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The Evolution Of Bollywood Music In 10 Songs: From "Awaara Hoon" To "Naatu Naatu"
Bollywood music has been thriving since the 1950s, and continues to evolve. Chart its growth with 10 songs that employ everything from orchestral strings, high-pitched female vocals and traditional instruments to rock 'n' roll.
2023 has proven to be a historic year for the music of Indian cinema. The hyperkinetic "Naatu Naatu," off the period drama RRR, won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
This moment of global recognition is perfectly fine, of course, but Bollywood music has been thriving — and winning the hearts of millions of fans — since the 1950s. At that time, India's film industry experienced a golden era thanks to a generation of brilliant directors, producers, actors — and, of course, singers and composers.
Concurrently, playback singers — the actual performers recording vocals that are later mimed by the actors — became international household names. Prolific and multifaceted, artists like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle (Mangeshkar's younger sister), Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh recorded at a breakneck pace; the warmth and passion in their voices became ingrained in the DNA of Indian popular culture.
The tunes themselves adopt a different cosmovision from the typical harmonic progressions of Western pop. Instead, they obsess on melody and rhythm, favoring swirling orchestral strings, high-pitched female vocals, and traditional instruments like tabla and sitar. Bollywood songs often have plenty of breathing room, with extended passages that generate trance-like moods. Outside stylistic references have included everything from mambo, disco and psychedelia to rock, hip-hop and reggaetón.
This selection of golden standards and underrated gems of Indian cinema traces the evolution of Bollywood music through seven decades.
"Awaara Hoon" (1951)
The splendor of Indian cinema began to shine in earnest with Awaar, a wistful slice of social criticism directed, produced and starred by Raj Kapoor, Bollywood’s own Charles Chaplin. His version of the idealistic tramp character shares his cosmovision in this song voiced by Mukesh (1923-76), a playback singer with a gift for melancholy undertones.
Both song and movie were hugely successful in Asia and Europe (local covers were recorded in Greece, Turkey and Romania, among other countries.) It was only the early ‘50s, and the world was already beginning to pay attention.
"Bahut Shukriya, Badi Meherbani" (1962)
Boasting the luminous presence of actress Sadhana Shivdasani, the romantic spy thriller Ek Musafir Ek Hasina ("A Traveler and a Beauty") includes one of the most delicate duets from the Bollywood golden era in the 1950s. Punctuated by busy harmonium lines and influenced by Indian folk, "Bahut Shukriya, Badi Meherbani" was written by master composer O. P. Nayyar, known for the sweetness of his melodies.
Most of the song is taken up by the honeyed singing of Mohammed Rafi, but when the legendary Asha Bhosle joins in, the track feels complete and revelatory.
"Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko" (1973)
A playback singer of mythical status, Asha Bhosle — now 89 years old — followed in the footsteps of her sister Lata Mangeshkar and became, according to Guinness, the most recorded vocalist in history, with over 12,000 songs to her credit.
A personal favorite of hers, this track from the film Yaadon Ki Baaraat may be her very best. It begins with the clinking of glasses, like a mystical ritual, and moves on with the majestic swelling of strings, giving way to Asha’s perfectly controlled pitch. She navigates the difficult melodic line with exquisite ease.
"Mehbooba Mehbooba" (1973)
Directed by Ramesh Sippy, Sholay signified a before and after moment. Initially released to lukewarm reviews and low ticket sales, it became Bollywood’s biggest grossing film for decades, and is considered the golden paradigm of the emerging masala genre: a mosaic of thrills and romance, humor and music.
The soundtrack, by visionary composer — and Asha Bhosle’s future husband — R. D. Burman includes this impossibly catchy tune vocalized by the maestro himself.
"In Ankhon Ki Masti" (1981)
Performed by Asha Bhosle, the songs of the critically acclaimed literary adaptation Umrao Jaan showcase the most mournful aspects of Bollywood music. Set in the 19th century, the film tells story of a young girl who is kidnapped from her family, sold to a brothel and trained as a sophisticated courtesan. "In Ankhon Ki Masti" is appropriately tragic, but infused in the intoxicating melodies of Punjabi composer Khayyam. Bhosle used her lower register, adding gravitas to such classic tunes as "In Ankhon Ki Masti."
"Chaiyya Chaiyya" (1998)
Known for his award-winning soundtrack to the British film Slumdog Millionaire, A. R. Rahman wrote some of his best music for the politically-charged thriller Dil Se..
Symbolizing the reckless adrenaline of love at first sight, the rollicking "Chaiyya Chaiyya" sequence finds actors Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora dancing together with dozens of performers on top of a train that moves along the Indian countryside — a sequence shot on the Nilgiri Express with no added digital effects. To this day, it stands as one of Bollywood’s most breathtaking sequences. The song itself was recorded by playback singers Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.
"Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" (1998)
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is an extraordinary film in several ways. The directing debut of industry heavyweight Karan Johar (who was 26 at the time), the production was made possible thanks to the support of mega-star Shah Ruck Khan and ended up being the year’s biggest grossing film.
Shot in Scotland, the title track sequence underscores the formal beauty of the song, which was written by brothers Jatin and Lalit Pandit. From the angelic choir in the intro to the powerful use of tabla as rhythmic backdrop and the soaring modulation of singer Alka Yagnik in the bridge, this is aural candy for the ages.
"Chotta Chotta" (1999)
The world of Bollywood music is so extravagant and richly layered that even the lesser-known commercial disappointments feature compositions of dazzling beauty and depth. Such is the case with this gorgeous track from the Tamil film Taj Mahali.
"Chotta Chotta" combines tribal backbeat with traditional instrumentation and a stately, existential mood. This combination is unsurprising when you consider the pedigree of its creator: the prodigious A. R. Rahman. "Chotta Chotta" is the kind of tune that can ignite a lifelong obsession with Indian music.
"London Thumakda" (2013)
The exuberant wedding scene with family members of all ages dancing together is a staple of Bollywood productions, and this bubbly number from the Vikas Bahl hit Queen gets every single detail right — including the occasional power cut.
Written by Mumbai composer Amit Trivedi, the buoyant score complements the story of Rani, who decides to spend her honeymoon in Paris and Amsterdam alone after her fiancé dumps her one day before their wedding.
"Naatu Naatu" (2022)
Besides being the third highest grossing film in Bollywood history, action drama RRR underscores the globalization of Indian culture, with its biggest hit, "Naatu Naatu," bringing home an Academy Award and Golden Globe.
Drawn from stories of revolutionaries fighting for freedom during the British Raj, RRR shows how far Indian film has evolved in the new century. Written by veteran composer M. M. Keeravani, the track thrives on spectacular vocal harmonies and slick production values.
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5 Artists Showing The Future Of AAPI Representation In Rap: Audrey Nuna, TiaCorine & More
A growing number of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists are exploring how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express their multiculturalism — and they're being embraced for doing so.
Is it possible for an Asian American rapper to achieve widespread commercial success? In the 2016 documentary Bad Rap, no one could be too sure.
At that point, some firsts for the community turned out to be false starts: In the ‘90s, Mountain Brothers was the first Asian American rap group to sign to a major label, but left just two years later. In the early aughts, MC Jin lost critical career momentum he gained from his impressive winning streak on "106 & Park’s" Freestyle Fridays, when Ruff Ryders delayed his debut album release by more than a year. As Miley Cyrus sparked a national conversation about cultural appropriation in hip-hop, Bad Rap’s subjects faced questions regarding whether they’re just as guilty as Cyrus, or whether their music was helping break the “model minority” stereotype.
Since then, hip-hop, a Black music tradition, has spawned countless global scenes, bringing contemporary rap across the Pacific and beyond. Rap taking hold in Asia can still seem contentious, whether dissecting K-pop's use of the genre or revisiting the viral songs that landed Awkwafina in Bad Rap. But, there is also a growing number of artists who are figuring out how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express and explore their multiculturalism — and are being embraced by the music industry for doing so.
In 2013, Kanye West’s jarring Yeezus changed Audrey Nuna’s music tastes for good, encouraging her to check out hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and MF DOOM. From there, she "started making what I wanted to hear," as she told Pigeons and Planes.
Nuna prefers to call herself a singer, to better reflect the stylistic versatility throughout her 2021 debut a liquid breakfast. Still, the "Robitussin flow" in "Comic Sans" is undeniable — to where Jack Harlow responded to her cold email and hopped on the song’s remix.
The making of a liquid breakfast made Nuna realize that she never has to search far to find inspiration. On "Blossom," Nuna’s grandmother laughs as she tells her about how, while fleeing the Korean War, she woke up from a nap on the migrant trail to find that her travel group — including her family — accidentally left her behind.
In the future, Nuna hopes to feature more Korean instrumentation as she channels her current influence, Radiohead. As Nuna told W, "We’re sitting here, living, because our grandparents were able to survive."
"She fell in love with the lifestyle of a pop star," pH-1 raps in "Yuppie Ting," the third track off his 2021 album But For Now Leave Me Alone. As he boasts of the Louis Vuitton he wears and the Michelin star meals he eats, pH-1 alternates between rapping in Korean and English with impressive precision, his flow skating over BlackDoe’s garage-inspired production.
Behind the scenes, pH-1 has felt more torn between the Korean and Western music industries than his music lets on. Even Jay Park, who has followed pH-1 since he moved to Korean and competed on rap talent show "Show Me the Money," once told him to write more in Korean. But for pH-1, to write exclusively in Korean would be to deny his Stateside upbringing in Long Island and Boston, and how he, like so many Korean Americans, naturally alternate between Korean and English in conversation.
"If I want to ‘financially succeed’ in Korea, I would have to make a song that’s very Korean-style. But that’s not me," pH-1 said to fellow artist Eric Nam in 2019. Instead, the more glittering spots of But For Now Leave Me Alone showcase pH-1 to be the experienced globetrotter he is.
In Bad Rap, Rekstizzy films a music video where, at a cookout, he squeezes picnic condiments not onto hot dogs, but the backsides of dancing Black women — for a song called "God Bless America." In his larger quest to become the "Korean rapper" he dreamed of in elementary school, he figured that outrageously offensive visuals were a must." "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit about us ‘cause we’re Asian," he says in the documentary.
Straddling the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity can seem impossible. But now, years after Bad Rap and after guest appearances in Adventure Time and Beef, Rekstizzy seems to have figured out an ideal balance. Mostly, he doesn’t seem nearly as pressed over proving that he’s American.
His own pop culture references, crude as they may be ("May cop a lewd body pillow on Etsy"), speak volumes. His music’s debaucherous nature recalls a wide swath of U.S. regional rap styles, from the Bay Area ("요리 (Yori)"), to the Midwest ("Mal Do An Dweh") and Atlanta ("Hentai"). As for his attempts to rap entire verses in Korean for the first time, apparently the jokes write themselves. As he and Bad Rap co-star Dumbfoundead realized while recording "Mal Do An Dweh," their takes on Korean slang sound hopelessly out of date, because as the latter realized, "We communicate in Korean more with our parents than our friends who speak in Korean."
Spence Lee is the child of a first-generation Chinese American and a Vietnamese refugee. But for much of his earlier material, his ethnic origins were hard to discern on record alone.
Spence Lee’s previous moniker, Shotta Spence, honored the "Dirty Jersey" that raised him — more specifically, the Caribbean supporters he gained before he relocated to New York, modeled for Yeezy, and gained producer Mike WiLL Made It as a mentor. That influence also appears all over his last full-length, 2019’s 1012; on songs like "Bounce," his cadence is equally inspired by reggae and trap.
Spence still shouts out how he came up with "shottas" and "rastas" on the autobiographical single, 2022’s "On God," one of his first under a new moniker bearing his family name. But that fact makes up just one chapter in his larger journey to capturing both the attention of Mike WiLL and 88rising, who jointly released the single. Mike WiLL explained to Joysauce how he and 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro saw "how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey \[and\] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals."
But Spence perhaps puts his new direction best in "On God," when he raps, "I do all this s— for my mom."
TiaCorine (whose father is Black and Japanese, and whose mother is part of the Shoshone Nation) ends her 2022 breakout album, I Can’t Wait with a breakup anthem dedicated to the poor music exec who counted her out. In "You’re Fired," she raps to keep from crying and sounding completely helpless: "You never listen to my songs, I’m always doing something wrong."
Today, her sly single "FreakyT" has 21 million Spotify streams and a Latto remix, it’s impossible to imagine how the situation in "You’re Fired" must have played out in real life.
TiaCorine’s music is Southern rap by way of Hatsune Miku — and it makes perfect sense, in an age where streaming has turned both hip-hop and anime (two of her biggest influences) into Stateside juggernauts. Her music captures the zeitgeist, though it also comes from an authentic place: While her father played formative ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop in his Range Rover, her mother blared pop-rock instead. "That goes into my music — of me, just being free. Me just being confident in myself," TiaCorine told Preme magazine. Thanks to that confidence, mainstream success not only seems possible, but inevitable.
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Press Play: Henry Lau Shows Off His Musical Prowess With A Dynamic Performance Of "MOONLIGHT"
Genre-bending singer Henry Lau uses a loop station to perform his single "MOONLIGHT," incorporating the violin, cello and both electric and acoustic guitar.
With his single "MOONLIGHT," Henry Lau refuses to be burdened by his past relationships. Now, he's turning a new leaf, dancing carefree under the night sky, regardless of the negative emotions he might feel.
"I'm waking up in a daze, get it out of my face/ The sun is shining on every move that I make," the singer reveals in the second verse. "So, let's get to forgetting everything that went wrong/ Everybody here, we been crying too long/ We can dance about it to our favorite song."
In this episode of Press Play, Lau performs "MOONLIGHT" from a mansion rooftop during sunset. He constructs the entire song using a loop station, playing a violin, cello and electric and acoustic guitars — one of his signature performance techniques that prompted his nickname, "one-man band."
Lau released "MOONLIGHT" in January — marking his first single in two years — via Monster Entertainment, the label he founded alongside his brother Clinton. He released another single, "Real Love Still Exists," two months later; the track features Malaysian R&B singer Yuna.
Watch the video above to watch Henry Lau's impressive loop station performance of "MOONLIGHT," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
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ReImagined: Nat Myers Offers A Bluesy Rendition Of John Prine's Final Song, "I Remember Everything"
Korean-American blues singer Nat Myers honors John Prine by transforming the late country great's final song into an upbeat, acoustic folk track.
On April 7, 2020, the country world had to say goodbye to beloved icon John Prine. Two months later, his final song was posthumously released, and it was a poignant one: "I Remember Everything," a reflection on a well-lived, well-loved life.
"I remember everything/ Things I can't forget/ The way you turned and smiled on me/ On the night that we first met," Prine sings in the chorus. "And I remember every night, your ocean eyes of blue/ I miss you in the morning light like roses miss the dew."
In this episode of ReImagined, Kentucky native Nat Myers performs a cover of "I Remember Everything." Known for his nimble picking style, the Korean-American singer performs the song on just an acoustic guitar. He remains mostly faithful to Prine's original recording, but increases the tempo for a more folk-inspired sound.
Aside from covers, Myers has a blooming career writing original blues music. On June 23, he will release his newest album, Yellow Peril, via Ease Eye Sound, an independent record label and studio in Nashville, Tennessee, owned and operated by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.
Press play on the video above to watch Nat Myers' cover of John Prine's "I Remember Everything," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of ReImagine.
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Behind The Board: How Avicii Inspired CHYL To Leave Finance For A Full-Time Career In Music
After realizing her career in finance wasn't fulfilling, CHYL decided to take up music production casually — until Avicii's unexpected passing taught her one important lesson: life is too short not to pursue your passion.
When Chinese-Canadian music producer CHYL heard EDM for the first time after coming to North America, "a fire ignited" in her body.
Despite realizing her passion, CHYL opted for a career on Wall Street after graduating from Columbia University. "I hated it so much," she says with a hearty laugh. "In my second year of finance, I figured I really should start picking up some hobbies outside of finance."
From there, CHYL began taking DJ lessons casually and grew a deep appreciation for production. Though it wasn't until her idol, Avicii, passed away that she realized it was time to pursue music full-time.
"He was who I listened to a lot back in the day," she explains in this episode of Behind The Board. "Life is short. You have to pursue what you love to do. If you don't, who knows what's going to happen? You have to go for your passion."
After five years of making music, CHYL has perfected her process. First, she finds a vocal slice for the foundation of her music. Then, she works on finding emotion and energy. And most importantly, she doesn't overthink any of it.
"Sometimes it's the most simple and catchy thing that goes viral. It's a constant battle that makes something similar and catchy or something that shows off all your production skills in one song. It's a balance," she adds.
Above all, she always strives to make songs that stick. "A great song is memorable," she says. "Some of the songs that go viral on TikTok may or may not be great songs, but they're very memorable and catchy."
Press play on the video above to learn more about CHYL's musical journey, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Behind The Board.
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