Imagine it’s your birthday, and your family is taking you out for dinner to your favourite restaurant. When you reach the place, you find all your friends excitedly there, and the place is full of balloons and streamers. Why, there’s even a huge cake waiting to be cut, and what is best—you do not have to pay for any of this. That must feel like a delightful surprise, because you weren’t expecting it. In the music universe, when musicians bring in what sounds like a delightful surprise through an unexpected tweaking of the rhythms, it is called syncopation.
It is a fascinating concept, achieved basically in either of two ways: by disturbing the predictable flow of rhythm in a song, or by stressing on its weak beats. The result throws up an offbeat song. Many composers use the idea, because they feel predictable beats can become quite boring, and music without syncopation can become a rhythmic “snoozefest”. Offering new rhythm patterns within a song can be so refreshing, as can be the stressing on weak beats. Even so, not every composer uses this trick, nor does any musician do it much of the time, just as in cricket a googly can bring interesting results, but is not bowled in every delivery.
To get a better understanding of this concept, at this point it is recommended that you hear the following Hindi film song, composed by N Datta in Dhool Ka Phool (1959): Jhukti ghata gaati hawa sapne jagaaye. The start and end of this song belong to Asha Bhosle, but during the song, Mahendra Kapoor has about a minute’s outing, at about 2.15 minutes. Notice how he renders his part off the beat.
New rhythm patterns or offbeat emphasis is commonly heard in instrumental music abroad; pianists and trumpeters frequently resort to them in jazz for instance. Beethoven and Mozart have written their scores with syncopation on their sheet music. In fact, musicians in every genre have got excited with the idea, as they have discovered the quite extraordinary results this approach offers. Indian composers have used changing rhythms within songs, hundreds of times, even in popular music. But in this area they have used vocalists more. Singers stress on a weak beat in the rhythm cycle to make it offbeat, or then they sing with some disregard to any rhythm that may be accompanying them.
Because drunks have a diminished concept of timing (and much else!), Hindi cinema has found an exceptional situation to accentuate on the unexpected beat: actors singing under the influence. In such situations, offbeat singing assumes excellent cinematic relevance. Do recall how a drunk Hema Malini lip-syncs Lata in RD Burman’s tune Haan jee haan maine sharaab pee hai in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), embarrassing Sanjeev Kumar at a party. Perhaps Sanjeev Kumar couldn’t wait to replicate the idea himself, so he urged Laxmikant-Pyarelal to give him just such an offbeat song in Naya Din Nayi Raat two years later, in 1974. This time it was Sanjeev Kumar who was under the influence and thus in a position to take musical liberties in his Rafi song, Main wohi wohi baat. Did Laxmikant-Pyarelal use the syncopation only in that song? Nah! They had already composed for Moushumi Chatterjee to sing a song syncopated by Lata in Chambal Ki Kasam (1969): Kuchh aur behek jaoon tab mere qareeb aana. And even before that, for Manna Dey in Jaago re prabhat aaya (Sant Gyaneshwar, 1964).
But the idea of syncopated singing by drunks has been around before the above songs, and since then too. Here are a few more instances.
- Saaqiya aisi pila de humko deewaana bana de (Sudarshan/Rafi/Mall Road, 1962)
- Mujhe le chalo aaj phir us gali mein(Madan Mohan/Rafi/Sharabi, 1964)
- Sharaabi sharaabi mera naam ho gaya (RD Burman/Lata/Chandan Ka Palna, 1967)
And there are plenty of such songs when people are sober:
- Jeevan asha ye hai meri (Pankaj Mullick/KL Saigal/Zindagi, 1940)
- O door desh se aaja re (Jamal Sen/Suraiya, Lata/Shokhiyan, 1951)
- Hum aap ki aankhon mein, is dil ko basa den to (SD Burman/Rafi, Geeta/Pyaasa, 1957)
- Jhukti ghata gaati hawa sapne jagaaye (N Datta/Asha, Mahendra/Dhool Ka Phool, 1959)
- Utth neend se Mirziya jaag ja (Laxmikant-Pyarelal/Lata, Rafi/Pratigya, 1975)
- Ye hausla kaise jhuke (Salim-Suleiman/Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan, Salim Merchant/Dor, 2006)
- Senorita (Shankar-Ehsan-Loy/Maria del Mar Fernandez, Hrithik, Abhay, Farhan/Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 2011)
Syncopated drumming is frequently used within a straight, un-syncopated song to create a melodious effect, as has also been done in the following speak-and-sing songs:
- Ik Raje ka beta lekar udne waala ghoda (Pankaj Mullick/KL Saigal/President, 1937)
- Hawaon ko dekho nazaaron ko dekho (Ravi/Asha, Sunil Dutt/Ye Raste Hain Pyaar Ke, 1963)
- Dilruba dil pe tu ye sitam kiye ja kiye ja (Shankar-Jaikishan/Asha, Rafi/Raj Kumar, 1964)
- Tumne pukaara aur hum chale aaye (Shankar-Jaikishan/Suman, Rafi/Raj Kumar, 1964)
In semi-classical renditions this ignoring of the rhythms or offbeat singing is commonplace. Sang Nirmala Arun for Husnlal-Bhagatram in Shama Parwana (1954): Ho saanjh padi na ghar aaye Kanhaiya. That was a syncopated thumri as were the two sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan for Naushad in Mughal-e-Azam (1960): Prem jogan ban ke, and Shubh din aayo. After these, Laxmikant-Pyarelal composed a partly syncopated track in raag Mishr Lalit for Manna Dey in Sant Gyaneshwar (1964): Jaago re prabhat aaya.
Qawwalis syncopate routinely too, usually to dramatize key lyrics. Consider these examples:
- Jalwa jo tera dekha humne (Madan Mohan/Asha/Gateway of India, 1958)
- Sharma ke yoon sab parda nasheen aanchal ko sanwaara karte hain (Ravi/Shamshad, Asha/Chaudhvin Ka Chand, 1960)
- Tumhen husn deke Khuda ne sitamgar banaaya (Dattaram/Lata, Asha, Manna, Rafi/Jabse Tumhen Dekha Hai, 1963)
- Milte hi nazar tumse hum ho gaye deewaane (Ravi/Rafi, Asha, Manna Dey/Ustadon Ke Ustad, 1963)
- Husn waale husn ka anjaam dekh (Iqbal Quereshi/Asha, Rafi/Qawwali Ki Raat, 1964)
- Kabhi aye haqeeqat-e-muntazar (Madan Mohan/Lata/Dulhan Ek Raat Ki, 1966)
But syncopations are most commonly found in non-film ghazals, nazms, and bhajans.
- Aashna hokar agar na-aashna ho jaayega (Sudha Malhotra)
- Harsoo dikhaayi dete hain wo jalwagar mujhe (Chitra Singh)
- Kabhi kabhi Bhagwaan ko bhi bhagton se kaam pade (Anup Jalota)
- Poochh na mujhse dil ke fasaane (Mohammad Rafi)
- Uzr aane mein bhi hai aur bulaate bhi naheen (Begum Akhtar)
- Zara dheere se bolo koi sun lega (Begum Akhtar)
To some of you, the above may have sounded somewhat academic, but perhaps you will agree that such songs themselves are fun to hear. Most importantly, those of you who love to sing but suffer from beat-deafness can take something away from this subject. By focussing more on ghazals and bhajans, you can find a way around your shortcomings. And when you next sing, don’t forget to inform your listeners, “Hello, I’m singing syncopated. Do you mind?”
Originally published in DNA Jaipur, page 13, on 19 November 2017 http://epaper2.dnaindia.com/index.php?mod=1&pgnum=1&edcode=131002&pagedate=2017-11-19
Featured image on top: from Jhukti ghata gaati hawa