Percussionist Pratap Rath: Image courtesy

A vocabulary for studio sessions

If music in India is abundantly diverse, so is the terminology associated with its many genres and styles of music. Film music too has its own set of unique terms, short codes and phrases often coined and used almost exclusively by sessions musicians, particularly those who were active in the pre-digital, pre-multi-track recording days. These sessions musicians have largely been an anonymous lot, with no one caring to acknowledge them on album covers. Often, they may find due place in the credit roll at the end of a film, but since that is usually the time when viewers are rushing out of theatres trying to beat exiting crowds in making a quick getaway, the names of the musicians seldom register clearly or only with diehard fans of music. But apart from their musicianship, sessions musicians are also repositories of little known anecdotes, information, legends, myths, facts and inside stories about the music industry. For years, groups of musicians from different parts of the country congregated in the many studios in Mumbai to record the millions of songs that form a unique and integral part of Indian films. Large orchestras would record parts and interludes written for each song by the respective arrangers who worked with composers and music directors.

In a typical film song from the seventies, there could be over a dozen rhythm players in the rhythm section of the orchestra. This could include half a dozen tabla players, several dholak players and percussionists. Unlike current times, a song would have to be recorded in a straight run-through with no option for punching in a correction. If you made a mistake, you just had to start all over again. Many of the musicians were unable to notate the music they played and hence played from memory, or followed signals provided by colleagues or arrangers or composers to mark changes in rhythm patterns or breaks in the music. Still others developed simple methods of notation that could be hurriedly scribbled down, and at times they developed unique terms and codes too. It was a kind of short code language that the musicians understood and used deftly.

For example, what would you do if you were asked to play a rhythm pattern called “78”? You or I could just sit there looking completely befuddled, but a sessions musician would know instantly that he had to play a specific rhythm pattern that became exceedingly popular in 1978! And if 78 isn’t funny enough, how about making sense out of “gumboot”! Yes, that’s right. Rhythm players use the term to indicate the specific sound produced on the dholak. At times, names of composers and music directors form the basis for a new coinage. For example, a rhythm pattern used typically by Rajesh Roshan would be notated as R.R. Just say R.R and the entire rhythm section will start playing the same groove. Say B.L. and the rhythm they will play is one popularized by Bhappi Lahiri. And if you think you are ready now to decode these terms, how about figuring out what “sargam theka” could mean? Sargam or solmization is the system of singing a swara with an associated syllable, for example, sa,re, ga, ma. So would the rhythm section be playing solfege in the sargam theka? No, they simply play the rhythm pattern that became popular in the 1979 Rishi Kapoor starrer “Sargam”. Remember the popular “dafli waale dafli bajaa…” track from the film? It is the groove from that track that has been immortalized as “sargam theka” says Pratap Rath, experienced and popular percussionist from the Bombay film industry, who very patiently explained these terms to me and to whom I am deeply grateful. He also mentioned the sheng-dana thekaa but to figure that one out, you will need to join a recording session and recite with the rhythm section detos ka malaa sheng-dana sheng-dana ?

This article was first published in my column Music Matters for Lounge, Mint in July, 2011:

Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal

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