Coke Studio Tamil's Mullai Kalai Kuzhu brings tribal music to the masses

The song, 'Oh Hoi', brings together Sean Roldan, Arivu and Benny Dayal, along with Mullai Kalai Kuzhu
Mullai Kalai Kuzhu in 'Oh Hoi' poster
Mullai Kalai Kuzhu in 'Oh Hoi' poster

It was a dream come true for the tribal music band, Mullai Kalai Kuzhu, when they received a call from Coke Studio Tamil to be part of their peppy single, Oh Hoi. The song, a heartfelt tribute to the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures, seamlessly blends modern pop with Irula tribal music. Having never performed for such a big music franchise until then, the band members were incipiently in utter disbelief.

"Our performances were confined to ooru thiruvizhas and small stages. Our audience, too, was restricted. So when singer Arivu mentioned that the Coke Studio team was planning to come up with seven songs, and one of them was based on tribal music, and asked us to be part of it, we were quite taken aback. Since we had never worked on a song of this scale, we were clueless about how to go about it. But we didn't want to let the opportunity slip by," says KV Kanniyappan, the organiser and one of the lead singers of the band. 

He tells Indulge that setting foot in the recording room for the first time was an experience in itself. "We had only seen a recording studio on television. There was a pin-drop silence in the studio, and it felt a tad intimidating at the outset. But the irony was that we couldn't hear ourselves in the recording booth. The song's composer, Sean Roldan, was quite patient and understanding, and he kept giving us cues from time to time on when to sing and when to stop. It took us a while to settle into the beat. Composing and singing your own song is one thing, but singing to the tunes created by another person is a different ballgame altogether. Also, we had never heard our songs again after our performances. So, it was a goosebumps-inducing moment.

After the song delivery, the team was so thrilled that they kept asking Arivu about the release date of the song. "The moment the song dropped on YouTube, a writer from Senji recognised that the lyrics were penned by me and rang me up. The song had had a massive reach in a short span of time."

He adds that penning the lyrics was quite a riveting experience. "The writing process, too, was different. Arivu and I sat together to brainstorm, and he kept pushing me to add more parambariyamana varigal so that the lyrics remained rooted in the Irula culture."

Ask about the inception of the band, and Kanniyappan traces the journey back to 2018. "We are a group of 15 members, comprising 9 men and 6 women. Interestingly, the majority of us are couples, and hence, it is easy for us to coordinate with each other. Yet another interesting fact is that most of us are first-generation graduates, and my father is the seniormost member in the band."

Kanniyappan adds, "It was only after I reached college that we decided to take our music to a wider audience. We decided to form a band and mulled over many names based on the landforms—Kurinji, Mullai, Marutham, Neithal, and Paalai—and eventually zeroed in on Mullai (forests) Kalai Kuzhu. We are a community that dwells in the forests and lives in harmony with nature. It seemed like a perfect fit. In fact, Oh Hoi, too, reflects the same emotions."

He adds, "After the formation, we got an opportunity to perform at Margazhiyil Makkalisai by Neelam Cultural Centre, thanks to director Pa Ranjith. Since then, we have been regulars at the festival. There are many tribal groups whose culture has remained out of sight. Our aim is to take indigenous tribal music to a wider audience. We need more platforms to show our prowess. We have also been doing street plays that campaign against slavery, under the guidance of filmmaker Bramma." 

Mullai Kalai Kuzhu in 'Oh Hoi' poster
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