The making of 'Magizhchi': Composer Tenma on The Casteless Collective's first album

TNM got in touch with Tenma, the band's producer and arranger, on their latest songs, their journey so far and what awaits the 19 member band.
The making of 'Magizhchi': Composer Tenma on The Casteless Collective's first album
The making of 'Magizhchi': Composer Tenma on The Casteless Collective's first album
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On New Year's eve, The Casteless Collective’s debut album, Magizhchi, was launched. The launch itself was preceded by a three-day cultural event planned by director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Cultural Centre. As the 19-member band walked around the pumped-up crowd waiting for the album’s launch in St Ebba’s School in Chennai, the cheering and loud claps from the audience, which drowned out every other sound that night, was proof enough of the band’s popularity.

Their 'Ayappa' song sung by Isaivaani - the band’s only female performer - went viral on social media soon after it was performed on stage. The lines “I am sorry Ayappa na ulla vandha ennapa? Bayam kaati adakivekka pazhakaalam illappa” appeared to predict the events that were to follow a few days later - two women scaled the Sabarimala hill to pray to the deity while the state was focusing on another phenomenal feat performed by its women - the Women's Wall.

Were they expecting the song to become an overnight sensation? “We are actually bowled over by the response. The song is trending in Kerala and we are quite happy. We’ve now been called to perform in Kerala,” says Tenma, the band’s music producer, arranger and leader.

Formed a year ago in December 2017, The Casteless Collective was brought together by Pa Ranjith's Neelam Cultural Centre and an independent label 'Madras Records' run by indie artist Tenma.

Bringing Magizhchi onstage

With eight songs and one bonus instrumental track (‘Othadi’), Magizhchi is a genre-bending album with searing lyrics and foot-thumping beats. From the popular ‘Beef’ and ‘Quota’ songs with seething lines aimed at the authoritarian government to the funnily worded ‘Tik Tik' or ‘Naanga Platform’ to the pathos on farming crisis - ‘Vivasayam’ - the album discusses varied political topics that are most relevant to present times.

The band, in fact, had performed a few of these songs last year, when they came up on stage for the very first time. “Most of the songs we performed last January itself. We actually wrote the songs in December 2017. But we tightened up the lyrics this time. We also wrote songs based on the current political events ('Ayappa') and there are a few that we couldn’t perform like the ‘Aama Sami song’ that goes “Ippola yarunga sami pakuraa”'. We wanted to include three more songs but due to lack of time we weren’t able to,” says Tenma.

The band has performed a good number of songs that aren’t part of their Magizhchi album, like the New Year song, ‘Thathangu Tharikita Tharikita’, that was very well received when it was performed live on stage to welcome 2019. Then there’s ‘Pengalathan Kumbidaran Deivama’ another brilliant number by Isiaivaani.

“We rewrote the lyrics with a different idea this time. The theme is around LGBTQ issues and women's empowerment. This time, it is structured around a brother’s support for his sister’s love with another person. This time, we had a lot more songs on women’s empowerment,” shares Tenma.

He also admits that he has been scouting for more female singers to join The Casteless Collective. “I have been asked about this many times and I am on the lookout for singers. But the reason why we don’t have more women yet is that it is quite challenging to find someone who fits the bill and the TCC stage is quite competitive,” he adds.

Isaivaani is proof for just how much more powerful a song can sound when it comes from a woman - both her songs ‘Beef’ and ‘Ayappa’ have been widely shared by many.

Magizhchi isn't just an album that you can listen to in passing. It is an album that makes you want to grab at those lines floating through air to understand them better. And the man behind these powerful lines is Arivu. “Arivu writes a lot, sometimes it might be in meter, sometimes it might not, but Arivu and I constantly have political, musical and social conversations. But the main person behind the lyrical content of our songs is Jenny. She tightens our lyrics, makes sure the politics is right. She needs to be celebrated as an important thinker. She is very integral to the lyrical idea of TCC. Jenny was also the brains behind the 'Beef' and the 'Ayappa' songs,” says Tenma.

Photo courtesy: Aruna Photography

The journey thus far

The album itself comes with a unique feat - it has been recorded using echo chamber technique. How did they work on this? “Echo chamber recording is something I wanted to give back to the recording industry. So many attempts have been made at chamber recording. In European productions, they take an orchestra inside a church to get the atmosphere of the church. Led Zeppelin has recorded in a mansion,” begins Tenma.

But the idea itself came to him after they performed during the Museum Theatre’s Iyal Isai Nadagam festival in 2018. “It was a really unique sound and I liked it very much, so I checked with a couple of engineers. It was a huge risk but we flipped that risk. We recorded the percussion track in The Museum Theatre. It will be a unique experience when you listen to it,” he says.

Credit for The Casteless Collective coming a long way in just a year must go to each of its artists. From sharing their very first stage together to becoming powerful performers in their own right, TCC band members have had a spectacular journey, and Tenma’s role in grooming them as stage performers is undeniable.

“I trained all of them keeping in mind a specific international music icon. When you look at Balachander, you’ll see a James Brown in him. When you see Muthu he’ll remind you of Freddie Mercury. In fact, everyone in the band calls him Freddie ma…” he chuckles.

Tenma tells us that he made the members devour international music videos.

“I made Isaivaani watch a lot of Beyonce and MIA. There isn't a rapper on the planet that Arivu does not know of. He went through the whole bill from Logic to Kendrick Lamar to Lil Wayne - he devoured all of them,” he says adding, “I adore frontmen who can entertain the crowd. This is very important for a band. Currently, there are very few playback singers or band frontmen who know how to do frontmen duties. I am very proud of where the Casteless Collective has come. We have the best performers who can entertain in the country!”

While it is evident that the band has gone through a transformation, have the audience's perceptions changed too? “I don’t think anything has changed yet. People have taken us seriously and TCC has become a cultural identity, but everything remains the same apart from that. We are only trying to build a conversation. Let it take its time,” says Tenma.

Talking about the TCC's agenda, Tenma says, “Our songs are quite powerful but we don’t want to agitate people and make them angry with our politics. We understand our limits. The idea is to bring everyone together and live in harmony. This is Ambedkar’s ahimsa.”

But Tenma is quite confident that it won’t be long before TCC goes international. “We’ve been receiving calls to perform, and not just in India. But this is something that I’ve been building for. I’ve always wanted to take the band international,” he smiles.

The Casteless Collective will be performing at the Vikatan Awards on the 9th and will also travel to Kerala on the January 12. 

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