Johnson Master | Malayalam Cinema’s Magic Fingers

The Eternal Music of Johnson Master

26th March 1953 – 18th August 2011

Another maestro passes on to the Other Side, someone who, paraphrasing Beethoven,made us realise Music to be a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosphy and the electrical soil in which the spirit lived, thought and invented.”  Johnson Master, to me, was the first music director who gave us the joi-de-vivre of Western musical sensibilities in his brilliantly structured sonic sets of melody. I still remember standing rooted on the spot the first  time I listened to Rajahamsamey from Bharathan‘s Chamayam, wafting through the speakers of our neighborhood Men’s Salon, and I kept saying “Oh my God!” over and over again. I had goose pimples all over Johnson  | Music Directoras I stood there and listened to it, thinking about the music director who could compose a melody like that on guitar – neither before or since have a I heard a melody so perfectly nuanced, simple and melting, and never before has any song from the scores have I listened from Malayalam cinema sounded so beautiful like that. Johnson Master, to me, was the original Magic Fingers of Malayalam Cinema. His foundations in four-part harmony hymnals and chorales from his early years, I believe has exerted a strong influence and sensibility to the compositions he did with Western improvisations – I can never make my feet keep still when I listen to Aakashagopuram from Kalikkalam. The Bass run sounds like one off a rock staple. The same is the case as you listen to Aakashamaakey from Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986),or for that matter, Mangalaya Yaamam from Isabella. The percussion grows on you.

Aakashagopuram from Kalikkalam (1990)

For someone who has never had any formal classical training in music in the pure orthodox sense, you literally had to pick your jaws off the floor listening to Devi from Njaan Gandharvan. It is said that Johnson Master threw up his hands when Padmarajan wanted the composition based on Hindustani Classical elements, saying he never learned Hindustani classical. Padmarajan chuckled and replied. “But then, you never learned Carnatic too !” And “Devi” was the result .

Devi from Njan Gandharavan (1991)

I also believe he was the one who gave the culture of musical narratives in cinema. Both his National Awards ( Ponthan Mada in 1993, Sukrutham in 1994) were a recognition of his brilliant ability to elevate your senses by a background tapestry, at times with just a single instrument that could either melt you to taffy or make the hair at the nape of your neck stand up in abject terror. Can anyone forget the singular Edaykka beating time to Nagavalli’s transformation in Manichithrathaazhu ?

Pay close attention to the background score from 0:39.

Looking back, Johnson Master had some significiant ‘associations’, with directors, lyricists  and singers that gave us some of the best melodies in Malayalam cinema playback. To me, it goes like this, broadly :

Directors.

  • Bharathan
  • Padmarajan
  • Sathyan Anthikkad

Lyricists.

  • Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri
  • ONV Kurup
  • K Jayakumar

Singer.

  • Venugopal

Please note, the above is just my way of looking at his body of work and hence, my personal opinion. Also, this is just a tiny part from the sonic tapestry he left us as his legacy. I can go on and on and intend to write in more about him soon. Music is said to be the language of the angels and I’m sure Johnson Master must have already started on his celestial strings on the Other Side, rustling up scores that are equally divine.

Rajahamsamey, from Chamayam.

Thank your for the music, Maestro.

Related : Johnson Master’s 3-part Interview from Amrita TV

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8 thoughts on “Johnson Master | Malayalam Cinema’s Magic Fingers

  1. Yaa…!!! His touch in ‘manathe vellitheru’ was superb. I think before simply copying western to malayalam our new music directors need to hear that…

  2. I think after 90′s Our film industry did’nt utilize his talents much….after the loss crying…!!
    Even our raveedran master was interested to utilize our gandharvan’s magical voice ( pls don’t take it in negative sense )…!! But for johnson master voice does’nt matter….

    • Dear Vinayan,
      Thank you for writing in and sharing your thoughts on Johnson Master. Sadly, that seems to be the natural progression of any brilliant, talented craftsman in movies. But, souldn’t we be happy about the treasure-trove that he left us. To me, brought up in Western chorale and Western Classical, he holds a special place, along with Ouseppachan and Jerry Amaldev, for letting me know the magnificent ways that you can diffuse a style into another. Thanks again..regards..cinematters

    • Dear Kanapriya,
      Thank you for passing through and writing in. The list of favorites, as you said, goes on. How does one narrow down one’s favorites from a body of work that is so varied, exquisite and rich as his? What a loss.One of those days when one feels absolutely down..Thanks again..cinematters

  3. No words can do justice to this amazing talent. Its our loss for ever. Really sad. Was the background of Namukku paarkaan .. also be him?

    • Dear Rajesh,
      The loss is irreplaceable,cliches be damned. And yes, the the BGM of Namukku Parkkan was by Johnson Master. I am yet to listen to a Piano interlude like this..

      regards..cinematters

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