Ilaiyaraaja

Wings, Vol. 1

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In India, the primary forum for the dissemination of popular songs is the movies. And one of the most popular composers of popular songs for film is the jaw-droppingly prolific Ilaiyaraaja (aka Raaja), a Tamil musician whose work seems to transcend cultural and political boundaries on the Indian subcontinent. Massimo Simonini, a longtime fan and a principal at Italy's Angelica label, traveled to India to ask permission to select three discs' worth of Ilaiyaraaja songs for release in Europe and the U.S., and this is the first of those planned three volumes. The album is charming at several levels -- the relatively lo-fi recording technology gives the orchestral strings a pleasantly gritty sound, for one thing, and for another, there's a constantly shifting balance between Western and Eastern musical elements that gives tracks like "Singing Self" and the bizarre "Nothing But Wind" (which sounds like the Residents on vacation in Calcutta) a foreign yet familiar quality. The female vocals are consistently lovely as well, particular on the chirpily gorgeous "Ethanai Vagai." But best of all are the melodies themselves, which are Asian in flavor but pretty in a way that should appeal to ears from all cultures. Recommended.

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