Acoustic Entanglements: Negotiating Folk Music in Naiyāṇṭi mēḷam Performance

Aaron Paige


Using fieldwork and ethnographic research, it is my intention in this article to
privilege the voices of contemporary Tamil folk musicians and show how their
performances of folk music often contradict and diverge from the hegemonic
tropes of popular music discourse. Focusing on one of the more well-known and
ubiquitous folk music genres in Tamil Nadu, the naiyāṇṭi mēḷam, I hope to upset
the prevailing fiction of folk music as a tradition-bound phenomenon, occupying
its own discrete musical space. Listening to the voices of naiyāṇṭi mēḷam folk
musicians and paying careful attention to their musics will reveal that these folk
artists are actively engaged in complex performance practices that cut across
cultural categories and resist facile definition. In order to please their audiences,
these musicians are adept in playing not only prescribed ritual “folk” music but
film music and Carnatic music as well. Borrowing and refashioning a mixture of
sounds from radio, film, cassette, and CD, the naiyāṇṭi mēḷam exhibits a wide
range of genres and styles that go well beyond the confines of “folk.” In this
article I will argue that both film and Carnatic music are not separate from, but
rather central to, the performance of many naiyāṇṭi mēḷam groups. In appropriating
elements from these various genres, and carefully and cleverly reframing them
in performance, folk musicians express multiple musical affinities that extend
beyond the boundaries of traditional music rooted in local circumstance.

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