The Unthroned Kings of Western Music

Drum sets or kits, also known popularly as drums, are a group of percussion instruments, mainly drums and cymbals that are either swished with brushes or struck with sticks horizontally or vertically. The drum kits also often consist of several other instruments such as cycle bells, triangles, tambourines, whistles, and wood blocks. All these are, of course, separate instruments played by dedicated musicians, but the idea of huddling them together was born in late 19th century because of budgetary constraints. This resulted in single players who multitasked and also used their hands and feet. This economical idea has not caught on among Indian musicians who play, for example, the tabla, mridangam, ghatam, pakhawaj, or dholak. Here, individual players continue to relate to just one such instrument, rarely if ever using their feet.

But happily, many of our films have featured western drums in their music. Before we look at some of those songs however, please spare a thought for these unthroned Kings of Western music.

First the unenviable part. The drumming artist sits on a sad-looking apology of a spartan stool that stands on three folding legs. Typically, this stool has no arms or back support, and its seat is thinly-padded. Also, the seat has a diameter of only about 12 inches, making it truly a small area to park yourself on for a few hours. Those of us who have ever shared an uncomfortable seat in a train or bus may perhaps identify with the feeling. And yet, in spite of all that, drummers’ seats are called thrones. Surely this is someone’s idea of a cruel euphemism.

To add salt to the wound, drummers are usually not even afforded much respect in the musical scheme of things. Since they are not supposed to be at the forefront of creating a tune—their role being mainly to keep time—they are usually not part of the birth of a song. This is true of all drummers, including the Indian kind, but is truer of western players with their huge size drum sets that consequently cause transportation issues. That is why one did not often see a drummer in the rehearsals of significant composers like OP Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Naushad, and so on, despite some of these composers’ melodies being associated in our minds with strong beats. Until this point in the process, such players are an optional extra. They are brought in only later when the essential melody has been created. As such, drummers really can’t be blamed for feeling somewhat disconnected from the core team.

This subtle disconnect has widened after the arrival of multi-track recordings. Earlier, a song was recorded with every musician and singer funnelling together. Now everyone records on his own, executes his part, and leaves. But guess who is summoned to the recording studio first. The drummer and his percussions. Foot soldiers in the larger scheme of things.

The lack of cohesiveness with the drummer is the key reason the revolutionary rock band The Beatles, with their core group of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, had a revolving door approach for a series of arriving and departing drummers, even if Ringo Starr was the drummer who lasted the longest with them.

But in spite of drums not having a respectable throne or the relative lack of respect within their bands, many of us may consider them as the kings of a performance.

Why is that so? 

For whatever it’s worth, a throne must have a king, right? But much more so, it’s because of the regally dominant presence of the drum set on a stage. The sheer expanse of the instrument’s ensemble that the player strikes or brushes can be arresting. Next, it’s due to the attention-getting volumes of the instrument, even when not amped up. And when they do decide to make it more audible, they place two high-profile microphones to receive and faithfully reproduce the instrument’s sweep, a daunting visual not lost on the audience. As for the drummer himself, he spends so much energy, offers so much flourish, and covers such a wide arc in front of him, that he commands our attention quite majestically. If the band wants to showcase the drummer and his instrument, they are made to sit on a higher platform than everyone else, adding to the electricity of the experience.

This majesty of the drums is the key reason why quite a few film actors have preferred to execute the role of a drummer in Hindi films. Shammi Kapoor, for example, was so delighted with the results of his role as a drummer in Dil Deke Dekho (1959), that he was on a high when its filmmaker Nasir Hussain offered to cast him as a drummer once again in Teesri Manzil (1966). It is another thing that Hussain kept many other elements unchanged too, like Majrooh for the lyrics, Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi for playback, and Asha Parekh for the female lead. The similarity stretched even further: Ms Parekh and her friends sought to get revenge from the drum player in the early part of both the narratives!

Here’s looking at a few songs featuring the western drum kits down the years, one each from so many composers:

  • Aana meri jaan meri jaan Sunday ki Sunday (C Ramchandra/Shehnai, 1947)
  • Unse ripi tipi ho gayi (Roshan/Agra Road, 1957)
  • Bol bol bol sach sach bol (Avinash Vyas/Laxmi, 1957)
  • Mera naam Chin Chin Chu (OP Nayyar/Howrah Bridge, 1958)
  • Tum saamne aa kar jis dum jalwa sa dikha jaate ho (Madan Mohan/Khazanchi, 1958)
  • He baambo baambolo (Vasant Desai/Mausi, 1958)
  • Beliya beliya beliya beliya (Dattaram/Parvarish, 1958)
  • Aaha…jo tum muskura do (N Datta/Dhool Ka Phool, 1959)
  • Dil deke dekho dil deke dekho (Usha Khanna/Dil Deke Dekho, 1959)
  • Dil hai tera deewaana (Chitragupt/Zimbo Sheher Mein, 1960)
  • Baar-baar dekho hazaar baar dekho (Ravi/China Town, 1962)
  • Jab tak duniya rahi rahega tera naam mera naam (Iqbal Quereshi/Ye Dil Kisko Doon, 1963)
  • Kya rang-e-mehfil hai dildaaram (Naushad/Dil Diya Dard Liya, 1966)
  • Nazar na lag jaaye kisi ki raahon mein (Laxmikant-Pyarelal/Night In London, 1967)
  • Badan pe sitaare lapete hue (Shankar-Jaikishan/Prince, 1969)
  • Dum maaro dum (RD Burman/Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971)
  • Reshmi ujaala hai (SD Burman/Sharmeeli, 1971)
  • Tu kya jaane wafa, o bewafa (Kalyanji-Anandji/Haath Ki Safi, 1974)
  • Jaan-e-man jaan-e-man tere do nayan (Salil Chowdhury/Chhoti Si Baat, 1975)
  • Jawaani jaan-e-man (Bappi Lahiri/Namak Halaal, 1982)
  • Papa kehte hain bada naam karega (Anand-Milind/Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988)
  • Ho gaya hai tujhko to pyaar sajna (Jatin-Lalit/Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, 1995)
  • Ye mujhe kya ho gaya (Vishal Bhardwaj/Satya, 1998)
  • Paune baaraah baje dono ghar se chale (Vishal-Shekhar/Salaam Namaste, 2005)

Many of these songs were cabarets or otherwise had a western air in the scenes. As for the names of some of the unsung heroes who sat as kings on those sad thrones, we have Leslie Godinho, Franco Vaz, Terence “Ted” Lyons, Cawas Lord and his sons Kersi and Burjor Lord. The last moved away from the music scene, ironically for the noise that had taken over our film music. Some of the players of Indian drums became famous, and later begin living in tea commercials. But this was not to the taste of Burjor Lord. After decades in the industry, he moved away to Nargol in Gujarat, where he continues to get what he loves: plenty of unplugged countryside. One wonders if this is indeed the same musician who played the drums in Duniya mein logon ko dhoka kabhi ho jaata hai (RD Burman/Apna Desh, 1972), and Rangeela re (SD Burman/Prem Pujari, 1970).

The story of drum sets has a moral for us: Royal power is not really about what we wear or the furniture we have. We’re often judged by how we finally conduct ourselves, especially if not treated well.


Originally published on page 15 of DNA Jaipur, on 28 January 2018

Featured image on top: Shammi Kapoor on drums


21 thoughts on “The Unthroned Kings of Western Music

  1. Loved every word of what you wrote
    On drums and drummers. At least through your pen (computer?) they get some recognition.

  2. Wonderful take on the unthroned kings, Manek ji. Such an engaging read. The Lords of course are the lords when it comes to drums or percussion all together. Drum kit also reminded me of Ted Lyons and his cubs. They made those 60s club songs so much more stylish ?

    1. Absolutely Deepa, Ted Lyons had escaped me…adding his name now 🙂 Yes, Bhoot Bangla and so many films…wow!

  3. What a lovely elucidation of a drummer’s role. Enjoyed every bit of it. I daresay many of them are artists in their own right and command a fan following – at times like the bartender who whilst mixing drinks for his clients, juggles those glasses and what not – and the patrons look at him in awe.

    In the Mumbai circuit I have had the privilege to watch Sivamani and Ranjit Barot – with Sivamani I guess more in to beating the drums with a flourish as you put it.

    I will catch up with those songs in a little while – some are on instant recall whilst some perhaps in the deep recesses of the mind.

    I have always had a sneaking respect for drummers and piano players, both sets of people getting a fair share of the glory yet often not remembered by name as a saxaphone player or a santoor or sitar player. Yet, the role of drummers in the wider scheme of things can be the make or break point in a song. If the rhythm fails, the song may not be far behind!
    I admire the way you go in-depth to study instruments n melodies, week after week! Superlative piece once again!

    1. Thanks Lata, and your point is so valid: “…the role of drummers in the wider scheme of things can be the make or break point in a song. If the rhythm fails, the song may not be far behind!” Absolutely!

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