You may have heard Castanets in several songs, but you may not have recognized them as Castanets. They were used extensively by almost all music directors in the golden era of Hindi film music (1950s and 60s).
Dholak, Tabla, Conga, Bongo are called the ‘primary’ rhythm or percussion instruments and Castanets are called ‘side percussion’. However, once you enjoy a song that has Castanets, it is hard to imagine the song without them. They add a distinctive lively touch to any song. Listen to the rhythm of the Castanets in the audio clip below.
Castanets are relatively tiny instruments that fit into the palms of the two hands and were originally used in European music. They can be played quickly in continuous notes to create a roll type of sound, or they can be played with each click on the castanet being a discrete note. The pioneering musician, Cawas Lord was instrumental in introducing them to Hindi film music. He and his son Kersi Lord played the instrument in several songs. Later, percussionists like Homi Mullan also played Castanets in a number of songs.
While there are a number of songs that use Castanets, I tried to select 10 songs where the Castanets are an integral part of the song. Four of these songs feature artists dancing on the screen with Castanets in their hands. Enjoy these songs from the golden era by clicking the play arrow below on the audio player. On repeated plays, the player automatically shuffles songs.
(The player stops playing when you click the back button or go to another link on this page or somewhere else. This happens because the player is embedded on this page. To listen to these songs without any break, open another window after clicking the play arrow on the player. If you want to browse further on this site or another site, use the newly opened window. The player will keep playing the songs as you browse in the new window).
Rhythm for Melody Makers
Castanets were primarily designed for rhythm. A composer like Naushad laid more emphasis on melody rather than rhythm in his songs. However, the talent in Naushad gave us some of most memorable songs with Castanets. Lo pyaar ki ho gayi jeet and Jab nain mile nainon se from Jadoo are two of the finest examples in the use of Castanets. Naushad did not support blind copying or importing western styles of singing or instrumentation. These two songs were a strong statement about his belief that you can sound western even with Indian melodies, if you use western instruments with discretion. Both the songs are based on vocals that are essentially trademark Naushad Indian style melodies – long tunes with graceful undulations in the tune. Naushad blended these Indian style melodies beautifully with western interludes and outstanding use of Castanets to support the ‘western’ dances on the screen. If you listen carefully to these two songs, you will find that there is a lot of creative effort in the rhythm patterns and in playing the Castanets at various places in the song. Naushad also used Castanets in songs like Dhadke mera dil (Babul) and Tu kaun hai mera (Deedar). All these songs also show Naushad’s quest for excellence in all areas of his music. You can also enjoy other songs that showcase Naushad’s emphasis on excellence and innovation in arrangements at Lively songs from Naushad.
S D Burman also laid more emphasis on melody in his songs. His tune Hai apna dil to awara (Solva Saal) has a lively touch aided by the rhythm of Castanets. And his superb melody Mora gora ang lai le (Bandini) uses Castanets extensively for a memorable effect. Madan Mohan, the king of soulful melodies showed the ‘western ‘ side of his music in Thodi der ke liye mere ho jao (Akeli mat jaiyo) that makes extensive use of Castanets.
Other melody makers like Ravi also used Castanets in films like Dilli ka thug. Perhaps the beautiful use of Castanets by Naushad was an inspiration for his assistant Ghulam Mohammed. One of his popular melodies from Pakeezah, Chalo dildar chalo chaand ke paar chalo makes lovely use of Castanets.
Rhythm for Rhythm Masters
Any post on Castanets will be incomplete without the music of the ‘Original Rhythm King’ O P Nayyar. O P Nayyar was a trendsetter in rhythm based songs with his novel arrangements. Castanets were an integral part of his rhythm and percussion arrangements in a number of his hugely popular songs. Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan (CID) was one such number (based on a western tune ‘Oh my darling Clementine’) that made good use of Castanets. Aaiyee meherban (Howrah bridge) is a song in which Castanets play a lead role and can be heard clearly in the song. And the joyous Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra (Kashmir ki kali) makes use of Castanets to give a lively feel to the song.
R D Burman was renowned for having a superb rhythm section in his orchestra. Pancham’s emphasis on rhythm is evident from his early days. He used Castanets extensively in his debut movie Chote Nawab in the delightful Matwali ankhon wale. This song features Helen dancing with Castanets in hand. Lata glides through the song effortlessly and Mohd Rafi sings with a twist in his vocals. R D Burman also contributed to this song with his claps in the prelude, which is a delightful mix of Arabian and Flamenco styles.
Though Castanets may be called ‘side percussion’, their rhythm in songs and creative use of Castanets by talented composers make these songs a lively and delightful treat for the ears.
PS: If you want to enjoy some songs featuring lead performances by primary rhythm instruments like Drums, Conga or Bongo see the previous post Enjoyable western beats.