Ask a Malayali about the origins of rock in the state and there’s a good chance they’d mention Avial. While Aanakallan (and the songs in their eponymous album) definitely need to be given credit for being probably the first rock songs to get so widely celebrated here, we believe that this success is also largely attributed to the democratic nature of the internet.
The indie scene in the country was nothing close to democratic in the early years. Anything that swayed away from popular (film) music and disco music attracted very little attention from record labels. Television was still not a thing until the late 1980s. A few posh restaurants were all the exposure they could get. And yet, there was a 13 AD in Kochi, doing gigs across the country (and even in the Middle East) making a name for itself. Just go over to the few authentic videos that 13AD have managed to recover and upload. The comments are full of nostalgia – an almost painful nostalgia lamenting how the bands of that era deserved more. They were already doing genres that most people couldn’t immediately digest, so there was the mental resistance…but then there were times when the resistance was physical – the police would reportedly barge into live concerts and lathi charge people out!
By the 90s, with the advent of MTV India, indie music rose in popularity, leading to more opportunities for live gigs. And then of course, came the internet boom, which completely revolutionized the space. Today, independent bands in Kerala are huge, with millions of fans across the world. Making a list of our favourite indie bands wasn’t easy, because they are way too many. And they’re all way too good. To make it slightly more structured and to reduce our dilemma in curating the list, we have focused on bands that have a good dose of rock (arguably the broadest genre there is :P). Here we go!
Four youngsters got together and created 13AD in 1977. Throughout the 80s, they remained a top band in the country. In 1990, they released the first ever Malayali rock album, “Ground Zero”, that hit record sales. With their second album, they brought in (probably) the first female singers for a rock band in the scene. After a hiatus in the 2000s, they did a reunion gig in Kochi in 2008, and do have plans to make a bilingual album as well. Undoubtedly the Godfathers of the indie scene in Kerala!
Interestingly, Motherjane had started off as a classic rock band in the late 90s. But with the 2008 album Maktub – which was recognised by Rolling Stone as Album of the Year – there came a marked shift in their musical style, with the incorporation of elements from Indian classical music. Over the years the team has seen a lot of changes in personnel, but it continues to be one of the most respected bands in the country.
This alternative rock band has played a huge role in making indie music accessible to mainstream Malayali audiences. And they proved that singing in a regional language is no barrier to national-level acclaim. Though they haven’t had recent releases, they remain a classic favourite for fans of rock.
Often credited to be the group that popularised Carnatic music in the internet generation, Agam labels their genre as “Carnatic Progressive Rock”: Every track takes you into a ‘DreamTheatre Meets Deekshitar’ world. Though they’re technically not a “Kerala band”, a lot of their instrumentation (edakka, chenda), cultural references (theyyam), and lyrics (Boat song, Celestial Nymph) find influence from the state.
This six-piece outfit is essentially a thrash and groove metal band that sprinkle traditional folk elements into their music. Most of their songs fall under an overarching theme of “speaking up for the downtrodden”. Naturally, a lot of their music is political in nature: they even released a track (“Fight, React, Be a part”) in the wake of the heated political situation of last December.
Kaav is a prog rock instrumental trio based.out of Vypin Island in Kochi. Their eponymous debut EP was produced by Motherjane-fame Baiju Dharmajan, and released in 2010 to much acclaim. There is an eerie psychic element in their sound that is hard to explain and is best experienced. Fun fact: their video for the song “Daya” featured on Coldplay’s website in 2010!
It’s almost ironic that after gaining widespread popularity for their interesting reworks of old hits, they shifted to creating stunningly original compositions. The latest album (Namah) stands testament to this change, with a truly international collab-lineup including the likes of Jordan Rudess, Rakesh Chaurasia, Guthrie Govan, Chris Adler and Anandraj Benjamin.
The band debuted on Kappa TV’s Music Mojo in 2014 and had several of their covers (Munbe Vaa, Kaantha, Snehithane) going super viral. Since Salsa (from Kunjiramayanam) came out in 2015, they have increasingly ventured into film music as well. Their typical zone lies somewhere between alternative folk and rock. Their latest album, Kimaya is a multilingual attempt with ten originals (some are yet to be released).
This Thrissur-based band operates in the post-rock genre. They’ve really built a niche for themselves with their super trippy, psychedelic soundscape. Interestingly, instead of going for the conventional studio path, their debut album (‘Live at the Regional Theatre’) was recorded live!
When Chai Met Toast
This Kochi-based four-piece band broke into the scene last decade, with their USP being their genre of “happy music”. Their songs are usually written in English, with Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam slipping in occasionally. Last year, they came up with “Nee Aara”, a complete departure from their trademark style and their first full track in Malayalam. Definitely a band to look out for in the years to come!
Also sending love to the other players in the space who are doing super awesome work – Oorali, Amrutham Gamaya, Copper Planet, Noodlez, Thakara, Black Letters as well as all the up-and-coming collectives. The time is ripe to set the (already lit) scene on fire. Independent music is here to stay!