that breaks out of the standard Bollywood film and Indi Pop mold.
As for Sonu Niigaam, he proves yet again that he is on his way to becoming a modern legend as he effortlessly conveys all of his emotions with his brilliant vocals. The previous generation may have had Kishore Kumar/Rafi/Mukesh, but we have our own legend in Sonu Niigaam. May he find his own inner peace but until then, we shall share in his journey through his amazing vocals. Celebrate life in all its forms with this album. Blow out those candles, finish that wine and hold your lover close as you listen to this album that is at times musically divine.
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