The singer is breaking out of the English mould by taking his native language from the Indian city of Hyderabad to the world through his infectious indie pop
History is about to be made at the Viru Keskus centre in downtown Tallinn, Estonia. “Thank you for having us!” shouts Shriram Alluri, in English, to the audience, before launching into his first song. And with that, he becomes almost certainly the first Indian indie-rocker to sing in his native language, Telugu, onstage at an Estonian shopping mall. In fact, Alluri – as he is known professionally – believes himself to be one of the first indie-rockers to sing in that language at all.
Telugu is the native tongue of about 75 million people across several Indian states, but making an impact in his native Hyderabad, and beyond, will take time. “It’s still not part of our culture, nobody goes to gigs,” he says. “I tell people very excitedly, ‘come watch me play’, and they’ll say, ‘what film did you make the music for?’”
The Brit pop-influenced singer has undergone a musical transformation in recent years. His first album, Man of Truth, was performed in English, emulating “Lennon, Bowie, Morrissey,” he says. But something was missing. “I was passionate about this work, but I thought ‘I can’t genuinely share this with anyone back home’. So I felt I had to try. And then nine songs all came in one go.”
That shopping-mall appearance was part of Tallinn Music Week, one of Europe’s many talent showcases, where future stars perform for important industry people by night, and for the public by day. Many passing shoppers clearly enjoyed his catchy compositions, and even danced, despite presumably understanding none of the lyrics. Which raises the question: does the language really matter?
Some of the world’s biggest pop acts have switched, over the years, and the results vary dramatically.
Helping to arrange Alluri’s Estonian adventure was Stephen Budd, who is something of an expert in this area. Budd is probably best known as the co-founder of the Damon Albarn-fronted Africa Express project, and the successful promoter of numerous crossover acts: his most notable discovery is Songhoy Blues, who sing in various West African dialects, but are regulars on western pop-rock stages. Does the English-or-not question often crop up?
“Yes, we’ve had a few discussions over the years, sometimes with non-English speaking artists who wanted to include English lyrics when I didn’t feel it was appropriate,” says Budd. “But recently we had the discussion with Songhoy Blues for their second album, and they wanted to do a couple of songs with some English lyrics involved, and actually it worked very well.”
Mixing it up linguistically can keep things interesting, and the fan base happy; if not always the record label. Perhaps the highest-profile bilingual performer is Shakira, who followed Gloria Estefan’s pioneering path, releasing both English and Spanish albums at the peak of their powers. Whereas when Ricky Martin suddenly sprang a Spanish record on his label after a long break, “they went berserk”, said the singer.
Singing in your native language is not necessarily easy. Nina Persson from Swedish rockers The Cardigans recently released her first single in Swedish, 21 years after the song Lovefool rocketed her band to global success. Recording Var ligger Sverige? (Where is Sweden?) was a “challenge” she revealed recently, and slightly disconcerting: singing those lyrics suddenly reawakened her old Swedish-countryside accent.
Persson’s single was released on a Swedish label, Adrian Recordings, whose back catalogue features “about 50 per cent music sung in Swedish,” says label manager Magnus Bjerkert. Many pop-rock acts prefer English, but he leans toward the mother tongue. “I really like music in Swedish, it ‘gets’ me a little bit more,” he says. “And it’s good business too.”
Bjerkert also attended that Tallinn festival, which featured artists from about 30 nations, although the host country makes perhaps the most intriguing case study. A former Soviet state with strong Scandinavian influences, Estonia’s aspiring pop, rock and rap stars are also split fairly evenly between those who perform in English or Estonian. But the latter currently do better abroad.
Distinctive folk-pop artists such as Maarja Nuut, Trad.Attack! and Mari Kalkun have all enjoyed international acclaim while singing in old Estonian dialects; particularly magical and mysterious is Kalkun’s new album, Ilmamotsan (In the Wood of the World). Certain languages conjure up unique moods.
The kings of minority-language success are Sigur Ros, who usually sing in either their native Icelandic or an invented dialect, Hopelandic. That may sound wilfully uncommercial, but those enigmatic songs are eagerly sought-after by soundtrack-compilers and advertisers. Their website even has a page dedicated to ads featuring bad Sigur Ros soundalikes.
Some languages are less obviously lyrical, but still have their moments. Take the 1984 single 99 Red Balloons by Nena, from Germany. The English version was a huge hit in Britain and Canada, while the German original – 99 Luftballons – was massive in the US and Australia. Great songs traverse borders. Back in the 1960s, British and American pop acts would often rerecord their hits for foreign markets. The Beatles and Beach Boys remade several hits in German, while numerous Motown stars – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes – recorded versions in Italian, Spanish and German. The results are often splendidly awkward.
Alluri actually conversed mostly in English after changing schools at about 12 years old, so was not 100 per cent confident in Telugu when it came to recording his new songs. “I went to this lyricist who writes professionally for films, and he was like, ‘mate, these are fine’,” says the singer. “He helped me smooth a few of them.”
The finished tracks will emerge on his second album this year, but the switch to Telugu is already yielding unforeseen rewards. His main show in Tallinn was on the World Music stage, a genre that previously seemed off-limits. “I don’t think I would have been on there in English,” he admits. “I’m getting much more attention now.”
That could also be due to a more open-minded culture generally, with music from across the world now popping up on people’s streaming playlists. “I think times have changed,” agrees Stephen Budd. “In previous decades, outside of the ‘world music’ circuit, it was nearly always imperative for the acts to sing in English.”
In 2018 “people don’t mind,” he says, “as long as the feeling of the artists is communicated when they sing.”
That said, several people still advised Alluri to write songs featuring both languages, which he ignored, apart from one unlikely exception. His live set includes an excellent cover of the punk classic Anarchy in the UK, with Telugu verses. That version was then retweeted by the track’s original bassist, Glen Matlock, and the pair recently recorded together.
Meanwhile, the Italian producer Tommaso Colliva (Franz Ferdinand, Muse) is manning the decks on that second album, and there are linguistic links. “When the British came to India they heard Telugu and called it ‘the Italian of the east’, because all words end with a vowel, not a consonant,” says Alluri. “These new songs, melodically, they’re influenced so much by the language.”
Europe may be Alluri’s second home – he moved to Britain to study before his music career kicked off – but he now resides in India again. And students may be key to getting his hybrid sound established.
“I need to focus on playing at universities around my state, get people young enough, and say ‘look, you can do this too’,” he says. “Start a cultural revolution.”
Look out: the Telugu indie-rock scene starts here.